How to Make Spooky Renders for Halloween
Get ready for another onslaught
… of little kids dressed up with pumpkin heads, fake skulls, ghostly sheets, and Batman capes asking for candy. (If you want to really trick them, hand out chocolate covered raisins). If there’s any holiday besides Christmas that inspires loads of artwork online, it’s Halloween!
Fear and unease are emotions, and can be used to help further your story. Let’s break down what makes something scary, so that you can better use them in your own work.
Level 1: The Uncanny Valley
If you’ve been around the computer graphics industry, you will be very familiar with this phenomenon. Simply put, the uncanny valley is:
“a computer-generated figure or humanoid robot bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person viewing it.” ~Google Dictionary
Usually the uncanny valley is a problem for artists, but we can use it to our advantage when intentionally creating creepy art. A good example of this is the teddy bear from the game Five Nights at Freddie’s.
Teddy bears usually = good. However, teddy bears do not often have teeth, dark circles around their eyes, or are made out of plaster (which is not fun to cuddle with, by the way).
The juxtaposition of familiar and unfamiliar, or friendly and unfriendly, makes us feel uneasy. In the real world, this mechanism has helped humans to avoid diseased creatures and to pair up with more genetically healthy partners.
The core principal here is to create an object or scene that is really close to something that is thought of as good, but add some subtle attribute that contradicts that feeling.
Level 2: Surprise!
A common trope of the horror movie genre is the jump scare. It’s simply something unexpected that happens quite suddenly. It’s hard to put a jump scare into a still image, but it’s possible if you put the devil in the details (literally!). Perhaps make the scary element a bit harder to spot, so that the viewer gets a nice shock when they do find it.
Level 3: Creepy, Eerie, and Spooky
When something is creepy, it gives you a strong sense of unease. It’s similar to the uncanny valley in that something is not right, but this time there is a sense of real physical danger. It’s your brain telling you to get out of there now, before something bad happens.
There is nothing inherently dangerous about a skull. They sit in science classrooms all the time, and (as far as I know) have not suddenly attacked any students yet. So why would it be spooky to find one in the woods or in an abandoned house? It’s because the skull is no longer in a safe context.
We know the skull is not going to do anything to us on its own, but it implies that something around might cause us to become like the unfortunate owner.
“Alas, poor Yorick”
Level 4: Downright Terror
The very height of terror is knowing for a fact that you are in danger, and you need to get away right now. It’s all fun and games until some terrorist threatens to cut off your kneecaps.
Putting your relatable characters in real danger will make the viewers feel danger as well. It’s one way to get them intensely engaged in your story.
“Very intense movies do increase heart rate, and if you have coronary heart disease, (they) can increase chest pain and blood pressure”
~ Dr. George Bakris, hypertensive disease specialist
Putting it all together
For maximum effect, layer these together! In order to convey the feeling of horror, remember that you need to first give enough visual information. Without any detail or a compelling and relatable story, your viewer will feel disconnected from the artwork and not give it a second thought.
How NOT to make something scary
- Add excessive gore, torture, and violence. I draw the line far before that point, and do not recommend depicting anything explicit in your scenes. There is a time and place to put your characters in real danger, but there are better ways to tell a story than making me want to throw up for a week.
- Make everything too dark. It’s true that shadows can obscure details, and that harsh shadows and unusual lighting can make us uneasy. However, your Halloween render does not need to be impossible to see.
- Use too many clichés. It’s great to use common “horror” objects such a skulls, spiders, and eyeballs for fun, but don’t expect them to actually be frightening. We’re so used to seeing them this time of year that they’re not a big deal.