Whether it’s hiding under the covers while you watch Halloween or swinging a wrapping-paper-tube lightsaber during Return of the Jedi, everyone has memories of movie magic. There’s something so special about settling in to watch a film, especially in the hushed darkness of a theatre, the screen so big that it feels more real than real life.
But, of course, someone has to make the magic happen. And just like magicians don’t like to share the secrets behind their tricks, filmmakers often hide the secrets of their craft. Background actors who get caught spilling the beans on social media can get kicked off of sets, and they’ll often be blacklisted from working in movies again.
We don’t know many of the tricks that go into moviemaking, but that doesn’t mean we don’t know any of them. If you want to see how filmmakers create their own little world for the audience to slip into, read on!
1. Detox: For obvious reasons, the drugs and alcohol on movie sets are rarely the real thing. Powdered milk or vitamins are generally substituted for cocaine, and colored vinegar is used in place of alcohol. Even the ice in a mixed drink is rarely real – set directors prefer to use gelatin or crumpled plastic wrap!
2. Blowing Smoke: Perhaps more surprisingly, the cigarettes that actors smoke are not real, either. It’s partly because of their negative impacts, but also partly because they don’t last long enough to shoot a proper take. Instead, they use herbal cigarettes. Because these cigarettes still have negative health impacts, actors are paid more when they have to use them during shooting.
3. The Clothes Make The Man: Costume designers get very creative, reusing outfits from movies that have already been filmed and even off-the-shelf furniture supplies.
Game of Thrones’ chief costume designer recently mentioned that the Night Watch’s capes are made from affordable Ikea rugs that look like animal fur.
4. Easy Being Green: Greenscreening (or chroma-keying) is a well-known filmmaking technique where the actors stand in front of a green screen that will be edited out to show them on a cooler background.
But why does the screen need to be green? Well, it’s because green (and blue) have the highest contrast with human skin tones, lessening the likelihood that the people will be edited out along with the background!
5. Mini World: But not all sets are conjured out of filmmakers’ dreams and computer animation. Filmmakers often create real miniatures of the sets that they can use as an edited-in background for the characters.
For example, the impressive architecture of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings movies is mostly made in miniature. But “miniature” doesn’t mean tiny: the miniature of the tower that the wizard Saruman lived in ended up being 27 feet tall.
6. Food, Glorious Food: Any time you see a character eating on screen, their actor isn’t really eating; they’re chewing it up and then spitting it out into a “spit bucket” between takes. Unless, apparently, that actor is Chris Pratt.
In a Reddit AMA with Aziz Ansari, the actor revealed that his Parks and Rec co-worker did not do that, and that, “If you see Andy eating a cheeseburger in a scene, you should know Chris Pratt ate like 8 cheeseburgers.”
7. And The Other Side Of Things: The food isn’t real, and neither is the vomit. Generally, it’s a bag with oatmeal or spaghetti attached to their neck that they can squeeze for instant puke. But sometimes, if they need to projectile-vomit, they’ll be hooked up to a pressurized system. That’s how they filmed the famous vomiting scene in I Love You, Man.
8. Midnight Rider: In almost all nighttime car scenes, the road will be wet. And it’s not because of some mysterious movie-making weather curse; it’s because the moisture gives better contrast and reflects light more easily.
9. Let Me Give You A Hand: Prosthetics are incredibly common in movies, used in everything from scenes that involve injections to fantastical transformations.
For example, one of Pulp Fiction’s scenes involves a man’s head exploding. To do that, they built a head-and-shoulders prosthetic of the actor, then linked it up to a CO2 rig that would shoot out fake blood and brains!
10. Water, Water Everywhere: In the time before the green screening, open water scenes were shot in specialized pools, because filming on the ocean is famously painful. Well, most of them were. The famously-disastrous filming of Waterworld took place on the open ocean, which was part of the reason it went over budget and over time.
11. Give Peas a Chance: Next time you’re watching a particularly violent scene in Game of Thrones, spare a thought for the poor vegetables that were slaughtered for your entertainment. When sound editors need something that sounds like bones breaking, they reach for carrots and celery to fill the sonic void.
12. Crowd Control: Often, in scenes that call for thousands of people, some of the background characters are made via CGI to decrease the budget. However, there are still some movies where crowds appear.
One of the most striking examples was the Battle of Helm’s Deep in the second Lord of the Rings film. The baddies are fierce creatures called Uruk-Hai, and their chant came from beings almost as terrifying: an entire stadium filled with football spectators. At halftime during a New Zealand football game, Peter Jackson projected the words onto the big screen, and recorded the thousands of spectators roaring them out!
13. Mirror, Mirror: As anyone who’s tried to get a good mirror selfie knows, it’s really tricky to film someone looking in a mirror. The camera needs to be at a specific angle to catch the person and their reflection without catching any of itself in the mirror. In the filming for Terminator, James Cameron decided to forego all of that, and simply had the actors face their understudies through a pane of glass to make it look like a mirror!
14. Tis The Season: As you’d expect from an industry with its headquarters in California, seasons are largely irrelevant in moviemaking. If it’s hot out and they need to film a cold scene? Just cover the ground in fake snow (yes, this is a real product) and have the actors act cold! And if it’s chilly and it needs to look like summer? Well, fake flowers do wonders for a decrepit, early-spring lawn!
15. Let’s Play A Game: There are a lot of children in horror movies, so the director needs to find ways to horrify the audience without emotionally scarring the child actors. How do they do it? Well, they treat it as a game, asking the child to do specific things (look afraid, write something on a mirror, etc.) without explaining the intended horror behind it. Sometimes, they aren’t even told that they’re working on a horror movie: Danny Lloyd of The Shining didn’t know he was in a horror movie until he actually watched it later!
16. Mime Time: You’d better be good at miming if you want a movie cameo. Background actors “talk” and “laugh” without sound, since the powerful microphones used on set would pick them up otherwise.
17. If The Set Is Rocking, Don’t Come Knocking: It can be difficult and embarrassing to shoot explicit scenes and, on a well-directed set, there are several measures in place to reduce that awkwardness. Generally, these scenes are filmed late in production, rehearsed fully-clothed beforehand, and very limited in terms of people who are allowed to be on set.
18. Can You Keep A Secret?: How do filmmakers keep their plots secret? Well, sometimes, they don’t reveal their secrets to anyone at all, not even the cast! During the shooting for The Empire Strikes Back, only the producers knew the famous secret about Luke Skywalker’s parentage before the scene revealing it was filmed. To accomplish that, they created a fake page of dialogue that Darth Vader’s body actor read out, which was replaced in post-production by James Earl Jones’ voice lines. Mark Hammil was the only person involved in the scene who knew the secret, having been told minutes before filming!