The first two episodes of the long-awaited WandaVision have arrived and audiences can finally figure out what Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) are doing channel hopping across the sitcom spectrum. Well, the latter isn’t strictly true as this double-bill doesn’t reveal the secrets behind the altered reality that mirrors old TV classics like The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy, and Bewitched. The very fun premiere not only pays homage to the comedy tone, aesthetic, and farcical narratives from the Golden Age of TV, it also uses the same techniques to create the visual magic stemming from Wanda’s fingertips. Making kitchen utensils move by themselves, fixing broken plates, and turning lights on and off are all tricks up Wanda’s suburban housewife sleeve that highlights Samantha Stephens’ (Elizabeth Montgomery) influencer status.
Special effects have come a long way since Georges Méliès stunned the world with A Trip to the Moon in 1902. The stop motion pioneer showcased the heights movie making could ascend to with an array of optical and mechanical methods that didn’t require flying to outer space. By the mid-century science-fiction explosion, special effects teams in film and television had found new ways to wow audiences. Writer Joanne Stang gets to the heart of this matter in the 1964 New York Times article “The Bewitching Miss Montgomery,” in which she gets a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Bewitched’s debut season. “When Miss Montgomery “does something,” magic is sprayed over the set: people and objects pop, disappear, explode, sail through the air, and reappear again, in a most disconcerting way,” Stang neatly sums up Samantha’s (and the production) witchy talent.
Housework is number one on the list of everyday activities that magic aids and unlike Darrin Stephens (Dick Yorke), Vision has no qualms about his wife cleaning the kitchen without exerting any physical effort. While Wanda doesn’t use a vacuum cleaner in these two episodes, it is likely she would’ve resorted to the Samantha Stephens approach. To make it look like Samantha’s magic was running the appliance by itself, the effects team tricked out an existing model that “doesn't have brushes at its bottom, but a reversible motor, which is controlled offstage with switches.” Marveling at the “trained special effects men,” Stang observed another scene that featured Samantha lighting an electric bulb without a source of power. In reality, “it is really joined to wires which run up her long sleeves, and then are ultimately connected to a 12‐volt, battery operated camper light with no shock hazard.” Wanda’s powers come in handy at the start of Episode 2, when a nighttime noise scares the couple, and neither initially wants to check out the source of this banging. Turning on the lamp without having to get out of bed is a benefit.
The man in charge of the team behind Samantha’s bag of party tricks is Dick Albain (Willis Cook did the pilot), who would go on to another spellbinding ‘60s fantasy sitcom — I Dream of Jeannie. A career spanning six decades, Albain’s other credits include A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge and Tales from the Crypt. He had 20 years of experience before coming onto Bewitched and he cites the importance of having a back-up option, “Of course we rig everything two ways, so that if it doesn't work the first time, we can get it to happen the second.” There is also the matter of how precarious these effects used to be and while safety is paramount, risk was an inherent factor: “That way we are sure most of the stunts will work, but there is a certain element of danger to the performers. When you are blowing up lamps with powder charges, there has to be. I am responsible for any injuries under California state law, so you can be sure I'm careful.”
One episode being filmed when Stang visited the set is “Just One Happy Family” from Season 1, in which Samantha’s father visits for the first time. When he finds out his daughter has married a mortal, objects (including the glass he is holding) shatter. In the second episode of WandaVision, a glass breaks in Dottie’s (Emma Caulfield Ford) hand, but it is unlikely they resorted to the same technique as Stang described:
“On another part of the set stood Maurice Evans, who portrays Samantha's warlock father. Urbane in a tie silk dressing gown, Evans exchanged witticisms with the cast, unaware that Albain was at that moment plotting the range at which he would shoot a champagne glass out of his hand with an air rifle. “We use a half‐inch steel pellet which would go through three‐eighth‐inch plate glass,” Albain confided, adding consolingly, “but we set up plywood at an angle behind it, so the ricochet goes right down.”
Authentically mirroring the 1960s ABC series, the same suburban Blondie Street set at the Warner Bros. Ranch is part of the time warp, but it is the methods for moving objects that propel the production back to the past. Despite Samantha’s promise to avoid magic, every episode would feature the signature spellcasting nose twitch. Stang revealed the witch’s secret after witnessing Samantha’s disappearing act in “Help. Help. Don’t Save Me.” After a blowup argument with Darrin, she turns herself invisible and briefly leaves her husband: “Then her suitcases flung themselves out of closets, packed themselves, clumped downstairs alone, and exited out of the front door apparently without human help—but a special effects man was walking on planks above the set, manipulating wires attached to the luggage like puppet strings.” Wires don’t need to be removed digitally when they have been “opaqued out” and the camera does not pick up the nifty effect.
Nearly 60 years later in the chaos-filled first episode, Wanda has to make a fancy dinner from scratch when Vision brings home surprise VIP dinner guests — Darrin’s boss Larry is a regular fixture at the Stephens residence. Wanda manages to pull off her housewife cooking duties with a little help from nosy neighbor Agnes (Kathryn Hahn) and a lot of magic assistance. Setting the table and pouring wine while finishing up in the kitchen is the kind of multitasking only a witch can achieve but unlike Samantha, Wanda doesn’t need to twitch her nose to unleash this useful skill.
While it looks easy for Samantha (and Wanda), one of the hardest effects (as per Elizabeth Montgomery) is when objects appear or disappear. Montgomery would freeze her extended hand before the object disappeared and Albain could not avoid appearing in the shot when he removed the object. It is then the editing job to cut any indication that Sam had a helping hand. The actress remarked to The New York Times that practice was required to hold her hands perfectly still, but there was another time-saving spell that caused more consternation:
“But even that's much easier than the scene in which I was supposed to clean up my kitchen by witchery. I sort of went swoosh with my arms raised, then had to leave them up in the air—aching—while the crew rushed in and swept and dusted to get the kitchen immaculate before the scene resumed. I'm getting better at it, I guess. I almost never flinch or recoil anymore. No matter what happens.”
Wanda also resorts to this clean-up technique and while there is no word from Olsen regarding the broken plate restoration, it is revealed on the Bewitched complete DVD box set that a special crutch-like system was later put into place so Montgomery could rest her arms in place between set-ups.
Stang does also scrutinize perhaps the greatest trick this series pulls off with its premise, “ABC describes Samantha as someone yearning to be a “normal woman scrubbing floors,” a premise which becomes patently ridiculous after one look at Miss Montgomery.” It is unclear exactly what WandaVision has up its sitcom sleeves, but a yearning for a normal life could be feeding this idyllic sitcom setting — with plenty of behind the scenes magic to avoid scrubbing floors.
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