How The Honey, I Shrunk The Kids VFX Crew Pulled Off Human-Sized Insects

Filmmaker Joe Johnston got his start in the late 1970s by working on the miniatures and optical effects for "Star Wars." He would go on to co-create the design for Boba Fett in "The Empire Strikes Back" before winning an Oscar for the visual effects in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Johnston even served as the production designer on "Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure" and its sequel, "Ewoks: The Battle for Endor," in case you've ever wondered why those films look way better than you would expect for a pair of made-for-TV movies from the 1980s.

After climbing his way a little further up the ladder by serving as the second unit director on "*batteries not included" in 1987, Johnston finally got his shot at directing with "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." The now-classic 1989 comedy-adventure stars Rick Moranis as Wayne Szalinski, an eccentric inventor who accidentally shrinks his kids along with the rambunctious next-door neighbors' kids with his experimental ray gun. Unaware of what happened, he then tosses them out with the trash, stranding them in a now-giant jungle of a backyard full of jumbo bees, huge scorpions, and enormous ants.

Having come from a VFX background, Johnston was firmly in his element, bringing the many dangers of the Szalinskis' backyard to life with pure movie magic. As part of a behind-the-scenes special made for the Disney Channel, Moranis and the "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" VFX crew broke down the mix of miniature stop-motion, puppetry, trick camera shots, and different lenses they used to pull off the film's human-sized insects. That the results still hold up pretty well more than 30 years later (even stacked against modern CGI) is a testament to their ingenuity and hard work.

Flight of the bumblebee

Among the most exhilarating moments in "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" is the scene where Wayne's son Nick (Robert Oliveri) and one of the boys from next door, Ron (Jared Rushton), take a ride on a bee. As Nick and Ron hold onto the pollen-splattered insect for dear life, the scene cuts back-and-forth between them and Wayne and Ron's father, Russ (Matt Frewer), chatting in their backyards. It then shifts to the bee's POV as it soars in the air, flying right up into Russ and Wayne's faces until the latter drives it off with a baseball bat. Basically, the more you break it down shot-by-shot, the more you come to realize just how elaborate this sequence truly is.

Unsurprisingly, the process behind the scene's creation was equally complicated. For the shots from the bee's POV, "We literally flew a camera around the yard and, with a wide-angle lens in the camera, flew through the yard, just like the bee would fly through," explained executive producer and effects producer Thomas G. Smith. He went on to explain how the shots from Nick and Ron's perspective were filmed:

"[There] were two ways that was done. One, we built a giant bee that was big enough for the kids to be on, and we lay them on it, blew wind against it, rocked it back and forth, put them in front of a blue screen ... The rest of the shots [have] a mechanical bee, a very intricate, expensive mechanical bee that had joints in it and kid puppets on it that look very accurate and in great detail. This bee that we built probably cost about $30,000, just to build the bee. The [kid puppets] are probably about $10,000 a piece."

As you likely surmised, this wasn't done as a way of cutting costs. "[We did it] because we can make that bee fly with a motion-controlled camera in a way that we could never do it with a model of kids on the stage," Smith added. "So, consequently, with those elements, we were able to put them all together and mix them up and cut them quickly enough that it gives you an incredible sense of flight when you see [the finished scene]."

Antie, the hero we needed, not the one we deserved

Nine years before Pixar's "A Big's Life" and DreamWorks' "Antz" made audiences feel for a bunch of ants, "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" beat them to the punch with Antie. A regular ant scout, the insect befriends Nick, Ron, and the others (with a little help from one of Nick's discarded Oatmeal Creme Pie cookies) before sacrificing its life to save them from being killed by a scorpion. But where the scorpion was created primarily with stop-motion figurines, Antie also needed to be able to interact directly with the film's shrunken heroes and even carry them. This, in turn, led to the development of a human-sized ant animatronic puppet.

Peter Zamora, a miniatures assistant on the movie, ran through the schematics of the Antie puppet as follows:

"The [puppet] ant's being run mostly by cable. Other than that, we have the mouthpiece ... which is remote control. The eyes themselves move by remote control, and the legs work with puppets as marionettes. So it takes somewhere between 7-12 people to make the ant run. But whatever arm movements are done by the arm operator can be repeated by the ant... [Antie] can basically do anything."

Perhaps writer Shaunna Murphy put it best in an article she wrote for MTV to mark the 25th anniversary of "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." Far from a mere special effect for the audience to marvel at, Antie was "a wonderfully giving character" whose heart-breaking death actually played a vital role in the movie's plot. The day after he's slain while rescuing the kids from a "backyard scorpion" that looks like a mythical monster straight out of "Clash of the Titans," the film's young heroes use his "positive influence to wisen up a little," and gain the "mental clarity" they need to finally find their way home.

Rest in peace, Antie. You were one of the real ones.