How to Make a Scary Movie Using Sony Vegas

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Guest contributor David Lay takes us inside the mind of a moviemaker – and tells you how to get ALL the awesomely spooky effects. Thanks David!

Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not here to tell you how to make a 105-minute Halloween horror blockbuster. I’m talking about a little 1 or 2 minute “tickler”, to chill the bones of people at your party or those pesky trick-or-treaters who may come to your door with the intent of scaring you.

And you aren’t going to need a 2 million dollar budget, either.

You ARE going to have to have some kind of video camera. These days, your cell phone has one, so you probably already have what is needed.

There are four elements to making a scary movie:

1) A scary story. Remember, we’re not talking about voyeurism, or revulsion, like when you pass by an accident and you just have to look even though you know you shouldn’t. We’re talking about fear; you want to tell a story that tickles the part of the imagination that trips off the “fear switch” or creates an imbalance in the viewer, which can lead to fear.

2) Lighting. Good lighting is essential to a good movie. This does not have to be expensive, simply picking the right time of day, or the right day, can be all that is needed.

3) Sound. Sound creates half of the fear (perhaps even 75%). The sound creates empathy, and makes the image up close and personal.

4) Playing it in the right setting. A scary movie playing in a brightly lit room just doesn’t have the scare appeal that it would have in a darkened room full of hidden ghosts and monsters!

1. Setting Up a Scary Story for Your Movie

Let’s start with the first element: A story. What you are going to do is sit down and write a simple story. Don’t let it be longer than a few sentences. The story should have an element of hopelessness, where there is no escape from the “nightmare”. Better and easier if there is only one or two characters.

The story should have a single location. A rule that every low budget producer knows is don’t have too many locations. More locations mean more time and money. A location, by the way, is where the story takes place. In your story you will only want one location. Here’s a simple example:

A face, cloaked in black with a black background, unmoving except for its mouth, lit from below to give it deep shadows in dark surroundings, is talking backwards. The video has an old film grain given to it, and the image is mirrored so that the face is in duplicate, and turns to look at itself every now and again. End. Loop back to the beginning.

Play this over and over again, maybe just a little out of focus. Make sure you have the sound up loud enough to keep everyone’s attention. Maybe while you’re playing this, run a little “mist” low to the ground from your fog machine (see my article on “Maximizing the Effect of Your Fog Machine”). The ideas are endless.

Here’s another, simple, example:

A hooded figure, lit from below its face only by a hidden flashlight carried in its hands, walks in from one side of the video frame, across the frame, and out the other side. End. Loop back to the beginning.

Or, how about:

A guy, who is also the cameraman pointing his camera down at the path he is on, is running through the woods. All you see is his shadow, but you hear twigs breaking and him breathing. There is an element of desperation in his voice. He trips once in a while. End. Loop back to the beginning.

Finally, maybe this:

A guy is walking through an old cemetery, maybe with fog or mist. He senses someone is following him. He looks over his shoulder and sees a dark form following him. He starts to walk faster. He’s breathing faster, deeper as he works up a “fear”. The breathing has desperation to it. The figure seems to be keeping up with him, gaining on him. End. Loop back to the beginning.

2. Lighting in Your Halloween Movie

The second element, lighting, is the bugaboo of movie makers. Good lighting is expensive, but you’re lucky since you’ve decided to make a short, scary movie. Simple lighting is all that is needed because scary movies do better with fewer details. Remember, it’s the imagination that creates the fear. You just have to spark it.

You can do that with one light on each subject in the movie: Set it low and point it up. Lots of long, upward shadows means scary… OR, you can use the sun, but you’ll need to pick the time of day, and the kind of day to make it work. A bright, noon day sun is not scary. Early morning or evening is good, but it doesn’t last long. But, then again, neither is your movie.

Overcast days are good as they flatten the color and the details, but the disadvantage is they don’t have good shadows. This kind of light would work if you were making the cemetery movie above.

