For eight seasons, Dexter fans followed a serial slayer whose conflicted values made him an antihero. With all the blood and body parts on screen, viewers can imagine that things were pretty gory behind the scenes of Dexter. Compare the boxes of prop limbs, rolls of heavy-duty plastic wrap, and actual blades to the possessions of known offenders and they probably aren't very different. Luckily, Dexter was only a television show and the behind-the-scenes stories of how they made the blood on Dexter are a lot less gruesome than the real thing.
While the finale let a lot of fans down, the show won several awards during its run, including a Golden Globe for Michael C. Hall. It was the Dexter kill scenes, especially Rita's demise, that proved the show could be brutal - and the ethical dilemmas surrounding who deserves to be strapped to Dexter's table were real for audiences. Joshua Meltzer joined the show at the beginning and took over as prop master during Season 3. Due to his innovative work on the show, Meltzer has since become Hollywood's "blood guy." If nothing else, Dexter will be remembered for its special effects and the behind-the-scenes efforts to create eight seasons of gore and bins of extra body parts.
Due to the intensity and somber atmosphere required to create Dexter's most private moments, the crew usually waited until the end of the work day to film them. Wrapping an entire room and its contents in plastic takes time, and the crew usually spent a good part of their day on the task. "It's an emotional day for Michael, it's an emotional day for the poor guy who's on the table, and it's a tough day for the crew, because we're gonna be there [filming] usually anywhere from eight to nine hours," said Meltzer.
Using plastic sheeting purchased at Home Depot, production designer Jessica Kender found ways to make the scenes "interesting under plastic" and works of art in themselves. In addition to wrapping the walls, crew also individually wrapped all furniture and props contained within the set. A single light from above illuminated the scenes, making Dexter seem more sinister, as did the light reflected off the plastic wrap and shiny metal tools. Camera work also helped create an eerie effect as the crew captured all sequences within the plastic-wrapped rooms using a hand-held camera.
Meltzer's on-set trailer must have been a museum of horrors; as prop master, he was responsible for storing Dexter's blades, bins of limbs, and the slide collection, among other items. Thanks to his work on the show, Meltzer made a name for himself in Hollywood as a master of blood, enabling him to take some side work on vampire-themed television shows during Dexter's run. In addition to creating his own recipe for the fake substance, which looked real and could be easily cleaned, Meltzer came up with other ingenious ideas that made his work on the show stand out.
In order to avoid the mess and setup time needed to create realistic pools of blood, Meltzer's team invented a mess-free, portable version made from silicone. These thin red pools could be placed beneath an actor or prop body to produce realistic gore, but could also be picked up and moved with no clean-up required. The pools, as well as smaller spatter droplets often placed around them, stuck to surfaces and the prop team simply had to peel them off and put them somewhere else.
Season 1's Ice Truck Killer (ITK) posed a problem for Dexter's prop department, despite their large supply of bins full of limbs. Since the ITK drained his victims, the remains he left around the city for people to find needed to appear even less lifeless than the props they had. They fabricated new sets of fingers, feet, and arms to make the remains seem more authentic. In order to make a block of ice containing several severed fingers with brightly colored nails, the team used silicone to form the fingers, painted them with real nail polish, and suspended them in acetate that resembled ice.
Since the storyline takes place during the Christmas season, episode 11, "Truth Be Told," involves the ITK leaving some of his work under a Christmas tree in a Santa's house display. The crew set up the scene in a public location in Long Beach that also happened to be a big tourist destination. People who passed by often stopped, not knowing what to make of the gruesome holiday scene being filmed in October. "There was a severed head under the tree. We got a few looks," Meltzer recalled.
Consistent with being labeled Hollywood's "blood guy," Meltzer had many tricks up his sleeve when it came to blood. Although the industry standard for fake blood consists of some sort of syrup base with added food coloring, Meltzer noticed it didn't look realistic when used to create Dexter's slides. After trying several syrup-based recipes that failed to portray authenticity, Meltzer discovered that furniture dye created a worthy substitute.
For other scenes, Meltzer created his own syrup-based recipe, to which he added several special ingredients. Dawn dish soap helped make the substance easier to clean, especially when used on clothing or other fabric. He added a few drops of peppermint oil when they filmed outside. Since syrup attracts bees and wasps, the oil helped deter the insects. In 2010, Meltzer estimated he would use about 25 gallons of his special recipe during Season 5 alone.