Fake Animals Special Effects Made for Movies and TV



  • Fake-animal props and puppets are used for scenes too unsafe or impractical for real animals.
  • MastersFX in Toronto created many convincing fake animals for Amazon’s “The Boys.”
  • Scenes in movies like “Nightmare Alley” (2021) will switch between a real animal and a fake one.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video:

Narrator: To make this disturbing scene in “The Boys,” the show’s effects artists first needed to create multiple fake octopi with spray-painted skin, realistic movement, and a head filled with ink that would squirt out when the actor bit into it. That way, this final shot could be done without harming a single live octopus.

Homelander: Wasn’t that delicious?

Narrator: Making these fake animals believable for movies and TV takes hours of work, whether it’s building a 1,000-pound elephant puppet or covering creatures with thousands of tiny hairs. Take Jamie the hamster in “The Boys.” You see a real hamster here.

Frenchie: Who’s a handsome, petite little gerbil?

Mother’s Milk: It’s a hamster.

Narrator: But most of these superhero hamster scenes are fake.

Mother’s Milk: I told you not to f— with him.

Narrator: And it starts with a tiny, detailed clay sculpture. So the skin doesn’t look flat, MastersFX used this 3D-printed roller to create rough skin texture and pores.

Sasha: It’s a slow process of subtractive and additive sculpting until we start to create a bit of a character.

Narrator: Only after every detail is etched in can the artists actually make a mold with the sculpture, filling it to create realistic animal textures and movements. Like this frog Masters made for 2022’s “Firestarter.” It’s just squishy enough to move on its own.

Sasha: These are typically used to cut cuticles, but they work really well in this instance ’cause you can get right flat against the silicone and get a nice flat edge. It can take hours to get it right.

Narrator: Like for this octopus from “The Boys,” which has a shiny silicone coat for realistic translucency. Oftentimes, pure silicone isn’t soft enough.

Zane: When you get silicone like Gel-10 in its raw form and you mix it, it’s squishy, but it’s still a little dense.

Narrator: So Zane might add foam for more flexibility and then a thickening agent directly to the silicone called deadener. The more deadener you add, the softer and stickier the silicone becomes. That creates natural movements like jiggling without any animatronics.

Zane: That way, when you’re moving the octopus around, the tentacles are really flapping around and moving around nicely.

Narrator: Special effects artists might need to create a structure to help pose the creatures or limit its movements, like with the octopus. These aluminum wires let them wrap the tentacles around an actor’s arm. Regardless of the materials used, they won’t look very real on camera until they’re the proper color.

Sasha: Nothing can look too neat. You don’t get a lot of hard lines in nature.

Narrator: So spray painting provided a more diffused look for the frogs Masters made for “Firestarter.”

Sasha: It’s pretty much all about layering. You keep doing all these different techniques until you reach the intended effect.

Narrator: Spattering on paint with a chip brush creates the skin pigmentation of an octopus as well as the distinct blotchiness on a frog. They’ll even paint skin that will eventually be covered with hair or feathers for extra dimension, like this chicken Kayla Arena helped build on “Nightmare Alley.”

Kayla: The feathers on a chicken’s face is more sparse here. As soon as you get a gust of wind, and these feathers move, I want to be able to see pink underneath, because that’s what they naturally are.

Narrator: Each hair or feather is then painstakingly applied with unique techniques for each situation. The little hairs on Jamie the hamster couldn’t be punched in one by one.

Zane: One major difference between making animals and humans is animal hair is usually a lot denser.

Narrator: So instead, they were laid out in sections. Masters started by laying down strips of painter’s tape on a pelt and pulling fur off in clumps.

Brenda: I make sure that all the hair is in the same direction. And I just make sure that it’s nice and flat, and pushing it all the way down. So I’m just going to cut the pelt into that little section that I want, being careful not to cut the actual fur, ’cause I want that tapered end. Now we’re going to get a little razor called the Peanut. We’re essentially just shaving off this pelt here.

