The Lost Art of Aging Not-So-Gracefully
Say you want to age 2,000 years in two minutes. What’s the best way to do it?
There are two different ways:
1) Take the approach used by the title character in The Twilight Zone’s” Long Live Walter Jameson”. Find an alchemist, pay him to experiment on you, and wake up to discover that you are, in fact, immortal. Then survive without an accident for two millennia. Sure, it takes a degree of luck normally reserved for mega-jackpot winners, but it’s possible.
2) Use the relatively simple make-up technique that William Tuttle used on actor Kevin McCarthy to create the illusion that Mr. Jameson was beginning to turn to dust before our eyes.
I say “beginning” because I want to focus primarily on the start of the transformation. The latter stages were done in a more conventional way: Tuttle applied old-age make-up to McCarthy off-screen, then he was filmed. But the first part of this aging process was accomplished in one shot with no cut-aways. We know there was no CGI in those days, so how was it done?
Let’s allow McCarthy himself to explain:
The ten or fifteen seconds on the screen when I age was done with red and green lines on my face. We shot the film in black and white with red and green filters. When we switched the color filters, the lines that were obscured [then] appeared on the screen and it looks like I age without any special effects.
The man who did the make-up on me that day told me when he did the same trick for [the 1932 classic] “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” it cost $5,000. Now he was doing it for The Twilight Zone, and it was costing them $25,000!
According to Martin Grams’s book “The Twilight Zone: Unlocking a Television Classic,” Tuttle’s first idea was to show Jameson aging by using the “lap-dissolve” method featured in movies such as The Wolf Man (1941). He thought he would apply make-up to McCarthy and to a second actor in stages. They would then film the stages, blending each one into the next.
But trial and error proved that the color-filter technique offered a more realistic-looking transformation. There’s no question they made the right call. The shot lasts only a few seconds, but it’s remarkably effective.
Unfortunately, the color-filter technique is largely a lost art. But we can’t blame that on computers. No, McCarthy’s explanation shows the real culprit: color film. Only something filmed in black and white would allow you to make colored lines on an actor’s face temporarily invisible.
For the rest of the transformation, Tuttle used individual pieces — forehead, cheeks, chin, etc. — that were based on a “life mask” made of McCarthy. Over that, Marc Scott Zicree notes in “The Twilight Zone Companion,” folds and wrinkles could be added to show time catching up in a hurry with Walter Jameson.
His demise may not have been as gruesome as what Edgar Allan Poe describes in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” but it’s a startling scene nonetheless. Who can forget the final shot of Jameson — now literally a pile of dust, his clothes stretched out and empty — as he begins to blow away?
The entire episode shows what is possible when you have the best artists working at the top of their game. Charles Beaumont’s script, with its profound reflections on the ramifications of immortality, is aided beautifully by visual wizards who were determined to make the show look as memorable as it sounded.
“Last stop on a long journey,” Rod Serling points out in his closing narration. Fortunately, strong episodes like this — coming in the middle of The Twilight Zone’s ground-breaking first season — ensured that our journey into the fifth dimension would be a lengthy and entertaining one.