Siren's Call

get caught in the mermaid net

Creating merfolk -- a history of making mertails


creating mertails
Many merphiles are fascinated not only with merfolk, but with the possibility of actually becoming a mermaid or merman.

Short of extensive plastic surgery or a mer-miracle, the best way of accomplishing this feat (or flipper) is by making a costume -- something which, it seems, many merphiles actually do. Special effects artists have experimented with techniques for creating a believable mermaid tail since the first mermaid appeared on film in 1918.

Early movie mermaids

queen of the sea still Merfolk have appeared in movies since the silent days. One of the most significant early films was Fox's 1918 Queen of the Sea starring swimmer Annette Kellerman. In photos that survive the movie, the tail does not look convincing. It seems to be a sheath of cloth around Kellerman's legs.

bride of frankenstein still There was an equally unrealistic looking tail on the miniature test tube mermaid that Dr. Pretorius created in the classic 1935 Universal film Bride of Frankenstein. This tail appears to be made of some sort of shiny material wrapped around actress Josephine McKim's legs ending in two little tips that are supposed to be flukes.

Mr. Peabody & the Mermaid

mr peabody & the mermaid In sharp contrast to the inadequacy of the 1935 costume, Universal's costume department dove into mermaid creation in a big way in 1948, designing one of the best looking fishtail costumes ever to appear in films. Though the credit for the costume is usually given to Bud Westmore, head of Universal's makeup department, most of the work was done by Jack Kevan who later designed the costume for the mermaid's "husband", The Creature from the Black Lagoon (Universal, 1954).

To turn Ann Blyth into Lenore, the mermaid, the makeup department practically cooked her in a full-body plaster cast which got to about 300 degrees. A full-body model was then made so that Kevan could sculpt the tail, fins, and scales. Latex was used to make the costume, with spring steel in the flukes to give and added powerful kick to the swimming.

Since the rubber tended to float, it was weighted with BB pellets, a method that would be used on some of the later tails as well. The cost of making the tail got a bit out of hand, ending up at about $10,000 which was an incredible price for one costume in 1948.

Because the tail was so tightly molded for Ms. Blyth, it was actually difficult to get into. While the tight fit made swimming in the tail very effective, it also caused Ms. Blyth's legs and knees to be clearly outlined in a number of underwater scenes as well as in some publicity photos.

Miranda and Mad About Men

mad about men In England, Glynis Johns was also being turned into a mermaid in 1948. Her tail for Miranda was created by what the opening movie credits refer to as "Dunlop". Who or what Dunlop was remains a mystery, but the tail is remarkably realistic looking. Designed to look more like a dolphin's tail than a fishtail, it worked very well in the few underwater shots.

Some of the shots of Miranda above water were achieved by having her sit inside part of the set, such as a rock, so that the tail could be molded and moved like a real fishtail. In the first shot of Miranda in her cave, her legs are actually behind the rocky set, and the tail is fastened to her only at the waist. The rest of the tail is empty so that it can be curved. Unfortunately, we can actually see the string pulling the edges of flukes to make them slap against the rocks.

Ms Johns would once again turn into a mermaid in the 1954 sequel Mad About Men in which she had a mermaid sister. Though Ms. Johns attributed her stardom to these two films, they are rarely shown on American TV.

Mermaids of Tiburon

mermaids of tiburon In 1962, it was Diane Webber's turn to grow a fishtail. She had been a Playboy model (May 1955 and February 1956) and appeared in many other magazines. So, it seemed natural to cast the photogenic beauty as the mermaid queen in American-International's The Mermaids of Tiburon in which she was accompanied by a whole pod of mermaids.

The tails were made of latex and fiberglass. If we compare the tails in this film with the one used in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, it becomes immediately apparent that the Tiburon tails were copies of the 1948 version. However, unlike their predecessor, their flukes moved more stiffly, almost like paddles, because of the fiberglass which was not as flexible as the spring steel in Ms Blyth's tail.

John Lamb, the director and underwater cinematographer for Tiburon, also worked on the movie and television versions of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. As a result, Ms Webber appeared in a 1965 episode titled "The Mermaid" wearing the Tiburon costume.

