I want to deviate from movie memories a bit and talk about a topic which has always intrigued me. Shooting someone at point blank range.
THE GODFATHER, 1972.
This is not a treatise in how to deal with difficult actors or crew members. I am referring purely to cinematic vengance, shooting an actor directly into the skin without a cutaway. Not merely the Ernest Borgnine/William Holden/THE WILD BUNCH, getting their shoulders blasted through clothing in a quart of slow-motion blood, nor the standard body shot where a stuntman flies backwards and you don’t see a damn thing. I’m talking about a bullet hole appearing in bare flesh and bleeding on cue. This has been done effectively only a handful of times - quite odd considering how many people have been shot in movies. I would like to get into all aspects of realistic shooting violence here: the how-to, the research, blood formulas, bullet hole making methods, plumbing, the whole thing.
These days bullet hits are sometimes done digitally - perhaps fully CGI or perhaps partially, with a blend of prosthetics and AfterEffects. Sometimes they are done solely with prosthetics by makeup artists who do not think the effect through or do any type of research into what will make such an effect actually function well and be repeatable. Usually, a makeup artist will take the easy way out and do the effect as an ‘after’ shot, i.e. the hole already there with blood. Zero impact. The film directors who wanted the on-camera effect were probably disappointed. How many times has the ‘after’ shot been done? Maybe I just think differently. I like a challenge. I like figuring out how to do something I have never done before. I like devising practical effects to happen in front of the camera. After all, that is what special makeup effects is all about.
In this post and two follow-ups, I will examine in detail the stellar bullet hits done by Dick Smith in both GODFATHER films, TAXI DRIVER, THE DEER HUNTER and others, as well as the work of John Caglione and Doug Drexler in YEAR OF THE DRAGON. For insight into how these types of effects can be created, I will detail my own work on a forgettable film called DEADLY FORCE and describe how the appliances were fabricated. As a special treat, I will post the personal recollections of two makeup artists who killed cinema's most wicked villan, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) in BLUE VELVET. Finally I will wrap up with things I learned while filming the bloody shootout in JAVA HEAT just a few weeks ago.
NOTE: In a few weeks I will post video segments of most of the films I discuss. I am in the process of collecting and editing them now. Meanwhile, load your (fake) gun, put the food color in the Karo, stir well (but don't shake - sorry, James Bond) -- and let's go!
One of my favourite films in recents years is David Fincher's ZODIAC. Love this film. Extremely well-researched and true to the real case and police files. Yet in the first murder scene, Fincher skimped on the blood effects. I read that he did not want to deal with the time factor in having to clean up blood after each take. Understandable to a degree. But the compromise (at least to me) was a loss of impact in the drama, a scene which should have had the most punch to set the tension up for the rest of the film. I had been drawn in by this point, and when ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ began playing and the mysterious car parked behind our hapless teenagers. I was feeling pretty on edge (even though I knew from reading Graysmith’s book what was coming). It's a tense scene. But when Zodiac exited his car and began firing, the result of the shots blew it for me. My suspension-of-disbelief went away. I saw CGI blood floating through the air like blobs of motor oil. I cringed. At the end of the scene, actress Ciara Hughes has blood on her face and clothing--beaded up in little drops. I cringed again.
I feel it would have been worth the extra cleanup time to have used pumped blood and practical bullet hits. Also a little research at photojournalist web sites would have shown just how horrendously bloody something like this would be. And for fuck's sake, I wish makeup artists would stop using crappy blood without a wetting agent. Real blood FLOWS on skin, it SOAKS into clothing. It does not bead up. -5 points for the blood in Zodiac Still a +100 for Fincher's otherwise terrific film. Highly recommended.
THE GODFATHER, 1972.
The first effective use of bullet hits to an actor’s skin was done by Dick Smith in THE GODFATHER for the restaurant scene in which Al Pacino shoots Sterling Hayden in the forehead and neck. Dick also made prosthetics for Hayden’s hand and palm which are not in the final edit of the film. The forehead shooting of Al Lettieri in the same scene was handled by special effects expert A.D. Flowers.
Probably the most famous instance of into-the-flesh bullet hits is the brilliant sequence created by Dick Smith for Robert DeNiro’s brothel shoot-out in Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER. It is a ballet of cinematic violence orchestrated to perfection through the combined talents of Dick, DeNiro, Scorsese and director of photography Michael Chapman. One smart move they all decided on was to shoot the entire sequence in order. Day one started with filming outside when DeNiro shoots Harvey Keitel in the stomach. He then enters and shoots the hand of the pimp and so forth, passing and shooting crooks as he makes his way up the stairs to rescue teen prostitute Jodi Foster.
I once had a handwriting analyst friend look at one of Dick Smith’s letters to me. She had no idea who Dick was. I asked her to tell me about the person based solely on the signature. She examined Dick’s signature, looked up and said to me, “This man is a genius.”
Dick Smith pioneered bullet hits done with makeup techniques. He began with THE GODFATHER and perfected his methods further with GODFATHER 2, TAXI DRIVER and THE DEER HUNTER. Always a perfectionist, Dick changed and improved his approaches with each film.
