7 Famous Props & SFX (That Were Just Household Items)
For movie audiences, "cheap" has become a synonym for "bad." If you read about a sci-fi action flick made for less than what you paid for your car, you'd assume it looks like a high school drama club production that a Baldwin brother wandered into. But if they spent more than Micronesia's GDP on one film? Shit yeah, sign us up!
That's why it's ironic that some of the coolest special effects in famous big-budget Hollywood movies were done with stuff you could go out and buy right now (without going bankrupt, we mean). For instance ...
The T-Rex Walk From Jurassic Park Was A Plucked Guitar String
What makes the original Jurassic Park so freakin' great is the incredible level of effort and attention to detail that went into the visual effects. Steven Spielberg filmed most of it with animatronic dinosaurs, puppets, and Jeff Goldblum's actual chest hair, relying on CGI a mere five times to continue and improve upon his legacy of scaring the hell out of children for huge sacks of money.
It's thanks to that attention to detail that Spielberg and crew managed to turn a shot of a plastic cup into one of the most ominous and memorable moments in movie history. We're talking about the iconic scene in which the cup of water in the jeep ripples, signaling to the audience that it's time to clench up, because Big Mama T-Rex is about to stealth-stomp her way out of a nearby thicket of trees and eat someone whose name didn't receive top billing.
These cups have more personality than Jurassic World's leads.
Turns out that this effect owes everything to the sick bass line of '70s pop supergroup Earth, Wind and Fire. The story goes like this: Spielberg was driving along in his car one day, grooving to a tasty jam, when he noticed that his rear view mirror was vibrating with the bass. Because Spielberg is Spielberg, he thought, "Hey, this would be a great way to let people know a big-ass monster is coming." Blasting "Shining Star" at full volume next to a glass of water wouldn't cut it, though -- they tried that. In fact, hey tried various methods and talked to different sound experts, but nothing could get the perfectly circular ripples Spielberg was looking for. Even Kubrick would have said, "Bro, it's just a water cup. Let it go."
Or, alternatively, terrorized the water until it reacted accordingly.
Michael Lantieri, head of special dinosaur effects, eventually noodled around on his guitar until he figured out the precise note necessary to make the water ripple. That's right: While actors were doing their best to look scared beyond all rational thought in the heart-pounding T-Rex scene, there was a guy lying under the jeep, strumming a guitar string over and over. That's acting.
The T-1000 In Terminator 2 Was Mercury And A Hairdryer
As a result of a long-running interdimensional pay dispute between James Cameron and The Singularity, Terminator 2 wasn't able to feature real killer liquid metal robots from the future, as the storyline demanded. So, as we've previously covered, they had to make do with the next-best thing: a shitload of terrifying models and animatronics, and surprisingly little CGI.
And an off-screen existential crisis by Robert Patrick.
We've already mentioned how the "opening up Arnie's head" moment was done with Linda Hamilton's twin sister and a faked mirror -- but even by those standards, the famous foundry scene at the end was impressively low-tech. Remember when the T-1000 explodes into pieces of liquid metal, only for the droplets to start converging into the stern-faced embodiment of the phrase "smug dickhead"?
Ah, this is where the T-1000 merges with Saddam Hussein's dog, right?
It's easily one of the most gut-wrenching, hope-sucking scenes in the movie, and totally embodies how unbelievably impossible this whole "killing murderbots from the future" thing really is. And all it took in reality was a blow-dryer and a beaker of mercury. What you're seeing above is a rewound shot of a pool of mercury being blown outwards by the dryer. Here's the same shot, but how it would have originally looked while being filmed:
".kcab eb ll'I"
We don't know what health and safety standards were like back in the early '90s, but we'd argue that splashing a quart of mercury around the set would have been more dangerous than anything we saw in the movie. It's certainly more dangerous than the pool of molten steel that's present in pretty much every shot -- in reality, it's a mixture of oil and sugar. On the plus side, this made the pool shine with the intensity of a thousand burning suns. On the down side, it kinda makes Robert Patrick look like he's having a major sugar rush in his dying moments.
Or like he disobeyed Willy Wonka's orders during the factory tour.
