Audra Coulombe is the Marketing Manager for The Molecule, a VFX, Motion Graphics, and VR company located in New York and Los Angeles.
There’s no such thing as a blood shortage when it comes to the amount of gore in TV and films today. Whether it’s because the number of medical and crime shows have increased over the years, or because of society’s increased obsession with vampires and zombies, there’s more blood and guts on our screens today than ever before.
Not too long ago, a lot of these gory effects were done on set, and VFX weren’t needed. Today, however, most TV shows and films have become so high-res that audiences can see even the tiniest of details. That means fake blood and gore has to look just like the real thing.
The Trend Toward More VFX
“Back then you could only do gore practically with Karo syrup, prosthetics or even stop motion,” says VFX Compositing Supervisor Rick Shick, reflecting on the old days. “Nowadays, many people would prefer to do something real, but CG is still the hammer that most people go for in the toolbox.”
As technology has improved over the decades, production teams have simultaneously experimented with new techniques. Over time, and after much trial and error, we ended up with the realistic looking effects we have today. Visual Effects artists are very good at observing the world around them and replicating it digitally. Sometimes they’ll even take pictures of their cuts and bruises for later reference.
If a bloody scene is of the medical variety, we’ll often bring in doctors as consultants. Many directors favor the flexibility of creating a wound in post-production. That way, VFX teams can audition different blood effects with the production team, and together settle on the best look for the shot. Not only do VFX artists “fix it in post,” but more and more they “create it in post.”
Creating Gory VFX Today
VFX Compositing Supervisor Vicky Penzes says she likes the creativity inherent in making gory VFX shots. “They aren’t as straightforward as a monitor comp or rig removal. It’s fun as a VFX artist to be involved in the storytelling.”
For gunshots, in particular, there are three main parts: the gunshot itself (the muzzle flash), the blood hit, and the aftermath. Each requires its own attention. The muzzle flash is the bright burst of light that a gun emits when fired, and the look of the flash depends on the type of gun in the scene. The effect only lasts a couple of frames for each flash.
The blood hit also only lasts a few frames, capturing the moment when the bullet hits a part of the body, but it is incredibly detailed. We’ll often layer elements on top of elements to get the right look. The types of blood elements we use depends on the part of the body that’s targeted — a shoulder will bleed differently than a head wound.
Finally, the aftermath and the blood flow also depend on the type of gun and the body part that the bullet hits, and we’ll digitally create other features like blood puddles and blood stains on clothes. There is a ton of room for variation and detail in each step of what is in reality a very quick moment:
When blood is involved in VFX gore, there are two main kinds: 2D and 3D. 3D blood is highly customizable, which is great if you’re looking for a very specific look or have a tricky camera movement. If you can avoid using 3D blood, however, it will save you a lot of time and money.
To create blood effects in 2D, sometimes we’ll film our own blood elements, and other times we’ll find stock footage of wounds. We contour them to body part, and track them with the body as the actor and camera move. (Note: a lot of blood stock-footage elements are in slow motion, so that it can be re-timed to match the actor’s movements).
Penzes emphasizes the importance of customizing these stock elements. “Sometimes a single element will look thin,” she explains. “Also, it’s possible that someone from our industry will recognize certain elements if we don’t alter or combine them in some way.”
Meanwhile, Shick still advises production teams to do as many on-set special effects as possible. “Practical effects, however small, can be enhanced in post,” he explains. Finally, using a practical object like a squib or a prop will give the actor something to react to.
In season 2 of American Crime, we were able to use a prop sword to our advantage, as it created a depression on the stomach that we didn’t have to create from scratch. We added blood and a CG sword, and it looked like the actor was actually being stabbed with a katana blade.
From ABC’s American Crime (use the slider to view before and after VFX)
However you decide to create gore in your own project, research is key. Unless you’re a trained special-effects professional, of course, we definitely don’t advocate conducting your own research (as they say, please do not try this at home). Penzes recommends watching how the pros do it onscreen. “I watch a lot of crime shows,” she says.
For a more in-depth look at the history and development of VFX gore, check out The Molecule’s blog.