The Omen (1976): how its effects were achieved for just $25,000

The Omen
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The Omen may have been a huge hit in 1976 – but when its effects budget ran over by £1000, 20th Century Fox wanted answers.

Slight spoilers for The Omen lie ahead

1976’s horror hit The Omen is notable for a whole host of reasons. Notwithstanding the fact that the film itself remains something of a classic, it was also the first hit movie for late director Richard Donner, the start of an franchise that tries to continue to this day, and Jerry Goldsmith’s music was hardly on the shabby side too. Also on the credits is Stuart Baird, whose Hollywood editing career – certainly at the blockbuster end of cinema – is quite something in itself.


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Yet it’s often overlooked that The Omen was a relatively modestly-costed enterprise. The only way it could get its star, Gregory Peck, was he was in a period of his life where the job came in very handy (Richard Donner discussed this on an episode of Gilbert Gottfried’s podcast). There was much debate behind the scenes about the tone and the themes of the movie=, and discussion continues as to whether the film became cursed to a degree too (with a mixture of injuries and fatalities linked very loosely to it).

Yet one element of The Omen story that tends to get overlooked is just how much visual effects work was done on a very tiny fraction of its budget. The film was costing $2.8m to make, a not too shabby amount in all by mid-1970s standards, but one that was to be very stretched. And just $25,000 of that was allocated to the effects work, a job that landed on the plate of John Richardson.

Richardson’s work in effects is detailed in his book Making Movie Magic, and he lays bare there just what he had to work with. Not just the small amount of cash he was working with, but the basics it had to cover. That $25,000 had to cover the salaries for his crew, rigs, equipment, transportation and required equipment. Even before anything could make it to the screen.

If you’ve not seen The Omen, you may want to look away now. But to give an example of just what that money had to cover, take a scene early on in the film involving the mighty Patrick Troughton. As a long-time Doctor Who fan, I found it quite disarming at first to see Troughton in a film of this ilk, but naturally he’s terrific in it. He also meets his maker, courtesy of a conductor falling off the roof of a church and impaling him.

This being the era where such work had to be completed in camera – no computers could help out at this stage, with 1973’s Westworld only beginning to unlock what they could do. Instead, Richardson’s team built a rig at a London church, used a lightning rod that was actually a plastic tube with some paper glued over the top of it. A bit of trickery involving Troughton’s costume too, a hidden blood pump to allow for some fine gushing, and the shot was all ready to go. Well, once the wind machine had been fired up.

Richardson’s book inevitably goes into a lot more detail on the shot – that was completed with a few charges and some flash power for good measure – and it’s a fascinating read. He also discusses a sequence involving a sheet of glass taking off the head of David Warner’s character, a moment presented in the film with no cutaway whatsoever until the deed is done.

The Omen

This time the ingredients were a catapult rig, a big lorry (a small factor, but again, remember everything had to be rented out of that budget), a shop mannequin, a lot of makeup, a wax recreation of David Warner’s bonce and some angular steel. It took two or three times to shoot, and was filmed at very high speed to get the final impact of the moment. And here’s the scene in question…

There’s an awful lot of practical effects work in The Omen, and I love the stories of how the budget was stretched. But still, it was a taxing film to make, and one that was beset by problems. And it proved impossible to bring all the visuals effects work in on that tiny outlay.

As such, the film would ultimately run a month over budget, and Richardson would leave The Omen before its completion due to a commitment to the epic A Bridge Too Far, directed by Richard Attenborough. But he still found himself hauled before producer Harvey Bernhard, who convened a meeting at 20th Century Fox’s London office.

There, he was told that he’d gone £1,000 over budget, and was asked what he intended to do about it. He replied with suitable sarcasm, and then got asked if he’d go back and negotiate with his suppliers, to try and haggle the price down. Richardson refused, not least because he’d had to do that in the first place to hit the required budget. But that’s how penny-pinching the production had become. Nobody foresaw the sensation the movie was about to be, or if they did, they didn’t work in the 20th Century Fox accountancy department.

Still, the conversation fell away once Fox discovered it had a huge hit on its hands. The Omen would gross on its first run $60m in the US, at a time when that was an extraordinary amount of money (well, it still is to me, but you get the point). Naturally, Fox was quickly in touch to arrange a bonus pay… no, that’s not how the story hands. Instead, Richardson got a telegram saying ‘congratulations’, and is often the way in the effects business, it was on to the next job. Sometimes, you’ve just got to take what you can get…

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