When I was a kid, I wanted to be a special effects guy. This was after it had finally sunk in that being an archaeologist did not mean I’d get to watch a Tyrannosaurus fight a Triceratops. So, ‘special effects guy’ it would be. And if I couldn’t be Ray Harryhausen, then I’d settle for being one of those guys with a beard and sneakers tinkering with cool stuff in a cavernous workshop out in the suburbs. I’d seen them at it on those behind-the-scenes documentaries they used to air on bank holiday weekends and always seemed to open with some dashing American voiceover that intoned, ‘WE TAKE YOU BEHIND THE MAGIC…’ But alas, it turned out special effects guys needed to know loads of boring practical stuff like carpentry, electronics, mathematics and wotnot. (I’m pretty sure that my perception of a career in special effects before then was that it might involve test-driving an X-Wing or running around dressed as Predator.) But special effects continue to fascinate me, especially how certain creations seem to generate an eerie post-movie life of their own.
Years ago, I had my heart quietly broken during a visit to a Ray Harryhausen exhibition at the now-defunct Museum of the Moving Image. I got to see the stop-motion models that had played some of my favourite movie monsters, the grinning skeleton warriors from Jason And The Argonauts, and six-armed Kali– the animated statue from Golden Voyage Of Sinbad. But it turned out even monsters of legend suffer the pangs of mortality. Their joints were cracked, their limbs crumbled, patches of latex flesh had decayed entirely revealing the metal armatures beneath. I recall the gorilla model Harryhausen used for 1949’s Mighty Joe Young had crumbled into an unrecognisable green stump. It was like watching faerie gold turn to rocks upon contact with the real world.
Now here’s where life as a retired special effect gets a little ‘Toy Story’. If you’re lucky, someone may devote time and money to restoring you. Check out the kind of four-star facelift received by the Skeksis – the vulture-like villains of Jim Henson’s soulful epic fantasy The Dark Crystal…
Or maybe some nostalgic old buff will put you on display in his basement museum. Just look at where ‘Oscar’ – the eponymous lycanthrope from An American Werewolf In London – ended up…
But the fate of such creations is usually far more ignominious. Once the movie’s in the can most special effects can expect to be either cannibalised for spare parts or ruthlessly tossed into a skip. Then again, they may end up decorating a California junkyard, like ‘Bruce’, the famously obstinate mechanical shark from Jaws…
“Jaws terrified me so much as a kid that one important fact didn't immediately occur to me: The shark was fake.
In Hunting Bruce, or, on the trail of the Jaws shark, an article for radio syndicate NPR, journalist Cory Turner describes how his lifelong fascination with the movie’s special effects star led him to the heartbreaking discovery that the three Bruces used in the picture had been left
to rot in the Universal backlot. Or had they…
This article illuminates that weird intersection between screen fantasy and special effects reality much better than this rambling blog post, so check it out.
Weirdly, my discovery of this article and my current nostalgic funk for special effects coincides with the depressing news that major VFX house Rhythm & Hues filed for bankruptcy a week before it won an Oscar for its dazzling work on Life Of Pi. Prompted by Rhythm & Hues going bust, many VFX artists protested outside the Oscars venue, trying to draw attention to the fact that their industry currently labours under a unfavourable business model.
Here’s a news piece by Variety that highlights some of the key issues.