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TV's CSI secrets uncovered

A behind-the-scenes glimpse at how these hit shows make it look so real More than half of the "dead bodies" are mannequins (with plenty of raspberry Jell-O).

Apr. 14, 2010   |  
Laurence Fishburne, <i>above right</i>, and Robert David Hall check out a corpse on CSI &#8212; this time played by Elizabeth Chomko.
Laurence Fishburne, above right, and Robert David Hall check out a corpse on CSI — this time played by Elizabeth Chomko. / Sonja Flemming, CBS

Americans have tv to thank for our fascination with forensics.

Monster hits CSI and its sister crime shows, CSI: Miami and CSI: NY, have us hooked on how criminal experts do their grisly work.

“It's not like the ['70s TV coroner] Quincy days, where he gave a monologue over a body for five minutes,” says Robert David Hall, who plays CSI's resident coroner, Dr. Al Robbins. “The audience today demands you keep it going.”

We asked Hall and two fellow lab rats, CSI: NY's A.J. Buckley and CSI: Miami's Christian Clemenson, to give us a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what to look out for the next time you tune in.

Stand-ins are used on the exam table

Hall, 62, has had to “autopsy” a bear and a 500-pound sumo wrestler, not to mention many a showgirl during his CSI tenure. When it comes to producer Jerry Bruckheimer's taste in corpses, he “tends to like the more attractive actresses,” Hall quips.

Real actors portray the corpses 40% of the time, estimates Matthew W. Mungle, who works in the special effects and makeup department. But if you see Hall brandishing a really sharp instrument, you can almost bet he's going to town on a silicone mannequin. Sometimes, for extra realism, a fake convex stomach cavity with thin foam latex skin will be used on a very thin actor, and Hall will gently slice into that.

Hall says they never use real organs, and all that blood you see is raspberry Jell-O and Karo syrup. “Believe me, I've seen the real things, and these look so close to it, especially in a morgue shot in blue light,” he says.

If equipment doesn't exist, fake it

One neat addition to the CSI: NY cast this season has been EDNA, a robotic arm that assists the lab techs in analyzing DNA evidence. That's a little piece of special-effects magic, too. “It's operated by two [crew members] down below [the floor],” says Buckley, 32, who plays lab tech Adam Ross. “I thought for the first two episodes we used it, ‘Cool! How does it know where to go?' I had a scene where I was over against the glass wall looking at it, and I look down below and two grips are sitting on a chair turning the wheel. They're really big grips, hunched down in this little cubbyhole, rolling back and forth.”

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The simplest actions can be complex

Clemenson, 52, who plays CSI: Miami's newest medical examiner, Dr. Tom Loman, admits that they move “bodies” in the morgue by shifting tables all over the place — hardly the norm in real life. “Sometimes we have two tables, sometimes three,” he says. “Sometimes they face one direction, sometimes another.”

The next time you see Clemenson in the lab, keep an eye on his hands before he puts on medical gloves. “I've got big meat hooks,” he says. “The challenge is to find every single finger hole. If I'm in a scene and I have to [put on my gloves] halfway through, I will sort of surreptitiously wipe my hands on my sides just before I have to slip the gloves on just to help in any way I can.” On set, he also makes sure that his gloves always are situated in such a way — right one on the top, left one on the bottom — so that the motion will appear as seamless as possible onscreen. A little talcum powder helps, too. Says Clemenson: “Sweaty palms are death.” So to speak.

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