This is an awesome and indelible image, one that modern viewers might assume was made by CGI. After all, the same year that “The Thing” was released, “Tron” took the world by storm with its then-complex computerized graphics. But “The Thing” is known as a practical effects masterpiece, not a digital one, and that old-school movie magic actually extends to the creation of the title sequence.
In the 1982 featurette “The Making of The Thing,” visual effects designer Peter Kuran explains the technical handiwork that went into making that tear-a-hole-in-the-world title. As it turns out, it involved a fish tank, a trash bag, and a match. “We had a fish tank that was about four feet wide by two feet high,” Kuran explains, “And I put smoke in the fish tank, and then on the back of the fish tank I put the title, “The Thing,” I drew it on an animation cell.”
The designer, who has also worked on projects like “RoboCop” and “Beetlejuice,” explained that he put “a piece of garbage bag plastic” behind the animation cel, which was attached to its frame and stretched across. Behind that, he positioned a light in the direction of the letters. So basically, picture a fish tank full of smoke with a celluloid-like title drawing attached to the back, and a black trash bag attached to that.
“When I photographed it, I hit the garbage bag plastic with a little flame, you know, like a match. I would just light it around the garbage bag plastic, and then the garbage bag plastic would open up and let the light come through the letters. And that’s how the letters look like they form, and you know, and burn on with the rays and everything.”