Belief On The Big Screen: Secrets Of Special Effects A spaceship lands. Humans become avatars. A man in a cape can fly. Special effects have made movies magical for decades. NPR's Susan Stamberg goes backstage to learn how moviemakers frighten, fool and thrill the audience.

Belief On The Big Screen: Secrets Of Special Effects

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As any moviegoer knows, movies make magic - a spaceship lands, humans become avatars, a man in a cape flies. This Sunday, some of today's magicians will get Academy Awards.

NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg concludes her annual series, Hollywood Jobs, with a few creators of special effects.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Megabuck millions or ultra-low budget, the goal is the same: frighten, fool, or thrill your audience.


STAMBERG: Various special effects companies spent years making the magic for "Avatar." At Legacy Effects in the San Fernando Valley, about 120 people helped to create the look of an imaginary moon and its population. But in a cramped trailer in Van Nuys, only two guys are mixing up fake blood for a slasher scene.

STAMBERG: Sneak through here.

STAMBERG: The film is called "C.L.A.S.S." - stands for Criminal Law and Student Slayings. It is so low budget - $1 million - they're shooting in producer Sheldon Robins' aunt's house.

Robins puts much of his money on special effects makeup.

STAMBERG: The most important part was making sure my kills didn't look cheesy.

STAMBERG: Jerry Constantine will commit the makeup murders. He worked on the heavy-duty make-up film "Benjamin Button." Usually for bloody scenes Jerry attaches plastic tubing to the actor's back, and with a syringe fires fake blood through the tubing onto the screen, but not on this budget.

STAMBERG: They don't have time for the two-hour makeup for me to pull the actor, glue the appliance on, and then squirt the blood, and so we fake it out.

STAMBERG: Viewers will see the actor after the throat's been slit. Sorry, I know, breakfast time, but it's all make-believe, remember. Here's how it's done.

STAMBERG: We're going to actually use this one because we're going to cut the neck out of it.

STAMBERG: Jerry Constantine is snipping a super-thin piece of latex foam, trimming it to glue onto the actor's throat. Mike Measimer is Jerry's assistant.

STAMBERG: This piece is going to wrap all the way around. Yeah, this is going to work out perfect, Jerry.

STAMBERG: Of course.

STAMBERG: There's a horizontal slit in the foam piece. Jerry and Mike hold the thick skin against the actor's throat. The men work in tandem, surgeons in reverse.

STAMBERG: This is the clavicle.


STAMBERG: Jerry powders the line where the foam meets skin. With a sponge dipped in makeup, he dabs various pinks onto the fake flesh, then sprays on some freckles.


STAMBERG: Lean your head like that. Yeah.

STAMBERG: It's just incredible. I would swear that was fresh skin.

STAMBERG: Okay, are we about ready, Mike?

STAMBERG: Yeah, yeah. Just tilt your head back a bit.

STAMBERG: And now the slashing. Before it gets too terrible, we are going to cut away, as it were, to some of the special effects folks who worked on "Avatar." But we'll be back.

STAMBERG: There are some pieces from "Terminator Salvation," and this big guy over here is the Iron Monger from "Iron Man."

STAMBERG: John Rosengrant worked for the late special effects pioneer Stan Winston - "Jurassic Park," "Aliens" - for 25 years. The craft goes on at Rosengrant's company, Legacy Effects, where a big workroom is lined with specialty props from major action thrillers. Some outfits look like Transformers on steroids, pieces created by dozens and dozens of artisans.

STAMBERG: Sculptors, mold makers, painters, seamstress, wig makers - it take a huge group of people to make this stuff live.

STAMBERG: Movie magic.

STAMBERG: People are amazed when they look at Iron Man. It looks like it's hard shiny metal, but then if you touch the actual suit, in places it's actually rubber.

STAMBERG: Their challenge was to make the heavy armor light.

I didn't understand why that was so hard. Centuries ago knights wore shining armor and went to war. So if they could do it, why is it such a problem now?

STAMBERG: Well, actors don't want to - when you're wearing a hundred pound suit of armor, sweating, maybe they're cut out of a different cloth than those knights of yore.

STAMBERG: In "Avatar" the bad guy climbs into what looks like a tank with legs.

STAMBERG: That's the AMP suit, which is short for Armored Mobile Platform. It's like an Apache helicopter meets the power loader from "Aliens."

STAMBERG: Thirteen feet high and really menacing. On a more human scale, John Rosengrant and his team also created the prosthetic legs actor Sam Worthington wears before his character, Jake, leaves his wheelchair to become an avatar. They found a Sam-sized young man, whose paralysis didn't stop him from playing basketball, and made a cast of his legs.

STAMBERG: Finished them off in silicone and punched individual hairs into them, and those would get strapped onto Sam, and his legs would go down through the wheelchair.

STAMBERG: He was sitting in a special chair that had holes in the seat?

STAMBERG: That's right. But I think it was important to make sure that this was convincing, because it really sells the idea of Jake in his freedom as an avatar versus how he was trapped on Earth.

STAMBERG: Yes, I have some if you don't.


STAMBERG: Back in the make up trailer "Criminal Law and Student Slaying," special effects artiste Jerry Constantine is finishing his victim's look by creating what he delicately calls the meat - uglifying the wound he's made in the actor's throat.

STAMBERG: I'm going to add a little bit of glue here and then a little bit of cotton.

STAMBERG: Jerry pushes a strip of cotton dabbed with red food coloring in along the slit line, and then with a tiny spatula he applies what looks like raspberry jelly on top of the cotton, and ick - thickened blood.

STAMBERG: This is the fun part.

STAMBERG: Why is this fun?

STAMBERG: Because this is where it starts to come together and...

STAMBERG: I can't look at this anymore. I hate to tell you, Jerry...

Because it looks so real. The special make up effects are done. It's time to shoot, or slash.

STAMBERG: And action rehearsal.

STAMBERG: Mom. Bobby.

STAMBERG: Cut. Can't let you hear anymore. We took a secrecy oath. We promised not to give away any clues that could spoil your terror.

STAMBERG: Sixty-eight, blood, 69.

STAMBERG: In California, where killers and their victims can have dinner together after a long day's work, and extraterrestrials go home and do laundry...


STAMBERG: ...I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


INSKEEP: Just imagining Susan with her right hand raised taking that secrecy oath. Now, after you've finished your breakfast, after you've finished your breakfast, you can find a photo gallery of that gory neck gash and some specialty props from "Avatar," "Iron Man" and "Terminator," at

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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