Michael Myers Is Wearing A Captain Kirk Mask In Halloween
Like all the most famous cinematic monsters (Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Larry the Cable Guy, etc.), Michael Myers from the Halloween series has a signature look that makes him impossible to miss. He shambles around in filthy coveralls, brandishing a kitchen knife he randomly picked up and decided to keep, which is unsettling enough on its own. And, oh yeah, there's that creepy-as-hell white mask he wears.
Frozen and expressionless, Myers' mask is easily as disturbing as Freddy's fucked-up face. There's a rule in horror film (and in life): The scariest monsters are the ones that look almost human, but ... off. In that case, that we've collectively deemed this guy one of the most terrifying monsters ever should probably offend William Shatner, since that's his freaking face.
While filming the original series of Star Trek, Shatne's face was put in a mold so that the effects guys could create a death mask of Captain Kirk. Somehow, the mask ended up in stores as a quirky piece of Star Trek merch for, of course, Halloween. (And yes, Shatner has gone trick-or-treating wearing his own mask.)
We'll refrain from speculating what else he's done with (or to) that mask.
Production designers for Halloween landed on the Shatner death mask for one basic reason: It just looked creepy. They simply painted it, widened the eyeholes, messed up the hair, and boom -- instant terror. They didn't even know what they really had until an illustrator for Halloween 2 checked the brand on the neck so he could order more of them, and the company told him, "It's our Captain Kirk mask." The company gave the filmmakers free masks in exchange for credit, but really, it's Mrs. Shatner who should be acknowledged here.
And Shatner's impressive range of expressions, perfectly captured above.
Star Trek's Skydiving Scene Was All Mirrors And Fans
In 2009, J.J. Abrams made a Fast & Furious movie in space and called it a Star Trek reboot. Featuring a bad-boy Captain Kirk, a weirdly moody Spock, and lots and lots of stunts, this movie gave us an incredible chance to see what it would be like to do our very own space-jump.
They edited out the constant sound of Kirk's exploding sphincter.
Achieving this was not as easy as one might think in this age of actors working more closely with green screens than each other. When Abrams tried to create the skydiving scene with CGI by suspending Kirk and Sulu upside-down for hours in front of a green screen, things got understandably miserable very quickly. It's not fun or easy to do anything upside-down for long stretches, although we imagine it helped the actors mime the inner "This suuuuuuuuucks!" gold needed to make the scene convincing. Regular skydivers fall at a face-stretching 120-ish mph (200 mph if they go headfirst like Kirk), and although it's a blast if you like rocketing toward the ground with nothing but a big piece of silk to stop you from becoming one with the earth, no part of that is in any way comfortable. (Trust us, half of this article's authors have tried it.)
Clearly, throwing Chris Pine, John Cho, and Other Dude Who Dies out of an airplane wasn't going to cut it. So J.J. pulled out Occam's Razor and slashed through all the fancy stunt work, because it turns out our eyes could do all the work for him with a little help from a few big fans and a couple of mirrors.
The fans proceeded to complain that Kirk wears size 11 shoes, when episode 2F09 clearly establishes he's a size 12.
Abrams shot the sequence by having the actors stand on the mirrors and putting his cameramen on ladders so they could shoot from a downward angle. The result was a convincing stunt that needed zero alterations in post-production and cost virtually nothing compared to what it would have taken to shoot the scene any other way. So if you want to impress your friends with skydiving photos but are too chicken/sane to do it, there you go.
The Tornado In The Wizard Of Oz Was A Big Windsock
The Wizard Of Oz is a cautionary tale about what happens if you let your dog bite people willy-nilly. You get abducted and transported to a hell dimension where you're escorted by a collection of damaged souls through a series of long, arduous, ultimately redemptive trials. It's The Divine Comedy in Technicolor.
Ground zero for the furry subculture.
Speaking of arduous trials, filming the clearly-magical tornado wasn't what you'd call a walk in the park. At first, the production wanted to head to Kansas and film a real tornado tearing the shit out of someone's life -- which, apart from being incredibly dangerous, vulture-ish, and necessitating a visit to Kansas, was an awful idea in general. Their second idea was using a gigantic rubber cone, but that made the tornado look like ... well, a gigantic rubber cone. It would have looked the shit if the plot called for Dorothy to drill a tunnel down to the Morlocks, but alas.
Finally, they hit on a solution. After spending all of the remaining money for the scene on a gantry and a gigantic windsock, they got something that, admittedly, looks rather goddamn convincing.
