EXCLUSIVE! LESSONS FROM AMALGAMATED DYNAMICS INC.
“My ass… I can see my ass!” Screams Madeline Ashton, the malicious and vindictive character played by Meryl Streep in the 1992 blockbuster “Death Becomes Her“. She is screaming this not because she is looking at her derrière in a mirror, but because she has recently fallen down some stairs and her head is now facing the wrong way. The stunning visual of seeing a woman with her head twisted around, walking backwards and fumbling with a telephone wire, strikes a sickening chord with viewers and this effect is all thanks to the guys at Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. This group of fantastic practical special effects producers managed to create animatronics and old fashioned conjuring tricks to make it seem as though Goldie Hawn’s insides looked like the Channel Tunnel, among other fantastic visual effects.
From a simple scene where a doctor bends Meryl Streep’s hand back on itself, to big spectacular fight sequences where women’s heads retract into their necks, this film is full of detail and seamless effects and now, twenty-one years later, the film holds up against today’s special effects, and shows that “Death Becomes Her” was well ahead of it’s time.
Earlier this week I spoke with the OSCAR winning special effects character creators, model makers and co-founders of Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. I could scarcely believe how such a simple little comedy film, which had the tagline Your Basic Black Comedy, contained some of the most stunning visual effects, and altogether brilliant look as “Death Becomes Her” did. I wanted to know all about the making of this film, and how some of the most stunning visuals the cinema world has ever seen were created.
PP: When were you approached about “Death Becomes Her” and what was the initial pitch?
ADI: We were doing pickups for “Alien 3” when Dick Smith came by ADI to see the talking Bishop character we created. It was the first successful talking human done for film and Dick was impressed. He had been hired as a consultant for “Death Becomes Her” and was making sure the right people were getting hired. His recommendation got us the job.
PP: Had you worked with Robert Zemeckis before?
ADI: Yes, back in the Stan Winston days Zemeckis had directed an “Amazing Stories” episode called Head of the Class.
PP: From the outset “Death Becomes Her” is a simple little comedy about revenge, but clearly there was so much work and detail put into every scene and shot, did you realise at the beginning that this dark little comedy film would rely so heavily on practical special effects?
ADI: At that time Zemeckis was known for intricate VFX even in his simple stories. Once we had a meeting or two and he laid out his plan for the scenes we knew there was more than enough work in it to keep us busy and that it would push the limits for animatronics.
PP: Were there any effects you worked on for the film that ultimately didn’t make the final cut?
ADI: The great thing about Bob is that he really plans his movies and there’s very little waste. I think everything we did made it into the film.
“Bruce Willis got a huge kick out of the Meryl puppet.”
PP: Did you work primarily with animatronics or were you involved with CGI as well?
ADI: Our overlap with CG was limited to providing them with a twisted neck and torso sculpture. Other than that it was mostly compartmentalised We were strictly the animatronic and puppet aspect of the film. Aging makeup was handled by Kevin Haney under the eye of Dick Smith. Lance Anderson created the fat makeup for Goldie.
PP: What was the most difficult effect to pull off in the film?
ADI: The talking torso puppet of Meryl. She had just had a baby when the face cast was done, and 4 months later she had slimmed down quite a bit. That made it difficult to really match her. Also, we were breaking new ground with silicone skins. We were the first to use silicone as an animatronic skin material, and we were inventing ways of painting and gluing it. Things have come a long way mechanically and cosmetically. I’d love a chance to create another animatronic talking person now!
PP: Did the actors enjoy working with animatronics and specialty costumes?
ADI: Bruce Willis got a huge kick out of the Meryl puppet. Meryl has a very dry sense of humor and was happy to work with us for a half day to coordinate the performance. She also picked up on some of the puppet’s limits and incorporated them into her performance.
PP: Were there any effects that you had to invent new technology for, i.e. were there any effects where nothing like that had ever been done before?
ADI: The silicone skin materials we opted for were new. To my knowledge no one had done a talking human being with a silicone skin before “Death Becomes Her“. There was a lot of experimentation in paint systems, reinforcement, and gluing. Nowadays it’s become standard. We also used a fairly new motion control system as playback for the pre recorded performance.
“To my knowledge no one had done a talking human being with a silicone skin before…”
PP: Roughly how long was the pre-production phase for you to get everything ready before principal filming took place?
ADI: I feel like we had maybe 6 months of prep/build time, but I could be wrong. Schedules were longer then. Maybe we had 4 months.
PP: There are several scenes from the film in particular that have fascinated audiences, I wonder if you could shed some light on these particular scenes…
1.) The scene where Goldie Hawn’s character (Helen) is lying on the driveway and the car reverses around the driveway and almost squishes her head – was that Goldie Hawn? Was it a stuntwoman?
ADI: That was Goldie shot with motion control. That’s the kind of invisible effect Bob was so great at. (“Back to the Future” was FULL of it)
2.) The scene where Meryl Streep’s character (Madeline) picks herself off the ground after falling down the stairs and walks towards the camera – how did you make it look like she was untangling herself from the mangled position she landed in?
ADI: Our untangling animatronic was the first half of the shot, then when she gets up it’s Meryl with her head comped on backwards. If I recall correctly, the scene was helped by the figure being soft focus and Bruce in the foreground helps block some of the transition between puppet and real Meryl.
3.) And of course the two most pivotal scenes, Meryl’s head on backwards and the hole through Goldie’s stomach, how the heck did you do that?
ADI: This was back when filmmakers chose to use a mix of animatronics, real people and CGI. Meryl with her backwards head was a marvel of tracking and comping two performances shot at different times. Meryl wore a twisted neck appliance and her costume was designed so that her head and neck could be more easily grafted onto her body. The hole was a simple effect by today’s standards, but again, tracking was ahead of it’s time. One of the shots I like the most was when Goldie rises up out of the fountain with water pouring out of her stomach hole, that was Goldie’s head comped onto our animatronic puppet.
“Meryl with her backwards head was a marvel of tracking and comping two performances shot at different times.”
PP: Even the simplest of scenes – a shot where Meryl’s character is inspected by a doctor who proceeds to bend her hand back on itself – had a huge amount of effort put into them…
ADI: That’s a mechanical hand made from a casting of my wife’s hand. My wife did a scene with Meryl Streep!
The Amalgamated Dynamics team work on “Making Meryl”!
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Images courtesy of Amalgamated Dynamics Inc.