Off-the-Shelf FX

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"I've seen more convincing dinosaurs in a packet of Wheatyflakes!"
Kryten on Gappa, Red Dwarf

An act of desperation by a cash- or time-strapped effects team in the days before digital imaging became affordable and subsequently took over Special Effects. Instead of incurring the time or expense of building their own miniatures, they instead take a shortcut by purchasing off-the-shelf toys or model kits. Depending on the quality of their manufacture (and, in the case of models, assembly), the results can range from surprisingly effective, to sub-par, to obvious Special Effect Failure.

Do note that the use of off-the-shelf models is very common for miniature work. Most model kits are often already of very high quality and can be pulled off convincingly, particularly in the use of "greebling". This is when one takes parts from a model kit, already being of great quality and put it on as detail for bigger models. A great example are the star destroyers in Star Wars, which were essentially plywood models which were dressed with loads of parts from mixed and matched kits to create what looked like extremely realistic and detailed ships.

This trope comes in two flavors:

  • Straight Out of the Box: Unmodified items being used as props. Here the item has literally just been ripped out of its packaging, and at most it is given a new coat of paint. These may require assembly, but still remain largely unmodified. Note, however, this doesn't always equate with the results looking bad or being a Special Effect Failure; if the models are convincing enough, or used as background item, it might be sheer pragmatism - why spend $500 and two days of work to make something that will appear in only a few frames, when the hobby store across the street sells good replicas for $20 and they come pre-assembled? And the creative use of paint, lighting and camera angles can further gloss over the finer details - even making the item appear to be something different than what it really is.
  • Kit-Bashing: The item is a model, toy or some other off-the-shelf product, but it is modified, altered into something else. In Hollywood and among hobbyists this is often known as "kit-bashing", where parts from several commercial model kits are combined to create a new model. A similar technique is used for CGI models as well. Kit-bashing is sometimes used just for experimental purposes, to get a general appearance and design for a prop. Other times bits of model kits are attached to custom built models just to give it texture and save time. Or perhaps only pieces of it are used into the making of something else entirely. This again is pragmatism: building a new model by gluing bits from other existing items together is both cheaper and easier than molding new parts from scratch. And the results can be equally good.

See also Special Effect Failure.

Examples of Off-the-Shelf FX include:

Straight Out Of The Box[edit | hide | hide all]

Advertising[edit | hide]

  • The first few seconds of this VW ad. Look closely and you can see the finger pushing the model car!


Film[edit | hide]