Especially for a movie older than Bernie Sanders.
In order to move the tornado, they would move the gantry and windsock in different directions to give it a swirling-vortex-of-death feel. Meanwhile, amplifying its destructive capabilities was a matter of using air hoses to fire dirt and rocks into the funnel, most of which would then be thrown out. No word on which Pink Floyd songs they were playing during all this, but we're guessing "Run Like Hell."
Hollywood Basically Runs On Tiny Models
Hey, look at this shot from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. It's clearly a full-sized ship with some extras wandering in the background, right?
Nope! It's a model ship positioned very close to a camera using a wide lens.
The naked guy is waiting in line to try the same trick with his anatomy.
After this, all they needed to do was drive their extras several miles into the distance, and presto: an impressive-looking scene for considerably less money than it would have taken to pay aliens to move a real ship to the middle of the desert.
This isn't some kind of fancy modern-day camera trickery, either. It's such an old technique that Casablanca used it to film that iconic goodbye scene. See the ground crew working on that totally real airplane in the background? Those are little people standing in front of a cardboard plane, and ... you think we're making this up, don't you?
Bogart was two kids in a trench coat.
It's true, though. Because of wartime restrictions concerning outdoor lighting at night, the production wasn't able to get much more than a shot of the plane taxiing without having to pay a shit-ton of bribes. The rest of the scene, therefore, was shot on a sound stage, using cheap (but effective) tricks.
If you want another example, here's E.T. looking like he's about to be devoured by a gigantic middle-aged man.
Dwarves and giant people. Hollywood is more inclusive than we thought.
This is such a well-known technique among filmmakers that Monty Python And The Holy Grail took a swipe at it.
We're the Terry Gilliam character, aren't we?
Star Trek's Dr. McCoy Examined His Patients With Salt Shakers
Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy was the badass chief medical officer of the starship Enterprise, who used the most advanced 23rd-Century technology to save the crew from the various injuries, diseases, and space STDs they caught on a daily basis. And by "advanced technology," we mean some salt shakers.
Above: two salt shakers, a bunch of random cones, and an actor trying to keep a straight face.
According to the book Inside Star Trek: The Real Story, the show's budget averaged $190,635 per episode, but they got creative and made that money work hard for them -- like by having Starfleet uniforms made in a sweatshop and literally sneaking them in through the studio's back window. Designers kept an eye out for anything that could be used to shrink production costs, which led prop master Irving A. Feinberg to purchase a set of bizarre-looking Danish salt shakers he came across one day. Originally, the salt shakers were supposed to be ... salt shakers. Future salt shakers. By Feinberg's reckoning, everything in the year 2269 would look like it had come from IKEA (so far, he's not wrong). The shakers were fully functional and were intended to debut in "The Man Trap," an episode about a shape-shifting alien who lives entirely on salt and pretends to be Bones' ex-girlfriend. This show was occasionally ridiculous.
However, because they looked a little too otherworldly for an audience to go, "Oh hey, salt shakers!" the Danish shakers were eventually rejected and replaced with weirdly boring ones from the studio commissary for the episode:
Is she eating flowers? With salt?
Since there wasn't a lot of money for props (or anything else), though, the production team couldn't afford to let anything go to waste. So the Danish shakers were painted and reused in later episodes. They spent two years as medical instruments for Bones, and even became part of Scotty's arsenal of engineering tools. William Shatner's stand-in wasn't the only one who had several jobs on the ship.
Dead Vulcans are considered a delicacy, but they need a little seasoning.
Of course, if some of the other "ridiculous" gizmos they use in this show are any indication, Bones' tech might not seem weird to us for long. Come on, people. We made tablets and smartphones a real thing -- we can make medical instruments look like salt shakers. Only then will we truly be living in the future.
When they aren't spending their time dishing out vigilante justice and cheap puns, best pals Marina and Adam can be found on Twitter. Marina is an incorrigible space-nerdette who LOVES both Star Trek: TOS and William Shatner without a trace of irony, and would like to take this opportunity to say to everyone back home in VA (but mostly Scott) that James Tiberius Kirk is the One True Captain.
For more movie effects you can recreate even though we don't advise it, check out 5 Sci-Fi Gadgets That Are Really Just Everyday Objects and 17 Awesomely Simple Tricks Behind Movie Special Effects.
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