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Top 8 secrets of cheap sci-fi TV and movies


The future costs money. Lots of money. Yet people want sci-fi just enough to make it worth getting inventive with the budget...

If in doubt...see what's about...

Sci-fi in its purest form is a marginal genre, but paradoxically takes enormous investment to render on screen, either in movies or on TV. It's hard to make a living out of pure sci-fi, whether you're trying to make a film, a magazine or a website. It's hard to stay true.

Suddenly new sci-fi websites start covering superhero movies, 'wizard' franchises and general Hollywood gossip. Suddenly monsters and sexy scenes are the only way to unfreeze a producer's check-book. And since only the sexiest of 'A'-list actors can get a non-wizard, non-superhero SF film greenlit, either the VFX budget gets radically cut to compensate, or projects like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Inception and Avatar remain in the purview of that small band of directors who can get anything made.

Pure sci-fi, for all the devotion of we who love it, needs help paying the bills. Even arguably the best and most successful pure science-fiction movie of all time, 2001 didn't turn a profit for five years.

Those producers and artistes who can balance the moderate demand for sci-fi with the horrendous costs of creating new or future worlds, know all these tricks, and more...

A little goes a long way...1: Bring a small amount of costly sci-fi to the cheap, modern world

No way James Cameron could have afforded an entire movie set in a desolate and robot-strewn future back when he was trying to put Piranha II behind him, in 1984. Therefore 97% of The Terminator (1984) has no more on-screen actual sci-fi content in it than Bullitt. But you only have to convince the audience once, and when they've bought the sci-fi reality you're peddling, you're free to keep it 'cheap' afterwards. Therefore Cameron invested the vast majority of his VFX budget in the minimal scenes depicting life after judgement day, as remembered by Michael Biehn. At the finale, the final FX budget is spent in another rare splurge, as Fantasy II's stop-motion stripped-down Terminator pursues Sarah Connor. Cameron's own VFX background and nouse provided just enough future hardware for us to buy that something incredible was going on in modern-day L.A.

Likewise director Leonard Nimoy saved many a galactic credit by shooting the vast majority of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) in modern-day San Diego, helping to make this entry of the 'original cast' movies the most profitable and amongst the most popular.

In the world of TV, and returning to the Terminator franchise, The Sarah Connor Chronicles was able to leverage the same cheap dynamic as Cameron had in 1984, saving up the cents over long, talky episodes for big VFX splurges such as the 'reforming' of Cromartie after a nasty bathroom experiment.

As John Bensalhia's review of Doctor Who's 'The War Machines' points out, Who was to save a packet over the following several decades by abandoning the increasingly unpopular historicals and frequently unaffordable 'space' settings for the climes of modern-day London (or the countryside and quarries surrounding it) - which, despite the fact that he had all of time and space to play with, the Doctor felt strangely attracted to, since it was within 30 minutes of Ealing Studios and/or the BBC. When the Beeb moved its Who operations out to the hitherto unregarded Welsh city of Cardiff for various new Doctor Who outings (and for the spin-off Torchwood), it was a bit of a credibility reach: for decades, American audiences needed to see Big Ben etc. in order to feel that they were watching something with production value. But Cardiff is cheaper than London, so just bite it.

2: Tell, don't show. And tell a lot. In one place.

TV is in an even harder spot than movies as regards sci-fi, with its higher-pressure schedules and lower-budgets, but since TV reasons that sci-fi is about ideas, it tends to translate that notion into the convenient notion that describing what's too expensive to shoot is good enough.

Let's just stay here a while...

"It's generally safer and cheaper to 'stay on the bridge', or any other established set that cost more than $3 to make. This is arguably one of the reasons that so many of Captain Kirk's nemeses enjoyed taking over the Enterprise."

Therefore the standard procedure is to invest, once, in a costly set (and a few slightly less costly regular alternative sets) - to 'sell' the ambient reality of the sci-fi setting - and pretty much stay there, talking. And talking. And talking. There are a few shows in TV history, such as Monkey and UFO which invested an above-average amount of non-stock VFX in order to expand the limitations of regular locations or sets, but for the most part, the difference in investment between the expensive 'stock' sets of shows like Space:1999, Star Trek TNG, DS9 (etc.) and the 'one-off' sets cobbled together from carpenters' shavings and papier maché to accommodate individual episodes, is all too clear. It's generally safer and cheaper to 'stay on the bridge', or any other established set that cost more than $3 to make. This is arguably one of the reasons that so many of Captain Kirk's nemeses enjoyed taking over the Enterprise.

3: Improbably anthropomorphic aliens

Spot the difference

When you look at the sheer diversity of life on our own planet, the remarkable, the astounding difference between a man, a jellyfish, a peacock and a cockroach, you might expect to meet some pretty damn strange forms of life if you were to go travelling among the stars.

Generally, however, you meet a man in a rubber suit - and that's only if the production has lots of money to spend. More likely you meet someone with the odd extraneous bump on their face. To his credit, James Cameron is the only film-maker to date to give any real screen-time to alien creatures (in Avatar) whose eyes aren't exactly as far apart as ours are.