  • In V for Vendetta, Inspector Finch and V, disguised as Rookwood pull out a recording/signal jamming device at various points which looks remarkably like a folding book light, with a red LED replacing the normally white one.
  • There have been stories that the Flying Saucers in Plan 9 from Outer Space were pie tins or hubcaps. The truth was, the filmmakers made them from toy flying saucer kits.
  • Mirror Mask does this digitally, as one scene is set between a pair of enormous CG fleas one of the animators had lying around. Then again, it is a very strange movie.
  • Godzilla films are infamous for this. One really bad example comes in Godzilla vs. Gigan, Gigan is rampaging across Tokyo. You see the inside of the building that is going to be crushed by the monster in mere seconds. Inside stand two Kelly dolls, just staring at each other, and are soon crushed by the monster's claw. Now it is possible they were intended to be store mannequins, but the place does not exactly look like a store.
    • In Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, a scene with an army of crab Destoroyahs heading towards the military was rumored to have used actual Bandai figures of the creatures in addition to the actual puppets.
      • This is also parodied in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode of Godzilla vs Megalon, where at one point (for whatever reason) the main characters enter a model shop, and the robots immediately comment "Hey, we've seen these models in a fight already!"
  • The Mighty Gorga - a bad King Kong ripoff - stars a man in a gorilla suit that they bought at the store. And he fights dinosaur handpuppets, waved in front of the camera.
  • In Ghostbusters, model police cars and taxicabs were used in the Stay-Puft sequence. And in the shot where Slimer hovers around a chandelier in the hotel, said ghost is represented by a peanut spray-painted green, with optical streaks added in.
    • On the DVD commentary, Joe Medjuck (the producer) moaned about how hard to come by those police cars and 'cabs were, especially in the scale they needed.
  • In the early 80's B-grade post-apocalyptic movie Battletruck one of the protagonists uses a pair of binoculars with some sort of scanner on the top. Except that to New Zealanders it is obviously a local brand air-freshener that has been repainted.
  • Uwe Boll's House of the Dead infamously used footage from the game as scene transitions. Note they used footage from the original game, with the mid-90's polygonal graphics.
    • Moreover, footage with the "Insert Coin" message blinking repeatedly showing that it's footage from the attract screen...
  • What appeared to be an impressive (for 1981) wire-frame CGI image of Lower Manhattan in Escape from New York was actually a physical model with the buildings outlined with glow-in-the-dark green tape and filmed in black light.
  • The de-evolution guns of Super Mario Bros. The Movie are rather brilliantly Super Scopes (the SNES' light gun) re-painted black.
  • Santa Claus Conquers the Martians has the titular aliens armed with ray guns that can stun people. Which are actually perfectly normal Wham-O Air Blasters. And when I say "ray guns", I don't mean to imply that they could afford to add some sort of ray effect, or even a well placed film scratch. The guns just make the normal "pop" noise they always do, and the "stunned" actors try really hard to stand still.
  • Crapola classic Robot Monster calls for a "space platform", but gets a three-for-a-nickel model rocket instead. You can even clearly see the hand holding it up; this film WISHES it could afford a shoestring!
  • This clip from the Godfrey Ho train wreck masterpiece Ninja Terminator speaks for itself.
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode "Danger! Death Ray!" featured an obviously plastic off-the-shelf helicopter model sinking while parked atop an obviously plastic off-the-shelf submarine model in what was obviously a swimming pool.
  • Used in-universe in the finished cut of "The Case", the Amateur Film Within a Film from Super 8, in which it's very obvious that Joe eventually did agree to let Charles blow up his model trains.
  • The commercial Muzzelit MZ14 Bullpup Stock for the Mini 14 and AKU-94 kits for AKM variants are staples of movie armorer collections for use as "futuristic" guns because Bullpups Are Futuristic.

Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • Power Rangers: US-made model-based mecha footage appeared in season 3, and was achieved using off-the-shelf Power Rangers toys - with predictable results.
    • The worst example of this was the Shogun Megazord. In the show, the left arm is comprised of the White Ranger's zord, but for some reason in the toys, the white zord is pink. Since the toy is used for the Shogun Ultrazord formation, Tommy's zord suddenly inexplicably turns hot pink. Also, the chest symbol changes, and Titanus inexplicably gains the Dragonzord's chestplate in both the Ninja and Shogun Ultrazords.
    • For the curious, it's there because when Titanus' head and chest are repositioned for the Ultrazord, there is a fairly large gap in his chest intended to be filled by the Dragonzord's chestplate.
      • Also, the white Shogun Zord turns pink for a simple reason: Ninja Sentai Kakuranger had five Rangers (Red, White, Blue, Black, Yellow); Power Rangers had six (same colors plus Pink). The White Kakuranger's machines were given to the Pink Power Ranger, while a sentient Kaku mecha became the White Power Ranger's machine. For the toyline, Bandai decided to turn those white mecha pink to line up with its new operator.
    • The original Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger did this for the Ultrazord (okay, Titanus/Brachion is an actual prop model), but managed to pull it off with a combination of quick editing and decent visual effects. The difference in proportion was still obvious, but at least they put some effort into it.
      • Some other shots of the Dinozords alone on Zyuranger were pretty obviously the toys; for example, when they combined into tank mode and then transformed into mecha mode. When the Green Ranger first appeared, there were times when he stood on the Dragonzord's head and changed from a live actor to an action figure, and back again.
      • Rita Repulsa gets shrunk down and appears as a screaming (but not animated) action figure of herself. The hand holding her activates the "Swing my left arm up and down" lever "convincingly". Oddly enough, Rita did not get a figure until almost 18 years later.
    • In "A Zeo Beginning", the shot of Serpentera sitting on the moon is done using the toy.
      • Also, whenever the Zeo Megazord combined with the Red Battlezord, it was done using the toys. However, this was because the footage of doing so was from the source material of Ohranger, so it flies. Another notable example is the season's Ultrazord, Pyramidas.
    • Sentai and Tokusatsu shows in Japan have begun falling victim to this more and more in recent years. With the toys of the weapons and other items already being put into production when the shows are being shot, actors are often handed out-of-the-box toys to use. This can wind up causing even more Narm than usual since often the handles and grips of weapons are sized for children, leaving the actors to awkwardly grasp them in an attempt to cover up how badly missized they are.
  • Doctor Who used off-the-shelf Louis Marx toy Daleks for model-shot scenes of Dalek armies in "The Evil of the Daleks" and "Planet of the Daleks". The off-the-shelf toys can easily be recognised by their simplistic conical shape, which makes the "heads" proportionately much too small in relation to the "bodies". During the 1960s, the show also occasionally padded out Dalek crowd scenes with what were quite obviously cardboard cutouts (at least, with modern picture quality; at the time, they were much harder to discern).
    • "Robot" depicted a battle between a man in a robot suit and a toy tank from the Action Man range. Two Action Man dolls were also used to show the robot grabbing soldiers after it turned gigantic.
    • In the late-80s Sylvester McCoy story "Remembrance of the Daleks", the alleged "time controller" is an off-the-shelf plasma ball. Even then, such devices were reasonably common in techno-gift shops, and the obviousness of its origins made silly- and cheap- what would have appeared an impressive and credible prop a few years prior.
    • The 1996 TV movie used a commercially licensed Tardis key replica for the Tardis key prop.
    • During the production of the first revived season, the original sonic screwdriver prop was replaced with a licenced replica because the licenced version looked just as good and was more durable.
    • The revived series was criticised for using what were quite obviously Apple Mac keyboards in "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead", set in the 52nd century.
    • In "A Christmas Carol", the communicator the Doctor uses to speak to Amy is clearly a book light like this painted bronze.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series did it a few times:
    • In "The Doomsday Machine", the gutted and scarred USS Constellation was in fact an AMT plastic model; absolutely nothing was added to it, and in fact, its registry number (NCC-1017) was created by simply reordering the digits in the decals showing the Enterprise's registry number (NCC-1701).
    • The Enterprise visible through the window of the station manager's office in "The Trouble With Tribbles" is yet another AMT model.
    • Dr. McCoy's hand-held medical gizmos were actually fancy salt shakers (originally obtained for the episode "The Man Trap" that featured a salt-hungry alien, but rejected and repurposed because they just weren't easily recognizable as salt shakers).
    • They still did this even up to Star Trek: Insurrection. Riker's "manual steering column" is an off-the-shelf computer game joystick.
      • The technique of using improbable or seemingly unlikely devices for serious technology is actually used on a smaller scale in real life. Many bomb-disabling robots in service of the United States Army and Navy are handled with a control screen and portable control station... and an Xbox controller.
    • The massive battle against the Klingon fleet in the Deep Space Nine episode "Way of the Warrior" was only manageable by using a lot of model kits. That is why they decided that an old Klingon ship that hadn't been seen since the first movie was still in use, it gave the fleet more variety.
    • The original Borg cube was notoriously built out of several plastic model kit 'sprues,' that is, the plastic frames that plastic model kit parts come attached to.
    • Seven of Nine's regeneration alcove in Star Trek: Voyager was surmounted by an off-the-shelf plasma disc.
  • Arguably all of the props, models and sets from Mystery Science Theater 3000 were pulled together from model kits and found objects; after the original local-TV version of the program was sold to the Comedy Channel, the producers purposely affected the same low-budget style in every episode of the series—even the ones where they spent actual money.
    • The film Danger: Death Ray!! features a helicopter landing on a submarine... except that it's a toy helicopter (significantly different from the one used by the actors) on a toy submarine. And the toy copter slips off the toy sub as it goes down. To quote Crow: "Special effects by Billy!"
    • The dashed-together appearance of the robots is justified in-universe, as Joel built them from spare parts to keep from being lonely.
      • Although these were the "special parts" used to control when the movies begin and end. Since they include such items as a gumball machine, and a bowling pin, this suggests the whole satellite is made of spare junk.
  • Pipette fillers like these were used as sci-fi injectors/syringes/hyposprays/whatever in Farscape. There was also the bulkier device used to inject liquid explosive into bombs in "Family Ties" which was very obviously a super-soaker with a thin paint job.
    • Farscape wasn't beyond a bit of this as far as props went, the Peace Keeper comms headsets used necklaces for mics (specifically, one called "Anchara" by local Aussie company Bico), and a slightly-altered Logitech flightstick showed up as a holo-projector.
      • Don't forget Moya's "Manual control" in the premiere episode - aka Logitech trackball mouse on-a-stick
  • The new Battlestar Galactica has an example of this. On the back console of the Raptor set, a Logitech Attack 3 joystick is mounted to the console, and is clearly visible in multiple shots throughout the series.
    • Parodied in In The Pirkinning: the manual controls for light balls consist of a TAC-2 joystick, instantly recognizable by any owner of a 8/16-bit home computer.
    • Another example: Viper engines are actual military aircraft engines: retired Rolls-Royce Model 250's. Other bits of set dressing like the storage racks for ordnance are probably also surplus Air Force or Navy equipment.
    • Some of the hangar scenes contain what are very obviously commercial forklift trucks with a couple of vinyl stickers of the Galactica's unit patch.
  • In Kamen Rider Decade, Kivara has gone from being a fully CG creature to a toy on a string since episode 8. The switch is extremely noticeable, especially in one episode where they use the old CG model for precisely one shot, then bring out the toy for the rest of the episode. In episode 14 (the start of Den-O's World), they brought back the CG version, but the toy makes a return at the end of episode 27.
  • One special effect in Red Dwarf, meant to represent a vortex, is simply the camera looking into somebody's cup of coffee that had been swirled around with a spoon quickly. It passes, because Red Dwarf is a comedy anyway.
  • Done by Abed and Troy when making a Fan Film full of Stylistic Suck of the There's No B in Movie feature "Kickpuncher" in Community.
  • An episode of Andromeda used dollar store FM radios as remote controls.
  • PJ Katies Farm was notorious for this, with characters made out of plasticine and props made out of Fischer Price toys and her lunch.
  • Dollhouse does this too. The GPS tracking unit they remove from the back of the neck in one episode is shown on the sink. It is the packaging strip for surface-mount-resistors/capacitors, each bump on the strip holds one and they're cut from a long reel.
  • Apparently Terra Nova is a fan of Nerf
  • In one episode of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, where, in a scene set in the future, a squad of soldiers are exploring a submarine, they can be seen wearing xbox wireless headsets painted black.

