10 great films with DIY special effects

With corn syrup and some cardboard, you too could make a masterpiece.

15 September 2022

By Josh Slater-Williams

Strawberry Mansion (2021) © Bulldog Film Distribution

Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney’s Strawberry Mansion is set in the near-distant future, where a surveillance state conducts audits of people’s dreams in order to collect taxes on the populace’s unconscious existence. One government agent (Audley himself) heads to a remote farmhouse to audit an eccentric elderly artist’s lifetime of dreaming. Made on a scant budget, it’s an independent film heavily reliant on a DIY aesthetic: a virtual reality helmet resembles a bin lid, VHS tape recurs throughout, and its masks and stop-motion animation have an appealingly crude quality to them.

Given the limited budgets usually involved, independent genre fare and experimental cinema are often host to creative effects, both practical and digital. You can still get professional makeup artists and special effects wizards to help your dream project reach fruition, but when it comes to achieving that key visual component lingering in the back of your mind, there’s something to be said for giving it a go on your own: be it depicting a journey to outer space or turning yourself into a metallic monstrosity.

To mark the UK release of Strawberry Mansion, here are 10 key films that rely on what we’ll broadly label ‘DIY effects’. With one notable exception, this list sticks to films with no major-studio-backing during initial production, and, where budget information is available, nothing with a reported production budget exceeding $1 million.

The Four Troublesome Heads (1898)

Director: Georges Méliès

When considering the concept of DIY effects, it’s often in relation to the standard practices of market-dominating forces of the time. But towards cinema’s beginnings, there weren’t exactly any traditional models to subvert. It’s all innovation, and Georges Méliès was the French pioneer leading many technical and narrative developments. Among the first filmmakers to use storyboards, he also popularised a number of special effects techniques, such as multiple exposures, dissolves, time-lapse photography and substitution splices.

Méliès’ over 500-strong filmography – only roughly 200 of which remain in existence today – dabbled in both narrative and story-free shorts. The Four Troublesome Heads, which incorporates substitution splices and multiple exposure of objects against a black background, remains a particular delight, especially when you picture how contemporary audiences might have reacted. Imagine going to see the wonders of this new medium for the very first time and witnessing a man remove and regenerate his own head several times, then sing in unison with three of the disembodied heads.

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Director: Georges Méliès

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Now for a longer Méliès short, with a touch more narrative to it. Inspired by Jules Verne’s novels From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Around the Moon (1870), Méliès’ celebrated space travel film – likely his best-known work – sees a group of astronomers travel on a lunar voyage by way of a cannon-propelled capsule that lands in the eye of the anthropomorphised moon. Exploring the lunar surface, they escape a group of underground inhabitants, then bring one of them back to Earth. The film is widely regarded as the earliest example of the science fiction genre in cinema.

Méliès and company incorporated mechanically operated scenery, multiple exposure and pyrotechnics for the production, while cardboard versions of costumes and masks were created from moulds sculpted from prototypes Méliès made himself.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Director: George A. Romero

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The origin of the modern zombie movie, George Romero’s independent horror classic relied on local Pittsburgh talent, guerrilla filmmaking techniques and whatever could be found when it came to the gruesome effects.

Shooting in black and white allowed for chocolate syrup to convincingly become blood. Mortician’s wax was used for decaying skin and wound effects. And roasted ham from a local butcher was reportedly used for the human flesh consumed by zombie extras.

Eraserhead (1977)

Director: David Lynch

Eraserhead (1977)

Among the frightening sights and sounds of David Lynch’s debut feature (and there are oh so many), nothing haunts quite like the deformed, mutant-like baby child that’s the supposed offspring of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) and his girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart). The constantly crying, sometimes laughing entity lies as a swaddled bundle in Henry’s bedroom. Its face and neck – the only really visible parts of its body, until a reveal in the climax – resembles both snake and sperm cell. It also looks a little like E.T. as a baby.

Details of the exact physical effects used to create the newborn remain under wraps to this day, though the prop’s face reportedly had several working parts capable of independent operation. Speculation on its creation has pointed to the use of a skinned rabbit or lamb foetus. Lynch, ever the helpful interviewee, has suggested the baby was “found”.

House (1977)

Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi

House (1977)

The lone exception for this list’s rule of no major studio-funded films, Obayashi’s Toho-backed debut feature was certainly not lacking in resources. The locations, sets and general visual palette look fairly sumptuous (though intentionally artificial), until moments where they purposefully do not. This is less a case of coming up with innovative visual effects, but rather using every method at one’s disposal in untraditional ways – doing things the ‘wrong way’ to create a new visual language.

