Shock and Awe

season 4 of the americans gunshot death tv fx

How Visual Effects help TV & Film Up the Gore Factor

Back in the old days, bloody scenes in TV and film required some creative substitutions on set. Who could forget the famous shower scene in Psycho? Alfred Hitchcock used chocolate syrup instead of blood, and because the film was in black and white, the audience was none the wiser.

Crews can’t necessarily get away with that anymore. Not only are most films and series released in vivid color, but resolutions have also improved to the point where audiences can see even the tiniest of details. Blood and gore has to look more true-to-life than ever.

“Back then you could only do gore practically with Karo syrup, prosthetics or even stop motion,” says Molecule VFX Compositing Supervisor Rick Shick. “Nowadays many people would prefer to do something real, but CG is the hammer most people go for in the toolbox.”

To understand why, let’s take a look at a few factors behind this trend toward more visual effects gore.

Technology brings new tools

TV shows and films were still being made long before the birth of computer animation, digital editing, and all of the other opportunities computers provide to artists. Practical effects were the only options for crews, and they created some pretty realistic and gory shots.

Every year companies release software and updates that can more realistically recreate real-world materials. Maya, Cinema 4D, and Houdini are a few of our CG department’s tools of choice, but software engineers constantly develop new products, plugins, and solutions.

As these programs continued to develop, production teams experimented with them to create visual effects gore. As time went on, and after much trial and error, we have the realistic effects we have today. Experimentation continues daily, and quality is improving at a rapid pace.

Artistry evolves with experimentation

As the technology developed, so too did the artists’ ability to use the software to their advantage.

VFX artists are keen observers of the world around them, and part of their artistry lies in replicating it digitally. When it comes to blood, the same principle holds true, particularly when artists suffer their own injuries. A lot of times they’ll take pictures of their cuts and bruises for later reference. If a bloody scene is of the medical variety, oftentimes we’ll bring in doctors as consultants.

Secondly, directors began to favor the flexibility they had if they waited to create the wound in post. VFX teams could audition different blood effects with the production team, and together we could settle on the best look for the shot. For especially gruesome scenes, our team can spend weeks on test images, slap comps, and multiple versions of the final comp. The back and forth with the production teams lets us narrow in on the exact amount of gore the situation calls for.

VFX Compositing Supervisor Vicky Penzes says that she likes the creativity gory shots provide to artists. “They aren’t as straightforward as a monitor comp or rig removal.” A lot of times you have to combine many different elements to get the customized look you want. For example, in a gunshot scene in “The Americans,” Vicky combined several blood squirt elements with a couch hit. She created her own blood mist element by animating a colored shape through a noise filter.

She adds that gory scenes are usually a turning point in a story. “It’s fun as a VFX artist to be involved in the storytelling.”

How we Create Visual Effects Gore Today

Today there are two main categories of visual effects gore: 2D and 3D.

3D blood is highly customizable – great if you’re looking for a specific look or have a tricky camera movement. It’s especially useful for blood drips and directional blood spurts with a lot of Z depth. If you can avoid CG, however, you will save time and money. For this reason CG gore is usually our second approach.

At The Molecule we first like to see if a 2D solution will work for the shot. 2D gore is generally faster and less expensive, which is great for productions in a time and budget crunch.

First we’ll search for stock footage of wounds. If they work for the shot, we’ll contour them to the body part and track them with the body as the actor and camera move. A lot of blood stock footage elements are in slow motion, which gives the artists a lot of flexibility. We’ll retime the element to precisely match the actor’s reaction, and we can retime the actor.

Sometimes we’ll film our own blood elements.

Vicky emphasizes the importance of customization. “Sometimes a single element will look thin,” she explains. “It’s also possible that someone from our industry will recognize an element if we don’t combine it with something else.”

You should also consider what part of the body is the target. With gunshots, for example, the blood spray will look different if it’s coming from the head versus coming from the shoulder.

Rick advises production teams to film effects practically whenever possible. “Visual effects teams can do a lot to augment practical effects. Something filmed on set gives the CG team a better idea as to how to model and light the CG blood, and they’re easier to composite.” Finally, using a practical object like a squib or a prop will give the actor something to react to.

At the end of the day, doing your research is the best way to know how to make a shot look realistic. We’re not advocating replicating these wounds in real life by any means (as they say, please don’t try this at home).

Vicky recommends watching how the pros do it on screen. “I watch a lot of crime shows,” she says.

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