Narrator: Once the excess pelt is shaved off, Brenda carefully pulls off the tape, leaving hair transfers. She uses a silicone adhesive to glue those transfers straight onto the hamster’s body in small sections.

Brenda: I don’t want to glue the whole thing and have the hair transfer in places where I don’t want it to be.

Narrator: Not every hair can be added this way. The hairs around a hamster’s nose and legs are much tinier, so the pelt wouldn’t work. Instead, they’ll add tiny fibrous pieces called flocking.

Brenda: You would get a little bit of flocking and then just push it into that direction just to create that transition, that really good short-to-long fur.

Narrator: Getting every detail of the fur right was crucial for the final result. This guy was ultimately used by the show’s VFX artists to see how the hamster’s fur would move and react to light when creating their digital model.

Zane: I think it’s better to see little Jamie floating around in front of you rather than a tennis ball or a ping-pong ball. You get a better reaction from your actors. VFX is more well grounded.

Narrator: When animal props need to move on-screen, designing gets even trickier. Because this chicken had to flap its wings after its head was bitten off, the feathers had to flow with the flapping rather than restrict it. Each feather was adhered one by one to nylon cheesecloth that was placed over the chicken. Because the nylon is stretchy, the feathers moved with the flapping, rather than getting in the way. And this octopus from “The Boys” required animatronic tentacles, built by Ron Stefaniuk and his team at StefFX. Masters molded the tentacles separately from the rest of the body, leaving them hollow so animatronics could be placed inside. They were then glued on separately.

Audrey: Brush over top of it until it’s kind of smooth and it’s all, like, one piece and the tentacle looks like it’s a part of the body.

Narrator: When thinking about realistic animal movements, you have to think far beyond natural wiggling.

Ron: It’s not enough just to curl a tentacle. There were two other points of articulation, so you could go up, down, left, and right in the middle, and then the very end of it had a little sub curler that did curl the little tip even more.

Narrator: Direct interactions with actors also affect the build and mechanization of fake animals. For 2008’s “The Love Guru,” Ron built an elephant for actor Mike Myers to ride. He had to balance realism with safety, using materials that could withstand the weight of several actors. So instead of just foam and silicone, he used durable but heavy urethane.

Ron: Puppeteering urethane’s a lot like puppeteering a car bumper.

Narrator: He built just half the elephant and put it on a movable platform capable of lifting a half-ton weight. One puppeteer pushed the elephant forward, so it looked like it was walking. Two additional puppeteers used levers to rock the elephant around, so it looked like it was lumbering. And yet another puppeteer hid inside the elephant, so he could move its head and ears.

Ron: Because it was floating on those airbags, you could move quite a mass, but we could still rock it around in a very smooth, even, sort of walking gait.

Narrator: In some cases, it can be simpler to create realistic animal movements without any animatronics. Like the scene in “The Boys” where The Deep eats Timothy the octopus. It would’ve been impractical to create the tentacles grabbing Chace Crawford’s face, as the movements would be way too complex. But they wanted the realism of the ink and the head. So using that same multipart mold, the Masters team molded just the head. The inside was hollow, so it could be filled with syrup and black food dye to stand in for ink. The holes you see in the head here are no accident.

Audrey: Because it’s silicone, it kind of seals shut, and you don’t actually see any of them. So it looks normal. And then when he puts it in his mouth and chomps down, it separates them.

Narrator: With just a little force, the fake ink would squirt out. As for the tentacles, Masters gave the CG animators references by manipulating pieces of fishing line taped to the actor’s face.

So, with CG, why go to all the effort to make sure all these animals look, feel, and move right?

Ron: I think our job, like the actors, our job is to give everybody as much as we can.

Narrator: With all this work, a scene can switch between a real animal, a practical puppet, and CG, and nobody can tell where the trick starts and ends. And no real animals will be harmed in the making of your movie.

The Deep: I’m so sorry.

Brenda: So, this was the actual hamster that was used in “The Boys,” besides the whole costume thing.

Producer: Is he wearing a diaper? 

Brenda: [laughs] Yeah, he’s wearing a diaper.



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