1The pioneer illusionist/filmmaker who made detached heads sing
Let's go to pretty much the beginning of filmmaking for our first entry. Georges Méliès was one of the pioneers of early cinema. The French filmmaker was a director and an independent producer who used his skills as an illusionist and theater owner to create many techniques used in modern narrative filmmaking.
Méliès accidentally invented stop-motion photography and wowed audiences by being an innovator of early special effects including multiple exposures, split screens and dissolves and fades.
One of Méliès' most iconic films was the classic Voyage To the Moon, which famously showed a rocket ship landing in the Man on the Moon's eye. It is still one of the most indelible images in cinema history.
An earlier Méliès' film, Four Heads Are Better Than One (Un Homme De Tête), employs a pretty neat visual trick that is the beginning of what we now think of as green screen compositing. In this film, Méliès uses rudimentary mattes for multiple exposures. Watch below as the conjurer appears before the audience and takes his head off. He produces new heads that look like the original, and sings with them. But how does he do it?
The pioneering filmmaker combined different shots and elements into one image in a technique known as compositing. Méliès blacked out parts of the frame using a piece of glass with black paint. This “matte” made it so no light would reach the film—it wouldn't get exposed. Then, the director would rewind the film and matte out everything else, exposing only the part of the frame that was under the matte earlier. The resulting multiple exposure combined two or more different shots into one frame, and it was all done inside the camera. Voila! Four heads are now better than one!
2The 1970s TV superheroine with the tricked out bracelets
Wonder Woman is perhaps the most famous fictional female superhero. Her adventures have thrilled readers for over 70 years. Among her impressive arsenal to fight crime is her Lasso of Truth, her invisible airplane, her tiara (which is often used as a projectile), and her iconic bullet-deflecting bracelets.
For the Wonder Woman television series of the 1970s, the special effects team certainly displayed ingenuity when Lynda Carter, who played the Amazonian warrior, used her bracelets to shield herself.
Bullet explosions were controlled by Carter, using hidden buttons in her hands. In her DVD commentary for the pilot, she explained the stunt bracelets were wired with three charges each. The wires went from the bracelets on her inner wrists up to the palms of her hands. She held the three-button detonator in each fist.
Carter explained that she could “fire them depending on which arm was taking the shot. It was pretty ingenious.”
The equipment that the actress used was invisible to the viewing audience most of the time. However, if you look closely in the first episode of the TV series when Wonder Woman fires and hits her opponent the wired remote that controls her bracelet sparks can be seen.
3The film legend's impressive roller skating optical illusion
Charlie Chaplin's many contributions to the world of cinema cannot be overestimated. In addition to giving us The Tramp, Chaplin was a pioneer and genius in virtually all aspects of filmmaking. He produced, directed, wrote, scored, edited and cast many of the movies he starred in.
Though Chaplin is of the silent movie era, we see his achievements carried through in the films of today. In The Immigrant, Charlie's boat is rocking from side to side, and he slides with it when it starts to rock. In reality, the boat is not rocking at all. The camera is simply on a pivot tilting from side to side. To get the effect that Charlie is sliding, he had to move the opposite direction of the camera.
One of Chaplin's coolest celluloid feats occurs in his 1936 classic, Modern Times. The Tramp skates blindfolded around the fourth floor of a department store, rolling ever closer to the edge of a balcony with no rails. This illusion was created with a technique called a “glass shot.” The department store's lower floors were painted on a pane of glass, placed in front of the camera and perfectly aligned with the real setting, creating a seamless illusion that Charlie is nervously close to falling several floors below.
4The breakfast created to look like the sun in an iconic TV series
Star Trek was pretty groundbreaking in achieving sci-fi special effects for a television program. And thanks to Trekkie Tom Redlaw, fans can fully appreciate the skill and hard work that it took to make the show come to life. He started buying 35mm film clips of the show, which were available at conventions and through Lincoln Enterprises, a mail order company run by Gene Roddenberry and Majel Barret. They showed everything from the general day-to-day work by the production staff, to outtakes and, most importantly, how the special effects were composed.
For example, color filters were used over the camera lens to give the impression that the Enterprise was visiting different planets. In reality, the same planet was used repeatedly and appears several times in the first episode. In “The Carbomite Maneuver,” a distorted, psychedelic image of an evil alien was shown on the bridge's main viewing screen. The special effects team ran rippled glass that was being moved continuously through the viewfinder of an optical printer to achieve this effect.
You be the judge if the team got lazier or more creative when the starship Enterprise rode again in the series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. For the episode “Redemption II,” dried oatmeal was used by special effects artist Dan Curry to create the illusion of the surface of the sun. The oatmeal was sprinkled on a light table near where and electric motor was placed to make it vibrate and give the "sun" its "sizzle." The oatmeal was then wrapped in an electronic device over an imaginary, or virtual sphere, and then tinted orange. Faster than you can say “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” you've got an instant sun.
5The legendary actor who was the “Man of a Thousand Faces”
Horror acting legend Lon Chaney, Sr. was nicknamed “The Man of a Thousand Faces” for good reason. Chaney would go to any painful length to become the character he was portraying and was virtually unrecognizable from one film to the next.
The son of deaf mutes, Chaney achieved his stardom the old-fashioned way—through talent, determination, and hard work.
Chaney would completely physically transform himself to portray a character. One of the earliest examples of his incredible transformations was in The Penalty (1920) in which he was cast as a legless criminal. The director, Wallace Worsley, wanted to use trick camera angles, but Chaney designed a leather harness that bound the calves of his legs against his thighs, and he walked on his knees.
