Make a Monster Movie this Summer

Geek Culture

One summer, when I was 16 or so, I borrowed a video camera and a friend and I made a very short, very dumb monster movie. There may be better ways to spend your time during summer vacation, but I can’t think of them right now. I haven’t seen the video in 20 years, but I’ll never forget making it.

To help you and/or your Geeklets get started on your own films — and hopefully do better than I did — I asked writer, director and SFX artist Matt Cunningham for some tips: from better lighting to better fake blood.

Matt Cunningham (and spinning head prop) on set of Troma slasher film "Decampitated." All photos courtesy Matt Cunningham.

Q: Did you make your own movies when you were a kid? What were they like? I assume monsters were involved.

DM: Yes, I did. I used the old Super 8 format and shot a lot of them without sound. I couldn’t afford a sound sync machine to go along with the cameras. I would find old cameras in thrift stores and buy them up. They would be short movies, usually a roll per movie (which was about 3 minutes long). I didn’t know how to edit when I was young so I planned the shots out in sequence.

Many of my home movies had that Star Wars meets monsters feel to it. When I got a hold of a video camera, my cousins and I would make all kinds of movies. Zombies, Killer Clowns, Halloween knock offs and my favorite was Phantom of the Laundry. The Phantom was the one who took your socks or clothes and then used them against you. Some people faced horrible deaths by dirty socks. A lot of these movies are where I learned to do makeup FX.

A teenage Matt Cunningham (left) and his cousin Ryan making a movie.

Q: Many kids have access to much better camera equipment and editing than we did back then, but they may be need help figuring out how to handle some of the other basics. Can you give us some advice for cheap ways to get better?

DM: I think what will help those that want to be better at their craft is to make sure you have a great story. That is the bottom line. Making a monster movie is a lot of fun. But if you have one with a good story then everyone wants to watch it.
Watch the movies you love and see how the story is put together. That is the best starting point. I made many shorts that were just scenes and I always felt that it needed a lot more. So I learned how to write scripts and took it from there.

Q: Tips for better lighting? How can we avoid that horrible home movie look? Or worse the 1970s BBC look?

DM: What happens on most amateur productions is they go from a bright outside to a dark inside and the camera cannot adjust to that quickly enough and you get this horrible home video look and everything washes out or goes really dark. Interior home lights do not give enough light to really fill out a scene. If you see a lamp in a shot, that is what we call a practical light. It is still part of the lighting scheme but behind the camera is a big lighting set up to make it look like that practical is filling the room with light. You basically want to fake what you see in everyday.
Check out Three Point lighting tutorials online. They will give you the basic tools and instruction you need to elevate your production.

Q: Tips for better sound? Bad sound seems to ruin a lot of amateur productions.

DM: I can’t tell you how many times I have said to filmmakers that sound is 70% of the production.
These days you can run a boom mic right into the digital camera. Try to use an extra microphone for dialogue scenes that is fed into the camera. Boom from above or hide it close to the actors in the scene, especially on close ups. Try to keep an even feel to the audio through the scenes. Cutting from those far away shots where we can’t hear anyone to close ups where they are blasting out the mic spells amateur night.

Q: Any tips for staging stunts? A safe but believable fight scene, for instance?

DM: I hate to be obvious… but use fake everything! Knives, props, wood, etc. I have been on some productions where they have had real hard props in the fight scenes and it had disaster written all over it.
If you want to fake fight scenes, stage the punches away from the camera. Plan your angles so the punch looks real and you can cut to another angle to sell the fall or hit. Watch fight scenes and see how they cut on the action. (Don’t watch Jackie Chan or Jet Li because those guys do it all in wide shots and they are just plain amazing.)

Cunningham's old workshop with monster mask in progress.

Q: Tips for doing make-up and SFX?

DM: My first makeup fx shop was based in the corner of my bedroom. I had a small desk that I made masks at and fake body parts, monster horns and hands, blood and goo. I learned a lot from two books that changed my world. The first book was Dick Smith’s Do It Yourself Monster Make-Up (which I’m pretty sure is out of print) and the other book was Grande Illusions: A Learn-by-Example Guide to the Art and Technique of Special Make-Up Effects from the Films of Tam Savini.

I read these books a million times and practiced every technique in the book. Today there are so many books and videos on the market of How To do cheap and really expensive monster makeups you could go insane. There is so much you can do these days with Gelatin based appliances and they look so real.

My favorite blood recipe was Dick Smith’s, I used it all the time. However, there was a poisonous chemical in it and you don’t want to use that, so I altered it to be kid-friendly.

Blood Recipe:
1 c. Karo Syrup
1 Tbsp Water
2 Tbsp Red Food Coloring
1 tsp Yellow Food Coloring

The following recipe is to make it more “realistic” – which tends to have more brown in it:
2/3 c. Corn Syrup
1/3 c. Warm Water
5 Tbsp Corn Starch
4 tsp red food coloring
1 Tbsp Powdered Cocoa
2 drops of green or yellow food coloring

And last but not least, if you decide to shoot your movie in black and white use Chocolate Syrup. This is what George Romero used for Night of the Living Dead movie and it worked great!!

Matt Cunningham is still making monsters, but now in the less messy form of books and short stories. Details at Literary Asylum.

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