No-budget indie moviemaking is hard enough as it is, but when you decide to throw in visual effects, it can really test the limits of your sanity, and wallet.

I knew early on that I wanted to incorporate VFX into my latest feature film, Eliza Sherman’s Revenge. Growing up, I read about the exploits of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson as they made their first films. They didn’t let budgetary constraints get in the way of their vision. They were driven by passion and creativity, and I wanted to follow in their footsteps.

When writing the script for this supernatural revenge comedy, I framed the action around carefully designed set pieces that I knew I could pull off.  As many friends read it, they told me I was crazy. “How are you going to make a forcefield?,” they asked. “How on Earth are you going to create multiple versions of this person? Who do you think you are, Orphan Black? You’re just going to have this character rip an arm off? That’s impossible!” Ah, impossible. My favorite word. Nothing is impossible.

Director Gregory Fitzsimmons on the set of Eliza Sherman’s Revenge. Photograph courtesy of Contempt Pictures

Most people, when presented with the idea of a “forcefield” and “severed limbs” automatically envision a Joss Whedon movie. Joss Whedon has millions of dollars and a small army at his disposal. He can do whatever his heart desires and make it look awesome. I, however, did not have access to those Hollywood blockbuster resources. I was limited to a few thousand dollars and a friend who knew After Effects. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t create something just as believable as Mr. Whedon. I simply had to adjust the scope of my ideas. If I wanted a forcefield, I wasn’t going to be able to have a sweeping jib shot with an all encompassing Avengers-like bubble. I had to limit myself to a handful of tight, locked off shots.  Being a filmmaker is very much like being a magician. You need to convince the audience that the artificial is, in fact, real. It doesn’t matter how you get there, you just need to get there. It’s all about the execution.

Heading into production, I divided my VFX into two categories. The first category was the set pieces that were going to be shot clean and then enhanced in post-production. These included the ”forcefield” and the “multiples,” very much like the Michael Keaton-starring classic comedy film Multiplicity. Creating that forcefield was the easiest of the bunch. With the camera locked off, I shot take after take of the actress in scene pretending to walk into an invisible forcefield. She was fairly adept at mime work, providing several convincing options. Those shots were then taken into After Effects by my visual effects guy (A.J. Rickert-Epstein) and with some fancy keyboard strokes on his laptop, he added a digital distortion effect. Throw in some electrocution-style sound design, and bang, we’ve got a forcefield. To create that Multiplicity effect, I shot several locked off “plates” to composite together in post. First, I shot a blank background plate. Then I placed three “marks” on the ground with tape that my actress would use for guidance.  Next, I had the actress step on her first mark, creating plate #1. After performing her actions, the actress stepped over to her second mark, creating plate #2. Finally, upon completion of her action, the actress slid over to her third mark, creating plate #3. Once again, enter A.J. the VFX guy with his After Effects and he layered the shots together, adding a digital vapor trail to drive it home. As A.J. will tell you, the more carefully you shoot it, the easier it is for him to manipulate it.

Kristen Miller being fitted with a prosthetic arm wound behind the scenes of Eliza Sherman’s Revenge

The second category of VFX for this film, was those other set pieces that would require practical special effects makeup along with slight post-production tweaks. Gunshots, stabbings, and the aforementioned “ripping off” of the arm. For this category, the first and most important thing I did was hire the best special effects makeup artist I could find. With all the advancements in CGI technology, there’s still nothing as believable and cost effective as good, old-fashioned practical effects. Through a mutual acquaintance, I was put in touch with the wonderful Randy Westgate. Randy works with the big boys. He did special effects makeup on Fight Club, Gone in 60 Seconds, The Mexican, Mulholland Drive. Whoa, wait a second…stop. He had me at Fight Club. Randy read my script and agreed to do it for a severely discounted rate. Thank god. I now had a kick-ass professional craftsman who’s worked with the likes of David Fincher.

As pre-production motored on, Randy and I talked through each and every special effects “gag” and how we were going to pull them off. “Oh, you want to stab your character in the back with a knife? That’s easy.” Easy, really? Yep. It sure is. Randy made two fake knives out of foam core and painted them to specification. The first one was a full knife, the second one was a half-knife. When the time came to stab my lead actress, Randy mounted the half-knife on her back as if she had already been stabbed. This required a duplicate wardrobe shirt because the knife needed to stick out of the fabric. (Another $35, but I’m not bitter about it.) Through creative framing, we had the assailant holding the full fake knife, blade raised high, approach the victim, with her back out of view. The assailant drove the full fake knife forward in a stabbing motion, dropping it to the ground in the process. Then, the victim turned to camera in profile, making her back visible along with that second half-knife. Add some sound effects in post and…voila! We have ourselves a world class stabbing scene.

Kristen Miller being fitted with a prosthetic arm wound behind the scenes of Eliza Sherman’s Revenge

Now, about that whole arm-ripping-off thing. This was by far the most difficult gag to do. The first thing we needed here was a prosthetic arm. So Randy made one in his studio that matched the shape and size of the actress in the scene. Then, he created a severed shoulder from which the arm would be ripped from. On the shoot day, the severed shoulder was mounted to the actual shoulder of the actress as she tucked her arm in tight against her body. A rubber hose attached to that severed shoulder, ran down her body, connecting to a compressed air tank. The prosthetic arm was then connected to the severed shoulder with some handy velcro.

When it was time to shoot, we covered the entire set with plastic tarp, you know, because we were about to spray blood everywhere. And this was going to happen because Randy had filled that rubber hose with a concoction of fake blood and chunks of skin. Given our lack of time and money, we only had two chances at this. And since this is no budget indie filmmaking and not a Joss Whedon production, I had to shoot it tight, keeping that scope small. Would I have loved to shoot this with a roving steadi-cam, blood splattering everywhere, severed limbs on display? Of course, but I couldn’t do that this time around. I just needed to shoot the essential elements in order to sell that set piece, that element being a medium close-up shot of the arm being ripped from its socket. I called action, the lead actress stepped forward and yanked the prosthetic arm from its velcro straps. Randy cranked the compressed air, blasting fake blood from the severed shoulder socket. And just like that, we ripped an arm off. Through the magic of editing, that medium close up shot fit seamlessly into the rest of the scene.

Take that, Joss Whedon. MM

Eliza Sherman’s Revenge received a Grand Jury honorable mention at the 2017 edition of Dances with Films. More information on the film can be found here.