More Real Than Reality
by Mike Dilley
In 1967 moviegoers were stunned by special effects when Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down by authorities lying in wait. Bonnie, played by Faye Dunaway, jerked and tossed violently as she was sprayed with bullets. Wounds opened and blood shot from her body.
Her dress was rigged with 50 or more "hits", small charges combined with fake blood. Her face was made up with four or five bullet holes, black centers surrounded with a red wound. Each bullet hole was hidden behind a flesh colored wax cover that was pulled off by thin wires as the scene progressed. Likewise, other special effects personnel detonated the hits concealed in her dress with electrical switches in the desired sequence.
Arthur Penn shot the scene in slow motion. The very real looking special effects were hand crafted and filmed live. Dunaway played her part well.
Her ankle was tethered to the gear shift to keep her from falling completely out of the car. At the end of filming, all that remained was for the sound of gunfire to be added.
Special effects have been drawing audiences to the movies since the invention of the motion picture camera. Edison stopped the camera and substituted a dummy for the real actress in his "The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots" (1893). The film, running under one minute, treated the audience to a gruesome beheading.
A Parisian magician named George Méliès, hoping to use moving pictures in his show, had his camera jam while filming one day. In the process of clearing the jam, he backed up the film in the camera creating the first "dissolve." It was 1896 and quickly realizing the value of his discovery he set about making films with a full range of effects that could be created in the camera.
Méliès soon begun to use flash powder and smoke effects. He couldn't keep up with the demand. In 1900 his studio was producing a film a week.
By 1917 Mack Sennett had added slapstick to the menu of special effects. Keystone cops drove through brick walls and custard pie was served on the set full face C berries and whipped cream later become a photogenic favorite of the cast and crew.
Following WW I the "powder men" reigned supreme as war movies attracted huge audiences. They were joined by ex-army pilots seeking a continuing source of dogfights.
Gangster movies created a demand for specialty armament and related effects of the era. In the beginning, bullet strikes were the real thing, fired near actors by sharpshooters. Someone later came up with using slingshots to fire pieces chalk to simulate bullets ricocheting off rocks in westerns.
Custom pellet guns designed to shoot large gelatin capsules are in use today. The gelatin capsules are filled with whatever material is needed to create the desired effect. Vaseline is commonly used to create more real than real bullets breaking windows or piercing car bodies. Included in the capsule is a black dot that will be stuck to the surface of the target by the Vaseline to simulate a hole. Other materials are added to heighten the effect as needed.
There were no guide wires used in the 1938 version of "Robin Hood." Those were real arrows being shot at actors.
Guide wires allow arrows and knives to be launched down a piano wire to the target actor with precision. The wire, firmly attached under clothing worn by the actor, is passed through the hollow shaft of a specially made arrow or knife. It is then passed through a grommet in the center of a sling shot "basket" used to propel the weapon on its mission. Tension on the wire is maintained out of camera range by an elastic shock cord or a fishing pole where wire must be played out as the action moves. A blood sack can be rigged to break when the arrow or knife reaches its target.
Effects specialist Mike Sullivan states that in a episode of the television series "Airwolf," the script called for an oil well to be set ablaze. Six-thousand gallons of diesel fuel and 2,000 gallons of propane were pumped through a nozzle creating flame and smoke towering well over 100 feet.
Painting scenes with explosions requires the right sandwich of explosives, fullers earth, cement, chalk, and mulch. The mulch provides debris, fullers earth and chalk provide a bouquet of black and white dust and smoke, and finally the cement produces trailers that streak from the explosion.
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