World VFX Day - Tom Salinsky
Friday 8 December 2023, by
Happy World VFX Day! There’s nothing more special than special effects.
Whether digital or practical, special effects are created by a highly skilled, specialised labour force and have created some of cinema’s most captivating images (that’s why we insist on calling them SPECIAL effects). In support of the effects industry and to celebrate the first World VFX day we spoke with a random collection of people who work in and/or love sfx and asked them to share some of their favourite sequences.
Writer and podcaster Tom Salinsky spoke with us about puppet plant life in Little Shop of Horrors, stepping into the Technicolour world of Oz in The Wizard of Oz and the massive hole in Goldie Hawn’s torso in Death Becomes Her.
Little Shop of Horrors - Audrey II grows in its coffee can (Dir. Frank Oz, 1986)
Associates & Ferren
This film takes place in a heightened reality. You have to believe not just that people burst into song but that there’s a plant that lives on blood. This is a turning point in the plot where Rick Moranis’s character starts wondering what kind of plant this is. It’s a crucial moment and they take their time over it. She snaps at him and he begins to figure her out – it’s the first time that Audrey II becomes a character. She starts growing and it looks like she physically swells. To get the effect they took a larger puppet from a following scene which was twice the size and slid it toward the camera. This effect is so easy and so brilliant. Some people don’t want to know how this kind of magic is done, but it never spoils my enjoyment. Nothing diminishes how joyful this film is for me, no matter how much I know about how it was made.
The Wizard Of Oz – Dorothy enters Oz (Dir. Victor Fleming, 1939)
This scene is also a turning point in the film and the execution is simpler than you might imagine. The first 20 minutes or so are set in the sepia world of Kansas and then there’s all the tornado craziness and then it all stops. Dorothy has been living in this drab world dreaming of travelling over the rainbow and here she enters the most colourful world you can imagine. Making that transition with a cut would have been unsatisfying. Instead, they filmed the scene with a colour camera, painted the inside of the house grey and had a stand in for Judy Garland wearing a grey dress. The stand in opens the door and then, seamlessly, Judy Garland in her blue and white dress walks through it and we move with her out into the Technicolour world. As a technique it’s akin to the cowboy switch where a stunt actor ducks out of sight and the real actor pops up in their place. What’s most powerful with special effects is when they serve the plot, they’re a magic trick in service of the story and that’s what happens here.
Death Becomes Her – Goldie Hawn gets out of the pool (Dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1992)
The reason I picked the pool scene rather than Meryl Streep’s backwards head is that you can see how hard the head effect is to pull off, but Goldie Hawn’s hole in her torso has an ease to it despite being so technically difficult. They created a CG hole which was mapped onto her and then a dummy torso for the water to pour out of and stitched it all together seamlessly which is really impressive given the technology was so new – this is 1992 when digital effects were being used in a naturalistic way for the first time. Some effects are just spectacles to show off the technology – they’re divorced from the plot but here the story, effects and the comedy all come together. This is a black comedy and the tone is crucial – you need to believe in their suffering but still find it funny. Her injury had to have a cartoonish element but it also needed to be an extreme injury and a round hole in the stomach is perfect – it’s extreme enough but not too gory. They included shots of her body that they didn’t need to, but it’s not gratuitous, it adds the to the scene by continually reminding you she has suffered what should be a fatal injury, but which mysteriously isn’t.
Tom Salinsky co-hosts the film podcast Best Pick, find episodes and more here https://bestpickpod.com
World VFX day is an annual day of recognition in celebration of the vfx industry (and the often invisible labour of vfx workers) started by a collective of visual effects studios. Anyone in or outside the industry are encouraged to take part. Sign up to the ‘World VFX Day’ newsletter for the latest news and events: https://mailchi.mp/651b2a6c2ad9/world-vfx-day