It's Always Sunny Tried To Copy One Of Horror Cinema's Most Dangerous Special Effects

The gang in "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" are always getting themselves into trouble, but the series creators can't be quite as reckless as their characters. As lawless as the series may seem, they have to abide by the same safety codes as every other major network show. The much-needed protection of unions and insurance has made it so cruder methods used in the filmmaking days of yore are no longer kosher on set. Unfortunately, that means that certain dangerous practical effects from the gritty New Hollywood era have gone the way of the Dodo. So when the "Sunny" creators wanted to mimic an effect from acclaimed filmmaker David Cronenberg's early career hit "Scanners," they ran into a major roadblock.

An important moment in American history is re-imagined in "The Gang Cracks the Liberty Bell," in which the gang's timeless adversary Rickety Cricket gets his head blown off violently (albeit accidentally) with a musket. The main inspiration for this shot, the series creators revealed on the "Always Sunny" Podcast, was Cronenberg's 1981 movie.

"We were like, 'We know exactly what we want it to be,'" co-creator, showrunner, and star Rob McElhenney recalled telling the special effects team. "'We want it to explode in a billion pieces.' [...] So we were saying, 'Great, make it look like 'Scanners.” And the visual, the special effects guys were like, 'We can't do that.' And we were like, 'What are you talking about? It's 30 years later.'"

Technology may have advanced in the decades since "Scanners" was made, but certain things just can't be emulated. After trying and failing to blow Cricket's head up with pyrotechnics, the "Sunny" special effects team researched how the "Scanners" team accomplished the famous shot of Louis Del Grande's head exploding. Unfortunately, the answer they came up with was not exactly up to modern standards.

The exploding head from Scanners

When the "Scanners" crew tried to visualize the protagonist's (literally) mind-blowing power, they went through a long sequence of trial and error before finding the method that worked.

"They filled the head with shell macaroni and vermicelli and all blood," the film's director of photography Mark Irwin said in a 2016 behind-the-scenes segment for TIFF Originals. "It was great. But they couldn't — we did this test and, every time we put a squib in there, you'd see the spark."

Just like the "Sunny" team, the "Scanners" crew also found pyrotechnics ineffective. They created "a massive amount of smoke," said special effects makeup artist Stephen Dupuis, adding that the resulting shot "looked more like the Death Star than, you know, a human head exploding."

Many different attempts were made using a variety of effects and dummies of various materials. "Probably the one where it sort of vaporized would've been the most realistic, but it didn't look very good," added the film's editor Ronald Sanders, a frequent collaborator of Cronenberg's.

Finally, Gary Zeller of the special effects department decided that enough was enough. He took a double-barrel shotgun in hand, crawled underneath the dummy, and pointed the gun at the back of its head.

"We all headed for the hills except for the camera guys," Dupuis recalled. "And he just shot it, and it just like — it was fantastic. It's just like, the image was mind-boggling. You see the teeth, the eyeballs just shooting out and everything. All in like perfect detail. So, there you go."

The Sunny creators wanted to try it, but the effects team said no

When the "Sunny" co-creators heard about the dangerous method by which this legendary "Scanners" shot was achieved, it didn't deter them from wanting to pursue it.

"[W]e were like, 'Let's do that,'" McElhenney said on the "Always Sunny" Podcast, recalling again his conversation with someone on the show's special effects team. "And he was like, 'We can't do that. It's not the 1970s.' So at the same time when they were burning cigarettes on sets, they were taking shotguns — just shotguns and live rounds on set, blowing heads up."

In the end, it appears that the crew opted for a combination of practical and digital effects. The explosion is decorated with a splatter of CGI blood, the texture and dark-red color of which stands out against the real fake blood, a mark of the crude digital tech of 2008. The dispersing eyeballs and teeth of the dummy do closely mimic the explosion in "Scanners," but the shot is still not quite as satisfying as the original.

"Now, in 'Scanners' I believe, I feel like the face, it explodes, but the face actually, like, flaps in a really interesting way, which we never quite [emulate]," series co-creator and star Glenn Howerton concluded.

Did the Sunny crew do the right thing by foregoing the gun?

While it was impossible to get the exact effect from "Scanners" without endangering members of the crew, the diminished impact of the explosion was worth the price of everyone's safety. Particularly in the wake of the tragedy on the "Rust" set, gun safety in the entertainment industry is more imperative than ever. Of course, "The Gang Cracks the Liberty Bell" was shot over a decade before that tragic event, and it's unlikely that the "Sunny" creators would take these matters so lightly today. The show might be irreverent, but its creatives care about their crew — many of the same crew members have worked on the series for years, and it's unlikely they would do so in an unsafe environment.

The sets of Cronenberg's films had a lawless feel to them in the '70s and '80s, and guns weren't the only thing that compromised the safety of the cast and crew. Smoking on sets has since been prohibited by the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement and other restrictions but, back in the day, lighting one up behind (and in front of) the camera was the norm. In fact, on the set of "Total Recall," not only were the crew members smoking cigarettes, but entire buckets of cigarettes were burned "for atmosphere," Megan Ganz noted, recounting an old yarn the filmmaker told her while working together on the set of "Community."

Although smoke machines had existed for years, it's possible that Cronenberg opted for the more dangerous option to create the desired visual effect, just as he had done on the set of "Scanners." The director eventually quit "Total Recall" and was replaced by Paul Verhoeven, who insisted the entire film be rewritten. The shots that Cronenberg described were likely cut altogether, which means the crew endured all that secondhand smoke damage for nothing.

The Sunny cast and crew are still a lawless bunch

The "Sunny" cast and crew might be bound to the bureaucracy of network television, but they've still managed to pull some pretty risky moves over the years. Kaitlin Olson, who plays the gang's sole female member, Sweet Dee Reynolds, does all of her own stunts. Some of them have put her at serious risk of physical harm, particularly her unforgettable fall in the season 4 episode "Who Pooped the Bed?" where she wobbles out of a shoe store in a pair of ill-fitting heels and spills onto the sidewalk, slamming her head into a car door so hard it leaves a dent.

"We had a stuntwoman do it, and it didn't look very real, and then Kaitlin did it, and actually ran into the car, probably almost breaking her neck," series co-creator and Olson's co-star Charlie Day told Buzzfeed back in 2015. "It's just one of the funniest moments of physical comedy I think in the history of the show."

Despite how painful it was for Olson to perform this stunt, she knew that it would be worth the effort. After all, a stunt woman's job is to perform a stunt safely, not comedically, and Olson knew that physical comedy was a huge part of her character.

"I think [the stuntwork]'s part of the acting," she explained to Yahoo! News in 2013. "I don't want someone else to do it for me. So, yeah, I needed to see a chiropractor many times afterward, but whatever, it worked out."

So, in conclusion, sometimes it's worth playing a little fast and loose to capture an incredible moment for a film or show. However, firing a gun on the "Sunny" set would have been far more trouble than it was worth for a single shot. CGI might not have the incredible texture and pop that the gunshot created in "Scanners," but the sacrifice is worth the price of everyone's safety.