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Behind the scenes of ''Encino Man''

Behind the scenes of ”Encino Man” — A 2,500 pound chunk of ice creates an expensive effect

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Most movie crews gossip about backstage love affairs or which studio execs are going to be fired. But last January on the set of Encino Man, the buzz topic was the Cube.

”Have you seen it up close?” asked Sean Astin, who, with costar Pauly Shore, had just rehearsed his first scene with the much-discussed object. ”There’s something about it that’s kind of mesmerizing. It’s really cool.”

Well, it ought to be: The Cube is, in fact, a 2,500-pound chunk of crystal-clear ice with a Cro-Magnon caveman — actually a furry rubber dummy — inside. Dennis Dion, the film’s special-effects coordinator, spent nearly three months in cold storage, not to mention $50,000 of the Encino Man budget, making his perfect Popsicle. And this is the day, in a scene that will last barely 30 seconds, that he is going to tear it apart. Cruel, you say? Hey, babe, Hollywood can be a pretty cold town.

Encino Man, released May 22, is the story of two Valley high school dudes (Astin and Shore) who, while digging a backyard pool, find the caveman in a block of glacial ice. The ice melts, and the caveman (Brendan Fraser) comes to life. ”I think it’s what America needs right now,” says Shore.

It was Dion who decided that the caveman’s prison should be made of genuine ice instead of clear plastics or resin. On a movie set, where the snow is more likely to be potato flakes and the ice shredded plastic bags, it was a revolutionary idea.

The problem was that natural ice, with its tiny air bubbles, isn’t clear. In Dion’s first attempt, it was impossible to make out the dummy. After weeks of experimentation, Dion found that if he used ionized water and froze it very slowly in an L.A. ice house, forcing the air bubbles out with an air compressor, he could create a fog-free block of ice.

Now Dion is getting ready to pull a cable, embedded inside his painstakingly created Cube, which will break it open along prescored lines. ”I know what you’re thinking,” he says as crew members admire his handiwork. ”Looks like plastic.”

”Actually,” says gaffer Reinhart ”Raybeam” Peschke, ”I was thinking we should get a thousand blenders in here and start making margaritas.”

The Cube’s big moment arrives. The hydraulic system starts up, the cable tightens, and the ice creaks and groans. But on the first try part of the dummy’s steel frame comes tearing out of the bottom. It takes 40 minutes to remove the frame and try again.

This time, the cracks spread slowly around the dummy’s Cro-Magnon skull. And then, suddenly, the Cube breaks clean through — and the frozen caveman splits in half. ”Ouch,” says Fraser, standing by in caveman costume.

Eventually, it will be fixed up in the editing. There will be a cut from the splitting Cube to Fraser lying on the floor, surrounded by pieces of ice. No one will know the difference, except perhaps a few Disney executives who will look at the budget and be reminded that, particularly in Hollywood, reality isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.