Video Special Effects on a Budget

Want to add special effects to your videos but don’t want to spend a fortune? You may be surprised to learn that it can be affordable if you’re up for trying some unconventional approaches. Below, we’ve detailed a project where we created an invisible whiteboard.

We’re fortunate to work with some really wonderful people. One of our favorites is Dr. Woodie Flowers, emeritus professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. If his name sounds familiar, he was the original host of the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers.

We’ve created many videos with the professor and each one has had a unique set of challenges. The most common hurdle is that the projects frequently have very limited budgets. In 2011, Duchin Productions was faced with the most challenging production of all: Woodie wanted to create the illusion of writing on an invisible white board. After hearing the idea, we couldn’t wait to get started! Many know that Duchin Productions’ owner Jay Duchin is an avid inventor with an extensive workshop, so challenges like this are right up his alley.

Build an invisible white board
Make it easily erasable
Make it transportable and quick to assemble
Make it safe
And above all, don’t spend a lot of money.

Challenge # 1: Glass
We tested an array of clear materials for this shoot but in the end, plate glass was the winner. The downside to using glass is it streaks, scratches, flexes, reflects and can break. We had to use a piece big enough to fit the effect yet not be so large we couldn’t move it. A 4×8’ sheet of plate glass was ordered and it weighed in at just over 100 lbs. Jay set out to build a custom rig to safely hold the glass yet allow it to be adjustable in both height for the camera shot and angle to control any lighting reflections. A wooden frame was made that could be assembled on-site making it easier to transport. If the glass fit was too tight, it could easily crack the glass so an internal foam border was added to allow the sheet to freely move without being stressed by the structure. Jay also designed and welded a pair of steel brackets to work with off-the-shelf grip hardware.

Challenge 2: The writing
Dr. Flowers had a lot of information to write with his presentation and from an editing standpoint, we wanted him to be able to do it in one long take. Writing cleanly and clearly on a chalkboard is hard enough and Woodie wanted things to be clean and neat. He came up with an amazing approach. He started out making a sheet of paper the same size as the glass and wrote all his notes on it. The paper was then rolled out and taped to the glass. Woodie then used a thin, permanent silver marker to lightly trace out all his notes on the camera side of the glass. When it came time to shoot, he would be tracing the silver writing with a black marker from the opposite side of the glass. We did some early testing and quickly learned traditional dry erase makers didn’t work well or produce a thick enough line on the glass. Woodie ended up using an extra large permanent maker with the tip chiseled down to produce just the right line thickness. The script called for sections of the writing to be erased on-camera so we also tested an array of cleaning products and solvents that easily wipe off the permanent marker. We didn’t want to scratch the glass with an abrasive or have a toxic solvent drip on the floor. The last problem was everything written on the glass showed up in reverse to the camera. Our solution was to simply flip the entire piece in the edit suite.

Challenge 3: The Script
Normally we would use a Teleprompter for long reads to camera. Since we were shooting directly into glass, the prompter screen would be an obvious reflection. Woodie knew his presentation really well but still needed help knowing which segments were coming next. Woodie wore an ear prompter (also called an IFB) that allowed our client, Steve Sargent of Sargent Production Services, to speak clues into Woodie’s ear so he would know the next segment he had to cover.

Check out the finished video to see how it all came together. In some segments, you can see the silver maker but when you consider we had a very limited budget, had to shoot it all in one day and couldn’t use a Teleprompter, we were all really pleased with the results.

The next time you have a creative idea for a video but you think it would be too expensive for your budget, call us first. We’ve got a few more tricks up our sleeve.

Here’s the final product:

Steve Sargent (left) and Jesse Hubbel moving the glass and frame to the shooting location.



Everyone jumps in between takes to help clean marker off the glass.



Steve Sargent (left) and Woodie Flowers working on some last minute script details