The costume is also seen in another American-International film, Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) in which Marta Kristen played Lorelei, a fish out of water in the Frankie and Annette beach epic.

Splash and Splash Too

splash poster The next major mermovie was Splash in 1984. It was made by the newly-formed Touchstone Company which was Disney's subdivision for more adult-type films. This time Daryl Hannah got tuned into a mermaid. Calling herself Madison (after the street in New York City), she appeared to be nude in several scenes, though was never really naked. Having pretended to be a mermaid often as a little girl, Ms. Hannah was a natural in the water.

Robert Short was put in charge of making the tail. He had worked on publicity sharks for Jaws, some of the cantina creatures in Star Wars, and E.T.'s glowing heart. Short originally planned to make a gray dolphin-like tail, but director Ron Howard wanted a more tropical look like a goldfish. The Japanese Koi fish was eventually used as the model. Its bright orange color helped the tail stand out in the subdued underwater lighting.

The legs were to be hidden so that the problems with Ms Blyth's tail would not be repeated. Latex rubber failed to work so Short changed to a dense urethane material used in prosthetic limbs. The flukes were made of stiff plexiglass that allowed for a strong kick in swimming. The fins were glued into slices in the tail.

To keep the 40 pound tail fitting snugly, there was a cut down the back which allowed Ms. Hannah to slip into the costume and then the cut would be sealed tightly with Crazy Glue. The tail worked very well in the water, but some of the publicity shots show the tail to be heavy-looking, certainly less gracefully lithe than the one in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid. Hiding the legs had been accomplished at the risk of bulkiness.

The Splash tail appeared again in the TV sequel Splash Too (1988) in which Amy Yasbeck played the part of Madison. The tail has also been used in some Chivas Regal ads.


cherish still The problem with the legs and bulkiness was again tackled by Chris Gilman's special effects company, Diligent Dwarfs, for Madonna's 1989 Cherish video. Being a scuba diver, Gilman knew the problems of maneuvering underwater, and he personally experimented with the costumes his company created.

His assistants Harvey Hubert and Patrick Tatopoulos sculpted the dolphin-like tail and then, after numerous test swims, created the final versions out of rubber weighted with lead pellets. The final cost for the costumes was an amazing $50,000.

Each tail weighed about 100 pounds and contained over 10 gallons of rubber. The tails included urethane and had armatures to keep the fins rigid for swimming, much like the spring steel in the 1948 tail. Mark Findlay was the model for the tails, and since the other mermen were about the same size, the tails fitted all three snuggly.

Findlay's legs were crossed at the ankle when the body cast was made to insure that legs and knees would be well-embedded inside the rubber so that no outlines would show. Findlay commented that, though the tails were very heavy on land, they worked well in the water because they were balanced to keep then from either floating or sinking. The merbaby's costume was made of latex and was never used in the water.

Red Cross merbabies

red cross merbabies
Sea lore lovers were treated to a new use of the ancient merfolk myth during the summer of 1991 when the American Red Cross launched its "Merbabies" ad campaign to promote water safety. The ad suggests that learning to swim is like being a fish in water. Billboard, magazine, and TV promotions show young children sitting and swimming underwater with sparkling green fishtails.

The ad was created for the Red Cross by Bernard Owett of the J. Walter Thompson agency in New York. The topic of the ad was very close to Mr Owett since he remembered his concerns about his own children learning to swim. He wanted to emphasize in the ad that water can be both dangerous and pleasurable depending on one's familiarity with swimming. He decided to design an ad that would be disturbing without being threatening, focusing on the statistic that a child can drown in only two inches of water. Thus, familiarity with water is important not just if one lives near oceans or pools, but in practically any location where there is water.

