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The fine art of faking monsters in the movies

Posted in America, Cinema, Historical articles on Monday, 17 December 2012

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This edited article about cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 799 published on 7th May 1977.

Film still with special effects, picture, image, illustration

The cavemen are actors, the dinosaur is a model, the volcano is fake in this scene from a Hollywood film by Gerry Wood

With incredible gentleness for so vast a creature, the monster plucked the girl from the sacrificial altar on which she had been placed by a band of frightened tribesmen, and held her in its great hands.

Shouting, screaming and pummelling were of no avail. In any case, the monster intended her no harm. Its eyes glared at her intently and its nostrils quivered.

What manner of maiden was this? Or, more to the point, what manner of monster was this?

Filmgoers who have seen the new version of “King Kong” have found out the answer to this. King Kong is a film in which the makers have created an enormous ape which terrifies all who see it.

In addition to the monster, trick photography was needed to lend realism to the scenes in which the monster appears with humans.

Making King Kong was a mammoth undertaking. For his skeleton, metal – mostly aluminium – was used. So that he would be able to walk, turn at the waist and move his arms into 16 different positions, tremendous lengths of hydraulic hose and electrical wires ran through his body like arteries and veins.

For his fur, the makers obtained thousands of horse tails from Argentina. The hair from these was woven by a hundred people into netting panels which were glued on to latex and then stuck to a plastic mould that covered the monster’s metal frame.

The finished product was a mighty, terrifying monster nearly as tall as seven men. Colossal scenery had to be built to accommodate the outsize “actor”. One example of this was a huge wall from which Kong snatched a girl who was placed there as a sacrifice to him.

But for other scenes, King Kong, or the parts of him that were required, such as his hands, were photographed against a blue screen in the studio. Following a complex series of laboratory printing operations, a film was produced in which the blue backing was shown as clear film with the foreground action as an opaque silhouette.

An optical printer of the type described last week was then used to combine the foreground movement with a background scene, such as a jungle in the case of “King Kong”. The result was a convincing and realistic marriage between the background and foreground so that they appeared as one.

With the aid of methods like these, King Kong’s dismembered hands can be filmed in the foreground with his head in the background, so that he really appears to be holding something in his hands and looking at it.

Equally as terrifying as King Kong and just as horrific was the shark in “Jaws” whose part was played by a real shark in some scenes and by three different mechanical sharks in others. One could only be filmed from the right because its machinery was exposed on the left. Another had its working parts exposed on the left and could only be filmed from the opposite side, while a third model was a complete shark that was towed behind a boat and used for overhead shots.

This was the simplest of the three. The others were packed with hydraulic, pneumatic and electronic equipment.

Each was attached by a boom to a sunken platform. Worked by remote control, the boom – or arm – gave the shark movement, raising it to the sea’s surface, as well as causing it to sail out of the water and to dive back into it when required.

Tubular steel was used for the backbones of these mechanical monsters. Inside each shark was a vast quantity of plastic tubing, plus 25 valves operated by remote control and 20 electric cables and pneumatic hoses which powered the varied moving parts including the ferocious jaws.

Indeed, these jaws were so awesome that each shark was fitted with two sets of teeth. One set was made of plastic so that they looked like the real thing. Another set was moulded in rubber to enable the stunt men who were attacked by the whale to remain alive for the next take.

Because they were almost always under water, the mechanical whales needed a lot of maintenance. The sea water rusted the metal parts and repairs were frequently needed. And a new plastic outer skin was required each week because of the bleaching power of the sun and salt water.

Monsters of many frightening kinds have been created for films. Among these was a horrific sea monster which was seen in “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”. This monster was part-fish and part-reptile and the size of a man. Its costume was worn by a skilled swimmer who was able to stay under water for five minutes without breathing.

Tricks like these enable the film makers to bring our fantasies alive and create for us an amazing world in which the impossible becomes vividly possible!

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