Newspaper comics[edit | hide]


Web Original[edit | hide]

  • The crew at That Guy With The Glasses do this a lot with their skits. It makes sense, given that their budgets are a lot lower than those of anyone else on this page.
  • Present in nearly all YouTube Poops, which use no more than video samples and stock effects straight from the video editor of choice (and occasionally an after-effects program).


Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • Season 5 of Transformers Generation 1 (which was, if you're not a fan, just slightly edited re-runs of the original 80s cartoon) was introduced by a Powermaster Optimus Prime toy, made slightly less blocky with CGI. Yup. That's it.


Real Life[edit | hide]

  • In 2005, a group of Iraqi militants posted a photo online purporting to be of a captured US soldier. However, it was actually an action figure.

Kit-Bashing[edit | hide]

Film[edit | hide]

  • The Death Star trenches in Star Wars were in fact several dozen battleship model kits glued together.
    • The gap between the upper and lower shells of the Millennium Falcon is filled with the undersides of various trucks.
    • In the sequel, they used their own merchandise; the TIE Bomber's wings were taken directly from a plastic model kit of Vader's custom TIE.
    • And, let's not forget Qui-Gon Jinn's communicator: It was essentially a woman's razor.
    • The Pod racing crowd was made from Q-tips dipped in different colors of paint and positioned in the custom made stadium seating so that someone can wiggle the bottoms and make it look like a crowd shifting positions.
      • In a Straight Out Of The Box example, there are a few action figures in there too, one of which is clearly Prince Xizor. Epileptic Trees ensued.
    • Blasters across the series are real firearms decorated with model part kits and whatnot, both for ease of editing (adding the energy bolts to the scenes, timed with the effects of the blank cartridges) and so the blasters actually looked like real weapons.
  • In J.J. Abrams Star Trek, there are two items on the Conn Console in the bridge that will seem very familiar to any one who works retail. Apparently, bar code scanners are vital tech for Federation starships.
  • In Back to The Future Part II, the garbage insertion device on top of the "Mr. Fusion Home Energy Converter" on the new improved DeLorean Time Machine, was actually a coffee bean grinder (a Krups Coffina model, to be specific...which actually a highly valuable item among BTTF collectors, especially those who build models of the DeLorean).
  • Used a lot during Blade Runner for textures. During the extras, the model builder reveals that this is common practice. When it comes to making textures for a model, they tend to use kits, as they can provide nice detail at a great price.
  • In the stop-motion adaptation of Coraline, at least some of the flowers in the garden scene are made out of dog toys, with various mechanisms hooked onto them to move them between the frames without relying on CGI.
    • The flowers on trees were created with popcorns. Lots of them.
  • The Tumbler in The Dark Knight Saga was created by through kit-bashing.
    • Or, more specifically, they were initially designed through kitbashing; afterwards there were four custom built full size street ready versions created and driven for exterior shots.
  • In XXX, the heat-seeking rocket bazooka is clearly a Sony handycam with a couple of pieces of PVC pipe attached and then dipped in gray paint.
  • The Ecto-1 from Ghostbusters is a life-sized example of kit-bashing. Every part you see is commercially available.


