Sunday, April 27, 2014

To My VERY Valued Blog Readers:

Hello Folks -

I have to appeal to your sense of understanding when I say that even though I've been posting for years now, I still don't get the hang of all of the comments, advertising, etc associated with blogging.  I've done my best but I'm sure it could have been better.  That said, I want you all to know how much I appreciate your comments and your continued support and interest.

So this is where I give you the good news/bad news:

BAD NEWS: I think I'm going to discontinue this blog.  Now before you get angry with me, let me explain.  As you can, no doubt, tell, it takes me quite a while to sit down, scan photos, write up the chapters, etc. and time is money and I have very little of both these days.  I really did start this blog for my memory (because I, too, used many exotic materials in my youth and there's no telling what kind of long-range damage was done) - I wanted to get it all down before I forgot it.  So the problem is, how can I continue doing this without going deeper and deeper into debt.  Here's my solution:

GOOD NEWS: I'm going to publish a set of e-books.  Now again, before you start torching me, calling me names, etc. each volume is going to be priced @ $9.50 - I'm asking for less than $10 for my story, my photos, and my home videos.  That isn't TOO much to ask!  That's skipping Starbucks for less than a week and you'll get more stories (not just a cheap re-printing of this blog), more photos, more video, more of everything. 

The First Volume entitled "I'm Rubber, You're Glue" will start with my Monster-Childhood and extend to PREDATOR.  That means all of the movies you've been reading about in this blog will be covered a bit more and I'll post a page of photos that only YOU will have access to as a book-buyer.  AND, there's no waiting for the book to be printed, etc.   You can keep in on your hard drive, your i-pad, tablet, phone, however you read an e-book. 

The Second Volume will be "I'm STILL Rubber, You're STILL Glue" and it will span the years between PUMPKINHEAD and JURASSIC PARK! You'll hear stories about DANCES WITH WOLVES, LEVIATHAN, CHILD'S PLAY II and have access to photos and video.

The Third Volume will be "I'm ALWAYS Rubber, You're ALWAYS Glue" and will start with my years at KNB EFX GROUP working on XENA/HERCULES up to working with Rick Baker on MEN IN BLACK III!!!  So many fun stories, behind the scenes photos and video, and each book for less than $10.

I really want this all to work so I'm hoping for your support.  PLEASE let me know if I have it by sending a message here in this blog.  If you think I'm being a jerk, let me know that too and I'll abandon the project.

In any case, thanks so much for everything thus far.  Your attention and interest keeps me going and I have SO MUCH to share with you all!

Shannon Shea

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Part 47: Will you EVER finish with THE PREDATOR?

The race was on.  We had new gloves to make, tons of dreadlocks to glue into heads, pieces had to be painted, the shop was in complete disarray which pissed off a couple of Stan's lifers.  One late night, something had transpired - I wish I could recall exactly what it was now - but the result was that I lost my temper (which, believe it or not is something that I don't often do) and I punched a hole in the door leading from the sculpture room to the makeup room.

What the HELL had I done?  I loved working at Stan's and although at that moment the pressure was on, through my actions I had made "bad" - "WORSE!"  I think a little squeak must have escaped my clenched esophagus because what happened next was an act of friendship that I will never forget -

Without hesitation, Steve Wang mixed up some bondo, spatulated into the door and SCULPTED THE WOOD GRAIN PATTERN into the patch and when it set, Matt Rose MATCHED THE DOOR COLORS and painted the patch so it was imperceptible.  They didn't make a big deal out of it, they just did it.  At that moment - due to those actions - I knew we would be not just a team, but the kind of team that really had each other's backs. They say brothers are made on battlefields, the same can be said of people that unite on a film project when it appears the odds are against them.  Steve and Matt are my "brothers" for life.

The Predator suits were coming together.  Pieces were hastily seamed, painted and coated with BJB SC-89 to enhance the colors and protect the paint jobs.

Leslie Neumann appeared one day with the red-suit pieces and had made an extra body cover and gloves should something go wrong.  She told me that she didn't know what to do with the backpack strapping so we would just have to tie it on with a piece of red spandex.  It was a fantastic job and I was happy to get her some work while scratching something off of the list of things to do.  I packed it into a cardboard box and put it with a growing stack of things that were to be sent via truck into Mexico.

Alright Matt Rose!  It looks fantastic!  Get it into a BOX!
 There were a couple of loose ends that had to be attended to - as I mentioned before, the Predator was going to perform emergency surgery on himself and although specialty prop maker Brent Scrivener had done an incredible job making this cool, motorized compartment containing surgical tools (one of which, Richard Landon had to re-configure from a "spreader" into a "clamp") we had to talk about BLOOD.

Propmaker extrordinaire, Brent Scrivener, built the medical pack - It could actually be filmed being removed from the backpack, but ultimately was only seen in this insert shot.
Production had long before decided (and filmed shots where) the Predator's blood was ORANGE! Now, they wanted it orange but they wanted it to GLOW - especially in the dark.  Oh, sure, now it would be as easy as rambling down to the local drug store, picking up some orange glow sticks and Bob's your uncle! Right?

Wrong.  This is 1987 (specifically January) and glow sticks are not just difficult to get just ANYWHERE but they only come in GREEN!  After numerous phone calls back and forth to distributors, manufacturers, Joel Hynek in New York, Joel Silver in Los Angeles, the blood would HAVE to glow green.  It would just HAVE to....After much brow-beating, Joel Hynek aquiesced and said that his team would rotoscope all of the orange shots, green - he wasn't happy about it.  In hindsight, I wonder if he charged Joel Silver for overages?  Hmmmmmm...

Then, there was another issue: We were going to be in Mexico - specifically Palenque, Mexico which was close to the Yucatan Penninsula.  It was warm in Los Angeles, but it was going to be very hot in Mexico.  Kevin Peter Hall was concerned about being in a thick, foam rubber insulated suit and suggested (?), insisted (?) that we get him a "cool suit." Remember, this was 1987; who the hell knew what a cool suit was?

Enter Chris Gillman of the Dilligent Dwarves prop building company (check out his blog here: Diligent Dwarves.  He was friends with Kevin and had developed a mesh vest that had a serpentine pattern of vinyl tubes running through it.  The tubes connected to a reservoir that held chilled water and spiralling through that reservoir was a coil of metal tubing that attached to quick disconnect fittings on either end.  Propylene Glycol was pumped through the tubing essentially wicking off Kevin's body heat via the liquid and cooling it in the chamber and transferring cool water back to him.  It was very ingenious.  There was only one draw back - the unit was fairly large (about a 2 foot square) and a bit heavy (I think the unit weighed about 25 pounds or so).  If we were going to be in a soundstage somewhere, I didn't think it would be an issue, but having Steve, Matt, Shane, Richard or I lugging this damn thing around seemed, let us say, unattractive.

What I needed was brute strength and a great attitude! Someone who would lug this machine around the steamy Palenque jungle, stepping over vines and snakes with a smile on his face.  But where?  Where? OH YEAH, BRIAN SIMPSON!

Steve and I made our case for the inclusion of Brian on the crew and Stan agreed and that's how a runner (technically) was brought to a film location and turned out to be a very, very valuable asset on such an iconic show.  So the Predator on-set team was assembled.

