When a character in the plot is supposed to lose their limb(s), how does that special effect get portrayed without the use of computer graphics?

For example, Rust and Bone.

  • 1
    In ye olde days of yore, the used to use a mix of editing techniques (using real amputees as stand-ins), camera angles (to make it look like the person was missing a limb) and practical effects (with the person's limbs tucked behind their backs or wedged through apparently solid objects). – user7812 May 14 '16 at 7:56
  • @Richard Sounds like you've got the makings of a good answer there ... – Rand al'Thor May 14 '16 at 11:39
  • In the "Day of the Jackal" (1977), near the end of the movie Edward Fox (the Jackal) uses the leg behind the back trick along with a pair of crutches so the French police will think he is a veteran with an amputated leg. Once he gets upstairs into his hideout, he unbinds his leg so we (the moviegoers) can see how it was done. – tcrosley May 15 '16 at 4:51
  • Why do you think that shot from Rust and Bone was done without CG? – Catija Jun 10 '16 at 23:01
  • @Catija I'm not sure it was done without cg (didn't find any mention of cg), but if it was then it's very impressive and I wanted to know how. – Sparkler Jun 10 '16 at 23:24

You're looking for what the industry calls "practical effects". Rather than using post-production techniques like CGI, the disguise is created on set and may be combined with digital effects because practical is almost always less expensive.

There are several ways of doing this depending on how long it's necessary to show the cut off limb and where the actor is in the scene.

Sometimes it's a simple matter of cutting holes in surfaces and covering knees or elbows with wrappings to look like they're cut off.

An example from Forrest Gump... when Lt. Dan is in the hospital after losing his legs, he's lying in a bed with the stumps covered with bandages. As the video below shows, this effect was created by simply cutting holes in the mattress and adding fake stumps onto his knees.

Later in the scene/film, they use CGI techniques to remove his legs when they can't be hidden this way but some of the work is done practically.

Similarly, in The Deer Hunter, John Savage hid his legs in the base of his wheelchair so that he appeared to have had them amputated.

Sometimes, particularly with arms, it's possible to use costumes to obscure the limbs.

In The Unknown, Lon Chaney plays a circus freak without arms. Though it's later revealed that his character has been hiding his arms the entire time, to create the effect, he binds his arms to his torso to hide that they exist.

Alonzo the Armless is a circus freak who uses his feet to toss knives and fire a rifle at his partner, Nanon. However, he is an impostor and fugitive. He has arms, but keeps them tightly bound to his torso, a secret known only to his friend Cojo, a midget. Alonzo's left hand has a double thumb, which would identify him as the perpetrator of various crimes.

Lon Chaney in The Unknown

He appeared in another film, The Penalty, as a man with no legs. To perform this role, they put his legs in special braces to keep them bent at the knee and he "walked" around set that way. Combined with a cape-like jacket to hide his legs from behind he was able to pass as an amputee. There's some interesting gifs and images on this imgur page including this one:

Lon Chaney putting on leg braces for The Penalty

Other options include using camera angles to make it appear that the limb is missing and using stand-ins who are actually amputees for close-up shots of the missing limbs.


I believe they simply tied the 'lost' limb backwards¹, shot at the correct camera angle and spurted copious amounts of a blood-like substance from where the 'lost' limb was intended to originate from.

          Monty Python Knight
                    Stolen shamelessly from here

More on this 'special effect' here.

¹ Toward the end if this melee they may have simply buried the poor sod in the ground.

  • Check out the rust and bone link: it looks much more realistic than the gif with knights – Sparkler Jun 10 '16 at 22:50

One technique is to use a green screen (which have been around for quite a while) and simply have the actor wear a green sleeve.

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    ... this literally uses computer graphics... the question says without computer graphics. – Catija Jun 10 '16 at 21:00
  • Maybe "primitive" computer graphics but it's not the same as advanced CGI. – SegNerd Jun 10 '16 at 21:11
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    Um, actually, even "advanced CGI" regularly uses green screen technology to remove stuff that shouldn't be there. It's just better quality outcomes. – Catija Jun 10 '16 at 21:20
  • Um, you totally missed the point of my post. What I said is that high tech methods use green screens, but relatively low tech methods use it too. We can haggle over the definition of what exactly constitutes a computer, but I could also just say that cameras are computers (some are analog computers), and then everything is computer graphics. The asker wanted to know about special effects that have been around for a long time, and that is what I provided. – SegNerd Jun 10 '16 at 23:46
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    Well, your post is only one sentence long. Perhaps if you explained it more thoroughly I wouldn't be missing your point. "Use green screen" is the modern high-quality CGI solution... so if you want to explain how this has been used for decades, even before CGI was possible, it's going to take more than a one-sentence answer. – Catija Jun 10 '16 at 23:49

Before the greenscreen, there was bluescreening using film techniques instead of computer post-processing.

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chroma_key#Processing_a_blue_backdrop

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