Live Action Television[edit | hide]

  • In the Doctor Who episode "The Sea Devils", they could get stock footage of a nuclear submarine on the surface, but not underwater. The underwater shots were, as described in the DVD commentary, a model sub bought from Woolworth's. Hilariously, however, this little submarine wound up causing an insane amount of trouble for the producers. As it turns out, the submarine they used was kitbashed with a rotor from a vacuum cleaner to make a 22-propeller sub. And the UK at that time had just turned out 22-propeller subs. Which was a state secret. And the footage was at first convincing enough to make the Navy believe that footage had been given out. You can see how this led to problems.
    • More recently, "The Runaway Bride" had the villains using a remote control - which was essentially a modified Nintendo 64 controller.
  • The pile of Borg corpses in the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Scorpion, part 1" were just action figures cut up with a multi-tool and glued together. (The effects people remarked that it required very little repainting to make them look realistic, and that they were shocked at the amount of detail whoever created the molds for the toys had put into them.)
    • The need to have a large number of starships in the days of physical models also led to Deep Space Nine featuring a fair number of kitbashed Starfleet ships in the background as well.
      • Some were even Christmas ornaments!
    • Most of the ships and debris at the Battle of Wolf 359 were kit-bashes.
    • The act of kitbashing is "honored" in Star Trek Online via the customization methods in place for Ships - a player can make their own distinctive designs by mixing pylons, nacelles, and saucers from the different official ship classes (themselves often based on the kitbashes from Deep Space Nine). One notorious case of this from the shows is the similarity between the "Akira-class" escort seen in Deep Space Nine, and the NX-01 Enterprise from, well, Star Trek: Enterprise - it was essentially the same ship, just turned upside down!
  • The opening of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy TV series shows the sun rising over a lovely landscape. Many viewers wrote in asking where it was, except for the model railway enthusiasts, who recognized the commercially available trees.
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000 used everything from car seats to gumball machines to vases to create the robots used throughout the series' run.

Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • Gerry Anderson vehicles often used this, whether Supermarionation or live-action, especially the Pod Vehicles in Thunderbirds. They went through a lot of Tiger Joe tank tracks, among other things.
    • This is why everything in Gerry's TV series was Made of Explodium; models were endlessly converted and re-used so they never blew up an actual model. Instead they stopped the camera, removed the model, which was too valuable for future use to destroy, and replaced it with a bomb and filmed the explosion. The result was that the model appeared to vanish into an all-consuming fireball.
    • Many of the models are seen disintegrating as they fall from cliffs, are dropped or collide with towers; but most are rebuilt and repurposed in later episodes; notably the half-track trucks. Several aircraft are visible in backgrounds that had been "destroyed" in earlier episodes, notably the "Red Arrow" fighter (a modified SAAB Draken).
      • This site shows how easy the kit-bashing for the Red Arrow likely was.
      • The Draken was also used as the basis for another fighter in the spisode The Cham-cham, though whether it was the Red Arrow recycled is unknown; probably not, since it would have been easier and quicker to make it from scratch. Another aircraft that got used a lot was the F-104 Starfighter; its fuselage, in particular, was used as part of at least 4 aircraft in the series, ranging from the Zombite fighter from The Uninvited to the ubiquitous Air-Sea Rescue jets seen in many episodes.
    • Additionally, if you look on the back wall during the launch sequence of Thunderbird 1, you can clearly see a lemon squeezer used as part of the detailing.
    • In a similar fashion, most of the Mysteron complex on Mars (from Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons, of course) was made from kitchenware—salad strainers and the like.