The crossover between the SXSW film and interactive conferences usually comes in the form of DIY tips for filmmakers. The “Soapbox Spielberg” panel, listed on the agenda for both branches of the conference, took that to a new level on Saturday afternoon by producing some classic special effects live over the course of the one-hour panel.
Rudy Jahchan first demonstrated how he and Casey McKinnon have inserted themselves into the sets of Battlestar Galactica and other sci-fi franchises for their Galacticast shorts, filming audience volunteer Dennis Crowley (creator of SXSW buzz application Foursquare) as seen below.
And then, while Jahchan began capturing his footage and incorporating it into some prepared 3-D animation (created using the software application Blender), Erik Beck of IndyMogul demonstrated a practical effect achieved with prop knives, tape, a spare T-shirt, and some clever camerawork.
While the two of them completed their shorts, indie filmmaker Matt Campagna led a Q&A answering basic effects questions. Some of the knowledge gleaned: adding chocolate syrup to your fake blood gives it a darker hue, though professionally created fake blood looks great and often has a pleasant minty taste (which is good if you’re throwing it into an actor’s face repeatedly). And when it comes to doing gun-fights, adding a muzzle flash effect to the gun as it fires adds an extra element of authenticity.
Some specific tips about green-screening: the more depth of field you can get, the better, and it’s helpful to use actors with short-cropped or slicked back hair, so that you can get a clean line of focus around head. And you can use anything as your backdrop, including plastic tablecloths or bedsheets, so long as it’s chromakey green. The fundamental concept of green-screening is that when you film the actor against a colored backdrop, you can use software to digitally erase anything that is that color. Often the choice to film green-screen versus blue-screen comes down to eye color — if you have an actor with blue eyes, using blue-screen will be a poor choice.
The shorts created over the course of the one-hour panel, while showing clear signs of being well-prepared in advance, aren’t revolutionary in concept. Jahchan, true to his sci-fi parody roots, used his green-screened footage to plug Crowley into the Tron universe (with the added bonus of a brief Rick roll). And with the power of trick editing, Beck made the audience believe that a woman had thrown a knife into a man’s chest — despite the fact that in reality, the woman never even let go of the knife.
Neither are high art, but that wasn’t the point. Instead, the panel demonstrated that special effects on an indie scale are very attainable — so long as the tools are in the right hands. “Plan it cheap, and it looks great. Plan it great, and if you don’t have the resources it looks cheap,” was a refrain paraphrased repeatedly. Because Beck, Jahchan, and Campagna’s ultimate message was that, even though this revolution in effects creation lowers the bar on production, that means that creators should focus on what really matters: the story. And hopefully those in the audience jotting down fake blood tips heard that part too.