A.D. Flowers; Won Oscars for Special Effects


A.D. Flowers, an Oscar-winning special effects wizard whose convincing air battles, explosions, fires, floods and gunfights created memorable scenes in such movies as “The Godfather,” “Apocalypse Now” and “The Poseidon Adventure,” has died. He was 84.

Flowers died at a convalescent hospital in Fullerton on July 5 of complications of emphysema and pneumonia.

He won Oscars for the effects he achieved in “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (1970) and “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972). He was nominated in 1979 for his work in Steven Spielberg’s “1941.”

A master of disaster, Flowers specialized in mechanical effects and explosions. He made a Ferris wheel appear to roll into the Pacific Ocean--using a scaled-down model of a Ferris wheel and an indoor tank that Esther Williams once used for her famous aquatic routines. He rigged a two-story house to fall over a cliff. He used so many flashbulbs to simulate flak bursts in war movies that he wished he owned stock in Sylvania.


One of Hollywood’s Best ‘Powder Men’

“If you were to ask all the effects men around today who is the best, I am sure they would say A.D.,” said Art Brewer, business agent for Local 44 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union representing special effects coordinators and other workers in Hollywood. “He wrote many chapters in the book on special effects.”

Flowers was known as one of Hollywood’s best “powder men” for his prowess at creating large-scale explosions. For the Pearl Harbor epic “Tora! Tora! Tora!” he and his crew set up more than 100 enormous smoke pots around the harbor for the scenes showing the Japanese attack that launched the United States into World War II.

“The amount of planning that went into this scene was monumental, especially as each pot had to be set off manually,” John Brosnan wrote in “Movie Magic: The Story of Special Effects in the Cinema.” Columns of smoke rose hundreds of feet into the air, adding not only to the realism of the scenes but also serving to obscure modern landmarks that would have undercut the movie’s authenticity.

For “1941,” a film about a fictional Japanese submarine attack on Los Angeles after Pearl Harbor, Flowers teamed with another effects specialist, Logan R. Frazee, to develop a device that made miniature planes in simulated battle scenes bank and roll like the real thing. The device, called a guillotine because it looked like one, was so effective that it earned Flowers and Frazee a technical achievement Oscar in 1979.

Flowers enhanced “The Godfather” with his own formula for movie blood. In addition to Karo syrup, which gave the substance a blood-like consistency; dish soap, which allowed it to be easily washed out of clothing; and red dye No. 2, Flowers mixed in blue dye No. 1. The last ingredient was crucial to making the fake gore look real by preserving the proper color value on Technicolor film, said Brewer, who trained under Flowers.

Another Flowers innovation was a special jacket worn in gunfight scenes that emitted blood in pulsating spurts. “It not only would shoot out blood but pulsate with the heartbeat,” Brewer said. So as Sonny Corleone, the Mafia don’s son played by James Caan, dies after an ambush at a tollbooth, the spurts become smaller, as they would in a real-life death. This was an effect Flowers achieved by the way he taped the blood bag concealed within the jacket.

Flowers, working again with Frazee, created the fires and explosions in “The Towering Inferno,” the 1974 movie about a burning skyscraper. According to L.B. Abbott in his book “Special Effects: Wire, Tape and Rubber Band Style,” Flowers designed a new type of water-dumping tank for the huge flood that engulfs a roof garden at the climax of the movie. He used four of the tanks, which sent more than 3,000 gallons of water onto the set.

His most impressive feat in “The Poseidon Adventure” was to create the illusion of a tidal wave that turned a ship and its ballroom upside down. He set explosions to blow out the windows of the ocean liner, then employed six water cannons and three high-pressure pumps to fire water at the stunt artists posing as passengers.

Born in Hillsboro, Texas, and raised in Sayre, Okla., Flowers hitchhiked to California after graduating from high school in 1935 and was married three years later. His father-in-law was a painter at MGM who helped Flowers get a job as a studio handyman. For his first assignment, he spent 19 nights on his hands and knees polishing a dance floor used by Mickey Rooney.

In the early 1940s, Flowers was a “greenman” in charge of maintaining vegetation on MGM movie sets and worked in the property department before moving into special effects. Specializing in explosives, he worked not only on films but also on television programs such as “Gunsmoke” and “Combat!” For many years he was the chief of mechanical special effects for 20th Century-Fox.

He helped to re-create many wars, beginning with the Civil War in the 1951 classic, “The Red Badge of Courage,” directed by John Huston. At the end of his career, Flowers blew up bridges and villages in “Apocalypse Now,” the controversial 1979 Francis Ford Coppola epic about the Vietnam War that recently was re-released in a longer, re-cut form.

Rigged House to Fall Over Cliff in ‘1941'

His success at turning filmmakers’ illusions into reality required considerable technical knowledge of fields from hydraulics to electronics, which he learned at several trade schools. But it also relied on sheer nerve, as Flowers suggested in a story about a scene for Spielberg’s “1941.”

Flowers’ challenge was to rig a two-story house to fall over a cliff--in one take. “If we goofed on the shot, the cost of rebuilding the house, plus actors, cameras, and crew, would have meant an additional two or three hundred thousand dollars,” he recalled in the book “Special Effects in the Movies” by John Culhane. “After it was all set and the cameras were ready to roll, Steven Spielberg came over to me and said, ‘Now, tell us exactly what’s going to happen.’ I looked at him for a moment before saying, ‘Well, on the average, from the ones I’ve done in the past . . .’ ”

But Flowers had never heaved a house over a cliff before. It was, Culhane wrote, “Flowers’ finest moment” in the film. The house crumpled without a hitch.

Flowers retired to Camarillo in 1979 after living for many years in Westchester. He is survived by his wife of 62 years, the former Vivian Lois “Vee” Shea; a daughter, Peggy Brogna of Brea; and three grandchildren. He was predeceased by a son, Jim.