How to make a low-budget movie monster

Feature Mark Williams 4 Oct 2012 - 08:08

If you’re hoping to make your own monster movie, but don’t have much of a budget, then this is the guide for you…

Necessity is the mother of invention, or so they say. It’s probably the motto of a great many film directors who’ve never benefited from a multi-million dollar budget worthy of James Cameron. But mega-money is far from essential in creating a memorable monster. In fact, just ask a Red Dwarf fan what happened to their beloved TV show when it got a bit more money thrown its way. After looking up wistfully at some distant point in the sky, they'll probably tell you how bad it got once the Blue Peter-style models of Starbug were replaced with almost-slick CGI. 

Many of the creatures we've seen that really stick in the mind, for better or worse, are all the more remarkable because of the limited financial means they were created with. Of course, it goes the other way too, when you look slack-jawed at the big screen in amazement, incredulous that with a budget of millions they've created something that looks so bad.

Yeah, we're looking at you The Mummy Returns. Even as a youngster, I knew I was seeing one of the most spectacularly awful CGI monsters to ever grace the multiplex. Simply copy and pasting the face of The Rock onto a giant scorpion's poorly-animated body did not cut the mustard, even if it did create a talking point in an otherwise forgettable action adventure.

So, before that lingers on the mind too much, let's go over some tips for success when you are attempting to create some scary monsters on a budget. 

Cover everything in so much blood and gore that it's not possible to scrutinise the prosthetic nasties too carefully

Long before he was sending Sam and Frodo off to Mordor, Peter Jackson was creating some fine and gruesome horror-comedy. One such film was Braindead (1992). There can't be many films that have got through more gallons of fake blood than Braindead did. From the priest who “kicks arse for the Lord”, to the infamous lawnmower scene which left a large hallway awash with gore and limbs, blood reigns (or should that be rains?) supreme here.

Disappear into your bedroom for months and create special effects on your computer

Monsters (2010) was an astonishing achievement for the budget it had. At first, we are restricted to sightings of suspiciously large tentacles of the giant monsters, which have taken over Mexico and are encroaching on the southern states of America. But when we eventually do see more of them, it looks absolutely brilliant when you consider that director Gareth Edwards claims to have used standard shop-bought software and hardware to create the effects.

Use grainy found-footage or hand-held camera style that never quite gets a good look at supposed monster

The classic example of this is The Blair Witch Project (1999) in which we never actually get a look at whatever it is that has those kids running around the woods, all panicked and flustered. Also making use of modern technological advances in home camera equipment was Paranormal Activity (2007), which takes your grainy docu-footage and raises you eerie green night light shots of demonic sleepwalking. 

Not really low-budget, but a similar can't-quite-see-what's-harassing-everyone theme is Cloverfield (2008). Here we have a lot of running away, and burning objects hurtling out of the sky, while our protagonist desperately tries to film something he can send to You've Been Framed in the event he survives the whole fracas.

With time, special effects that were scary can, and probably will, become quite funny

Any number of B-movie horrors or sci-fi films down the years have provided their cinema audiences with thrills and chills, only for a bunch of damned movie-nerds 50 years later to watch it on DVD and snort themselves half to death, laughing at what used to be terrifying. But at least if you had no money to make your film in the 1950s, you can have the satisfaction of telling kids these days that your entire film cost less than a Leicester Square cinema ticket and box of popcorn in today's money.

That said, the nuclear matriarchal ants taking over the world sci-fi of Them! (1954) had a decent budget for its day, but now the overgrown, irradiated insects look faintly ridiculous with their big, wobbly, furry heads. Think much larger, more ant-like versions of the nodding dogs seen in the back of cars, and you're on the right track. 

Darkness is your friend

Attack The Block (2011) was a master-class in the simplicity of effective monster-making. Set during the night, the darkness becomes a part of the camouflage of the blue-fanged hell-hound creatures that are stalking the South London council estate. The nearest earthly thing you could describe them as would be giant black dogs with sharp glowing teeth, and because of this utter blackness, they blend into the dark corners and unlit corridors of the environment they have chosen to invade.

To reveal or not to reveal?

Sometimes less is more. If the creature that’s been lurking in the shadows for 90 minutes is revealed at the end and as, well, just a bit rubbish, then the whole film is tarnished. This is the issue with Jeepers Creepers (2001). When the Creeper is hanging out over there in the trees, dumping what look like bodies down that suspicious looking subterranean pipe, ramming kids off the road in his giant truck, or cleverly disguising himself as a scarecrow, we rarely get a good look at him. But as the film goes on, we see more and more of Mr Creeper, and he becomes less, “what the hell is that?” and more, “couldn't they have done better than that?”

A man in a scary costume can be used to great effect...

...but then, on the other hand, sometimes it just looks like a man in a cheap scary costume. The kind that gets caught out, and as he's being dragged away says, “and I woulda got away with it, if it weren't for them meddling kids”. 

Dog Soldiers (2002) on the other hand, makes fine use of the person in a scary costume to produce a solid addition to the werewolf canon, as band of military types are harassed by vicious lycanthropes on the night of the full moon. 

Bigger = better?

Without CGI, there's a limit to how big you can make your monster. But with it, well, you can make giant Norwegian trolls, which live in the snowy wilderness and have been kept a national secret for years. Which is exactly what Troll Hunter (2011) does.

The limitations of your monster may work in your favour

Zombies can't really do much other than walk and groan, bash things and try to bite people. Sometimes they run, but the purists will tell you they shouldn't. This makes filming them a simple enough task. You're not going to need a stuntman, or any expensive wire-work or CGI to show them leaping, flying, spewing forth flames or shooting lightning bolts from their eyes. They're simple folk. So much so, that the zombie film is now very often a post-modern affair, playing with the limitations of the walking cadaver. Most recently, Cockneys Vs Zombies (2012) features a zimmer frame-assisted Richard Briers making his not-so-quick getaway from the creature shuffling menacingly towards him.

Make your monster something so ridiculous that no one can question the accuracy of its portrayal

For our final tip, we look to the B-movie for inspiration. The Blob (1958) is a creature that resembles a huge plate of red jelly, or perhaps even a predecessor to the ectoplasm in Ghostbusters (1984). It doesn't so much terrorise a young Steve McQueen and his friends as slowly ooze towards them in an easily escapable fashion. But as often happens when you're trying to get away from a large red ball of goo, you get backed up against a wall with nowhere to go, and all you can do is wish you'd left town when you had the chance.

Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes! (1978) is also of this ilk. Psychotic fruit and vegetables aren't exactly a sub-genre of their own, and so there aren't too many die-hard fanboys that can tell you that there's no way a killer tomato would react/look/talk/explode the way you decided. It's your call, and if your budget means their main means of attack is simply to roll after their prey, then that's what they'll do.

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