The character of Thing in The Addams Family and Addams Family Values might just be the least-dated effects work of 1990s cinema.
When we talk visual effects breakthroughs in 1990s cinema, sequences such as the morphing of Robert Patrick’s T-1000, a T-Rex stomping around and the White House going up inevitably – and rightly – come to mind. That, and perhaps the subtler effects work in films such as Forrest Gum
However, back in 1991, a quite superb piece of effects work seamlessly brought to life the character of Thing in The Addams Family. I remember Laurence Rickard – he of Yonderland and Bill – once remarking that Thing was as impressive a piece of visual effects work as he’d seen around that time, and I agree with him. Not least in opening scene of the peerless Addams Family Values, from 1993. Take a look if you want a refresher…
Behind the scenes, of course, it was a challenge and half to realise Thing on screen.
Firstly, there was the search for a performer, someone whose hand could, well, run, jump, skid along the floor and all sorts of other clean things that a hand needs to do. The hand had to be a character, and a human was needed to get that across.
Thus, a call was put out to casting agents in Hollywood for a male hand, that wasn’t too hairy, was quite big, and could get across character. “Ideally we were hoping to find a very gnarled hand”, casting director David Rubin told Empire in its January 1992 issue.
The person who nearly got the part was an actor and puppeteer by the name of Jake Tate. His hand was of such a size he could “pick up a child by the head”, although that’s one of the macabre acts that wasn’t actually required by the screenplay. The Empire article also revealed that a dancer, actor and mime artist by the name of Zoot was in the running, and his party piece was to take a latex kitchen glove, then “cut a finger out of it and I rolled it up like a condom and put it in a piece of foil, like a package”.
He then practised basically taking the makeshift condom out of the package and putting in on (his hand). It wasn’t enough to get him the role, as again, it was a skill that the script didn’t call for.
Instead, a part-time magician by the name of Chistopher Hart prevailed, his key qualities being “extremely facile” and the fact that he “has really long fingers”. Hart’s highest profile work to this point had been assisting David Copperfield in his shows (doubling for him in one or two of his illusions).
As David Rubin also added, Hart’s demeanour served him well. He was required for filming to be on set – and the first film had a very, very trouble production – and to wait around with not a single line to utter in the movie. Hart delivered, and his hand also brought Thing to life in Addams Family Values and the best-forgotten Addams Family Reunion.
Here’s a video of Thing highlights…
Hart became for a while Hollywood’s go-to for dismembered hands on screen. You’ll spot his work in the episode of the Angel TV series entitled ‘The Hands’, and – of course – in the horror comedy Idle Hands. All the while he kept up his magic work, too.
There was still effects trickery involved of course in bringing Thing to life, and for that, the job was in the – yep, fraid so – hands of visual effects supervisor Alan Munro.
In an excellent piece by Ian Failes here, he broke down what was involved in the process. The brief overview is that he was called in back in 1990 and asked how he was going to bring Thing to life, and his immediate concern was the casting of the hand. He cited Fred Astaire as a reference point for the characteristics and grace of the character.
There was some discussion – albeit brief – about opting for a puppet rather than an actual human being. A test was done, and quickly dismissed. They were going to film the hand for real, and then apply effects work.
To quote Ian’s article, “we decided to shoot all shots in two passes — with and without Chris. Chris would wear various prosthetic wrists. For front, top and profile shots, Chris would lie face-down on a car mechanic’s dolly, his arm outstretched, wearing a black sleeve. The false prosthetic wrist would be added, turned upwards, giving the illusion that his missing body was positioned above. For shots from behind (or when Thing had to turn around), Chris would be positioned above the camera, with a prosthetic placed around his actual wrist (to create an edge)”.
The full article goes into a lot more detail, and is well worth a read.
The post-production process required that Hart’s body would have to be painted out of the film via a process called rotoscoping. It involves tracing over movie footage one from at a time, in an era where a computer couldn’t do a lot of the heavy lifting. Effects wizards ILM were brought in to help oversee the process, unsurprising given that rotoscoping had been used on the lightsabers of the Star Wars saga extensively.
In the case of The Addams Family, the take that included everything but Christopher Hart was rotoscoped onto the other, to take everything but Hart’s hand out of the shot. There were also some moments where mechanical hands were used, but spotting them – and I’ve watched the film a lot – is no easy task.
It’s telling that whilst lots of effects work of the 1990s now looks quite dated, Thing has prevailed. That magical mix of practical with a bit of trickery stands the test of time. Furthermore, Thing feels like a character in the first two films in particular. And watching the new The Addams Family animated movie on Netflix over the weekend, I found it better than I was expected, but still a good distance short of what had been achieved in live action more than 25 years earlier…
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