Friday, November 23, 2012

How To Make Someone's Head Explode

[This will be one of the many posts that include details about famous effects shots that I have picked up over the years.   It is all anecdotal information, believed to be true, but I wasn't there.  When this film was shot, I was in a dark room at Robert Abel & Associates writing their raster graphics system.]

As an exercise, I want you to think for a moment about how you would make someone's head explode.

As it turns out there are many ways to do this (in visual effects, of course, not in real life) and they all work with varying degrees of realism and at various costs.

Many of the films that might want to cause someone's head to explode are also low-budget horror films, those with the least amount of money to execute their vision. So I think we can say that one attribute of a method to make someone's head explode is that it should have a modest price and hopefully contribute a lot of value to the film.

Generally speaking, these are the things we are looking for.

1. That the head that explodes looks as much as possible as the real person's head. 
2. The audience should not notice the switch from the real to the standin.
3. The explosion itself should have character and not be a generic explosion.
4. The exploding head should interact with the set in some suitable way, e.g. brains, skull parts, etc. 

Although there are many ways of doing this kind of shot which could use any number of different techniques (miniatures, prosthetics, all digital, etc), best of all would be that it was "practical" in some way. "Practical" is a visual effects term of art that refers to an effect that you can use on the stage and when it is shot in live action it is in some sense done. There is no more to do. A radio controlled squib that spurts blood in simulation of someone being hit by a bullet is an example of a practical effect.

Arguably the best solution of this cinematic problem was realized by the movie Scanners (1981) as directed by David Cronenberg. The script describes a war between a small number of telepaths who are trying to take over the world and who have the power to read minds and also, with some effort, to cause someone's head to explode. Near the beginning of the film, a security organization gives a demonstration of telepathy to an audience of security professionals and, not realizing that they have been penetrated by a "bad telepath", played by actor Michael Ironside, the "good telepath" and the "bad telepath" struggle.   Evil wins in this case, and our victim telepath explodes.   Or rather, his head explodes.

As you can see, the telepath on the right seems to be reaching for a certain, climactic head position.

The solution was completely practical. A life mask of the good telepath in an expression of great pain was made, as well as a dummy of the rest of the body, dressed in the same suit. The live action of the scene was shot with the good telepath emoting his great unhappiness and reaching the same position and expression of the mask. A second sequence is shot with the camera in the same (or a similar) position, but instead of our actor we have a dummy, whose hands are gripped in an indication of great stress.  The mask on top of the dummy is given appropriate makeup and appliances, such as the eyeglasses, and filled with fresh chicken skin and Technicolor Blood #2. Then a shotgun is placed behind the dummy and pointed to the back of the head, out of sight of the camera, bolted into position, and rigged to be fired remotely. They then start the camera, set off the shotgun, and record the results for a few seconds. I am guessing that they use a high speed camera.

Then the two different takes are edited together such that the cut to the dummy happens a frame or so before the shotgun goes off. Of course they had to find a place to cut where the real actor had reached the head position and facial expression to match the dummy and mask.

The shotgun blows away both the mask and the contents, which then fall heavily, showing both excellent gravity and a sense of "follow through", onto the chest of the dummy. The effect itself makes good use of the animation principles of replacement animation, gravity, anticipation, follow-through and appropriate sound effects to enhance the visuals.

Its a beautiful effect which truly accomplishes what it needed to accomplish, which was to blow someones head off in a way that was dramatic and memorable and yet be very economical.   You could use the same technique today and it would work very well. 

Here is the trailer on Youtube, unfortunately in poor quality. It captures the essence of the scene in context however, if you want to see the blood more clearly there are other examples on Youtube that show that, but this shows the context, which is so important.   Please ignore the stupid music and graphics at the beginning and end of the trailer.  This was 1981 after all, a more primitive time.

I have found a much better trailer, this one for British audiences.  Unfortunately, it does not show the head explosion as well, but it is superior in all other ways.   On review, I have decided that this is probably a completely different head explosion from that found in the movie.  I wonder if it wasn't made especially for this trailer.   Some other post will discuss the context of how trailers are made, it is probably different than you expect.

I have left out a picture of the exploding head, because it is too disgusting, and I am very sensitive to images of former people who have been turned into a bloody mess.   

The IMDB page for Scanners:

No comments:

Post a Comment