As an example, consider the guy above running through the woods: This would be best shot in the mid-afternoon or in the mid-morning, so that you get a good shadow, but there is plenty of light to see the shadow on the forest floor.

If you are going to make an elaborate set with lots of lights, which I don’t recommend, light the background and background characters first as it frames the foreground, then light the foreground and characters. I’ve seen amateur movie makers following the “three point” lighting scheme you’d use in portrait photography struggle with the lighting because they didn’t understand this simple concept.

For the other example of the talking face or the cloaked figure walking across the room, use a dark room, or a black backdrop, so there are no details in the background. Have the character wear dark clothing. Only light the face with a single light, like a flashlight held under the chin, pointed up.

Creating Spooky Sounds

Now, what about sound? A good scary sound is breathing. It’s easy and doesn’t require any editing. But, to really explore the possibilities, I’m going to refer you to my other article “Making Scary Sound Effects with Sony’s Sound Forge.” However, I still need to make a mention: There are simple sound effects that you can do with a video editing program that do not require a program like Sound Forge, but that also means you’ll need an editing program, which brings me to the next topic: Editing.

Using a Video Editing Program Like Sony Vegas

Certainly you can make a simple video without doing any editing, and it will play pretty well as is. But to create a clean story, that is, it tells exactly what you want without extraneous start-ups and “FUBAR’s”, you’ll need a video editing program. There are several video editing programs available, but I will discuss the one I am familiar with, and that is Sony Vegas Movie Studio.

The nice thing about this software is that it ties in with Sound Forge, and you can do audio editing easily. But even if you don’t have Sound Forge, then there is enough power in Movie Studio to do simple effects.

The best way to do this is by example. I made the talking face movie mentioned above (because it’s easy) by putting on a black turtle neck and standing in front of a black backdrop. I stood to one side of the frame so there would be room to create a duplicate “me” on the other side of the video frame. I shined a flashlight up at my face.


I recited “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and the tape lasted about 15 seconds. I’m going to lead your through how to edit my movie, but understand the possibilities are endless.

Open Up Sony Vegas Movie Studio

Let’s start by opening up your editing program and follow along, if you have one. Most new computers now come bundled with some kind of video editing software. Most are user friendly, but may not have the ability to do some of the things I will be suggesting here. I am using Sony’s Vegas Movie Studio, version 8 because that is what I’m used to using (actually, I’ve used several very sophisticated editing programs, and Vegas Movie Studio is just on the edge of being a professional editing program – just right for the beginner).

I’ll just have to assume you have it, or something close, and will guide you through as I use my video clip “Scary Movie 2”.

Upon opening, you get an opening “Show Me How” window that gives you a list of tutorials if you need help getting started. The tutorials are very helpful, though I would like it better if they provided a manual to go with it. (Editor’s Note: There’s lots of Sony Vegas video tutorials on Youtube.) Just call me old fashioned. Anything not covered in the tutorials is covered in the Help window, but sometimes you may not know what key word to use to do a search, and that can be frustrating.

Luckily Vegas Movie Studio is relatively intuitive, once you get the hang of the layout. Here is what you’ll see at startup:


Close out the “Show Me How” window and then, next, you want to start a New Project. Go to the File menu and choose New. Name the Project “Scary Movie” and click Next. Let the program choose where to put the project. Usually it will be in My Videos if you have windows.

Select the output. I always choose “I’m not sure yet. I will choose later.” This gives me more control over how the movie will be published when I’m finished.

Click Next and you will be given default values for editing in a new window. These are typical: Television size is 720 by 480 and the Frame rate is 29.970 if you are editing in NTSC standards (the America and Japanese standard). PAL if in Europe.


Video-capture Your Clip

OK. Hook up your camera or camcorder to your computer (read your manual to your camera for how to do this), or if you’ve previously recorded a video, save it to your computer and click the “Explorer” tab to find it, then drag and drop it onto the timeline.

