One of the most amazing illusions in “Forrest Gump,” a movie chock-full of special effects that opened Wednesday, has nothing to do with old newsreel footage–but with Gary Sinise playing a Vietnam veteran with both legs amputated.
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Sinise, 39, who has both legs, surprised even himself with his performance as Lt. Dan, a cocky Army officer who is wounded in the Vietnam War, losing both legs. He is shown both before the injury, as an able-bodied officer, and after, in a wheelchair, with both legs gone from the knee.
“The first time I saw (the finished film) I was shocked by it,” Sinise said recently while on a break from researching “Apollo 13,” which like “Gump” stars Tom Hanks. “I guess I was unprepared for just how great the effects would be, because I know what it looked like when we were doing it.
“Bob and Ken are geniuses,” he said, referring to director Robert Zemeckis and special-effects supervisor Ken Ralston. “They were constantly working it out, making sure we were shooting it the right way so we could figure out the effect later on. When I saw it later I thought, ‘Those were really stunning, flawless effects.’ ”
The filmic effect of virtually erasing Sinise’s legs was accomplished in a variety of ways: in the editing room, with computer assistance and with props, including a specially designed wheelchair, during the shooting of the film.
Lt. Dan is first seen striding purposefully in a Vietnamese jungle encampment. Shortly thereafter, he is shot by the Viet Cong and saved from bleeding to death by Gump, played by Hanks. Through the rest of the film Sinise’s embittered character is shown in a wheelchair.
“In my very first scene we wanted the audience to see my whole body,” Sinise said. “So all I have on are boxer shorts and you see my full figure and I’m walking along. We wanted to have an active scene where you saw that he was a strong guy, so we could really take it physically to a new place.”
One scene intended to shock the audience shows Sinise’s character being lifted from his bed in an Army hospital, revealing his legs reduced to bloody stumps. That effect was done in post-production, Sinise said, with a computer that erased all trace of his legs.
It was so effective that Sinise, during a screening he attended, said he overheard someone ask, “Who is that legless actor they got?”
There is a pivotal emotional moment for Lt. Dan when he falls from his wheelchair in a bout of drunkenness and Gump attempts to help him. He snarls and waves off Gump, bouncing and dragging his body back to the safety of his chair. At that moment it is hard to believe that Sinise is anything but an amputee in reality.
The wheelchair in which Sinise sits was designed by New York magician and special-effects wizard Ricky Jay. The chair was structured in such a way, with a thin, slanting seat, that Sinise’s legs were folded under and not visible.
Ralston, the special-effects supervisor, said the design of the wheelchair was the key to the effects surrounding Sinise’s character.
“For scenes on the boat where he falls out of the wheelchair or leaps into the ocean, we took a hunk out of the side of the boat, so he could move his legs where no one else could (see), then used a computer to reinstate that part of the boat,” Ralston says. “There was this open slot where he moved his legs and you saw the stumps, and the pant legs were folded under just right. Then we went back and created the shadows passing over the cutout area.”
Indeed, those in the audience will be trying to figure it out. Anytime the audience can perceive the special effects, says director Zemeckis, it breaks the magic and can jar them from the story, so pains were taken to make the effects seamless.
“When you see Gary Sinise with his legs off, even though it’s flawless, you say, ‘How do you do that?’ ” Zemeckis says. “Then hopefully you accept it as just another film illusion.”*