Head stretching and stomach holes: re-visiting the visual effects of ‘Death Becomes Her’

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Illustration by Aidan Roberts.

“Bob had said to Meryl Streep: ‘Whatever Ken asks you to do, no matter how silly, just go with it. You can trust him.’ Because she must have been thinking, ‘What am I? What is this stupid thing?’ – Death Becomes Her visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston.

By the early 1990s, ILM had already been innovating in digital visual effects in a major way with films such as The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Then came along Robert Zemeckis’ Death Becomes Her. It would be released in 1992 and go on to win the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, thanks to more innovation from ILM and practical creature effects by Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc.

Death Becomes Her celebrates its 25th anniversary this week, and vfxblog goes retro on all the head twisting and stretching and stomach hole making work in the film with visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston. We discuss his long-time collaboration with Zemeckis, coming up with on-set solutions, experimenting with software and human skin texturing, and what’s changed in visual effects from then up until today.

vfxblog: You once previously told me you were going to be making a film about Houdini with Bob Zemeckis when Death Becomes Her came up. Can you remember how the new film happened instead?

Ken Ralston: I got a call from Bob saying, ‘What would happen if a woman fell down a flight of stairs and her head got turned around 180 degrees?’ And I just said, ‘So we’re not doing Houdini are we?’ and from there on we took off.

vfxblog: In the early 90s, what kind of early conversations were you having about how much should the effects be practical and how much should be digital?

Ralston: I just tried to blend it in ways I thought would work. There were some real chancy things we were doing on that show. But of course so much of it is practical and we also did these great miniatures, and I consider those practical, too. On set we had some makeup pieces and some major prosthetics, like, Goldie Hawn’s torso for one shot as she’s coming out of a little pond at the house and all the water’s pouring out of it. But we had to put Goldie’s head on and all these weird blends we were doing to get the film through.

When this thing first started, Meryl Streep put on this makeup piece that was done for her neck and she hated it. So she came over and we just were talking about it, and said, ‘Okay, forget it.’ I was trying to simplify our job a little bit more. Because again, doing anything human-like, any skin, was dangerous back then. So I was hoping to do some more stuff makeup-wise. But we didn’t do it. The whole twisted neck thing was all CG.

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To produce the shot of Meryl Streep’s character appearing to have her head twisted backwards, three live-action background plates were filmed. The first was with Meryl wearing a stretchy blue hood over her head and walking backwards. The second plate was a clean plate, and the third involved Meryl performing in a blue bodysuit against a bluescreen. The blue hood was digitally removed from the first plate and replaced with the corresponding area from the clean plate using black- and-white mattes created using Parallax’s Matador Paint system. Meryl’s head from the third plate was extracted from the bluescreen and match-moved into position. Finally, a computer-generated twisted neck piece was modelled, animated and matchmoved to fit between Meryl’s body and extracted head using a combination of Softimage 3D animation software and custom ILM software. It was rendered in RenderMan and then composited together. Additional paint work was also required.

And of course, here’s the danger. I’d be more relaxed about this now, but even now I would say no to what I’m about to say. Which was, the CG guys they would all say, ‘Oh, it’ll be great. We can do her neck, she’s gonna be good!’ They’ll do her whole face and hair and everything. And it’s like, oh no you don’t.

It’s sort of a crime that happened later years with – what I thought was a crime sometimes. With say Beowulf where you take these great actors and make CG versions of them. It’s like, well, what has that accomplished? So we didn’t. I kept saying, ‘You’re talking about Meryl Streep here. One of the great actors of all time and you wanna change her performance cause you want to animate her?’ That’s not gonna happen. So all of the facial stuff is really her of course and we shot her against bluescreen.

 

vfxblog: I think you collaborated with ADI, Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis, on the practical effects. How did you work together on set?

Ralston: I was always frantic, thinking, ‘Oh god, I hope it works.’ ‘Cause if it doesn’t we’re gonna have to do some other horrible, complicated CG version or something. I love those guys by the way. They were great. And a lot of fun.

And so once everything’s figured out and they know the pieces they’re doing and what they’re gonna come up with, they come on the set with it, and I don’t remember anything blowing up. It all worked fine and what we had talked about was what we did. And they were very well prepared as usual and, thank god, and it worked. It worked because we didn’t over complicate what we were doing with any of that stuff.

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vfxblog: What else was going on in ILM at the time? Clearly they’d done Abyss and Terminator 2, and you’d just come off Back to the Future III and I think Rocketeer. And so you obviously knew what was capable in the digital realm. But this is before Jurassic Park. I’m just curious about the kinds of things that you knew could be accomplished with CG?

Ralston: Here’s the thing. I’m not really the guy who got the most CG work. ‘Cause there was only so much ILM could do. And even if I wanted to use more of that technology, it was just, there was just no way to get it.

With a lot of these movies, especially for Bob, a huge percentage of it seems impossible. So it’s the only way to go into it. If you achieve the impossible things, you’ve just raised the bar of your own company and you’ve learned things. So it wasn’t that we weren’t worried about things looking right, it’s like when she grabs her head and stretches it way up and it snaps back down, you’re right on top of that CG neck.

So I can remember just looking at what was being done over and over and eventually we got there. But it took time. Messing with stuff, what could be done, what kind of materials we could create. How to make this look more like her real skin. Luckily, you know, the shots weren’t horribly long.

