Mechanics of film special effects
WARNING! This post contains some simulated gore. If you aren’t comfortable with that, all is well, you can leave this post and have a lovely day.
My cousin’s friend, Brandon Borgman, is a gear engineer by day, special effects master by night. He went to Northern Illinois University, and began studying mechanical engineering, but transitioned to manufacturing engineering and went on to receive an M.S. in industrial management. In his free time he creates special effects for independent filmmakers in the Chicagoland area.
Brandon always gravitated toward art and he has two artists as parents. He took some hand building, sculpting, and metals classes in college and earned a minor in art. He was inspired to go back to his creative roots after putting some cosplay outfits together with my cousin, David, for Comic Cons that they went to. Here’s a picture of them as characters from a game called Payday 2 with masks they made themselves. He helped many people with their cosplay and prop projects, one of which was an ooze fueled Casey Jones mask and canister. Around this time Brandon taught himself certain techniques, and took classes from professional makeup artists, and eventually was introduced to some independent film producers looking for special effects.
Brandon has worked in Fantasy, SciFy, and Horror genres so far. He created full body armor for two alien characters commissioned by Kosart Effects Studios for Adobe. He is currently working on a project that he wasn’t able to divulge many details about other than the fact that the film will feature orc-like creatures in a fantasy setting, and you can see some glamour shots of Brandon’s first orc that he applied to himself here:
He also worked on a film called Mutilation Massacre, a horror film with its fair share of guts and gore that he helped realize. We can use this film as an example to learn the process of how these special effects come to be.
First, the producer of Mutilation Massacre approached Brandon and his team with a script, and Brandon began to list out the effects the script required while dreaming up a practical way of pricing them to make those dreams a reality. Certain budgets allow for more technical effects than others, and part of an independent effects specialist’s job is to make peace with the economic realities of the dream. Once a plan is set in place, Brandon can head over to a special effects shop like Reynolds Advanced Materials or the tremendously named Monstermakers.com where he can get effect supplies: resin, silicone, paints and plasters.
Once properly armed, Brandon and his team spend hours sculpting, running prosthetics, and mixing up fake blood before being ready to head to set and make the magic happen. That gore warning from before is about to get real now. He told me that Mutilation Massacre had a huge range of effects, from realistic hammers made of foam, to realistic fake arms, to, spoiler alert, a finale featuring an axe to the throat.
Let’s get into the details of the axe scene. There was one component featuring the actress in person and a fake axe, and a separate shot that featured a real axe swung into a fake torso with a lifecast of the actress’s face on top. You can see the side by side of the actress and her lifecast. That alone is enough to make me uncomfortable, which means they did a great job!
In the fake torso, there were tubes filled with fake blood that Brandon pumped during the shot to simulate the blood spurting that would happen in real life after a mortal wound. He knew that he had to be out of the shot and needed what would effectively be a quick release, so he designed a system with 10-12 feet of line, and a pneumatic air pressure valve. You can see the tubes and behind the scenes work in this shot:
Brandon explained that he thinks of these effect requirements like problem statements. Like any engineering problem, he’ll start by assessing the given parameters and making a sketch, either with pen and paper or a 3D model. From there, he makes the models and allows trial and error to be his guide. Because all of these effects are custom, there is no pattern to follow, and each project is a new frontier. He feels that his background in engineering gives him the tools to mock up dynamic effects that require technical knowledge to happen: applying some fluid dynamics when rigging up blood-tubes, working with raspberry pi’s to power handmade effects, and understanding anatomy to make believable fake arms.
Brandon likes to keep his work in special effects as a hobby. The type of challenge and reward he gets from his full time work in gears is different from what he finds in special effects creation, and appreciates the opportunity to apply his technical background in a creative outlet. His work is a great example of how we can apply our technical knowledge for fun, creative projects!