16 movie tricks you've probably always wondered about

What do they use instead of cocaine?

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Watching films is almost a sport for some of us. With the arrival of services like Amazon Prime, Mubi, or Netflix, consuming movies in large quantities became easier than ever. Let the binge-watching fest begin.

As you watch your favourite films over the weekends, you probably often find yourself wondering "how did they do that"? How did they achieve this or that particular effect on camera?

Luckily, our in-house movie geeks know the answers to the most popular movie-magic questions you might have.

  1. 1 Why are actors usually filmed from the waist up?

    The whole point of cinema as a medium is to create intimate, voyeuristic experiences.

    Shooting everything in wide angle wouldn't let us see the close ups of faces,and consequently the emotions the actors convey in their acting.

    Some would even argue that wide angle is for theatre and opera, not for cinema.

    Not to mention, there's usually a lot of equipment on the floor around the actors, like different types of cables, colorful tape that marks the spots where they should stop or move to during a take, or lamps that illuminate the set.

  2. 2 How do they make a huge crowd in a movie?

    On the battlefield, in a stadium, during political speeches or concerts - how do they manage to get so many people in one place?

    The shortest answer is - they don't.

    Sure, small budget films often go for unpaid extras or use cutaways to stock footage of crowds to make it look like set if full, but in most cases, the crowd is fake.

    Here's how they do it:
    - different camera angles can make small groups of people look like they're a part of a larger crowd;
    - colourful low intensity lights, like those often used in night club scenes, distract the viewer from other, empty areas of the frame and make the set seem full;
    - large crowds can also be digitally faked in post-production. For example, here's a screenshot from an opening sequence of Masterchef:

    Source: dailytelegraph.com.au

    - in some cases, fake plastic crowds can be used:

    Source: bitrebels.com
    Source: bitrebels.com

    That's not creepy at all, right?

  3. 3 What do they use instead of cocaine?

    The most common cocaine substitutes include cornstarch mixed with baby powder, powdered vitamins (e.g. B12), powdered milk, and sugar.

    Snorting virtually anything over multiple takes will cause nose congestion, so prop masters often coat the inside of the coke straw with Vaseline.

    When used, most of the powder sticks to the inside of the straw, instead of going up the actor's nose.

  4. 4 What about cigarettes? Do they smoke real ones on set?

    Most prop masters provide herbal cigarettes for the actors to smoke, partly because of health and safety reasons, partly because if a character has to smoke in almost every scene (like in Mad Men or most period dramas), smoking real cigarettes could have terrible effects on the actor's well-being.

    Is there a difference in taste, you may ask?

    “They [the herbal cigarettes] taste like a mix of pot and soap,” Jon Hamm, the actor playing Don Draper, says.

    What's interesting, some countries, like for example Wales, even have laws in place that forbid actors from smoking real cigarettes on set.

  5. 5 What is fake blood made of?

    There isn't one fixed recipe for fake blood, but quite often it's just corn syrup and food colouring. Some prop masters and makeup artists add a bit of dish soap as well, for texture and to make the blood more 'bubbly'.

    Since the blood is re-applied or re-touched pretty much during every take, it looks fresh and wet on film.

    Bonus fun fact: black and white filmmakers back in the day often used melted chocolate as blood.

  6. 6 How do they fake tattoos?

    In most cases, they are just glorified 'lick & stick' tattoos. A coat of hairspray or special creme helps to keep them intact during the shooting day.

    Some filmmaker choose to go for vegetable dye tattoos that fade away after a few weeks or months (depending on the recipe of the dye), but these are less popular since the intensity and visibility of the dye changes throughout the shooting process, posing a problem for visual continuity.

  7. 7 How do they get the effect when the camera zooms in, but the background zooms out?

    The effect is called dolly zoom and it's not as complicated as you might think. There are no green or blue screens involved either.

