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An American Werewolf in London: The Transformation Scene and How It Was Done.

Updated on March 17, 2011

An American Werewolf in London is a British-American comedy horror film, made in 1981 and directed by John Landis. It follows two young American men, David Kessler and Jack Goodman, holidaying in the UK (much of the filming was done in Wales and Surrey). While lost on the moors, they encounter a huge wolf-like animal; it attacks, killing Jack. David wakes up three weeks later in a London hospital with little memory of what happened. He is repeatedly visited by his dead friend, who tells David to kill himself before he starts to change. He doesn't listen, (why wouldn't you listen to apparitions of your dead, mauled friend when he's telling you you're going to turn into a werewolf?) and at the next full moon, he transforms...

In the script, the scene in question -- the full transformation into werewolf -- is written like so:

     He falls to his knees and then forward on his hands.
     He remains on his hands and knees, trying to master his
     torment; but it's no use.  On all fours he gives
     himself over to the excruciating hurt and slowly begins
     to change.

     The metamorphosis from man into beast is not an easy
     one.  As bone and muscle bend and reform themselves,
     the body suffers lacerating pain.  We can actually see
     David's flesh move, the rearranging tissue.  His mouth
     bleeds as fangs emerge.  His whole face distorts as his
     jaw extends, his skull literally changing shape before
     our eyes.  His hands gnarl and his fingers curl back as
     claws burst forward.

(Taken from John Landis' script at

In the film, it looks like this:


If you were feeling horribly uncomfortable while watching that, that is the right response. The scene is purposefully painful, every excruciating moment emphasised. As it surely would be, as your entire body stretches and rearranges itself. There is no quick, magical shapeshifting for poor David -- this is complete body refurbishment with every extending bone and erupting hair being felt and suffered through. The actor playing David, David Naughton, does an excellent job of portraying to us just how much agony the entire process is causing him.

Mention "Werewolf transformation" to someone and this is going to be the first one that springs to mind. It is the transformation that sets the bar -- and very high -- for all other werewolf films.

Naughton under the false floor.
Naughton under the false floor. | Source

Making It Happen

One thing should be immediately pointed out. There are absolutely no computer generated images used in this entire scene. It is all created through a medley of prosthetics and robotics. As such, with everything actually there and attached to the actor, it is much more real and visceral.

Another interesting point about this scene is the choice of setting. It is a very normal, everyday setting, a simple living room, brightly lit. The horror genre's greatest asset often lies in what you can't see, with this allowing the watcher's own imagination to fill in the gaps which is much more personal. Here, however, we have a case where being able to see everything in tiny detail is much, much worse.

Before we go into greater depth about the techniques used to create the transformation, note the time length on the previous YouTube clip. It is a mere two minutes and thirty five seconds long. Now, onto all the work that went into this brief but amazing scene.

The principle make-up artist for this film was Rick Baker. It is through the combination of different effects and devices that he constructed that we are able to see David turn from human to werewolf in such gruesome detail. For some sections, Barker needed to build entire fake body parts, such as arms or the famous changing wolf head, which he called "Change-Os".

After stripping naked, David's arm and hand is the first thing to start changing; it elongates and changes shape right before his disbeliving eyes. For this, an entire robotic arm was created, with controls to not just stretch the hand, but also to move the fingers. The bulging shape of the growing hand was produced through a series of bladders inflated by tubes and syringes. The emerging hair on the hand and on David's chest -- which was largely hairless previously -- was laid on by hand as filming progressed. For the section where the long wolf hair seems to be crawling out of his skin, the process was actually filmed in reverse. A fake patch of skin was made, and the hairs drawn into it -- giving the effect of it growing once the film was played backwards. The bladder and syringe combination was also utilised for the spine bumps bursting out over David's back. For each of these small changes on the character, an entire special effects team was behind the camera, controlling the progress of each one.

Once the changes really get under way, with David now more wolf than human, the heavy duty effects make their appearance. For the full, body-length shots where he is seemingly stretching out over the carpet, Naughton, the actor, is mostly under a false floor; a dummy wolf body makes up the rest of him from the torso down. With each cut away to another changing body part, the transformation has progressed a little more -- and what should be remembered are the breaks between each cut away, where every new change has to be painstakingly created and applied.

The final changes to happen are the ones to David's face. For this Baker created two Change-O heads. The first was asymmetrical, one half of the face still slightly human and very much in pain, and the other more wolf-like. The second is the famous extending head, as the wolf snout bulges out and David's face rearranges itself in bone-cracking ways. The robotic skull underneath the wolf effect skin -- the various parts of it and how each one moves -- can be seen here:

In short, a phenomenal amount of effort went into creating this short but astounding transformation scene. Rick Baker's work in this film gained huge recognition. In 1981 he became the first person to win an Academy Award for Best Makeup -- prior to this the category did not even exist. An American Werewolf in London is a tight, effective film, handling both the comedy and horror in an equally successful manner. It is this transformation scene, however -- the painful, visceral, technically-brilliant transformation scene -- that makes this one of the most talked about horror films available and putting it in top spots of many lists.


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    • alwritetea profile image

      Lisa Sumner 5 years ago from Vancouver

      Yay! One of my top five favorite horror movies ever! You've pointed out all the great factoids, and I love the touch of the excerpt from Landis' script. Brilliant!

      For those who don't have this on DVD yet but want to get it, buy the 'Full Moon edition' which includes the fan-made documentary/retrospective which is expertly done. Worth every penny!

      Beware the moors...

    • RedxVelvet profile image

      RedxVelvet 6 years ago from California, United States

      This was very interesting to read. Thank you for that!