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Stacie Ponder – Eight Do-or-Die Tips for Micro-Budget Horror Moguls


The last time I talked about making your own horror movies, I was a little Yoda-esque. You know what I mean — all philosophy and “Do or do not, there is no try.” Philosophizin’ is all well and good, but eventually you’ve gotta stop thinking, get out there and make your dang movie. I’ve been through the no-budget fire, my friends, and I’ve learned a few things along the way. So this time around I’ll be a little less Yoda and a little more Obi-Wan as I show you how to use the Force. It’s time to get practical!

Formatting Your Script
Even if you’re making a horror movie in your backyard that stars your mom as a mad scientist and your dad as a severed head, there’s no reason for your script to come out of the printer looking all wonky… and trust me, if you write it in a basic word processing program, that’s what’s gonna happen. Show your actors you mean business by handing them a beautiful document, courtesy of a real screenwriting program! You don’t need to spend gobs of money on Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter to do it, either — there’s a free program called Celtx that formats your screenplay and a whole lot more. By the way, I totally want to see the movie starring your mom as a mad scientist and your dad as a severed head.

Choosing Your Camera
As I said the last time I talked DIY, it’s how you use your equipment that really counts. I’ve shot movies using VHS, VHS-C and even a toy camera
that had to be plugged into a VCR at all times. But nowadays great equipment is accessible to budding George Romeros
everywhere; when the cost finally dropped low enough for my anemic wallet, I upgraded to Mini DV. For under $300, you can pick up a great little handheld number — I use the Canon ZR900 and can’t praise it highly enough.

Look for a camera with good sound, low hum and sharp picture quality. Do your research and read reviews; get your butt into the store and play with a few different makes and models. I prefer a camera that requires tapes for two reasons: With memory cards I’ve fallen victim to corrupted data and/or incompatible systems, and I’m old — I still like the tangible quality of holding an actual tape in my hand. My footage will always be there, at least in raw form.

Using Your Camera
While movies such as Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project have proven that fans love P.O.V. horror, frenetic, hand-held camera work should always serve the story. Go hand-held during, say, kill sequences to heighten the tension and put viewers on the edge of their seats. Otherwise, use a tripod, will ya? You can get decent tripods for cheap at your local department store. If time constraints make tripod set-ups impractical — I’ve run into that problem — and you’ve got to hold the camera yourself, try to keep it as still as possible. The last thing you want is to give your audience motion sickness. Unless you’re a weirdo, that is.

Dolly Dearest
Want to give your movie a touch of class? Try adding some creative dolly shots. When they’re not overdone, these sweeping shots can really give your little flick a cinematic feel — think about that great scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre where the camera smoothly follows Pam as she walks from the swing up to Leatherface’s house, which gradually looms ominously into view. “That’s fine, Stacie,” you’re thinking, “But I am not Tobe Hooper, nor am I cinematographer Daniel Pearl, nor do I have the money to set up some huge dolly in my backyard.” That’s probably all true, but don’t let that stop you! You know what makes a great dolly? A wheelchair. Someone sits and holds the camera, someone else pushes and voila: Nice, smooth dolly shot. You can probably rent a wheelchair from your local pharmacy for $10-20 per day.

You lucky kids, what with your computers that come with free programs like Windows Movie Maker and iMovie! Why, in my day we had to edit in camera or by dubbing between two VCRs! No matter what you use — a free program, a professional platform like Final Cut, or two VCRs — here’s one thing I can’t stress enough: Storyboard before you shoot! Try to get the look and feel of your movie down on paper; it should be edited in your head before you pick up a camera. Sure, things will change once you’re up on your feet, but you’ll save time on set and in the editing process if you’ve already put the puzzle pieces together.

Sound and Lighting
Lighting and sound are crucial, particularly in horror: They can make or break the atmosphere and mood. Unfortunately, bad sound and dreadful lighting are often hallmarks of low-budget moviemaking. I’ve watched countless indie horror movies where it’s either so dark I can’t see what’s happening or so overlit that the backgrounds are blown out. I can’t hear the dialogue or the screams are so loud my speakers get blown.

Take your time and check your levels. Don’t rely on ambient lighting; a zillion-dollar set up isn’t required, but it doesn’t hurt (or break the bank) to stop by Ikea and pick up some Chinese lanterns, or visit your local hardware store for some $10 clip lights. As for sound, rig a boom with an external microphone and a swivel-head mop.

Ki Ki Ki, Ma Ma Ma
Can you imagine Friday the 13th without the theme music? If you don’t have the time or talent to make that perfect stabbing sound or music sting yourself, check out a site called Soundsnap. It’s part-free, part-pay and all no-royalty, user-generated content. If they don’t have what you’re looking for, well, you’d better find the time and talent to make it yourself.

Blood Makes Noise
Ah, fake blood:  Where would the genre be without it? You can dish out some serious dough on the pre-made variety, or follow this handy-dandy recipe for some convincing red stuff:

• ½ cup water
• 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
• 3 to 4 tablespoons corn syrup (like Karo)
• 1 teaspoon red food coloring
• 2 drops blue or green food coloring

Be sure to mix the cocoa and the water first — the cocoa powder and the blue/green food coloring are key. Not only does the cocoa make it yummy, it adds a bit of opacity and thickness to the blood, as well as darkening it up and making it look more realistic. The blue/green coloring prevents it from being unnaturally red. Horror fans can spot fake blood a mile away!

Got any tips to share? Post ’em up and share your expertise. Have you made your backyard horror masterpiece? Let me know. Make me proud, youngling!

When Stacie Ponder isn’t writing about horror movies here or at her own beloved blog Final Girl, she’s making them. Always, though, she leads a glamorous life, walking on the razor’s edge of danger and intrigue.

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