The Sleight of Hand in ‘Addams’ : Movies: How did they do that? Tony Gardner’s Alterian Studios was responsible for much of the special effects in ‘Values.’ It’s all a matter of ‘illusion,’ he says.


Wednesday Addams is standing against the wall at Alterian Studios. As soon as her wig comes back from the production company, Wednesday will join Darkman, the Tommyknocker and a life-size hippo on permanent display of Alterian’s most beloved children.

Much of the special-effects work that Tony Gardner’s Alterian Studios did for “Addams Family Values” ended up as “blink and you’ll miss it” moments in the film, but if you don’t blink, you’ll go home wondering, “How did they do that?”

And that’s just the reaction Gardner hopes for.

“I think it all goes back to starting as a magician,” Gardner said. “The whole thing was the illusion and being able to fool somebody.”

Gardner, now 30, got his start apprenticing with three Academy Award-winning special effects artists–Rick Baker, Stan Winston and Greg Cannon (who won for his work on “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”). Two particular illusions Gardner created with his studio stand out in “Addams Family Values”: Wednesday’s blending into the woodwork–literally–and Baby What, Cousin Itt’s new offspring.

For the scene in which Wednesday (Christina Ricci) camouflages herself as part of a wall to spy on the sinister new nanny, Debbie (Joan Cusack), Gardner and his crew had to make a full body cast of Ricci and manufacture a stand-in dummy. Instead of needing two hours to be put into full makeup, Ricci could simply lean into the dummy’s fake neck, leaving only her face needing to be made up.

Gardner didn’t have to worry about dealing with a potentially prickly actor with Baby What: the tyke is entirely mechanical. There were other challenges, though. The guidelines he received from director Barry Sonnenfeld and visual effects supervisor Alan Munro: “Here’s a ball of fur: make it cute, make it happy, make kids want to relate to it, make adults think it’s precious and want to hold it, and . . . good luck.”

The resulting Baby What gets one of the biggest laughs in the movie, but more rewarding to Gardner was the reaction of the film’s crew. “I think the reward,” he says, “really comes from going on set and taking something that’s a bunch of motors and foam wrapped over fiberglass, creating something that’s alive and watching a film crew–probably your most jaded audience in existence, because they’ve seen it all–get excited about it, whether there’s a person in it or not.”

Gardner’s studios also built the miniatures that stand in for the Addams house and Uncle Fester’s new house (“We called it Debbie’s Dream House” for the nanny character played by Cusack, who plots to wed Fester). The Addams house is in many shots, but Debbie’s Dream House was built for one main purpose–to blow up.

“It was designed to explode and obliterate itself instantaneously, like a Looney Tunes cartoon,” Gardner said.

Though called a miniature, the exploding house was actually 16 feet tall and 28 feet long, taking up a large chunk of the warehouse where Alterian is situated, in Irwindale.

“Everyone had to work around it and walk around it,” Gardner said. “(Then) all this stuff drives out to the set one day on a Friday and they come back on Monday with two milk crates”–all that was left of Debbie’s Dream House. Even the tables the house was built on were destroyed.

The house wasn’t hard to build, Gardner says, because “we’d done a lot of exploding bodies in the past and we were able to use a lot of the existing technologies for it,” and there was a certain amount of professional satisfaction in those two milk crates.

As a child, Gardner might have had a premonition about the line of work he would eventually end up in. He was fascinated by the magic set his grandparents bought him when he was 6.

“I picked up this box where you put a card in and it’s got a fake bottom and (the card) falls. Well, I picked it up without reading the instructions, put a card in it, closed it and opened it and the card was gone. . . . Then I turned it over and I shook it and the card fell out from the fake bottom. Then I got it. I was like, ‘It’s fake! It’s not real!’–and I was hooked.”