    The effect is achieved by zooming out a lens to adjust the angle of view (hence the zoom out effect you can see in the background in the gif above), while the camera dolly moves towards the subject, making sure the actor stays the same size in the frame throughout (hence the slight zoom in effect on the character).

  8. 8 How do they shoot scenes where the camera passes through a window?

    Of course, everything can be mimicked with CGI nowadays. The dissolve effect seems to be used a lot in e.g. superhero or sci-fi films.

    But in more traditional films, the effect of passing through a window can be achieved in two ways.

    They either move the pieces of the window set apart once the focus is close enough to no longer perceive the window itself (like in the clip from The Passenger above), or they just edit the footage so that it looks like a single shot when it's actually two shots.

    Complicated stuff.

  9. 9 Why are streets always wet in night scenes?

    Because it's aesthetically pleasing. Simple as that.

    The camera sees differently than the human eye, as you're probably well aware. Gaining proper contrast between the dark of the night and the low-key shades of asphalt is very hard using just a lens.

    To distinguish between the ground and other elements in the shot, like e.g. the actors or the sky, the streets are drizzled with water so that the surface reflects lights, making itself 'visible'.

  10. 10 How can actors stand eating large quantities of food on screen over and over again?

    Spit buckets. Yuck.

  11. 11 How come the sound is always perfect in movies?
    Source: http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~cema/courses/FIT3084/lectureNotes/lect22.html

    Not all sound recorded during filming is usable. Sometimes the wind is so strong that even the most skilled boom operator cannot avoid the strong currents of air messing up the dialogue.

    That's why in post-production actors are often called in to dub over parts of or whole scenes, ensuring the final edit's A*-quality sound.

    When it comes to background noises like footsteps or specific props' sounds, editors use pre-recorded Foley - clips of studio-reproduced sound effects.

  12. 12 Why are most villains shot at an angle?
    Source: oneperfectshotdb.com

    The technique is called the Dutch Angle and was first used by German filmmaker Robert Wiene in 1919.

    The Dutch Angle is used to non-verbally communicate to the viewer that the character is evil or has bad intentions.

    It also creates a feeling of uneasiness as the angle of the camera isn't aesthetically pleasing and seems unnatural to the human eye.

  13. 13 How are floods or scenes at sea filmed?

    There are a handfull of ways that flood and water scenes can be done in movies.

    One, that's been used more commonly the last few years, is CGI. The actors are filmed in a studio in front of a green screen and then superimposed onto CGI footage of water. They never even get wet.

    In some scenes where there is a lot of open water, a special set is constructed in water tanks with backdrops to make it seem like it's the middle of the ocean (this technique has been used in The Life of Pi, for example - picture above).

    The crew has control of the situation at all times and everyone's safety is kept in check. Often stuntmen and stuntwomen are involved.

  14. 14 How is a hanging scene filmed?

    The actor wears a back brace or harness under their costume and the rope is attached to the brace. Then a fake prop rope is placed over the actor's neck.

    There is still a little jolt while the stunt is performed, but, under careful supervision, it's no more dangerous than any other stunt.

  15. 15 How do they get babies to act so perfectly?

    A lot of time and patience.

    "Never work with children or animals" - W.C. Fields

  16. 16 How do they film one actor playing multiple characters?

    Of course, the most obvious answer is: split-screen.

    But more often than not, there are many more complex tricks involved as well.

    Stand-ins, or other actors who are dressed to look similar to the main characters, are often used to allow the lead actor to 'play off' someone. Tennis balls located at the same eye line as the lead actor are often used to mimic the non-existent clones.

    Then it's just shoot, change costume, repeat until the scene is filmed from all angles.

    The most recent technology that allows for multiplication of the same actor is called Technodolly.

    It's a robotic crane that has the ability to remember the camera movements throughout the scene and can repeat them as many times as possible.

    The image from a camera on a Technodolly will be then shot at the same distance and speed every time the scene is repeated, which allows for easier editing.

    Feature image © Warner Bros