So now the questions started: When do we leave?  Where are we staying? What is the location like? Will there be water to drink?  All good questions and someone had to ask them.  That someone was me.  I called the production office in Los Angeles and spoke with the production coordinator, parroting many of the questions my colleagues had and asking a few of my own.  She told me this: a.) We were going to the jungle.  THE jungle.  It is hot, full of bugs and snakes, and was a treacherous area to be in.  Her suggestion, clothing wise, was to go to a surplus store and buy "rip-stop" pants, leather boots that went up to the ankle (in case a snake decided to bite), and fatigue shirts, hats, etc.  I pretended to know what "rip stop" was, took down all of the necessary information and disseminated it to the crew.

Oh yeah, and we all need Passports.  PASSPORTS?!  This is when I learned that Hollywood can move mountains if it needs to.  None of us had passports AND we needed work visas for Mexico.  I had never been out of the country.  Richard and Shane were good because they had been in England for ALIENS and still had their passports.  I called the passport office on behalf of the crew to make appointments and was told that we could get them in THREE WEEKS!  We didn't have three weeks.  I made a call to the production office and was told that all of us going to Mexico without passports had to drive down the to Federal Building in West Los Angeles the next day to get our credentials.

The first stop was a photo booth where we had to get pictures not only for our passports but for our work visas.  Then, off to the Federal Building with our birth certificates (Thank God I had mine....I needed it to get married!).  Within hours all of us had our new Passports.  Three weeks.....THREE WEEKS?! This is Hollywood, baby!  We need 'em in three minutes!

About four or five days before we were due to leave, a big production truck showed up for us to pack.  It had been outfitted per our request with a work bench and some racks and things to hold the suits up.  It was to be our "home away from home" for the next couple of weeks.  We packed everything and then packed everything else we could think of (including clay and plaster should we need to sculpt and mold things on location) that would get us through what was promised to be a very challenging shoot (you can see a shot of the truck behind the photo of Kevin and Stan in part 1)

With everything packed and gone, there was nothing else to do but clean the shop up for the other Lifers (specifically, John, Alec, and Tom) who had begun pre-pre-prep on PUMPKINHEAD.  We'll talk more about this later, but during the last few weeks of finishing the PREDATOR work, they had moved into the design room and had begun doing concept illustrations for Stan and the titular character.  Much of our crew was laid off, but not before we assembled everyone for a crew photo in the front parking lot:
From Upper Left to Right: Screaming Mad George, Brian Simpson, Emilio Gonzales, Richard Landon, Brett Scrivener, Ed Yang, Grant Arndt. Middle Standing: Yours Truly, Jackie Tischner, Jackie Lancette. Bottom Kneeling Left to Right: Shane Mahan, Matt Rose, Stan Winston, Steve Wang
 The last stop was to an Army Surplus store in Northridge, California.  We went as a group and started shopping for gear.  I remember asking for rip stop and discovering that it was just that - fabric that had been woven in a specific way to stop a rip from spreading the way most fabrics do.  I bought a couple of pairs of pants, a pair of long, black leather army boots (I felt ridiculous buying them but I thought "G.I. Joe - what the hell?").  I figured I'd wear T-shirts mostly, since the days would be hot, but purchased a camo vest (Why, Shannon, why?) and a floppy green hat that had the same silhouette as the hat Vincent Price wore in HOUSE OF WAX!
Yes, it was this image that inspired the purchase of "My Lucky Hat"
See what I mean?  When you see pictures of Stan wearing this hat,  just know...it's MINE dammit!
 It was a cool hat.  So cool that when we arrived in Mexico, Stan took it from me and wore it himself!  But I'm getting ahead of myself (oooo, bad almost pun).  I remember trying my "gear" on for my new wife and watching her laugh at me.  I looked like I was going to a really dumb costume party.  With my baby face, my love handles, and effects-guy mullet, I looked ridiculous.  Still, it was what I had to wear in the jungle.

Silly me.

We met at the Los Angeles, International Airport early one morning in February 1987.  We had our tickets, our passports, and our LUGGAGE.  Matt Rose had packed a HUGE footlocker full of food and water, determined not to get sick or poisoned during our journey.  Sheesh!  Then he tells me that he's deathly afraid of flying.  I thought he was kidding.  He was not.  He excused himself, went to an airport bar and got himself a drink to steady his nerves.

On the plane, it became very apparent that Kevin was the "performer" and we were "the crew".  We got on the plane and he sat in First Class and the rest of us made our way back to coach.  Okay, so there WAS more leg room for Kevin, but then again, he was Screen Actor's Guild and according to the standard contract he HAD to fly first class.  Little did I know that I would have MANY opportunities to enjoy the spoils of SAG later in  my career.

We landed in Mexico City (our first port of call on our way to Palenque) where we met our "contact" set up for us by production.  I couldn't tell you his full name, but he introduced himself as "Harry" so he became "Airport Harry." Although a Mexican citizen, he not only spoke English VERY well, but was, if you pardon the expression, slicker than goose-sh*t.  Harry met us at the gate, got us through immigration/customs, and then took us to the next gate (all of this was pre-911, when you could actually go to the gates without a boarding pass, but I digress).  We shared a beer with Harry and he taught us some rude gestures and gave us some pointers like "Don't take ice that doesn't have a hole through the center of it, because that means it wasn't made with safe drinking water" (something to do with the freezing process), etc.

Our next flight took us to a small airport in Villa Hermosa.  We were met by a Mexican driver from production in a Volkswagen Van, the kind that are associated with hippies - the van, not the driver, and off we went to Palenque, and ADVENTURE!









Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Another Diversion from the Time Line - A Message to Fans

Recently, I've been accused of being "disgruntled", "angry", even a Practical Effects turn-coat.  It seems that I'm in danger of having my "fan" card revoked.  I think that much of this has to do with what many feel is my "bitching" about some of my experiences on different motion pictures either here on my blog, in comments that I've made on Facebook (my account, as of this writing, has been suspended), as well as blog/magazine interviews.

Well folks, today is the day I set it all straight:

Is Shannon Shea a disgruntled makeup effects artist?  No.....and yes.  One of the reasons I've started this blog is to give you a first-hand account, a personal account of what I experienced coming up through the ranks.  Much of what happened was the result of the industry being fairly new, me being very young and immature, and the changing climate of Visual Effects altogether.  But what I think fans - especially fans today - don't get is that this is not all one big party out here.  This is work.  Yes, we make monsters, have fun doing it, but at the end of the day it is commercial art.  We have always had not just  a responsibility to fans, but a very real responsibility to clients who pay us (never enough) money to execute effects for motion pictures.

Sure, there are a lot of side things that happen, pranks, cartoons, short-films, personal projects, Halloween costumes that are a big part of the working environment, but at the end of the day, what we do is no different from any other manufacturing concern in the United States.

So, you're knee-jerk reaction is probably - "Shannon Shea doesn't care about making monsters any more than some factory worker putting shoes together."  That is simply untrue.  I chose this profession.  I've been a HUGE fan of dinosaurs, science-fiction, horror, and fantasy since I was a kid.  Read the blog.  Understand.  But unlike SO many others who dreamed about pursuing this career, I got in my car and drove out of Louisiana to actually DO IT.  And, I would hope that anyone who was designing shoes, cars, furniture, software, shampoo bottles, etc. was doing it BECAUSE THEY LOVE IT!  Not, just for the money.