For his role in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Chaney followed Victor Hugo's description of Quasimodo to the letter, by wearing a rubber hump weighing 70 lbs attached to a leather harness. This was connected to a large breastplate and pads similar to those worn by football players. In costume, Chaney was unable to stand erect. Over all of this, he wore a skin-tight, flesh-colored rubber suit covered with animal hair. The heat inside the costume was almost unbearable, and he was perpetually drenched with perspiration.
As hard as it was to portray Quasimodo, it was Chaney's (arguably) most famous role as the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera that caused the most pain for the master filmmaker.
In Phantom, Chaney pinned his nose up with wire (to create a skull-like appearance) and wore a set of extremely uncomfortable dentures to portray the deformed title character. His sympathetic performance in the film was masterful, but in the end it was that horrific makeup—particularly as shock-revealed in the famous “unmasking scene”—that cemented The Phantom as his most memorable role. It is said that his appearance made filmgoers faint in their seats.
By the late '20s, the years of abuse to his body took a toll on the horror legend. He said, "I can't play these crippled roles anymore. That trouble with my spine is worse every time I do one, and it's beginning to worry me."
Chaney died of throat cancer in 1930 at age 47.
6The actor who stuck his hand in mercury for a scene
In Jean Cocteau's 1950 film Orpheus, the famous poet Orpheus (played by Cocteau's partner Jean Marais) sees another young poet, Jacques Cegeste, killed by two leather-clad motorcyclists. A mysterious woman (the Princess) asks him to accompany her as a witness to the incident. They drive away in her ominous black limo with the body of Cegeste. The woman turns out to be Death—she takes Orpheus, a reanimated Cegeste and the motorcyclists to the underworld through mirrors, which are gateways between this world and the next.
In one scene, Orpheus sticks his hand into the mirror, creating a rippling effect as it passes through. The “mirror” in question was not a reflective piece of glass, but a vat of mercury. The protective gloves Jean Marais wore in the film were incorporated as “magic gloves” in the story.
Needless to say, kids, do NOT try this at home!
7How an eyeball was sliced in a surrealistic masterpiece
One of the most bizarre films ever committed to celluloid was Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), created by surrealists Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali in 1928. Only 16 minutes long, Un Chien Andalou contains some of the most bizarre and disturbing images ever put on film. Among the scenes are images of a man dragging a grand piano with dead donkeys piled on top, and a hand crawling with ants. But the most cringe-worthy moment in the film is the famous scene in which a woman has her eye sliced with a razor.
While that was indeed a real eyeball being sliced in the film, it didn't belong to a human. It was a calf's eye substituted for the woman's.
If you're looking for deeper meaning in the film, don't expect to find it. The surrealists made the film with no meaning intended which later suited rock legend David Bowie just fine—he used it in performances on his 1976 Station To Station tour. As Buñuel said, "We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why."
8The various substances that are used for cocaine in the movies
Ever wonder what actors are snorting in films instead of cocaine? Filmmakers use various substances that look like the powdered drug, but most of them are harmless things found in an average kitchen cabinet—powdered sugar, powdered milk and cornstarch are commonly used, as well as baking soda, which was piled in front of Tony Montana in Scarface.
The powder that Johnny Depp snorted in the 2001 film Blow caused him a great deal of discomfort on the set. Not only did it make his nose run, but as the director, Ted Demme, later told the press, "it had some disastrous effects on his digestive system because it was powdered baby laxative."
Demme had traces of real cocaine found in his system post mortem. Perhaps he should have used baby laxative powder too.
9The sex toys that were used to represent parasitic worms
Effects artists are always looking for new ways to make their manufactured creatures come to life. Todd Masters and crew discovered sex toys would be perfect for creating thousands of parasitic worms needed in the 2006 horror film Slither.
The crew used so many of the synthetic penises and vaginas that they drained the global supply of the material used to make them. During filming, the crew had had crates of sex toys shipped in to be melted down. Masters said that he was walking into his shop one day when he saw “a couple of tables filled with sex toys, and people were cutting them into chunks we could melt down.”
10The special effects team who made a famous Japanese monster come to life
The people who work for the Toho Company in Japan take great pride in their greatest creation: Godzilla. No detail is too small for the special effects team that work on the series of films starring Japan's most famous creature.
The team prepares a picture continuity for each cut. A picture continuity is like a pictorial script, showing what appears where, and where the camera is positioned. The filmmakers use this picture continuity in deciding which filming methods to use.
Almost all the shooting takes place inside the studio, where the filmmakers can create and manipulate a variety of artificial environments that are not affected by natural conditions such as light changes, wind, or rain. But scenes in which the monsters are viewed from below are shot outdoors, where there are no height limitations and where the real sky can be used as a background. Scenes with an element of danger, such as big explosions, are also shot outdoors.
Godzilla is 60 meters (197 feet) tall, but in real life, the monster is only 2.2 meters (about 7 feet) in height. The crew makes tiny cities with the most incredible detail for the guy dressed in the monster suit to destroy. In the past, electrical towers that Godzilla melted with his radioactive breath were made of wax. The special effects crew melted them by blowing hot air on them, as well as shining studio lights on them for the white-hot effect.
Over the years, the sounds Godzilla makes have also been created in many unconventional ways. Akira Ifukube came up with the monster's roars by rubbing a coarse, resin-coated leather glove up and down the strings of a standup bass and reverberated the recorded sound. Also, Godzilla's thunderous footsteps were made by beating a kettle drum with a knotted rope.
Long live Gojira!