In the first Total Recall, there's an unimportant shot where the receptioninst at Recall is changing the color of her nails. She taps one with a stylus, and it "wipes" to a different color. (I can't remember if all of them changed, or just the ones she tapped.) The effect was flawless, and this was in 1990 - way before CGI was being used! Anyone know how they did that effect?

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    I think if you look at this wiki page, you'll discover CGI had been used extensively before Total Recall. You'll remember that Tron came out in 1982 and it had a BUNCH of CGI in it. Apr 25, 2014 at 23:08
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    @Paulster2 In fact Tron was not nominated for the effects Oscar because they were "cheating", i.e. using computers to do the effects. (just a little side anecdote).
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Apr 26, 2014 at 0:46
  • @NapoleonWilson ... I didn't know that! Doesn't surprise me though. Apr 26, 2014 at 2:26
  • I just noticed her nails are a couple millimeters thick! Now I wouldn't be surprised if it's a practical effect -- a mechanical device that they just glued on top of her real nails!! May 5, 2014 at 20:40
  • @Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Wrong. They didn't have that kind of motion tracking CGI technology in 1990. They did this by... HAND, using traditional animation techniques, not by computer. Jan 28, 2021 at 1:50

3 Answers 3


According to Den Of Geek - Top SFX shots:

The nails are rotoscoped to provide an area for an animated colour transition to take place, and that's all there is to it.


refers to the technique of manually creating a matte for an element on a live-action plate so it may be composited over another background

Some other examples of "painting" over live-action film that predate 'Total Recall' (1990):

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    According to the DVD commentary (or was it a featurette?) her fingernails were actually painted their final color, and the initial color was the effect. It's a simple matter to matte out a particular color (like they do with blue and green screens), even before CGI. You matte out the color of the nails, then fill the "holes" with a new color. You don't even really need to rotoscope. The transition is animated, of course. Mar 10, 2016 at 15:59
  • It's worth pointing out that the rotocoping would have been done by HAND, just as it was with Star Wars and Roger Rabbit. Jan 28, 2021 at 1:51

CGI was actually fairly common practice by the 1990s, a watershed period for digital visual effects. Most prominently rendered in wireframe in the 1970s (Star Wars IV, 1977; Superman, 1978), by the mid-80s various scifi and fantasy films employed photoreal mapping effects (Flight of the Navigator, 1986) and were making strides in live action/digital composition and character animation (The Abyss, 1989). We tend to think of CGI in terms of photoreal humans or animals, which look dated by 2010s standards, but accepting that subtler blends of environmental digital VFX were quite common by then, and the industry's relative mastery of green or blue screen (chroma key) compositing and rotoscope animation, it's not difficult to imagine that shots like the nail color change in Total Recall were done digitally.

(The VFX team of Total Recall won the Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects in 1990 for groundbreaking use of CGI as well as an extensive mix of animatronics, stop motion and miniature set composites.)

Traditionally or digitally, the nail color change was achieved with chroma key compositing. Based on the conspicuously saturated blue/orange of the nails, it's likely the actresses's nails were painted green, making it easy to overlay any other solid color in post-production while preserving light reflection.

  • Probably very bright green :D Apr 26, 2014 at 12:33
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    This is totally wrong. This a HUGE difference between full screen CG animation (as seen in Tron and Star Wars) and mixing live footage with CGI imagery. Such things did NOT exist in 1990. The "light saber" effects in Star Wars were done by HAND. Jan 28, 2021 at 1:50

I couldn't tell you the exact technique they would have used, but I assume they just had an effect artist colour it in post-production.

For the record, CGI was being used in film to varying degrees all throughout the 1980s, though they have said that one of the only CG shots in Total Recall was for the x-ray scanner scene.

  • Much more succinct, I actually think this should be the main answer.
    – rbsite
    Apr 26, 2014 at 0:03
  • Not only was the "x-ray scanner" scene the only shot to use CG imagery, it was the FIRST Hollywood film to use CG imagery this way. And despite this, the animation was still done by hand. Jan 28, 2021 at 1:56

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