If I was only interested in money, I can think of a million better, more effective ways of generating money than sitting in an un-air conditioned room, full of fiberglass dust and chemical fumes making monsters.  I have done this because I love (still love) making monsters.

The only reason I can be labeled disgruntled is because, from a purely personal stand-point, I think that the best years of practical effects were still on the horizon when digital solutions became the mainstay.  Don't believe me?  Look at WALKING WITH DINOSAURS (the live stage experience) or HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (the live stage experience) and tell me that you don't just gawk at how friggin' amazing it is.  But....for some reason....producing this type of illusion is generally seen as not cost effective.

Blame unions, blame untalented directors, blame whomever you want...practical effects are a very viable solution in the hands of courageous, mature-minded, clear-thinking filmmakers.  Wimps need not apply.

Spraying glass micro-beads to this mockup penguin for BATMAN RETURNS. Not wearing a mask!

Why does Shannon criticize the work done in movies that so many of us love?  Do I?  What?  JURASSIC PARK If all you ever seem to get from me is criticism than you are only listening to half of it.   JURASSIC PARK was hard work.  Yes, I did mention the project to Stan before anyone else.  I got a hold of the UNPUBLISHED manuscript from Castle Rock productions through Greg Nicotero.  No one had ever HEARD of "Jurassic Park" prior to that.  I made a copy of the manuscript and gave it to my friend and dinosaur lover Mike Trcic.  Stan had NO idea what we were talking about during TERMINATOR 2 because NO ONE had any idea what we were talking about, with the exception of the VERY few that read the manuscript.  Those are the facts.  Accept them, disregard them.  You are free to believe whatever you want, but that is the truth.

Now, if you are one of the super-fans out there who thinks that I have no right to say anything disparaging about the year and a half we spent making the world's first, full-scale, fully-animatronic, dinosaurs for a motion picture (no, I'm not counting the amazing dragon in SIEGFRIED because there was only one and it had a bunch of guys in it) then I'd ask you to do something: put yourself in my shoes while I tell you this quick story:

I grew up LOVING dinosaurs.  My love of monsters grew out of looking for photos of Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen's dinosaurs in Famous Monsters of Filmland.  I had spent most of my life collecting toys, model kits, magazines, books, video tapes, everything I could about dinosaurs.  It was my life's ambition to  work on a project like LAND OF THE LOST or VALLEY OF GWANGI. So, imagine how I felt when I was told that I wasn't good enough, artistically, to key one of the main dinosaurs.  I was 30 years old at the time.  Full of piss and vinegar.  Was I good enough?  Probably not.  But I doubt anyone is 100% self-aware and at the time it was a tremendous blow to my ego.

But it wasn't just that.  It was business also.  While most of the crew went onto set for TERMINATOR 2, I babysat the shop, making sure the rest of the construction of the effects was getting done.  Why should it matter?  Because of the money.  I was making significantly LESS money than my fellow set supervisors.  When JURASSIC PARK arrived, I had 10 days, being paid as a puppeteer, on set.  That, in comparison to the WEEKS others received.  So....bitter?  At the time....you bet.  But wouldn't YOU be?

When the Jurassic Park residual checks arrived, yes, I received a sizable amount of money, but nothing compared to my co-workers who could afford to put down payments on new homes (and, many of them were SINGLE and not raising a daughter).  So....bitter?  At the time....you bet.  BUT....

I grew up a bit.

I realized what was really important to me artistically and that was creating - not just being a pair of hands making things for clients, but creating stuff for myself.  I've made short films, painted, made and sold prints of my art, sculpted, produced a web series, written scripts for stage and film, acted and yes, even learned some 2D digital skills.

So why am I perceived as such a grouch?  Because I won't drink the Kool-Aide.  I refuse to.  I know what it is like to have $10 in my pocket and need to figure out how to make a zombie for a short film.  I know what it is like to have hours in order to make and shoot a miniature cave set.  I don't complain.  I love doing it.  But when you ask me to praise a $200 million dollar film with an army of digital artisans that have had two decades of technical development,  visual reference and inspiration for their efforts my response is: Why should I be impressed?  It was THEIR JOB to make those visual effects, and unlike folks who are making things in their garages or living rooms (I'm looking at you Miguel Ortega), these large VFX concerns have a responsibility to turn in digital effects that are at least on par with whatever the last enormous Hollywood Tent Pole Digital Epic was.  There is little innovation past new software and user interfaces.  Visually, the work is looking repetitive.  So just BECAUSE there's a star ship crashing into San Francisco bay doesn't mean I have to wet my pants over it.  It SHOULD look good.  It had BETTER look good for as much money as they spent on the shot.

I'm not a grouch.  I'm a realist.  And before you bang on about all of the talented people who flatten their asses moving pixels around, I get it.  I've seen enough people flattening their asses pushing clay around and let me tell you....with little exception (and there are exceptions) most of those artists do it FOR THE MONEY.  They expect to be WELL PAID let me tell you.  If all of these folks loved their work so much, wouldn't they do it for free?!  Isn't that what actors do now?  It's all for "the love of the craft" the money is secondary.  That's what the actor's union would want you to believe, otherwise our residual structure, and health care would at least be on par with what it was 20 years ago!!!!!

I am nothing if not encouraging to new talent.  Yes, a few folks have sent in over-exposed, out of focus photos of blood poured over their friends and have asked me how to work in movies (and how much they would be paid - seriously!) and to those folks I'm honest.  I point out how much competition there is out there compared to what it was like 30 years ago.  I point out that they have to bring their "A" game each and every day.  Learn the craft!  Learn the history!  You have to now.  It isn't a suggestion; it is a requirement.

Some folks say that I am dismissive about relocating to Los Angeles to find work in a studio.  The accuse me of trying to "hang on to my job" and am discouraging competition.  I have a secret.  I don't have a job.  I'm freelance and now do so much more than pouring urethane in an effects lab.  The reason I'm discouraging is because I receive at least 20 legitimate inquiries a year and I know too many people out of work to burden the industry further.  Sure, if you are a trust-fund kid and don't NEED money, by all means COME ON OUT!  Be an intern, work all day and get no pay, if that suits you.  But when your request comes with "How much money will I get paid when I come out to work?" then forget it.  This is a discussion for another entry, but I think you get my meaning.

This, however, has little to do with the hundreds of students I've encouraged in person and on the Internet.  I LOVE seeing great work and I LOVE seeing the enthusiasm that comes with youth.  I encourage anyone and everyone who wants to make monsters to do so.  I still LOVE Halloween and every year, like a moth to the flame you can find me at Michael's, Jo-Ann's, Target, and of course, Halloweentown browsing around, getting inspired by what is being offered for the season.  And when I see that someone has taken that extra step decorating their yard, then I can be an annoying stalker.  I respect the effort that went into it, the creativity, and the commitment.

See? Does this sound like a grouch?

