Welcome to How’d They Do That? — a bi-monthly column that unpacks moments of movie magic and celebrates the technical wizards who pulled them off. This entry looks into the breathing television effect in Videodrome.
When David Cronenberg directed Videodrome in the early ’80s, he was coming off of a series of fiercely original indie horror films largely financed under Canada’s favorable tax-shelter laws. While Videodrome began life as a tax-shelter picture, early in production the project was picked up by Universal Studios. Working under more commercial auspices had drawbacks. But it also meant that Cronenberg was working with a much larger effects budget. Which, in the hands of the Baron of Blood, certainly did not go to waste.
Videodrome follows Max Renn (James Woods), a small-time porn mogul who’s on the hunt for “tougher” programming. One of his minions dredges up a pirated broadcast of a plotless torture session called “Videodrome.” Sensing he’s on to something that could redefine entertainment, Max searches for the creators of the program. However, with each exposure to the Videodrome signal, Max’s grip on reality begins to blur into something entirely new…and fleshy.
Cronenberg was only a child when television first started to ingratiate itself into people’s homes. Anxious parents warned their children not to sit too close, fearing some pernicious radiation might affect attentive minds. In a video-interview with Mick Garris, Cronenberg underlines that “it’s totally misleading” to describe Videodrome as a criticism of television. “It’s really an extension of what I’ve been doing all along,” explains Cronenberg. “Which is to see what happens when people go to extremes in trying to alter their total environment to the point where it comes back and starts to alter their physical selves.”
In other words, Videodrome is interested not in any Michael Crichton-esque conflict with science and technology so much as in initiating a conversation about how we don’t always know what we’re building or how it’s affecting us. How media shapes our perception of reality, and in so doing actually changes reality for us. How mass media can become a literal outgrowth of our psyches and vice versa.
Long before interactive screens look over our lives, Videodrome envisioned a world where we wouldn’t just look at our devices, they’d look back at us. Where we’d touch them and, in turn, they’d touch us back.
One of the central images in the film is of a swelling television screen engulfing a man’s head. In the scene, Max receives a tape from his secretary (it’s actually Betamax, Videodrome’s format of choice). After the tape swells unexpectedly in his hand, Max drops it to the floor. Finally, he regains his composure and plays the tape. On-screen, he sees media philosopher Marshall McLuhan—sorry: Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley).
As O’Blivion warns Max that Videodrome is responsible for his death, a masked figure appears and strangles him. The figure removes their mask to reveal the visage of Max’s lover, Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry). The television begins to throb with leathery veins and unprecedented musculature. Brand’s televised lips pucker as the screen swells, her suggestive voice luring Max closer. Finally, Max caresses the screen and pushes his face into her swollen mouth.
It is a compellingly disturbing scene in a film full of compellingly disturbing scenes. It is erotic in a way that somehow defies and rhymes with what conventionally registers as erotic. And, moreover, it is a remarkable and alarming special effect. Like Max, you might gape at the TV to verify that yes, that screen is in fact getting bigger. Glass metamorphosed into something stretchy and organic, that continues to convey a moving-image, unimpeded. So, while Max seems to have no difficulty, it’s a hard effect to wrap your head around. So let’s get into it:
How’d they do that?
Long story short:
A film camera shot footage of a TV screen playing a video of Debbie Harry. This film was then rear-projected onto an inflatable airtight rubber chamber inside the television.
Long story long:
The “breathing screen” effect initially fell to the special makeup effects team. This consisted of Rick Baker and his small army of EFX inc. artists who had an average age of twenty-three. Ultimately, the effect became a collaboration between all three special effects units — makeup, physical, and video.
As Baker tells it, after the success of An American Werewolf In London, the assumption was that special effects makeup artists could do anything the script called for. “I got the script for Videodrome, and it had all this crazy-ass stuff in it,” recalls Baker in a 2012 interview with Den of Geek. “I was like, ‘How the hell am I going to do this?’” In the Criterion bonus audio interview Effects Men, Baker describes Videodrome as “one of the strangest assignments [he’s] ever had.”
The television itself is a TeleRANGER model. Baker and Cronenberg chose it because its size was large enough to accommodate the workings for a mechanical effect. The team built a number of models over the course of production for different effects and for testing.