So you are making a sci-fi short or long format film and of course your protagonists need to defy known physical laws and go from place to place via a space craft. That’s what’s so great about science fiction, yes, it’s physically impossible for matter to move fast enough to make interstellar travel even a remote possibility, but that doesn’t mean we can’t fantasize about it and enshrine it to the LCD-screen! If you want to make a live action scene of space travel but don’t have the money to hire a team of top-tier effects wizards, then you’re going to want to listen up. Here’s how to create the illusion of space flight for your low-budget film quickly and easily.
We’ve all seen the ships flying in and out of the death star and wondered – is this a documentary about an actual deal star and they just filmed the ships coming and going as in stock footage? No – in fact, the death star and the ships each are about the size of a basketball and paper airplanes, respectively. A lot of the movement of interstellar space vehicles comes not from the conversion of matter to anti-matter and vice versa, but by the movement of the camera. Yes – use the easy ability of a camera to move along a stationary prop. If you have a back drop or a green screen, when you move the camera and leave the prop ship stationary, you can create both movement and change in movement, as in acceleration. When you apply the effects to the green screen, sure enough, the ship will appear to move, not the background.
The use of iridescent and fluorescent paints is also extremely effective in making the appearance of flight in a small budget film. With these paints, you use a UV light, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what effects will be translated to the film, or let’s be honest, to the digital medium. Whilst filming, flashing the lights, combined with the movement of the camera, will allow for the appearance of not only movement, but of excitement, as the engines are firing and propelling the ship to strange and important new worlds.
Another way to generate the illusion of movement is to just armature adjustable joints and connect them to the prop. The fluid way in which those contraptions work and flow will look like movement; they will let your space shift flicker and flutter and spin and accelerate in a way that looks like the ship is actually pursuing or evading some enemy combatant. You can later remove the arm in post, leaving the ship alone to sway and conform to the environment around it in a way that seems natural.
And of course, the biggest piece of advice to keeping the cost low, is for goodness sake, use the cheap models first. You will fail in the beginning and your ships will crash to the ground. If you use your top tier models that you spent the budget on and ruin it on the first take, your whole film will sink like the Titanic (also only a model in the feature length film!). Instead, practice and practice til your heart goes bored using the cheap models you can find at Goodwill’s or Michaels.
Also, have fun and stay with it!