He chose the metaphor of merfolk because he thought that if we were born with gills and fins we would be as comfortable in the water as we are in the air. He thought the metaphor would be endearing and charming as well as offering a strong, eye-catching image. He recalls that as a boy on the west coast he had fantasies of being a merchild. He followed out his fantasies later in life by studying sea folklore and mythology. Those fantasies were realized in the ad with its fanciful fish, seaweed covered rocks, and beautiful colours.

red cross merbabies Paula Walker put the commercial together in Los Angeles, where the ad was shot. The fishtail was designed by a dressmaker based on Mr Owetts' own cartoon sketches. The tails were lined with comfortable cotton, covered with oversized sequins, and had flippers made of stuffed and stitched cotton. The first costumes were too big and overwhelmed the children who wore them. Eventually a properly proportioned tail was created and used in the filming.

None of the filming was done underwater. Special lenses, gels, rear projections, and lighting were used to bring about the illusion of the merbabies being underwater. Two shots that seem to be of the merbaby actually swimming in the costume were created by placing the child on a glass turntable in front of a mirror reflecting underwater footage, and the whole scene was filmed through an aquarium.

Fifteen children, ages 9 to 28 months, were initially used for the ad. Three refused to get into the costume, and three cried the whole time they were in costume. Nine children ended up on the film. Their parents were close by during the shoot to ensure the child's sense of comfort and safety.

The accompanying music is a Ringo Starr song. It was chosen for its underwater imagery and childlike quality: "I'd like to be under the sea in an octopus's garden ...". Mr Owett thought the music had a delightfully wistful quality that would give a disarming atmosphere to the ad. It took three months to secure permission for use of the song from Ringo Star, Yoko Ono, and the others involved in the original recording.

The ad was conceived in spring 1990, filmed in October, and ready for release in January 1991. Sea lore lovers who have seen any version of the ad will agree that Mr Owett and his staff have captured the charm of the ancient mermyth, and that they used it in a beautiful way to deliver an important message: Be careful in the water so that you can enjoy the water.

Tails by Thom Shouse

charmed mermaid Thom Shouse creates merfolk, or, more specifically, the tails that create the magic of merfolk. His mertails have appeared in:

sw bell mermaid
Southwestern Bell commercial filmed in Cozumel, Mexico (Tool Productions).
sw bell mermaid
Southwestern Bell commercial filmed in Cozumel, Mexico (Tool Productions).
sw bell mermaid
Southwestern Bell commercial filmed in Cozumel, Mexico (Tool Productions).
gaultier mermaid
A perfume ad for Jean Paul Gaultier, featured in the April 1998 issue of Vogue.
starburst mermaid
Starburst candy commercial (Lopes Pictures).
starburst mermaid
Starburst candy commercial (Lopes Pictures).
baywatch mermaid
Baywatch (Baywatch productions).
baywatch mermaid
Baywatch (Baywatch productions).
baywatch mermaid
Baywatch (Baywatch productions).
baywatch mermaid
Baywatch (Baywatch productions).

From the 2003 Neiman-Marcus Christmas Book:

neiman marcus ad MER-MADE TO ORDER

Move over, Neptune, and make some room for some room for our golden goddess of the seas.

MERMAID SUIT. With our NM exclusive mermaid suit, low tide will never be the same. The custom-designed prosthetic suit fits over the hips and envelopes the legs, creating an extremely realistic blend of female and fish. It's hand-crafted of professional-grade urethane by professional designer Thom Shouse, who has more than 20 years of specialized expertise creating mermaid suits for film and television (who knew?). Your suit arrives with a faux-pearl accented shell top for, well, you know ... Our exclusive package also includes a consultation and custom fitting for your suit, expert training in how to swim in it, maintenance and care instructions, and a do-it-yourself repair kit for small touch-ups. Jewelry shown, not included. For more information and to order, drift over to the phone and call XXXXXXXXXXX.

81 Neiman Marcus Mermaid Suit 10,000.00

lancome merman He has even created a merman for a special party held at Disney World by the Lancôme cosmetics company. The young man chosen to be turned into a mer was tall and muscular, thus causing Thom some extra work in adapting the costume to fit. It evidently worked because the female Lancôme employees flocked to whatever place the merman surfaced in Typhoon Lagoon to have their pictures taken with him.

Thom sees mermaids as special, magical creatures. His motto is "Make it believable". As we see, his tails reflect his dedication to realism.

More mermaid tails

Tealmermaid's Treasure Grotto