Spooky SFX: How are SFX Affected by the Digitization of Film?

by | Oct 31, 2023

What’s your favorite scary movie? Since the dawn of cinema, filmmakers have attempted to take reality and plaster a version of it on the big screen. Early filmmakers also had the goal of taking things based outside of reality and making them look real for the silver screen. The horror genre of films has always been a driving force in the history of creative, practical, special effects in film. 

In early films, actors often did their own makeup, kind of like they did in live theater. Lon Chaney is an actor known for doing his own special effects makeup as far back as the mid-1920’s, for the film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. The wire he placed on his face to make his nose look distorted reportedly made him bleed nearly constantly on set. Effects haven’t always been safe for talent, but the early “outside the box” thinking led to so many mind-bending effects over the history of film.

Looking back at the golden age of horror, SFX makeup artists can identify Jack Pierce as the trailblazer of horror SFX, as he handled the makeup effects of many classic Universal horror films. He created effects for “Frankenstein”, “Dracula”, and “The Mummy” to name a few, in a time when skin-safe SFX makeup products weren’t a concept. Use of existing materials were creatively repurposed to create the early Universal monsters that are still recognized by audiences today. The materials to create Frankenstein’s iconic look were cotton and spirit gum for the prosthetics and green makeup was used because it appeared as ghostly white on black & white film.

In creating the illusion of monsters like Frankenstein, Pierce had to research actual surgical data and notes to further base the unrealistic character in a believable reality. Pierce is quoted as saying “…makeup must not be obviously makeuppy.” His goal was to make things out of the audience’s nightmares a believable on-screen reality, and in pursuing that goal a new position in film was created for SFX makeup artists. 

Early SFX was far from streamlined though, and was incredibly laborious for both the artist and actors. Frankenstein’s makeup in the 1931 classic reportedly took over six and a half hours to put on every day of shooting, and took at least half an hour to remove after wrapping each day. The 1930’s did see the implementation of what would be considered “primitive”,  pre-made effects in films like “The Wizard of Oz”, where artists utilized reusable, sculpted foam latex effects. The new application technique allowed for a drastic reduction in the amount of time for some actors in SFX chairs.

Ricou Browning, the man in the suit in Creature from the Black Lagoon

Making the unbelievable believable for audiences at the time resonated well with the masses, who were eager for more immersive cinematic experiences. Studios started hiring makeup artists consistently after the inception of SFX in film, and soon were spending considerable amounts of money on special effects. Universal spent around $12,000 for the creature suit worn in the 1954 film,  “Creature from the Black Lagoon”. The investment into SFX paid off, as the creature is still one of the most iconic Universal monsters. 

SFX improved quickly, as the demand never let up. As cinema entered the 70’s and 80’s, renowned artists like Tom Savini (Friday the 13th, The Burning) and Rick Baker (American Werewolf in London), amongst others, really tested the limits for SFX arts in the horror genre.

Enter horror movie killers like Jason from “Friday the 13th”, or Freddy from “Nightmare on Elm Street”. The slashers not only needed effects to make the kills and injuries look realistic, but the characters themselves needed to be disfigured and monster-like as well. Over a pound of latex was used to construct Freddy’s makeup, and throughout filming over 500 gallons of fake blood was used to simulate the many gruesome murders portrayed by the movie. Many modern movies wouldn’t bother with that kind of mess, and would choose CGI methods over the practical effects that made the 80’s slasher classics so iconic. 

After the golden age of slasher movies, the film industry as a whole started to see a massive shift in how effects were utilized and created for films. As early as 1982, with “The Poltergeist”, computer effects were starting to be used, though in the haunting classic the CGI was created using a primitive “blue screen” technique. 

As CGI improved concurrently to digital filmmaking taking the industry by storm, VFX added in post-production would quickly surpass in favorability over SFX physical props, makeup, suits, and fake blood. 

The opportunities that CGI opens up for creatives are endless, if their time and budget is endless. Many successful, modern horror films have taken advantage of the boundless possibilities offered through post-effects, including films like “Hereditary”, “Annihilation”, and the Stephen King “IT” remakes. These modern films all saw massive success while in theaters and after, and will likely be considered classics of their time one day; despite the effects used being drastically different compared to their horror predecessors.

Freddy Krueger in the original “Nightmare on Elm Street” (left) versus the remake (right)

Computer generated effects and VFX that are added in post-production not only open creative doors, but also save a lot of time and money during principal photography. This is great for production companies looking to release horror flicks, but some horror fans have qualms about certain classics being rebooted, with CGI replacing the legendary effects from originals. One popular film with a lot of audience pushback was the 2010 “Nightmare on Elm Street” remake. Some fans of the franchise found the CGI effects used to be unnatural and distracting, preferring the original, practical, latex effects done 26 years prior. 

Bringing it back to the “unrealistic realism” that audiences have wanted to sink their teeths (and eyes) into since horror’s inception,  “Horror movies are only as terrifying as their realism and immersive qualities; often, too much CGI is a detriment that takes any good scares away.” Horror fans love their fake blood and gruesome practical effects, especially in slashers. 

While there has been a shift in film, including in the horror genre, to avoid expensive and time-consuming practical effects, some modern horror movies are keeping practical effects alive. CGI critics believe that most horror films don’t need CGI. From independent films that can’t afford expensive CGI, needing to come up with creative ways to produce scary, realistic effects, to some bigger blockbusters in the horror industry; it’s largely the horror genre that keeps up the practice of practical effects and SFX.

Take the 2013 “Evil Dead” remake for example, a movie that utilized modern CGI to enhance practical effects, but mostly relied on the practical effects themselves. The film reportedly used over 70,000 gallons of fake blood in filming, which is a whopping increase over Sam Raimi’s terrifying and hectic 1981 original, which used about 300 gallons. That’s a lot of fake blood either way! 

Other very popular modern horror films like Ti West’s “X” and “Pearl” pride themselves on using primarily practical effects, which adds a raw feeling to the period horror films, supporting some fan’s argument that not all horror needs CGI, and that it’s important to keep SFX alive.

Horror films have changed a lot since the first movies spooked early audiences in the theater. From changing cultural fears shifting the topics in horror, to developments in technology upending how effects and films are made; artists have had and will always have a lot of range to create SFX for macabre, unsettling, straight-up gut wrenching characters.  

There’s no end in sight for the horror genre’s popularity, making it a great niche for hopeful production crew and effects artists to find a career. In an industry like film or SFX makeup, having hands-on experience and education is a defining factor in the success of an individual’s career. 

MediaTech Institute offers technical programs in Digital Filmmaking and Master Makeup Artistry, our instructors focusing on hands-on training, gaining real-life experiences on-set, and making our students the most hirable candidates in the industries they pursue. Horror fan or not, check out MTI’s amazing programs and start your journey into the creative technical arts industry today.

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