Reel vs Real: Are practical effects still alive in a Fx world?

With today’s super advanced technology, it can be easy to think that all effects are done in post production aka editing. But that’s simply not true! Practical effects, meaning an effect done on set or during your shoot, offer two major advantages in my experience.

First, you can see and manipulate / alter the effect to your liking in real time. You don’t have to spend hours or even weeks adjusting key frames of the effect in your editing program- you do it there on the spot. Second, the effect will interact with the subject and the lighting naturally. I am not a Fx (special effects) artist, so I struggle to match the effect to the scene. Depending upon your effect, you may need to use a green screen. I’ve seen a lot bad green screen work so if you’re going this route, make sure to do it well or hire a Fx artist.

Anyhoo, for this product branding editorial style video, I knew it was going to be ocean themed. For the main "underwater"shots of the model, I wanted to create the feeling & mysteriousness of the ocean. This was small budget spec work and I live in Dallas with no ocean nearby- it also doesn't help that I have terrible motion sickness so real waves were out of the question. So I was left with the question on how do you create a wave effect practically and on a budget?

The only time I recalled seeing this effect was in the Lana Del Rey Blue Jeans video. After a search for behind the scenes photos, I located how this wave effect was created with a glass prop box. These are not easily available in the DFW area, so I enlisted the help of my husband who made it out of wood and a plastic sheet from Home Depot. The key to this practical effect is threefold.

  Behind the scenes photo from Lana Del Rey's 2012 music video for Blue Jeans.  Source  @DelReyLatest        

 Behind the scenes photo from Lana Del Rey's 2012 music video for Blue Jeans.  Source @DelReyLatest       

1) Stand Height : For Lana's video, the camera department used C-Stand rigs to support the glass box with water. As I my version was DIY, I had to get creative with stands. I'm fortunate that my husband is a handy guy who has lots of odds and ends building supplies around. So we constructed tall saw horses out of wood beams. The wood beams were taller than the average saw horse height and allowed me to find that sweet spot of stand height for the box to rest on as well as have it propped it up enough and away from the subject. 

2) Water Level Amount:  As you can kinda see in this BTS photo, the plastic or glass bin is not filled to the brim with water. The water level is the mama bear portion – not too much nor too little. But what is that amount? Only trial and error will tell. There has to be enough water to create waves that can be seen. But we don’t need them splashing out of the container.

3) Light Source: Lana did it the best way with the sun as the light source. Something tells me she didn’t film in Texas where it gets 100+ degrees in the summer (when this video was filmed). So we filmed in the garage. I also wanted a darker vibe and felt that the sun would be too bright a source. I used a work lamp as it had a clamp and the metal ring provided direction for the light. But remember to keep a distance from the water when using any electrical lights- safety first of course!

Was it worth it?

Absolutely! I love the way this shoot turned out. Water and fire are very hard elements to recreate digitally as there are so many components to its movement, the way it interacts or projects light, etc... When you see it in a Fx movie, it's important to remember that there is a whole team of trained and talented professionals who do only Fx working on it to make it look real. If this is not your forte, you can do it practically.

Here's what you can realistically expect: The preparation took about 3-4 nights of practice with the sawhorse height, the water level, and the light source to get it just right. Then on the day of the shoot, the model arrived with her sister (tip – always encourage and accept talent bringing along support, especially when it’s their first shoot). Her sister was super helpful and volunteered to create the waves. After a few minutes, she was creating perfect waves.

To get the wave effect, fingers caress the surface of the water in the plastic or glass rectangular bin. Slight or soft movements are best. Full hand or aggressive movements will only create thrashing waves which will be difficult for the light to shine through and the video to capture. It’s also important to note that the container shape has to be rectangular. I had originally tried a circle but that shape does not lend itself to making distinct wave formations. I believe that a square box would also be too short/ small. Rectangle is best.

Have you used this effect before? Or are you wanting to try it out? Let me know what project you've used this on or are thinking of using this on!

A lundi (until next Monday)

-Andrea