Visual effects is a funny thing – bittersweet actually – it's something that takes a lot of time, thought, and skill, and in the end, the main goal is to be invisible.
Well, maybe invisible isn't the right word when it comes to a giant rat-monster in one's basement -- but what I mean to say is: Visual effects are done well when the audience doesn't question what they see… till after they've seen it.
Good visual effects should be something you miss, and then when you get home and you're grabbing a snack you say "wait a minute!"
All this to say -- I put a ton of work into every shot. Some shots, such as the opening bed scene, I'm actually kind of hoping you all took for granted. Because, even though it looked like a crane shot, it was actually accomplished like this:
So, yeah, that's me, standing on the bed above my cousin, with dad acting as a type of counter weight -- no, that's not a wedgie, he was actually holding onto my belt to keep me from falling on the 'actress.'
After I got a usable take, I took it into After Effects for color grading and image stabilization using Warp Stabilizer.
Other smooth shots were accomplished by holding the tripod and using its low center of gravity to prevent that nasty shake that all light cameras like DSLRs are prone to. The rest was shot locked down on a tripod or even on the floor for some really low angles.
As I mentioned before, this was mostly a day-for-night shoot, so all the shots had to be graded extensively. And though I only included a few samples in the video, rest assured, you're not missing anything. They all underwent the same corrections -- darken, color grade towards the blue end of the scale, and bring down the highlights.
In fact, more time was spent rotoscoping the windows that got blown out by the sun than any other effect.
Now on to the monster.
He's a foam latex puppet, with a wire armature.
To-date, it's the biggest puppet I have ever made. So big, that I had to build an oven just to fit his 18" X 17" plaster mold.
Now, I'm a fair sculptor, but I didn't have the time or the confidence to attempt something this complicated. So my dad graciously donated his time and skill to do the job.
He sculpted it in Super Sculpey, and I made the mold with Ultra-Cal 30.
The teeth are made from epoxy putty and fired Sculpey. All the tentacles (and tongue) were molded separately, and then attached to the armature through holes cut out of the sides.
Once the puppet was painted and assembled, I set the stage for animation.
He was on a green screen, mounted to a tripod which poked through a hole in the tabletop. The tripod acted two fold -- as a stable anchor point, and as a means to incrementally raise, lower, or tilt the puppet. I also mounted a small light to a helping hand so that I could animate it to match the flashlight from my live action footage.
Animation took 15 hours over two days. For each frame I had to make 16 moves (tentacles, arms, mouth, tongue, eyes, tripod, flashlight, drool, etc…) and turn the overhead lights on and off. So I was averaging about one second each hour.
The monster's design was an interesting bit of evolution. We went through a few different versions, some with a rather amorphous shape, others with more anatomy, some looked kind of alien -- but all of them were supposed to be rat-like.
In fact, the whole concept for the film spawned from an old (really old) drawing that I had in my sketchbook.
Originally it was a little boy and a teddy bear – the monster hiding just out of sight, waiting to pounce.
I of course changed quite a few things, but the end result still contains the bones of the first concept: A monster in the basement, using its tongue (with something interesting on the end) like an Anglerfish to lure its prey.
By the way, the mouse was a real mouse. And in case you were wondering, it was a freeze-dried mouse that I purchased from eBay -- the little bugger cost me $35!
At one point, we had made a fake mouse, and it was naked and really weird looking. But in the end, I decided the real mouse worked better.
The tongue that you see on the floor, leading from the mouse was a large prop made from thin packing foam, rubber bands, and liquid latex. It was roughly 9 feet long… and looked dumb.
No, really. After the first four feet or so, it didn't look good on camera. So the part you see in the film, where the tongue starts moving, was actually the tiny little puppet tongue that I animated and composited into the scene.
And that's what was so ironic -- the little tongue that was never even supposed to be shown, ended up looking better than the big tongue that we made specifically for closeups!
The drool was made from clear school glue and liquid starch -- you can find the recipe here.
As I said before, this short was done in two days, with a few extra hours here or there for reshoots.
I had made a storyboard, and practiced the shots before filming even started. That way I would be able to save set-up time, because I already knew where all my lights were going.
As you can see, the actual film didn't stray very far from the boards. The reshoots, however, were mainly for unforeseen things like POV shots, or the girl's reaction to the monster.
Because, on paper, you only get a general idea of how it's going to work, but you don't get to see it in motion, with music, etc.
I had considered making an animatic, but time was not on my side.
Speaking of music, I'd like to take this opportunity to say thanks to the guys at Film Riot, for their great royalty-free music packs -- of which, 70% of the film score was made. With the other 30% being me on my keyboard in Garageband.