Otherwise, to capture a video, go to the “File” menu and choose “Capture Video”:


The Capture Video window will open and it will ask you how you want to capture your clips. A clip is any segment of uninterrupted video. I chose “Don’t capture any clips right now”, because I like to have control over what the computer brings in. Every time the video camera was started and stopped, Vegas will start a new clip.


This is what the full window should look like:


Press the Play button at the bottom and “Shuttle” or use the fast forward or reverse to find you beginning point for capture. Once you’ve found the start point, click the Capture Video button. Once you get to the end, click the Stop button. You’ll get a confirmation window that your video has been successfully captured.

Click Done. You’ll get a clip listed at the bottom. Mine says “Scary Video 2”. Click and hold that file and drag up to the “Timeline” to the Video track just above the Voice track.


Next, “crop” the clip by placing the cursor on the right most edge of the video clip and “pushing it” toward the last sound wave, or wherever the scene “makes sense”. Repeat on the left hand side. Now you only have video where there is talking:


Then, place the cursor over the middle of the video clip and click and hold as you drag the clip to the beginning of the timeline.

Editing and Adding Effects to Your Spooky Video

Ok. Let’s do our first effect. Let’s reverse both video and voice tracks by right-clicking on the video and choosing Reverse from the menu:


Do the same for the voice track and you’ll see two arrows; one on each track. That arrow indicates the track has been reversed.

Ok. Now press the play button and see what happened. The face is talking backwards – scary.
Let’s do another effect. Go to the bottom of the page where the files are listed and you’ll see six buttons. Choose Video FX tab. Scroll down the menu on the left hand side and choose Mirror:


Then choose the effect “Reflect Left”. Click and hold and drag that effect up to the video track and release. You’ll get this window. Ignore it and close it.


Now you should have two images, one the mirror of the other:


This is now double creepy. Let’s do another. Let’s do an old film look. Click on Film Effects in the menu to the left. Choose Very Old Film and drag it up and drop it on the video track. Now play the clip. Double creepy with extra creep on top:



So, right now the “movie” is only about 10 seconds long. You can make it as long as you want (don’t go over two hours – your DVD can’t hold that much). Simply click on the video track which should highlight it. Then Copy, or Ctrl C, and then, at the end of the clip, Paste, or Ctrl V. Keep doing this, each time adding another 10 seconds on the length, and making the clip repeat over and over. Very Creepy:


Now you want to print this to a DVD, or to your camera. Go up to the “Make Movie” tab at the top tool bar, and click. Vegas will ask you what you want to do with your movie… make a DVD, etc. Choose the final way you want to make your movie. I choose Burn it to DVD since I will want to play this through my DVD Player into my video projector:


Click Next and the following window I just use the default values Vegas chooses, because that is the most general and will “render” the whole video track. Rendering is when Vegas converts the timeline video into a file that is actually in a video format that can be played in a DVD Player. This part takes a long, long time, usually about five to ten times longer than the video track. The more video effects, the longer it will take to render. So, if your timeline track is 10 minutes long, it will take about 50 minutes to render…

Time to take a break and go out and see your favorite scary movie while your movie is rendering. It will save to a file, and then you’ll be prompted to burn the DVD via Sony’s DVD Architect, a program that is bundled with Vegas Video Studio.

If you would like to see how my Scary Movie turned out, see below:

You can also export the audio to Sony’s Sound Forge by right-clicking on the audio track (see my article “Making Scary Sound Effects”), do some creepy stuff there, and then import that audio track back into Vegas. Totally Creepascious.

So, now that you have an academy award winning scary movie, where to play your movie? Get a video projector and project your movie on your window as the trick or treaters come to the door, or on a manikin head, or on a balloon (see my other article “Scary Video Projections on Your Window”).

If you’re having a party inside, keep the lights down low and have the video playing in the background on your TV or projected on a wall. If your party is outside, there are inflatable screens you get buy or rent just for this purpose. Or, if you are a craftsman, make a frame and hang a cheap sheet of white, disposable vinyl table covering over it and project the image from the back!

And don’t forget, use your fog machine! Mix creepy with creepy and you get scary!!

Happy Haunting!

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