Once you do any research into what the chances of an M-Class planet (as Star Trek liked to call any of the many planets it found that conveniently mimicked Earth's pressure, gravity and ambient mix of atmospheric elements) occurring in the galaxy in the way that Earth happened to, the defence that evolution would be near-identical on similar worlds to ours pretty much falls apart - the more so when you consider the random elements that comet-falls and ice-ages bring into the mix (an increasingly embarrassing fact that Star Trek later retro-explained with its notion of 'galactic seeders').

"Here we're talking not about huge monsters that one needs to fight with anti-tank guns and space-ships, but actual characters who have dialogue and need to interact on a human level with the regular actors - so Harryhausen-style stop-motion techniques could never fill the gap credibly"

But, aside from those actors with dwarfism, gigantism or missing limbs - all of whom have been used to create slightly more off-beat aliens in movie and TV sci-fi over the years, actors come kind of human-shaped. To avoid the man-in-the-suit look for his xenomorph in Alien (1979), Ridley Scott experimented with acrobats combining together to create a non-anthropomorphic shape for Giger's nightmarish visions, but it just didn't work. In the end, he went for a man in a rubber suit (Balaji Badejo + a few stunt-men for certain acrobatic shots), and relied on the insectile head of Giger's design and a lot of mist, shadows and strobe lighting to hide the four-limbed nature of the creature.

Here we're talking not about huge monsters that one needs to fight with anti-tank guns and space-ships, but actual characters who have dialogue and need to interact on a human level with the regular actors - so Harryhausen-style stop-motion techniques could never fill the gap credibly. And whether James Cameron did so more successfully with the Na'avi in Avatar is a matter of conjecture.

4: Keep the sets dark

Tom Baker trying to spot the walls in 'The Brain Of Morbius'

What you can't see costs nothing. Among the greatest offenders in sci-fi TV over the decades who have used the no-walls approach to set-building are Lexx, classic Doctor Who and most especially 2008's attempt to bring Flash Gordon to TV. One can certainly argue that lighting just the centre of the 'set' focuses the action on the characters involved, but when it happens week after week, one has to smell a great big space-rat (off-screen, of course, as a big space-rat would cost a lot of money).

5: Invisibility is good

Again I say, what you can't see costs nothing. Or next to nothing. Even a pretty high-budget effort like Forbidden Planet (1956) saved more than a few bucks by having an invisible 'Id' monster. It's a hell of a lot cheaper to bend the rails the unseen creature is walking up, and show its footfalls making an impression on the soil of Altair than to face the problem of rendering a convincing 30-foot space-lion on screen. The Disney creature we finally glimpse under the assault of Leslie Nielson's lasers is actually a lot less effective.

"Look pained..." [Scanners, 1981]The sub-genre of sci-fi for which invisibility is most useful - and credible - is that which deals with telepathic or psychokinetic powers. Much as Cameron only needed to give us one good, expensive look at the burnt-out future of The Terminator, David Cronenberg reserved Dick Smith's make-up effects budget for two key scenes dovetailing Scanners (1981). Once we saw Michael Ironside blow up some guy's head with just the power of thought, we got it. What followed was a lot of relatively cheap location shooting in Canada and a pyrotechnic/prosthetic blow-out that left us with the impression that we had seen a great many special effects take place. Mostly what we had actually been looking at was a load of actors grimacing and a sound-editor working overtime.

The 1960s TV series The Champions made even cheaper use of this device, and beyond the editing techniques which imparted paranormal powers to our heroes, had nary a genuine piece of on-screen sci-fi in it.

Finally, the snail-brain creatures of Fiend Without A Face spend most of this UK/Canadian co-production in an invisible state, saving a lot of money on the stop-motion animation at the film's finale. Suspense is a good excuse in this case, however. Convenient, though.

6: The future is a shopping mall or an odd building/structure that already exists

Jenny Agutter does some shopping in Logan's Run (1976)From Things To Come (1936) and Metropolis (1927) onward, the form that great future civilisations will surely take has been based on the grandeur of ancient Rome, with vast and palatial spaces signifying an advanced culture. Not cheap. Since point #7 had not yet come into effect, MGM's Logan's Run (1976) had to turn to the very new phenomenon of shopping malls, in the form of the recently-opened Dallas Market Center, to find an environment suitably vast and futuristic. This prefigures George Romero's more metaphorical use of a shopping mall as a location three years later in Dawn Of The Dead (1979).

Though Paul Verhoeven shot Total Recall (1990) in Mexico City for financial reasons, he took advantage of the 'brutal' architecture of the city's underground centres and shopping markets to create the dehumanised world in which Quaid lives. A few futuristic signs, the odd scenic touch, and the future was there to be filmed.

Likewise Terry Nation's Blake's 7 (UK TV, 1977) used London's unusually industrial Greenwich tunnel to provide a suitably alien location in the 1981 episode 'Assassin', and the tunnel has been used on many other occasions for sci-fi and horror TV.