Most notable is House’s outlandish subversion of the chroma key technique. This effects method uses colour hues for the layering of two images, achieved through excising the original background (often a blue screen) and replacing that with different footage. Instead of using chroma key to change the background of particular sequences, Obayashi instead uses it to alter the faces and bodies of his teenage protagonists during their encounters with a haunted house’s supernatural forces. No effort is made to hide the contours around the distorted shapes of, say, flames emerging on a girl’s face. Obayashi, who directed the effects himself, reportedly wanted to make them look as though a child had created them.

The Evil Dead (1981)

Director: Sam Raimi

The Evil Dead (1981)

Practically the poster child for DIY effects, Sam Raimi’s boundary-pushing supernatural horror launched many a career, spawned a still-going media franchise, and inspired a whole generation of filmmakers working in the independent sphere.

The crew consisted almost entirely of friends and family of Raimi and star Bruce Campbell. Stories of its production have reached the level of moviemaking myth, where the anecdotes of different collaborators don’t quite match up with those of others. But among the generally accepted ‘truths’ of its making are that it was shot on 16mm film stock with a rented camera; incredibly thick contact lenses were used to achieve the effect of demonically possessed eyes; a great deal of the climax was stop-motion animation; a camera was mounted to a piece of wood and carried by two sprinting camera operators to emulate a Steadicam inexpensively; and gallons of fake blood were produced with corn syrup.

Bad Taste (1987)

Director: Peter Jackson

Bad Taste (1987)

Peter Jackson’s debut feature was shot on a 25-year-old 16mm Bolex camera, largely on weekends across a period of four years, mostly around the director’s home suburb in Wellington. While the film lacks the strong pacing and charismatic performances of Jackson’s later higher-budget splatter fest Braindead (1992), the imagination and resourcefulness of the gruesome effects go a long way for goodwill: you will believe a man can stuff his own brains back into his head.

A sci-fi horror-comedy, Bad Taste sees aliens invade a fictional New Zealand village to harvest humans for a fast-food chain. While in human disguise for much of the film, the eventually revealed alien faces are depicted with masks reportedly baked in Jackson’s mother’s oven.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Director: Shinya Tsukamoto

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Shinya Tsukamoto’s 16mm experimental, transhumanist assault on the senses is one of cinema’s great body horror texts. It documents the accelerated transformation of a man into a grotesque hybrid of flesh and rusted metal, before then pitting him in a clash against the apparent source of his curse.

Playing one of the characters himself, Tsukamoto uses stop-motion animation, expressionistic lighting and the taping of discarded machine parts to create the various monstrosities on display, which include what can only be described as an erect drill-penis.

Monsters (2010)

Director: Gareth Edwards

Monsters (2010)

One hotly debated Hollywood trend of the past decade has concerned the hiring of filmmakers to direct tentpole blockbusters off the back of just one independent feature, with the low-budget calling cards often bearing little obvious connective tissue to the expensive follow-up. See Colin Trevorrow landing Jurassic World (2015) after Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), or Jordan Vogt-Roberts graduating from The Kings of Summer (2013) to Kong: Skull Island (2017).

One that made more obvious sense was hiring Gareth Edwards to direct the 2014 American take on Godzilla on the basis of his debut feature, Monsters. The latter road movie sees an odd couple journey through a Mexican quarantine zone populated by extraterrestrial lifeforms. Given the low budget, the close encounters are kept to a minimum, with Edwards using smart blocking and staging to get across the humans’ scale in relation to the gargantuan creatures. Principal photography involved a very small crew over three weeks, and the post-production process saw Edwards create all 250 visual effects shots himself in his bedroom, using a combination of ZBrush, Autodesk 3ds Max and basic off-the-shelf Adobe software.

Dave Made a Maze (2017)

Director: Bill Watterson

Dave Made a Maze (2017)

With A Trip to the Moon, Méliès used cardboard for costumes – 115 years later, director Bill Watterson used cardboard for almost all of the effects. This low-budget fantasy comedy sees the eponymous Dave (Nick Thune) assemble a cardboard fort in his home that somehow supernaturally hosts an entire labyrinth, in which he becomes trapped. A group of friends, filmmakers and – for some reason – two Flemish tourists venture into the maze to find him, encountering deadly traps and cardboard creatures. It’s to the film’s advantage that no attempt to explain the magic at work is ever really made.

Within the labyrinth, the human body also takes on characteristics of the environment. One room sees everyone turn into cardboard puppets, while occasional moments of gore have human blood morph into material resembling the surrounding walls. At one point, someone is decapitated by a booby trap, leading to one of the film’s best lines: “Did she die, or did she just turn into a craft project?”

BFI Player logo

Stream hand-picked cinema

A free trial, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get 14 days free