This is as far as I was allowed to paint the full-sized baby Triceratops head for JURASSIC PARK; somehow I have no right to feel disappointed that I was not allowed to bring it to fruition.
Shannon, why are you not in support of Practical Effects anymore?  Who said THAT?  Because I don't run around condemning digital effects I'm a turn-coat?  As you have already read, I don't praise them emptily either.  I will always love and produce practical effects where ever I can.  If a script or a shot can be done in the camera, that's what my aim is.  However, only a fool throws out the advances that digital effects can bring.  Removing Ralph Fiennes nose in HARRY POTTER... that was cool.  Davy Jones in PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN....come on....f-ing excellent.  AND, yes, the dinosaurs in the JURASSIC PARK series.  I love them all.  I love the bugs in STARSHIP TROOPERS....I do.

But this does not make me a turn-coat.

There's a new GODZILLA movie coming out.  I have no idea what the plan is.  But show me collapsing digital buildings and a digital monster and I don't care how realistic it is....yawn time.  I've seen it.  I keep seeing it.  I'd rather see a state-of-the-art suit with model buildings, high-speed cameras and PYROTECHNICS!

I'm no turn-coat.

I've produced two ULTRA low budget films this year and I've hired practical effects folks both times.  Yes, they were fairly new to the industry and I didn't pay them tons of money, however, they delivered 100% and I couldn't be more proud of them.  I've done very little 2-D digital animation, and some compositing but that, in my opinion, is what the computer excels at: it is a HELL of an optical printer.

The Makeup Effects tent on SCREAM AT THE DEVIL - All practical, all fantastic!
 So to sum up - I had some rough times coming up through the industry.  I know many of you want to hear "OHHhhhhhh, everything was GREAT!  It was all GREAT!  Everyone was friendly and supportive and ready to help me at every turn."  While there were many moments that happened, there were equal (if not more times) that I fell victim to ego, immaturity, greed, envy, exclusion, by myself and others.  It's not a pretty picture, but it is the truth, and at least with me, I'll give you my version of the truth as I experienced it, not some white-washed, jazzed-up press release story.  You all deserve to hear my truth but have the responsibility to draw your own conclusions and decide whether I was victim to my own demons or the stupidity of others.

I'm not a crank.  I've said it before: I like what I like.  You like what you like.  When we disagree we should spend less time trying to convince the other that our particular opinion is anything more than that...our opinion.  So go piss theater seats watching over-blown digital nonsense...I'll piss my couch watching VALLEY OF GWANGI.  I'm still a die-hard fan of the stuff I love.

 I'm no turn-coat. I'm a practical effects guy through and through, but I do recognize the necessity for digital effects when it is necessary, not when it is a crutch.

Lastly, if being a fan means that I'm required to stuff my flabby body into a pair of Hawkman wings, or automatically like any sequel, remake, re-imagining of any genre film, television series, comic book, web-series or novel because "it is good for the genre so it will generate more work for the industry" then do me a favor - revoke my card.  Supporting crap is supporting crap. I don't care how phenomenal the effects are, I don't care from whom it came, SHOW ME SOMETHING GOOD DAMN IT!  Not "comparatively good."  Someone recently told me that the new responsibility of the fan is to "find something redeeming" in every genre film. F-that!  It's not MY responsibility to wade through shit to find a Snicker's Bar.

I choose to not climb into the shit pit.

ADDENDUM:

Hey folks, just wanted to share some of my practical effects work on SCREAM AT THE DEVIL. First, we need a shot of gathering storm clouds, so we MADE them with polyfil:

The bottom picture shows the "lightning" effect by inserting small light bulbs into the polyfil cloud!
 We also needed a quick shot of HELL, so, I made this miniature in director, Joseph Stachura and actor Shari Shattuck's garage:
Wait till you see what comes out of the PIT!!! All practical!  Not digital at all!
So, the practical effects continue!  And for the moment, so do I.
 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Part 46: The Saga of THE PREDATOR, Part 2

Never had I seen two individuals whom artistically work so well together have such divergent work styles.  While Matt Rose would sit in front of his Predator head sculpt, wearing headphones and listening to Ronnie James Dio cassettes, Steve Wang would have pop music (I can recall Janet Jackson, for sure) playing out on the studio's sound system while he worked.  It wasn't unusual for Steve to step back away from what he was sculpting to demonstrate a dance step or two.  No.  I'm not kidding.  But under the circumstances, what else was there to do?  Fret?  I was doing that for everyone, including Stan.  As I understood it, my ass was on the line.  Steve and Matt, having head-strong youth on their sides, were indefatigable machines working non-stop for hours and staying much later than any one else on the crew.

During the show, our runner, Jackie Lancette, was bumped into the front office to do clerical work and needing a new runner, Brian Simpson was hired.  Brian was Drone Performer, Doug Simpson's younger brother who aspired to be a stuntman like his brother, but hadn't established himself in the industry yet.  I had worked with runners before and since and I can say that Brian was the absolute best of the best.

None of us condoned speeding to pick up supplies, but Brian was somehow able to find, pick up, and in some cases, substitute correctly one product for another in about one half of the time I had ever experienced it before.  Not only that, but he didn't care or grouse when he was sent to the same hardware store 5 different times in one day.  There was no bullshit with Brian.  He just....did.  Believe me, it was a blessing.

Matt had roughed in the head and it was evident that he would have to remove the mandibles and sculpt them as an appliance to be attached afterward. From being able to detail the inside of the fleshy membranes to sliding the finished foam-latex over the mechanics, it was definitely the best way to go.  Matt made the mold on the Predator head, himself (with assistance from a couple of us).  For those of you who like to know these things it was an Ultracal 30 mother mold with GI-1000 (silicone) poured into it.  It was a BIG mold and I can still remember Matt sliding the stone mold pieces into place before sealing it up and beginning to pour the silicone.

We ran lots of foam latex in silicone molds in those days with good results.  Most of the time, moisture and steam would be alleviated by utilizing a stone core, or a fiberglass core that had been peppered with tiny vent holes.  Whenever silicone molds were baked, the temperature of the oven was reduced to about 160 to 180 degrees and the molds were baked for 8 to 10 hours in some cases.  The only problem was that if too many runs were necessary, the silicone began to turn white (instead of its customary blue hue) and break down.

As Matt was sliding the mother mold into place, he nicked his sculpture (I would indicate where, but I like to keep that information secret - that way when people tell me that they have somehow managed to get a pull from the original Predator head mold, I can look at it in a second and know whether or not it is genuine).

A black self-skinning soft urethane casting of Matt's Predator head. Steve Wang and Grant Arndt look on in horror!
 When the mold was opened a quick stone positive was poured out to the lower face area so that Matt could begin sculpting the mandibles.  While he was waiting for the positive to be cast, he turned his attention to an unfortunate problem.  The feet, having been sculpted prior to the body being completely finished, did not extend up the leg far enough (and consequently, there were other aesthetic issues).  Matt jumped in and re-sculpted the feet.

Meanwhile, Steve was furiously busy sculpting and building the Predator weapons.  Using a combination of clay and model parts, he constructed the cannon which was molded in silicone and cast in very thin fiberglass.

The casting was turned over to Dave Kindlon who was busy mechanizing the gun mount so it could be puppeteered.  The idea was that the Predator's helmet and gun were tied together.  As the Predator shifted his focus and attention, the shoulder cannon would automatically focus on what he was looking at.  Of course, in 1986, we didn't have the know-how to make this happen automatically, but it would be executed by coordinating and rehearsing Kevin Peter Hall's movements so the puppeteer could anticipate and move the cannon accordingly.