7: The future is the past

Because Retnox 5 just doesn' cut it...Period drama isn't cheap in itself, but once a producer has left a set behind from some historical epic (or props and related costumes), there's no reason why time-travel or general sci-fi drama can't make good use of it. Doctor Who was founded on the re-use of sets and costumes from the BBC's historical dramas, whilst numerous Star Trek episodes - notably 'A Piece Of The Action' - re-used the classic Paramount back-lot to create a planet which had conveniently mimicked Chicago of the 1920s.

What really changed everything, and gave SF producers almost unlimited licence to use and abuse this rule, was Ridley Scott's vision of the future 'Hades' city in Blade Runner (1982), and Nicholas Meyer's introduction of pre-20th Century antiques as valid SF prop dressing in the same year's Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan.

Scott 'retro-fitted' the classic Warner Bros. back-lot, the scene of many a gangster movie and other genres besides, with the help of futurist Syd Mead in order to create a future city that had effectively been built on top of a past city, a far cry from the concrete-obsessed raze-and-rebuild motif of nearly all previous sci-fi movies.

Meyer also suggested that what is a valuable antique now will still be a valuable antique in the future, mainly in the form of Kirk's birthday presents from Spock and Dr. McCoy - respectively, an antique copy of A Tale Of Two Cities and some classic reading spectacles. Thereafter every sci-fi TV series - most particularly TNG - seemed to have unlimited licence to raid dusty corners or their respective studios' prop departments, saving on all that nasty vacuum-forming and fabrication.

It was a fantastic (not to mention money-saving) conceit in Blade Runner, and a delightfully atavistic touch in Khan, but it got old in itself, as a penny-pinching exercise in SF outings.

8: Re-use, re-use, re-use…

Here we go! Again...

The original Battlestar Galactica (1978) was arguably the most notorious re-user of the VFX footage generated for the pilot episodes (and joined-together European theatrical release) throughout its short run. It seemed at several points that the writers were constrained to include space-action only insofar as there was already an existing VFX shot to cover it. Galactica's producer Glen A. Larson pulled the same trick the following year with Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, which was also stitched into a European release and which also endlessly re-used its own VFX footage.

Star Trek TOS was a similar culprit as regards shots of the Enterprise, but the writers had a little more liberty to invent VFX-laden sequences.

Any fan of British sci-fi will recognise that the desk-lamps of season 1 of Space:1999 cropped up in practically every space-set sci-fi show for fifteen years after the series was cancelled in 1976, much as anyone who has seen Gerry Anderson's movie Doppelganger (1969) will realise that half of SHADO's hardware in UFO (UK TV, 1970) comes from that film, along with a great many of the cast.

Aliens' LV421 colony processor set turns up in Tim Burton's Batman (1989), the PKE meters from Ghostbusters (1984) returned to service in John Carpenter's Prince Of Darkness (1987), Firefly used armour from Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers (1997), whilst the helmet from the same costume turns up resprayed in Tim Burton's Planet Of The Apes (2001); the flying machines from War Of The Worlds (1953) re-emerged as rather faster craft in the lower-budget Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)…ad nauseum.

And let's not even talk about Roger Corman.


Hollywood occasionally re-enamours itself of genuine sci-fi movies, as it briefly did in the 1990s. In such golden periods the vacuum-forming and original moulding of original pieces starts over, ready to produce another generation of artefacts for later, virtually budget-less SF movies to rent, steal or borrow when the superheroes and wizards (or whatever the next craze may be) return to rule the box office.

With Kubrick dead, Cameron recycling his own ideas (and others) in the Avatar franchise and Nolan's love of SF still in the balance according to the reception of this July's Inception, true lovers of sci-fi are still stuck with the same problem that true lovers of horror are not - it's extremely difficult to make a cult SF movie on pocket-money (and no, Dark Star wasn't nearly as cheap asThe Evil Dead). And it's not that easy even with the kind of coffer-draining resources that Kubrick was able to extract from MGM for 2001. Pure sci-fi is indeed the transaction of ideas - a realm in which Hollywood lets it stay for far too long a period at a time.

But at least there are producers out there trying, dammit, and I'm glad they are.

See also:

When CGI couldn't fix it...

Star Trek Remastered and the subtle art of CGI

Top 50 movies of the 1980s

Top 10 scenes of claustrophobic horror in the movies

The films of John Carpenter - in order of importance

Lists at Shadowlocked


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#1 RE: Top 8 secrets of cheap sci-fi TV and movies Carl S 2011-06-08 16:45
Good article, thanks for your insights.

If I taught film making, and there was a scene that involved some complex action, I might tell the students to not ask themselves 'how do I show this action?' but rather 'how do I convey this action?'. There are a variety of ways to tell a story, and a direct, literal approach may not be the best.

Even if I had 200 million dollars to spend on a movie I would not go nuts and try to spend as much of it as possible, which is sometimes how those movies come across. In the way that a good book works by relying on the reader's imagination, the 'less is more' approach works not because its economical but because it is actually more desirable.

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