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How to Make a Monster: Tips for Creating DIY Special Effects

How to Make a Monster: Tips for Creating DIY Special Effects

Making a monster is no walk in the park. In fact, Making an army of monsters that brutally kill a town of people in a no-budget creature feature is just downright nutso. But if you’re of my school of thought, sometimes nutso is the only way to fly. I like to do things practically, without dependence on CGI.

Practical effects are tangible, and therefore more real to me. The actors can feel the creature’s breath on their faces. They’re running from something that’s actually chasing them. But making a real-life monster takes a lot more time and skill than most people realize. From concept, to lifecasting your actors, to sculpture, to molding the sculpture, then casting the prosthetics from those molds, and then painting those prosthetics, to finally applying the final makeup to the actors… well, it’s an overwhelming process for a person to take on. But if you lay it out and focus in on one thing at a time, it’s all very possible.

So you wanna make a monster? Here’s what I have to say about that:

1. Cram it in your skull.

It helps immensely to have a working knowledge of sculpture and painting, which I’ve exercised all my life. But I had very little experience actually working in makeup effects before “The Demon’s Rook.” When first starting out, we didn’t have the budget to hire a professional to come in full time and create our monsters for us, so I had to step up and figure it out. I started by reading instructional books, watching DVD tutorials, and talking with any effects artist gracious enough to tip me in the right direction. Cram it in, and write it down.

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2. Drive through the brick wall.

Trust me, you will hit plenty of them. Howl at the damn thing and drive through it. Determination is key. There was so much trial and error within those first several months of the Rook’s genesis, but I didn’t give up. Day after day, I kept at it. If I made a mask that sucked, I started over and made it again until it was worthy. Becoming fluent with an artistic process that utilizes both creative magic and technical science is an endeavor that takes much persistence.

3. Magic is real, but so is science.

Construction makeups with latex, mud, and household supplies are great, and they’ll work amazingly for your background zombies, but sooner or later you’ll need to learn the science of moldmaking and casting. Whether you decide to learn plaster, silicone, or fiberglass molding techniques, it all depends on what exactly you’re making and how you’ll be casting it. If you’re casting a full-head silicone mask that has to be reused shoot after shoot, you might choose to mold it in fiberglass like I did. For “The Demon’s Rook,” my fx team and I made over 90 molds. Most of them in fiberglass. Fiberglass is used with polyester or epoxy resins, and like most things in the fx industry, they’re toxic as hell. It helps to use a vapor respirator when working with these materials, but the toxins are hard to avoid completely, and they can be very dangerous. Which brings me to my next tip.

4. Half man, half machine, become it.

On a creature feature, no one works harder than the special makeup effects creator except for the director. And when you’re the special makeup effects creator AND the director, shit gets real intense. It’s not uncommon to pull 16 hour days. Hell, you might even have to pull a 24 hour day from time to time. My filmmaking partner, Tim Reis, is currently directing his first creature feature that I’m producing and making the monster for. Just to stay on schedule for this thing, my wife and I had to pull a 90 hour work period in the fx studio with only a 5 hour nap worked in. If you can’t tap into the inner machine, your mind will become unstable, your body will follow, and you will simply die. Shit, even if you do find the inner machine, you might still die. That’s just something you have to be okay with. Death isn’t really a big deal. Once you’ve fully accepted that, you can do almost anything.

5. Machines need maintenance.

Having said that last piece, I feel I need to follow it with something more focused on health. When working long hours with toxic chemicals, and fully utilizing both hemispheres of your brain, it’s VERY important to do what you can to stay healthy. Otherwise, you become a horrible sickly thing that’s unable to continue working, and that’s no good for anyone. Eat a healthy diet. Lots of fruits and vegetables, raw garlic, and kombucha do wonders. Make time to stretch. I have a simple yoga routine I try to do daily. If your deadline is tight and you can’t find time to sleep, try and work in naps while your molds are curing. You have to stay healthy if you want to keep working.

6. One is not enough.

I did an insane amount of fx work on “The Demon’s Rook,” but I can’t take all the credit. I learned pretty quickly that if I ever wanted to get this beast done, I was going to need some help. Find a few experienced individuals to make up your core team, and then supplement with interns. This is where it really helps to have artistic friends yearning to learn something new. Once you’ve taught yourself the basics of special makeup effects, you can pass on that information freely to others in exchange for their assistance. It’s a mutual relationship that everyone benefits from.

7. Love your monster. 

Put all your heart and soul into your creations, and try to enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, do something else. Having the talent and drive to bring creatures to life is something you need to feel excited about. There are so many people in the world that wish they could do what you do. If you can’t appreciate that, then you’re an asshole. You might not make a lot of money at first, maybe never. And you might not get recognized for it either. But you make monsters, and that’s fucking cool. 

After graduating with a BFA from Savannah College of Art & Design, James Sizemore collaborated with his family in building an art compound on his hometown farm in Moreland, Georgia. There he created a special makeup effects studio, which enabled him to create his feature, “The Demon’s Rook,” which is being distributed by Tribeca Film. Currently, he is producing and creating the monster for a new low-budget creature feature, “Bad Blood,” the directorial debut of his friend and colleague Tim Reis. He is also in development with “Rite of the Witch Goddess,” which just presented at the fourth Fantasia edition of the Frontieres International Co-Production Market.

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