In THE GODFATHER, the hit on Hayden’s forehead was done with an explosive squib. Squibs come in different sizes, 1/4 grain, 1/2 grain, etc. As I recall these were 1/4 grain or smaller (because they are explosive, squibs require protection via a small round metal plate attached to the actor’s skin. This all goes on before the makeup). For Hayden, Dick used a foam latex forehead over the squib and plate. This took about an hour and a half to prepare. The wires to detonate the squib were run through Hayden’s hair and became virtually invisible. But there was no blood tube. Instead, Dick left a small air pocket around the squib. Right before the camera rolled, he withdrew the air from the air pocket with one hypodermic needle and syringe as he simultaneously injected thinned blood with a second hypodermic. This way there was no bulge. Genius is right. Pacino’s gun goes off and Bang! -- the hole pops and blood courses down Hayden’s entire face. The effect worked beautifully and is seen in the final cut of the film. But there was a drawback. It took nearly two hours to clean up and re-set. The foam latex not only absorbed the blood, but the squibbed hole tore irreparably, which meant a completely new forehead and re-do. This led Dick decided to rethink things.
An aside: Even though in the same scene, for some reason, Lettieri’s forehead was a gelatin capsule fired through a small gun device directly at the actor’s forehead. This was done by A.D. Flowers who also did the squibs. The spray of blood behind Lettieri’s head however, was provided by Dick. In film tests they had found that blood exploding into the air happened so fast that it didn't register on film, Dick suggested exploding red Stein’s face powder, which is what they ended up using. It kind of hangs in the air before it floats down and the camera was able to capture it.
THE GODFATHER PART 2, 1974.
For GODFATHER 2, Dick had to create the effect of Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin) being shot in the cheek. The scene is a very long buildup and a slow, lingering shot, so you see everything quite clearly. Dick decided to create a better method by making an appliance which would not absorb blood or be too timely to re-set. If I am correct, he used slush latex (which did not absorb blood) instead of foam this time, and made essentially a thin shell to go over the actor’s cheek. A hole was cut and a plastic plug inserted back into the hole. The join was blended with a small amount of mortician's wax and colored with makeup. For the effect, Dick yanked out the plug. I'm not sure how Dick created the blood flow - quite a lot of it goes all the way down the actor's suit - but he likely filled the empty space inside the latex shell with blood. Either that or he used a blood tube which went beneath the actor's hair. The hole appears cleanly with crisp edges, which leads me to believe this was Dick’s first time using a pull-away effect for a bullet hit. If you watch the sequence in super slow motion, you will see the actor's cheek puff 'out' for one frame as the plug is yanked out. (Dick had first used the pull-away effect for THE EXORCIST. It is the use of 10-lb fishing monofilament to quickly pull out a piece of plastic blended underneath a prosthetic. It happens so fast, the monofilament and plug do not register on film. For Linda Blair’s legs, Dick used nylon stocking materials stiffened with bald cap plastic; the monofilament was attached to this piece in the shape of the intended wound to appear. In the case of Blair’s legs, those were scratches. The plastic/nylon piece (in the scratch shape) was blended in with mortician’s wax, which gave way easily when the monofilament was pulled). Dick employed pretty much the same technique for GODFATHER 2, but in the shape of a small bullet hole. The lessons he learned from the first GODFATHER paid off with his improvements. The scene - and the bullet hole effect - are both flawless and clean.
When TAXI DRIVER came around, Dick employed a similar technique for the thug in the hallway who is shot in the face four or five times in the space of about two seconds. Dick used slip (slush) latex shells, this time I believe with aluminum “hole” plugs attached to monofilament. Dick recounts in memoirs how he had just finished the makeup, filled the air pockets with injected blood and clipped the monofilaments carefully into the actor’s hair out of harm’s way. Just then the actor’s girlfriend came in and said to the guy, “Oh, there’s a hair on your face,” and yanked one of the plugs loose, nearly breaking the air tight blood seal.
When DeNiro gets shot in the neck in the narrow hallway, Dick got a little more ambitious. He was also forced to deal with a limited space in executing his effect. DeNiro is facing away when shot in the neck. The hole pops, blood flows and he turns. You can clearly see DeNiro’s shoulders nearly touching both walls. Dick had no room to hide to pull the monofilament, so he had to be behind camera. But that postion gave him no leverage, so he attached his monofilament to a fishing pole!
Dick used a new material for DeNiro's neck, a plastic made by John Chambers called Scar Em. It was a vinyl plastic with a plasticizer and tinted flesh tone. The edges were blended with acetone. Being solid, soft plastic, the appliances absorbed no liquids plus precise channels could be constructed inside them for blood tubing. This enabled a re-set in about 10 or 15 minutes. This spurred Dick on and he soon invented a new material of his own called Placrylic. It was not vinyl based but acrylic plastic. His new invention was made from Elvacite, a coating made by DuPont for painting protective coverings on the tops of cars (what was it the handwriting expert said about Dick... ?).
I will get into making Elvacite appliances in Part Two, and further innovations with bullet hits Dick made for THE DEER HUNTER. In Part Three, I will cover the imaginative approaches used by director David Lynch and makeup artists Dean Jones and Dean Gates for Dennis Hopper's shooting in BLUE VELVET. This will be a rare treat, as it will have the personal recollections of both Deans in their own words. Stay tuned.
DISCLAIMER: Any information presented on any page of this blog regarding materials and techniques is presented in good faith. While the materials and techniques are believed to be harmless, nothing written in this blog or article is to be taken as a warranty, express or implied, for which Mark Shostrom assumes legal responsibility. Because the preparation, handling and application of the materials and techniques described in this blog and article are beyond the control of Mark Shostrom, Mark Shostrom will accept no responsibility or assume any liability for any results obtained.
Blood Splatter photograph copyright Michael Grecco.