Safety Came Second To Special Effects In The Early Days Of Smallville

It can be difficult to grasp just how influential "Smallville" was back in 2001. In 2022, a year when all screens big and small are dominated by superheroes, it's strange to imagine a time when a Superman prequel show was anything but a safe bet. Somewhat miraculously, "Smallville" ran for a whopping 10 seasons, beginning its run on The WB and wrapping up on The CW in 2011. The series centers on Clark Kent (Tom Welling) growing up in Smallville, trying to navigate the turbulence of adolescence, all the while coming to terms with his rapidly-developing superpowers, and dealing with Smallville's "meteor freak" population.

"Smallville" also focused on Clark's friendship with his future arch nemesis Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) and his burgeoning romance with Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk) — though the series lasted so long that he eventually traded Smallville for Metropolis, leaving Lana behind, and ending up where we all knew he would: with Lois Lane (Erica Durance).

One of the major hurdles of making a TV show like "Smallville" is the special effects. Thanks to the show's "no tights, no flights" mandate, Clark didn't spend much time airborne, but the guy has plenty of other abilities and fights all kinds of villains throughout the course of the series. The importance of special effects in a superhero project is undeniable.

One particularly memorable stunt happens in the very first episode, after Lex hits Clark with his car and the two go over the bridge. Clark saves Lex's life and their friendship is built on the lie that Lex never actually hit Clark, but rather, the young hero dove in after him. What you may not know is how scary it was for Rosenbaum to shoot the scene taking place in the river's watery depths.

Drowning on dry land

Rosenbaum told The Hollywood Reporter that the stunt for the pilot was shot in a 12-ft water tank, which Welling recalls being about 50 feet wide. Both actors had to take scuba lessons beforehand, but it was Rosenbaum who had to be put in the car 12 feet underwater. Rosenbaum explained:

"I started to have a panic attack. They closed the door and I just had to get out. I tried again and had another panic attack."

Welling added: 

"There was a safety diver with a valve. If Michael put his hand like this (Welling gives a signal) they would stick it in his mouth. OK, that's great, but you are still very uncomfortable. It's a scary moment. You can't see."

Thankfully, Welling was super supportive of his costar. Rosenbaum continued:

"I go up to the surface, and Tom was relaxed. 'Dude, we'll get it. You can do this.' He made it really comfortable for me. In this murky water down in a car, weights are on you, you're breathing into a tube. Tom comes in, he grabs me, he takes me out of the car, I go up and [director] David Nutter goes, 'That's it, we got it.' One take."

Rosenbaum was no doubt incredibly relieved to have the whole thing over after a single take. Who wouldn't be? While it seems as though every precaution was taken, it still sounds like a harrowing experience. Scenes like this require so much work, from the incredible stunt performers to the special effects team to the crew, and of course, the actors.  It certainly did made for some great TV, and despite any difficulties, both Welling and Rosenbaum speak very fondly of their experience on the show.

You'll believe a man can run really fast

Stunts are difficult enough, but "Smallville" had to make the audience believe that Clark was an alien with the powers of a god. Everything about him is super: his strength, his speed, even his breath. Throwing in heat and X-ray vision, as well as invulnerability, doesn't even cover everything he can do. Making this work on a TV budget in 2001 was no easy feat, so the cast and crew had to get creative. Welling told THR:

"I remember trying to figure out super speed. They were like, 'We don't know. Let's figure it out.' We did a couple of things. At one point I was on the back of a Ford pickup truck that, in the back, had a treadmill that I was running on. Obviously that was dangerous. That was how we did it at the beginning. Then heat vision, X-ray vision — we were figuring it out as we went."

They did indeed figure it out as the series progressed and Clark's powers only developed further. Viewers may not have gotten to spend much time soaring through the clouds with Superman, but that was never the story "Smallville" was trying to tell. The show was always more about understanding who Clark Kent is, which is something even the comics hadn't covered in quite that much depth. Clark's abilities were largely a metaphor for the myriad struggles of growing up, and ultimately fans came to really love this version of the character. Superman is many things, but relatable is not typically one of them, and "Smallville" changed that. Welling may not be the definitive Superman, but for many he'll always be the most beloved Clark Kent.