What I really like about the effects of the superpowers in 'Misfits of Science' is the way they integrate with the characters so easily and, because of their simplicity and variety, are in so many of the scenes. Sure it's obvious when an effect is being used, but since the look of effects from the 80's is just so darn cool it doesn't matter. Also the physical acting of the cast and their reactions during an effect are so good that it makes it easy to go with the fantasy and believe in the superpowers.
—Optical / Animation Overlays
Johnny B's electricity is represented visually by the use of optical/animation overlays; all the bolts, welds, charges, sparks, speedruns, and whenever his eyes glow. The shade of blue used in the overlays for Johnny B's electrical manipulations is such a cool shade of blue. Every time it comes onscreen it's — well, it's electrifying.
"Electricity Animation – 80's style. Throughout the 80's I was doing a lot of hand drawn electricity animation work. Starting from my very first shot on ABC's AUTOMAN show, starring Desi Arnaz Jr. in 1983. It's kind of a lost art in the digital age, as is most hand drawn animation involving paper and the photo-chemical process.
We would first rotoscope the series of frames on animation paper, then animate in pencil or pen the desired fx on the corresponding frames. Then the animation would be shot on hi-con film producing a hold out pass to be run through an optical printer. There would be many exposure tests called "wedges" to find out the desired look for each frame. We would use various filters, gels, and passes to brew up the most mouth watering stuff we could do. The Automan shots led to Fx Direction for "MISFITS OF SCIENCE" starring the then rookie, Courteney Cox. Later, I'd get calls to do fx on a number of films through out the 80's."
—From CheekyPress.com - October 10, 2006
In the shot where a bullet grazes Johnny B's arm (01-02), there's a spark and he does a tumble (Mark does the tumble, not a double, because there's no camera cut). The spark of course is an overlay. It's nice to have these extra touches, because then the story element of Johnny B carrying around an electrical charge is always maintained. The same goes for all the times Johnny B is snapping little sparks, each of these shots had to go through the extra steps of getting the animation added, but it allows Johnny B to constantly be shown as being electric.
When one of Johnny B's bolts makes contact with something — zap! — it sends up a small cloud of smoke and a shower of sparks. Pyrotechnic cartridges do the job quite nicely and look cool going off.
Sometimes it's a lock or a safe that gets it, but usually the bolt is seen hitting the ground. In freeze-frame the little black cartridges can be seen on the ground at the point where the bolt is going to make contact, before the animation covers it and it detonates.
—Camera / Editing
A standard way of getting an actor into or out of a scene is to pause the camera, have the actor get into or out of frame, and then start the camera rolling again (or leave it rolling and edit out the middle). This technique has been used since the silent movie era and was presumably the one used for the speedrun effects. Once the color streaks and rotoscoped afterimages have been painted in, it looks as though Johnny B has just run too fast for the eye to see. (I've always liked how the afterimages capture the bright white of his shoes.)
When another actor is in the shot, they have to stand extremely still while the camera is paused so they'll be in the same position when it's unpaused (otherwise the seam will be obvious). For example, the scene where Johnny B's speedrun ends with him tackling Billy out of harm's way (09) would've gone something like this: Dean starts walking forward, pauses midstep when the camera is paused, Mark gets into position while Dean doesn't move an inch, Mark starts the jump, the camera is unpaused and both Dean and Mark continue moving. The end result seamlessly has Billy walking forward as Johnny B comes out of his speedrun.
Aside from the cool blue overlays, the most convincing part of the electrical manipulation effects is Mark Thomas Miller's physical acting of it. When he's feeling the kickback from a bolt, it seems as though there really is a powerful charge being let loose. When his hands are shaking with energy during charges or welds, there's a real sense of electricity coursing out. And Mark had to do all this cold too, since the electricity overlays and sound effects would've been added later, and the bigger explosions were probably filmed separately as well. He's got to go through the motions just imagining the electricity, and so do any other actors in the scenes.
It's top-notch hilarious when Mark portrays being supercharged (08, 11). The way he jitters and talks with a squeak in his voice splendidly expresses the poor guy having hold of too much juice.
During large bolts the screen whites out, and many times when Johnny B is using electricity he's lit up by it. This was presumably handled by flashing a light from off camera. In the shot where it's dark and Johnny B's eyes are glowing (08), his face gets darker when he blinks — now that's attention to detail in an effect.
In episode 11, Johnny B needs to be shown to be experiencing electro-magnetism. The first time he charges up, metallic items skip off a tray and magnet to his chest. Wires were used to pull the items off the tray, and a real magnet underneath the lab coat he's wearing would do the rest.
The carts that follow him around the lab start from offscreen, so that would've been easy to accomplish with just an off-camera push, and the bunny that sticks to him at the end was probably attached by a harness. (I can just see this between takes – Mark walking around, drinking orange juice, reviewing the script, and this little bunny is just hanging off the front of his jacket. Yeah, probably not.)
In one scene Johnny B's speedrun is lent visual variety by the use of a sped-up POV shot of racing up to Lonnie on the bike (10).
The effect of water burning Johnny B's foot at the beach (01-02), was presumably done with make-up and a steam effect. Along with Mark's pained reaction it looks very realistic — ouch!
For the effect of Johnny B's eyes glowing, it looks like Mark wore white contacts. This would make it a little easier to paint the animation overlays on top later.
There are times when Johnny B's bolt or speedrun are off camera with nothing more than the appropriate iconic sound effect used. Or the lights will flicker (03, 04) to give the impression of Johnny B's electricalness.
