Hollywood Lost and Found
Props and Artifacts
The "Poltergeist" House Model
Whats That Box of Trash on Spielbergs Piano?
Spoiler warning: If you have never seen "Poltergeist," you may not wish to read this essay unless you would like to know part of the films finale.
One of the most startling images at the conclusion of "Poltergeist" (1982) is an entire house being sucked into a vortex and disappearing completely in one continuous shot.
Created by the wizards at Industrial Light and Magic with Richard Edlund supervising the special effects for the film, the shot depicted the ultimate end of the Freeling familys house after being over-run with restless spirits. The home completely implodes, and is quickly sucked into a black hole at the houses center.
The actual house used for filming was closely studied, and over several weeks, an identical miniature was constructed. Even the interiors were accurately reproduced, down to the furniture within. Measuring six feet wide and four feet high, the model created for the sole purpose of being destroyed cost well over $25,000.
The miniature was constructed to break up quickly, and on cue. Concealed cables built into the model were attached to the furniture and window frames, and when pulled would draw them toward a large black funnel, where a powerful vacuum would ingest all the resulting debris. For added measure, Edlund and machinist Gene Whiteman were armed with pump action shotguns to blast the model into tiny bits.
The model was poised on top of the funnel, pointing up - with the camera on a scaffold above it, looking down. The 35mm camera ran at 360 frames per second, so that when shown at the proper speed, each second of real time would be slowed down to 15 seconds on the screen.
It was all over in about five seconds. It was screened the next day for the crew at ILM, and then later for the films producer, Steven Spielberg. Although it was a little under exposed - it looked great.
Often, after effects work on a show is over, some key models from the film are presented to the director and producer. But all that was left of the "Poltergeist" house model was a pile of debris. None the less, it was all carefully scooped out of the funnel and off the studio floor, encased in a plastic box, and sent to Spielberg.
He was delighted with the item, which became a great conversation piece. It has been spotted on his grand piano in his office at Amblin on the Universal Studios lot.
- Steve Lee
16 October 2005
Smith, Thomas G. Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects. New York: Ballantine, 1986.
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