An on-going disagreement had existed between mechanics in just about every studio and the people that ran the foam-latex skins.  If the foam rubber was too dense, like it had been on MONSTER SQUAD, it did two things that mechanics hated: It limited the movement of the mechanics and burned out servo motors. After receiving the first test skin of the head (which was akin to shoe rubber) I set out to insure that I would hear no complaints from the mechanical department. Having extensive experience running foam latex and having been frustrated along with everyone else at the dense MONSTER SQUAD foam, I took a look a what was being done in the foam room and discovered a very basic problem - too much foam was being run in the mixers.  Since the raw chemicals would fill nearly 1/3 of the bowl, when the high-speed mixing began, the volume would reach the top of the bowl quickly without whipping enough air into it.  Hence, the result was dense foam.

I initiated a new formulation that would put a smaller amount of the chemicals into the mixer and whip it until it reached the top of the bowl and the result was a super-light foam latex that enabled the servos to move it with little resistance.  While that served the head, the body was a different issue.  Since the armor had been sculpted onto the body, we ran small amounts of dense foam, poured it into the armor sections, let it gel, pushed it down to make it even DENSER, then ran a softer foam for the skin sections.  Because of the time constraints, we knew we would only be able to run two suits for the entire shoot.

Ah, yes, the entire shoot -- let's address that now.  Originally, we were told that this was to be a 5 day pick-up shot week just to put the creature into the completed film (by and large, the film WAS completed).  What could we possibly need more than two suits, right?  Oh, yes, and for much of the film, the Predator would be optically camouflaged which meant that instead of our cosmetic suit, he would have to wear a red spandex suit that had the basic silhouette of the creature.

Enter Joel Hynek of Robert Abel and Associates.  Quick VFX history lesson - Bob Able was New York based and had established a reputation for producing unique, strange, visually arresting commercials, especially in the 70's.





Since I was an effects nerd, I knew of their reputation and was looking forward to working with them.  Again, be careful what you wish for!  In all fairness, everyone was just trying to do their jobs with a difficult schedule and challenging effects.

Now that I'm older and more experienced, the thought of having to track a figure running through the jungle, removing the red element out and having to produce the displacement effect via traditional animation and optical printing techniques would make my head pop like I was being scanned!  Then, however, I was a stupid 24 year-old kid who, although I was a fan, had big logistical head aches of my own!

I had to figure out how the red suit was going to be made and more importantly who was available to do it!  Then I remembered my friend Leslie Neumann.

Leslie was married to my friend, composer, Drew Neumann with whom I had attended CalArts (in the experimental animation program).  Leslie had worked at a place called Shafton's (that may be spelled incorrectly) and had been instrumental in building walk-around character costumes but when I contacted her, she was basically working out of her house from project to project.  I discussed what we needed for the show and she agreed to meet me at the studio.

With the clock ticking, we knew that there were going to have to be some compromises.  The first, most obvious one was having to sacrifice the Predator's "dreds" represented in the red suit.  It wasn't that we didn't have some solutions to how to do it; it was that we really didn't have the time to test and build yet a fourth set of dreadlocks when we were rushing to just to finish the other three Predator heads.

Steve Wang supervises Eddie Yang as he trims and trims Pred-dreds! My grey camera bag sits on the counter behind them.
 I spent a lot of time on the phone with Joel Hynek discussing all of these issues prior to our showing up on set.  After all, since Joel had been part of the Puerto Vallarta shoot, he had the practical experience and had indicated the type and color of the material Leslie would be building the red suit out of, as well as the fabric paint (Design Master brand - sold at Michael's) that we would need to have on set for painting out any stains that (we knew) would occur.

A simple set of polyfoam pieces were given to Leslie, along with a body form, and she went back to her house to begin sewing and assembling.

Now in the midst of all of this activity, some very important things happened - Stan became attached to a film as a director.  For years, Stan had fantasized about directing his first film.  Among them was one that he had developed, co-written, and with the help of his crew had done an incredible amount of art/sculptural work for entitled MORGOOLUM.  However, MORGOOLUM would have to wait as Stan was being given the opportunity to direct PUMPKINHEAD, a script by Gary Gerani and Mark Carducci.

Without going too much into PUMPKINHEAD at this point, what is important is that Stan called his lifers back from their vacations to begin the design process while the PREDATOR crew continued pushing forward.

The Predator Back Pack run in black fiberglass, awaiting gun mechanics and finishing!


Earlier that year, my girlfriend, Tracy, and I had been burned by the IRS to the tune of $3500 (which was a lot of money for two twenty-somethings in 1986).  Our accountant had told us that we would have cut that amount in half if only we were married and not living together.  We decided, quite unromantic, that we should make the time and get hitched.

Knowing that Thanksgiving weekend was coming up and it would be the only 4 consecutive days off between November and February, we went to the L.A. County Courthouse and got married the Wednesday before Thanksgiving- the 26th of November, 1986 .  And, just because Tracy and I took four days off didn't mean Matt or Steve did.  They were back to work on Friday and continued to work through the weekend.

When I returned to the studio on Monday morning, I was surprised to see some new faces working there including Screaming Mad George who was painting a fiberglass Predator helmet that Matt had sculpted.

By now, I'm sure that most of you know that the iconic helmet or "mask" of the Predator underwent changes during the build.  Yes, production had given us a piece of artwork that has been attributed by veteran VFX artist/designer/supervisor Alan Munro:

We got this image PRIOR to beginning the work.  Yes Alan did have some influence over the final design.
However, we weren't following Alan's design to the letter and so Matt sculpted the first mask to be intimidating, beautiful, and yet look somewhat functional.  If you have never seen it, here is a photo of the Predator wearing Matt's first mask:

Isn't it lovely?!
But that wasn't the only element that would be changed.  Steve and Matt fresh off their success with the Gillman from MONSTER SQUAD had sculpted individual finger cups that served as nails and finger extensions to give the predator long, thin, spindly fingers.

Production was going to stop by to see our progress, putting Kevin into the suit.  I'll never forget Steve Wang showing me a photo of a locust and telling me that he was going to use it as inspiration for the paint job.  In my ignorance, I didn't understand, but it would be an industry changer -
It wasn't THIS photo, but one like it that Steve showed me in a book!
Steve began painting the body while Matt turned the mandible sculpture over to the mold department.

The foam latex suit ready for painting!

Steve paints the body.  BTW - Check out what he's painting it with - A Paache "H" airbrush!
Richard Landon, supplied with fiberglass under skulls, soft foam rubber test skins and acrylic teeth had begun to mechanize the head.  I recall that he fit 9 servos into the hero head that controlled brow movement, a cheek "squint" and the mandibles open and closed.  When he demonstrated the mechanics to Stan, the lower mandibles opened but did not spread out away from the mouth.  Stan asked that Richard add the movement in the 11th hour and with no more room in the head, he accomplished the engineering using an external servo that was about the size of a baseball.  I remember him handing us the finished mechanics with the servo hanging from two cables on either side and saying, "Sorry, you're going to have to hide this somewhere.

Luckily, the foam in the back of the suit was so thick, that we could skive an area out for the servo to slide into perfectly.

On the day of the Los Angeles (technically, it would be Northridge, California) fitting, producer Joel Silver, director John McTiernan, and Kevin Peter Hall showed up at Stan's.  We suited him up with as much as we had finished which was a suit, a pair of unpainted hands with the finger extensions, and a test, stunt head that Steve had painted but had no dreadlocks on it.

As we stepped back and looked at the creature, we noticed that some things were going to have to change instantly.  Kevin, although his fingers looked long and spider-leg-like, was having difficulty handling the weapons and holding onto the little tools in his medical pack.  New gloves would need to be sculpted, molded, run, seamed and painted immediately.  Also, originally there was to be a sword handle sticking out of the backpack close to the gun.  You can see the "curve" of the blade represented by the curve of the backpack (which always reminded me of a shrimp for some reason).  But when Kevin turned his head to the left, the protrusion of the Predator's muzzle would smack right into the handle of the sword so it was eliminated.

From a trivia point of view - there were two fiberglass swords that were run and painted.  They ended up hanging, blades crossed on the wall of our truck when we got to Mexico.  Look closely in behind-the-scenes photos and videos and you can see them hanging there.

Then, we put Matt's original helmet on to show them.  Joel hated it instantly.  He said that part of the mystery of the Predator was that first he was "invisible" then next when we see him, he's wearing a mask, and finally he takes the mask off to reveal the face.  Matt's design "tipped the hand" too much revealing what was going on underneath.  Matt, Steve, and I didn't agree.  We loved Matt's mask, but being professional, commercial artists, a new mask had to be sculpted AND FAST!  Our deadline was approaching.

Oh yeah - something else.  When Kevin put the suit on the crotch of it looked weird.  Remember how I said that Steve had raised the belt line on the suit to give Kevin the illusion of having longer legs and a shorter torso?  Well, now it was evident.  Something had to be done.  Grabbing a sheet of suede fabric, Steve created a quick loin cloth that not only covered most of the front (with the exception of the metallic codpiece) but the behind which looked like a pair of silver hot pants was camouflaged as well.
Matt Rose begins sculpting the new mask as Shane Mahan looks on.
Meanwhile, I called production and asked what the location was like.  They told me that it was jungle.  Not Hollywood-fake jungle - no, REAL jungle.  They suggested that we prepare ourselves by purchasing military boots and rip-stop pants.

What the hell were we in for?

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Monday, February 25, 2013

A quick sidetrack before we return to our story...

In 1992, I met with freelance photographer, Louis Psihoyos, who was working on assignment for National Geographic magazine.  The assignment was that they would travel around the world and dig up (no pun intended) all of the new information about dinosaurs.  He and his friend/assistant John Knoebber had stopped by Stan Winston studios to photograph the dinosaur construction.  In his hands Louis had a digital 35mm camera - one of the first.  I asked him what it was like not having film in the camera and he told me (then) that it made him a little nervous.  He no longer had control of the negatives he shot (which was how photographers maintained control over the images they captured) and explained that once the image had been interpreted by a computer, making a duplicate would not result in any loss of image quality (which would happen if you traditionally re-photographed a photograph using film to make a new negative).  Those words struck a chord with me.

 Most everyone in Hollywood (and in the world) has embraced digital technology and it has thrown incredible tools into the hands of many creative people who, otherwise, would find creating cost prohibitive.

That is good.  Right?  Anyone who had the guts to pick up a Super 8mm camera (that's right, I said GUTS) and shoot a few days of crude stop-motion animation, knows what I'm talking about.

It used to be that you would buy a roll of film for about $7 (which was expensive), build your puppets, sets, and props, shoot the animation only to discover upon development that it was full of "flash frames" or parts of it were out of focus. And that was that. The person working at the drug store where you had it developed didn't care - you still had to pay the $7 (in the 1970's mind you) to have it processed.  You, essentially LOST $14 and to many of us, that was MONTHS of allowance!

These days, all you need to do is grab your laptop, plug your camera in and start capturing frames.  You can look at them in a series, perfect the movement, make corrections - anything - all through the miracle of digital photography.  Heck, I'll even go so far as to say that digital photography SAVED stop-motion animation.  With a new generation of film artists raised on instant-gratification, stop-motion is no longer a "blind visual effect" the results of which would traditionally be seen only AFTER the film returned from a lab.

Meanwhile, for 40+ years, makeup artists were pushing the envelope of what could be accomplished with prosthetics to change the appearance of an actor into a character or in some cases a monster.  Dissatisfied with limiting their vision to heads and hands, they began to branch out and construct full-bodied creatures.  When that didn't satisfy movie audiences, intricate puppets were constructed and photographed.

Laugh all you want, but when you stop and consider the man-hours needed to create a Godzilla film from the 1960's AND the risk it must have been to shoot it all on film with high-speed cameras, it staggers the imagination.

Why?  Because a team of artists and technicians had to build cities and vehicles in perfect scale WITHOUT the use of a computer.  A team of people had to be confident enough in their skills to set miniature explosives and rig those buildings to come apart on cue.  And if it DIDN'T work - the lab didn't care.  You still had to pay to have the film processed.

Miniature builders, glass matte painters, effects animators, rotoscopers, Optical Printer technicians ad nauseum were all trying to push what was being seen on screen stretching the limits of their imaginations and production budgets to bring the impossible to audiences in the name of entertainment.

See, that's why I don't refer to these decades as the "photo-chemical" age, I refer to them as the "Special Effects Days" because creating an effect was special - it was unique.  Sure, you could use the same techniques (even the same molds and suits for the most part) but invariably, there would be SOMETHING new that no one had figured out yet.  There was some challenge that took the combined brain-power of a group of talented folks to figure out before the all-expensive film would begin to run through the camera's gate.

Bored yet?  Okay.  So now where are we?  Look on vimeo or youtube and you can see thousands of people making films in their backyards or on locations all over the world.  The picture quality is fantastic (even mind-blowing in some cases).  They don't own multi-million dollar visual effects companies; some of them use little more than an iphone and a laptop.  I've heard it been said that a renaissance of sorts has begun.  Or has it?

During the Italian Renaissance did EVERYBODY have the skills of Michaelangelo and the ability to paint the Sistine Chapel?  Could just ANYBODY pick up a hammer and chisel and begin to sculpt incredible figures like Bernini?  Just because a group of talented individuals were given the opportunity to create timeless works of art did not mean that (proportionately) thousands of people were doing it.

Our current creative environment is something much more akin to the American frontier.  The computer has become equivalent to a gun which was called "the great equalizer" in its day because a person no longer had to be possessed of physical strength to survive in the savage wilderness.  All they needed was the knowledge of how to use a gun. Sure, the better you were with the gun, the better you could protect yourself or exploit someone else but the gun was what offered the opportunity for equality.

I don't think I have to spell out the comparrison here.  Computers, like guns, are tools.  They are used to get a job done, however owning this tool and having the knowledge of how to use it for visual effects sets an individual ahead of the curve compared to those who do not have a powerful/fast machine, the right software and the know-how. I don't think I need to tell most of you that I've seen films on the Internet with effects that nearly rival ILM scale projects.  Look at Neill (District 9) Blomkamp's early work as just ONE example.

Sure, there are a lot of crappy projects on the Internet as well but to that I say look at 90% of the original programming on the SyFy Channel.  There is a LOT of dodgy effects work going on and yeah, I know, I know, I know the dance - no money, no time. it's meant to be campy, blah, blah, blah.  What many don't realize is that poor digital effects are "conditioning" audiences.  Since those who feel compelled to watch this stuff are seeing it in a "professional venue" (where sponsors are paying for advertising time) - they eventually accept this level of effect as "professional."

So now we have our margins - on one end we have giant effects houses: ILM, Sony Digital, and I'll throw in Legacy, KNB EFX, and Pixar to be fair and on the other side you have little boutique effects houses and indviduals in their homes with a lot of imagination and the knowledge of Maya, Z-Brush, and After Effects.
Throw on top of that the Gnomon School, The Stan Winston School of Character Arts, Creative Cow, Digital Co-Pilot, Free YouTube tutorials, and accredited universities and trade schools all over the world TRAINING new generations of VFX artists every year.

Do you see where this is going?

So now, after Practical Effects artists whom have been compared to "rock stars" have taken the back seat to visual effects companies and concerns, after Screan Actor's Guild puppeteers suddenly find only a few venues that still consistenly get them paid gigs, after Screen Actor's Guild stuntmen shit their pants as digital "stuntmen" began hitting propellers in TITANIC, after Local 706 makeup artists have had their work augmented or in some cases replaced by digital effects, and after film labs all over the world shut down or heavily reduced their payrolls because of the progress made by digital technology, NOW digital effects technicians and artists are calling for solidarity.

To what end?

Who came to the rescue of all of the UNION cel animators when Disney closed its doors?  Who rushed to all of the non-Disney animators when their jobs were outsourced to Korea? All of this was done in the name of progress, right?  It is what audiences wanted!

When the WGA struck, SAG marched along side in "solidarity."  When the WGA strike ended and the SAG strike began, what did the writers do?  They worked - they didn't strike in solidarity.  The in-fighting between SAG and AFTRA before the unions, the new "emerging markets" combined with the creation of SAG Low Budget and Ultra Low Budget agreements has caused a DROP in salaries and residual structures. Actors (with the exception of celebrity/actors) now earn less money. And actors are "above the line!" 

This is not a fair world, kids.  This is what we call progress.  The world has turned and it is what we all wanted.  If Nooks and Kindles and Ipads were not so popular, then you could still find big bookstores in every mall.  If there were no flat screen TVs and home theaters around, serviced by cable/satellite/on-demand networks, more people would have to go to theaters for entertainment.  If, if, if, if....

We all wanted this.  We all wanted to know how - we wanted to know how the magic was made - from pop music to novel writing and what has happened?  WE have disrupted how creative work is made and marketed and while a few of the old guard remain, making their millions, controlling what and how mass media is fed to the public, for the first time we see large numbers of independent creators out there.

Yes, piracy is a growing concern, but had everything remained analog, think how difficult making copies of music, art, and movies would be.  Am I suggesting we go BACKWARDS? NO!  We're here! It's clear! Digital's not going to disappear!  So why do I say all of this?

Because we have to stop all of the horseshit.  We have to stop the fighting and name-calling and everything else that we are doing.  If you feel like you are being exploited by someone who is making tons of money off of your efforts - leave.  Start your own business.  Make your own movies. Is the market saturated?  You bet, but all markets are saturated.  We live in saturated times but in a way - that's good!

You don't HAVE to watch "Honey Boo-Boo" if you don't want to; you have options.  You don't HAVE to work in your hometown anymore if you can figure how to use and employ the Internet to your advantage. It is a brave new world (well, we can argue "brave" if you want to) but it is certainly very different than when most of us started in this business and for those of you starting your careers now - WATCH OUT!  Twenty years goes by in the blink of an eye and soon you'll find yourself wondering how it is that you have become redundant.

All of us have a choice RIGHT NOW!  You can weep and mourn for the way films were made and do your damndest to try and turn the clock back - or you can decide how you fit in.  Not just as a VFX/digital/practical artist but as a human being.  Strength and independence are the cornerstones of  human spirit and creativity.  You are creatively in so much better shape now than ever.  Figure out your place or better CREATE your place.

You got your "great equalizer" right in front of you.  Might as well parcel out a little spread o'territory here on the Internet and call it your own.  Make whatever you want and share it with everybody else.  Will it make you rich? I don't know, but I ask you this: Does it HAVE to?  Sometimes just knowing you own a kingdom (virtual though it may be) is enough to make carrying the yoke for someone else a little more bearable.

I bet Louis Psihoyos shoots with a digital camera almost exclusively now, but I also bet his deal as a photographer has been restructured and I also bet that he still has film cameras and film still sitting around his studio.  He may have shot dinosaurs, but he refused to become one.  Time to evolve.

Now....get back to work!

See you next time with the continuing story of the creation of THE PREDATOR (and should you feel lucky that you don't have to do it the way we did!).


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Part 45: The Saga of THE PREDATOR, Part 1


 It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.  We were in the thick of MONSTER SQUAD, when we began to see new drawings from Stan of a new alien character for the film PREDATOR.  The makeup effects community in the 80's, although expansive, was still drawing from a common talent pool, so friends were always talking despite many studios' insistence on secrecy.

Most of us had heard of PREDATOR, when it was floating around shops as a script entitled HUNTER.  We also were aware that Steve Johnson's crew at Richard Edland's BOSS Film Effects had built a version of the suit and had already executed many of the gore effects for the film.  So, why had the producers shown up at Stan's?  It was very confusing, but an important lesson that I learned about film making:  Films are made in post production.

Trust me, I wish it weren't that way, but it is true.  Shooting a film on set is necessary for gathering the material that you need to make a movie, and the better quality shots and assets, the better the movie.  However, until it is all put together, there is really no picture.  The reason I say I wish it weren't true, is because so many people "kill" themselves on set working their behinds off to make production days and furnish these incredible shots.  AND, that's why a mediocre film can be elevated if  a director is shrewd enough to shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot so that the editors have a lot of options to cut.  There is an expression that many good performances by actors have been constructed by film editors.  There is a lot of truth in that.

With the the stories about the perceived failure of the BOSS Films Predator floating around the shops, PREDATOR had now found its new home at Stan Winston Studios.  From my perspective, the only place where the BOSS crew went wrong (and by that, I mean, where production went wrong since they had to approve the design process every step of the way) was that they were way ahead of their time.  Their concept exceeded the contemporary effects technology where it came to leg extensions.

Requiring a crane to hold the creature up on it's spindly alien legs severely affected the shooting schedule and was too limiting for director, John McTiernan, to constantly frame out.  It is commonly known that action star, John Claude Van Damme was the performer in the suit; he had taken the job because he thought that his debut in motion pictures as Arnold Schwarzenegger's adversary would skyrocket him to stardom.  He didn't understand that no one would ever see his face or body on screen and subsequently, he left the show when the BOSS Films Predator left the show.

What is ironic is that among the artists who worked at BOSS on that incarnation of PREDATOR was STEVE WANG!!!   Fate truly had cursed him to be such an integral part of the show.

Boss Film's original Predator suit. Photo courtesy William Forsche
I've written a history of the Stan Winston Studios, PREDATOR design history for my column at Film School Rejects here: Predator Design Story and I really don't have much to add to it beyond saying that until all of the parties get together in one room, we'll never know the complete story and the bottom line is that the Predator was the result of an army of talented people who threw themselves into the project with an enviable sense of dedication.  So, let's talk a little about how it all practically happened.  I'm going to assume that you've read the article that I've linked to, but if not, don't worry, the story can continue.