Blue screens were used for the scenes where El is little so that he could be placed over prefilmed background shots, and also to allow him to be seen with the other actors in the shot. This means Kevin Peter Hall's scenes had to be filmed separately and matched up with the dialog and reactions of the other actors. Whenever Billy is holding El in his hand and talking to him, Dean had to talk to his empty hand - and make it look convincing. I hope Kevin got to be on set and feed his lines in from off-camera. But whether he did that or it was all done in post, the end result is very nice; it always seems as though he really is tiny and holding a conversation with someone above him.
When El is first shown shrinking in the pilot, a different technique was used to achieve the effect (it's never used again though). It appears to have been done with blue screen and his shirt being animated on top.
Just the placement of the camera does a lot for creating a sense of scale and the size of an object. Like in shots where El is tiny on the ground, the camera is filming Kevin from high above to give the illusion of filming something small. And camera movement can create the illusion of the motion of the shrinking process. The third time El shrinks in the pilot it's a POV shot, with the camera dropping quickly and watching Jane's reaction.
Giant props were built for Kevin to interact with – like a pencil (06) or a shirt button (01-02) – and stuff was used to resemble something larger, like thick rope for twine or large sheets to be El's pile of clothes. Sometimes it's the other actor holding something small, like Dean holding up the Ken doll clothes. For the Michael Jackson doll outfit, even though it's supposed to be small in the episode, the costume department must've had to make a large outfit for Kevin's 7'2" frame (I wonder what happened to it after the show).
Another prop used is a black Ken doll. In the pilot when Billy is carrying El while El is shrunk, Dean is actually holding a 'Ken doll stand-in'. This is a cute and simple way not to have to do as many blue-screen shots.
The doll technique isn't used in the rest of the series – though in episode 17, El is seen doing zip-line research with a similar doll. Was the 'stand-in' still on set and given a cameo?
El's shrinking is most often represented by having Kevin drop out of camera, sometimes accompanied by the gazes of the characters standing nearby traveling downward to match the motion (or the reverse when El grows back - Kevin stands up into camera, and the characters' gazes travel upward). Kevin seems pretty limber (he took ballet), but it's still impressive to just go whooshing out of shot like that. In a couple of the scenes that don't cut away directly afterward, Kevin had to stay folded up out of camera range, with everyone else pretending they're looking at a tiny El instead.
Dean Paul Martin's 'imaginary' acting is really good in the scenes where Billy and tiny El interact. He's so earnest when he's lifting around the Ken doll, or even when he's not holding anything, such as when Billy lifts El up to the copier and afterward when he doesn't know where El has gotten to on the floor (13).
In the scene where Billy and El are tied to the toilets (07), nothing is shown onscreen for the shrink that El does. There's just the splash heard and later El is drying off - no cost to the effects budget for that. Yet you still feel as though El has shrunk another time. Amazing what imagination can do.
In the scene where Johnny B is first seeing El shrink (01-02), the shrinking is represented by El's shadow moving down Johnny B's face. Real simple of an effect to do, and it shows the motion of the shrink without having to cut away from Mark's perfect reaction.
The visual effect used to indicate when Gloria is using her power is a type of negative filter that fades on to the shot in a variety of hues. It must have been an easy effect to generate and not something that took a lot in post, because it's used generously, fading on and off over the whole sequence of close-ups of Courteney Cox and the person or object being moved. This is nice because that way each instance of Gloria using her TK gets to be unique to the episode — there aren't any of those irritating duplicate stock scenes that shows will sometimes resort to.
Having a character who can throw things around with her mind makes for some good opportunities for stunts — guards twirling on the ceiling (01-02), soldiers flying through the air and being pushed along the ground (01-02), guys suspended on a garage door (04). I'd love to see behind-the-scenes of how each of these shots were achieved. The one of the guys on the door can't be an upside-down camera trick because the car drives underneath them, and if they're using harnesses they hide them really well, because when they drop off the door there isn't anything that looks like it could've been holding them up and there aren't any camera cuts in between either.
Making an object move around is pretty simple - just throw it from off-screen or use wires too thin for the camera to pick up. But some of the shots must have been a little more complicated than that to do, like when Gloria is tightening the lug nuts on the Fundae (11), or when she gets Link down to the ground safely (05). Probably the lug nuts shot was done using stop-motion and Link's descent was achieved using a blue screen.
Courteney has to use acting and expression alone to sell the reality of Gloria having control over the movement of a person or object; she's rarely in the same shot as what she's moving but she always has a perfect look of intent concentration (not a look I'd want trained on me!).
The actors playing the recipients of Gloria's telekinetic control do the rest by moving as though they've just been invisibly pushed, or are struggling against her hold, sometimes to great humorous effect, like the clump of bad guys held together in the casino cellar (09).
Sometimes Gloria's power can be represented without needing to do anything special. When she helped Tatyana with her flip (12), the actress only had to perform the flip. Same with the roulette wheel ball (09), it didn't have to do anything but perform as it normally would.
Beef's make-up is really good – nice and chilly looking.
The sound effects used for the superpowers in MoS are very iconic and they sound great too: the whoosh of El shrinking; the hum of Johnny B powering up and the crackling thunder of his bolts or the whistle of his speedrun; and the mesmerizing sound of Gloria using her TK. Since the score is electronic, the sound effects were probably generated electronically also. Though it would be interesting to know if they were recordings of real noises (fun with a Tesla ball!) that were then played synthetically, the way the sound effects library was created for 'Star Wars'.