You only know what has been done, you just don’t know what you can do. And that’s where everyone wants to be where you get in there knowing where you were, and how far can we push this technology. If something blew up and was never going to get there, we would’ve come up with an alternate idea. It just never was necessary.

vfxblog: Let’s talk about methodologies of some of the killer shots. How did you do Goldie Hawn’s hole in her stomach?

Ralston: She had a makeup – well, I’ll call it a makeup piece, it was on her outfit. It was just kinda the outline of what it would have been, a chewed-up shape. And I guess it was on the back of it too. It’s actually a very simple 3D shape that’s in there, and we roto’d that out.

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Sometimes we had had material in our plate of her, that can only be used before she got into the thing for the area that we see through. So we had to put that back into the roto’d area. And we had to create the feeling that what you were seeing was this three dimensional space, even though it was absurd and cartoony, but that, thank god, it was that. And it was really, kinda a simple concept basically.

All the weird stuff where they’re throwing the broken shovel piece through it and she’s sitting on the couch. I mean, there’s lots of weird little elements I shot. I guess it was on the Flame back then, and we had little nuances that whatever we could do in a two and a half D, not quite 3D, using our 3D stomach element, and then everything else was composited 2D. So it’s just messing around with it endlessly.

vfxblog: What about Meryl Streep, say when she’s sitting at the piano and she’s twisted her head around? What I love about that shot is the stretchy skin and also her reflection in the mirror, and the fact she’s talking. It’s right there front and centre.

Ralston: Well again we shot her on set doing all that. Her sitting at the table we shot her at the piano. And of course Bob wanted a mirror in there and, ‘Oh my god, Bob.’ I think we had her wearing some kind of a blue mask. Then, based on the take that he liked, we would set up on a different stage, this is weeks later, with recordings of the dialogue and all that stuff, camera angles set to match, lighting to match against bluescreen.

And we would shoot Meryl until we thought we had it right. And she was great. If you saw the footage you would just laugh. There was, I try to keep these things as not overly mechanised as possible because things happen and change. So she was in a chair, we had a guy swinging the chair around on cue and it was very silly looking but it worked great.

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vfxblog: I also love when she does pull her neck up. And I’ve always thought for 1992 you did such a great job on skin, the look of skin. Do you remember the trickiness of doing human skin textures back then?

Ralston: I know it took us a long time to get there. I don’t know all the permutations of all the different tests that we had done. The one thing I remember is because of the weirdness of the shot and how we had to do it, I actually had a hair piece done that looked like Meryl’s hair. As if, it had to be shot this way, first of all. The body is a dummy, the hands I don’t think are even Meryl’s hands. Meryl is behind her, right over the dummy. But we’re going to have to replace all of her neck and her shoulders and everything as she raises up and drops back down.

So because everything was so hard to do, including hair, I had her wearing in front of her neck, like almost like a beard, a long piece of hair that looked like her wig hair. In case I needed it to patch things, once the CG neck started going in there. And I know that she didn’t know what the hell was going on. Bob had her come over to me and just said to Meryl Streep, he said ‘Whatever Ken asks you to do, no matter how silly, just go with it. You can trust him.’ Cause she must have been thinking, ‘What am I, what is this stupid thing?’

vfxblog: When the film came out, and, yes, it was on the back of Abyss and Terminator 2, I just remember this was really one of those non-effects films with CG effects in it. And the press went bananas for it, saying this is the future of all films. And it won the VFX Oscar. And of course things changed again with Jurassic. Were you conscious of this ‘feeling’ out there at the time?

Ralston: Well it didn’t change anything for me. I mean, you go on to the next thing and you do it. I don’t remember anything about the aftermath of it. I was probably shocked it won the Oscar, only because of the nature of the movie. I knew the work was really great in it, by everybody. So you just never know. It’s such an odd movie, and that that has an impact on how people vote for things too.

vfxblog: I think it’s such a watchable film, sometimes very much because of the gags, but it’s an unusual film, in a way.

Ralston: Well, I mean, it’s a really such a weird movie. Every once in a while I’ll catch it on TV. You know, we were shooting out by the little pool area where Goldie falls in, you know she gets shot, goes in there. And I’m standing next to Bob and I said, ‘You know, I don’t know what, this movie reminds me of a Glenn Ford movie called The Gazebo.’

It’s a weird black comedy that Bob actually acknowledged saying, ‘Yeah there are elements of that in this.’ It’s just about murder in the Gazebo, and the guy getting put and the cement in the Gazebo but everything keeps going wrong, and it’s a bizarre little movie.

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vfxblog: Maybe one of the successes of the visual effects in this film are that they look ‘simple’, but of course that’s not always the case. But I feel like it’s something you generally aim for in shot design and effects execution.

Ralston: Yeah, it’s really, it’s everything. You know it’s in the planning, the designing, the shooting of it. You really do have to be there and babysit these things to make sure you have the pieces to do the version you want to do for the director. And then the execution of it all and the post, which is, can be the most painful part of it just ’cause it … The nuance you’re trying to get, especially the further back in time we go where CG really wasn’t used as much as it is now.

That is what took the time but I always said the same thing. And I’m not just bragging for me. Any top talent, any supervisor, you know everyone can do the same first 95% of any movie. It’s that last 5% that either makes it or breaks it and makes it great. And that’s the hardest part of it and not everyone gets there.


Bonus Clips on the special and visual effects for Death Becomes Her: