ANATOMY OF A FILM SCENE: THE MELTING MAN
Welcome to my occasional series that delves into the world of movie special effects. This time around, we are going to talk about a memorable scene from the movie ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’. Oh, be aware that there may be spoilers!
Anyway, the scene I want to talk about is the movie’s dramatic climax, when Toht, the sinister Gestapo agent, gets his comeuppance. The Ark of the Covenant is opened, and the power of God causes Toht’s face to melt down to the bone.
The film’s director, Stephen Spielberg, recalled how, during principle photography, he wondered how this sequence could be pulled off. “I said, ‘fine, how are we going to do this?’. I had no idea!”. All the scene consisted of, up to this point, was Toht actor Ronnie Lacey posing in a scream. The question was, how to go from that to the face melt?
The job of adding the special makeup effects fell to Chris Wallace. He figured that what was needed was an exact replica of the actor’s head and shoulders. In order to create this likeness, they used alginate, which is the stuff dentists use to take impressions of teeth. Only, in this case, the actor’s entire head had to be covered in the stuff.
Once the mound hardened it could be lifted off the actor’s face. Once sculptors went in and tidied it up (the eye sockets needed opening because the actor had to shut his eyes during the procedure) the result was a negative mould of the actor’s head.
The next stage entailed making an underskull that could withstand high temperatures, and so Wallace sculpted one out of stone.
As for the skin, that was made out of gelatin. The trick was to find a formula that would melt at quite a low temperature, pouring like liquid off the underskull rather than just dropping off. After experimenting to find the right formula, the next task was to paint layer upon layer of gelatin onto the inside of the mould. Different colours were used to give the impression of different tissues being exposed as the face melted away, and to make it seem like veins were being exposed and dropping off, coloured yarn that had been soaked in gelatin was layered in as well.
Finally, it came time to melt the head. This was done by having two propane heaters facing head on. In order to ensure the gelatin melted properly, Wallace also used a heat gun that he could aim at specific areas. “I had this hot gelatin dripping down on me, kind of like ‘oh, this needs to melt a bit quicker over here’”.
On the day, the model actually took about ten minutes to melt. That was too long for the scene, obviously, so in post-production the footage was sped up.
The end result is, I think, one of the best and goriest death scenes of any movie. I particularly like the way Toht’s hat gradually slides down as his melting head is no longer the right size for it!
Thanks to Paramount for the images!