Kevin Peter Hall was the first important component of the show. He had already portrayed an alien hunter designed by Rick Baker and applied by Greg Cannom in WITHOUT WARNING and he was fresh off of a very pleasant experience as the titular Sasquatch character in HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS.

He threw little alien frisbees that killed his victims that he dressed out like a real hunter.

Although Kevin is known for the Predator, his true nature is best reflected in his performance as Harry.
Kevin was an actor by trade, not a suit performer.  Having been trained in improvisational comedy, Kevin and a partner were frequently on stage in Hollywood comedy clubs.  Prior to his gig on HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS, Kevin had acted in a short-lived television series entitled MISFITS OF SCIENCE where e played a character that despite his impressive stature, could physically shrink down to tiny proportions (Ah, television writers!  How clever can they get?!  I can hear the enthusiastic guffawing and self-congratulations at that one-joke concept). What made Kevin such a great candidate to play the Predator was not just that he was a good actor, but his patience knew no end.

We were kids, literally.  Steve Wang and Matt Rose weren't even 21 year old at the time.  I was 24.  No matter what we asked of Kevin during the construction he was only too glad to help.  He wanted to collaborate on this character and was in awe of the work being done at the studio.  And, of course, he LOVED interacting with Stan Winston.

Stan, a natural performer, and Kevin would launch into silliness every time Kevin visited the studio.  Ah, the glory days. After being hired, Kevin had come to the studio and posed for photographs for the design maquette, however because of the studio's continuing obligation to MONSTER SQUAD and the time required to get a design concept approved by the PREDATOR production, we didn't see Kevin for a few weeks.

Kevin and Stan on set at the Creature Effects Truck (Matt Rose in b.g.).  Photo courtesy William Forsche
 By the time Kevin came back to the shop the second time, sculptor, Wayne Strong's maquette was completed and Matt Rose and Steve Wang were back from their Gillman duties from MONSTER SQUAD.  Steve had done three drawings of the Predator, one head study, one full body standing drawing, and one of the character running toward the viewer.  But before any artwork could begin, we needed to cast Kevin Peter Hall.

As anyone in makeup effects can tell you, life casting is the foundation of any prosthetic or creature suit and there are many steps that have to take place prior to sculpting.  In Kevin's case, since he was so tall (yes, he was 7 foot, 2 inches tall) that we needed to do his body cast as two, two piece molds - his upper torso, and his hips and legs.  When the plaster bandage mold was completed (remember, no body scanning and outputting then...had to do it all by hand!), rigid foam was poured around a pipe armature.

A drill bit was taped off at 1/4" (meaning only a 1/4 inch of the bit was exposed and able to drill) and the entire surface of the rigid foam was marked with these 1/4" pits.  Then, the entire surface was sanded down until none of the pits was visible, effectively removing 1/4" of material from all over the rigid foam casting.  This was done for a couple of reasons: 1.) it ensured a great fit for the suit.  The tighter the suit, the less wrinkling and bagginess there would be and 2.) rigid foam, even when poured into a mold, expands a bit more once it is released from the mold.  When the form was sanded, it was sealed and another, heartier plaster bandage mold was made so that a fiberglass body form could be run for sculpting and foam latex casting.

Kevin's head, hands, and feet were cast in prosthetic grade cream and positives were poured and remolded in silicone for masters, sculpting and running cores.  While all of this lab work was being done, Steve, Matt and Stan spent time figuring out a strategy to get the first leg of work completed.  As had been established on MONSTER SQUAD, Matt would sculpt the head, Steve would concentrate on the body.  Unfortunately, due to the time constraints, it was decided that the armor pieces, with the exception of the helmet, the backpack and the wrist units, would be sculpted on the body and become permanent pieces rather than sculpting a nude predator and having to work out the armor later.  There just wasn't the time.

As with the Gillman, it was decided that the Predator would have long fingers, so prior to the glove being sculpted, finger extension cups were sculpted, molded, cast and then put onto Kevin Peter Hall's hand casts.
Meanwhile, MONSTER SQUAD had wrapped and the very fatigued group of Stan Winston's lifers came back to the shop.  They spent time carefully storing and displaying the suit pieces and prosthetics while we PREDATOR-kids tore up the shop in frenetic activity.

Perception is a tricky thing.

It is difficult for any of us to be able to stand in another individual's shoes and be able to experience situations from a different point of view.  For this story, the "why's" become less important and in an effort to elevate and celebrate the efforts of the Stan Winston crew, let's just stick to the facts.

When most of the sculpting forms were completed, Matt Rose began work on the Predator's head.  Steve Wang began the body sculpture, assisted by Alec Gillis, Shane Mahan and I (although, I would admit that aside from roughing forms out, I take no credit for the finished sculpt at all).  John Rosengrant began roughing in the Predator's feet and Tom Woodruff, Jr. began sculpting the wrist-blade housing.  By this time it was mid-Autumn and it was clear that everyone was physically pushing themselves in the wake of non-stop work since the "Go to the Head of the Class" episode of AMAZING STORIES.

The responsibility of creating the Predator created substantial pressure on Steve Wang.  With such a quick schedule, the body sculpture would have to be completed first and at a record pace.  Steve told Stan he was concerned that the sculpture would not be as refined as he had hoped to which Stan told Steve that the Predator suit was going to be all about the paint job.  How right Stan was.

Steve Wang reminded me that he fell ill toward the end of the Predator body sculpt (I couldn't swear on it, but I would bet stress and fatigue contributed to Steve's sickness).  I had been off of the sculpture turning my attention to other duties. In Steve's absence, John and Shane finished off the Predator body sculpture; Shane added the chevron details to the armor, as I recall.  However, whether it was fatigue, or budget, or the impending pre-production of Stan's directorial debut, PUMPKINHEAD, whatever the reason, John, Shane, Tom and Alec took some time off.

Shortly after, one day after work, Stan pulled me aside in the parking lot.  He told me that he wanted me to "watch Predator" for him (which meant, act as a supervisor/facilitator).  He went on to explain that Matt and Steve would be the last word on anything creative or artistic (naturally!) but that it would be my duty to figure out how everything was going to get done.  And if it didn't get done...it would be my ass (yes, he literally said that).

Mold maker, Steve Patino, showed up at the studio to make a fiberglass mold of the body sculpture.  The Predator crew had been slowly building as other Stan Winston studio employees finished up on MONSTER SQUAD including Grant Arndt, Lindsay McGowan, and Emilio Gonzales.  Mechanic, Wayne Strong, joined Richard Landon and Dave Kindlon in the mechanical department, to build custom air rams to extend and retract the wrist blades.

A frame grab showing the Predator body sculpt walled and ready to be molded.

Another angle...
...one more for good measure.
With everyone now working at break neck speed, the Predator body mold was opened only to reveal a network of thin, spiderweb-like cracks that ran the entire length.  We had no choice but to run it the way it came out.

END OF PART 1.  NEXT TIME - The pressure mounts as the crew attempts to finish the Predator.  Oh, and by the way, we'll need a red suit for the Visual Effects department!



Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Part 44: "We're the MONSTER SQUAD"

When we completed shooting on "Miss Stardust" we returned to the shop excited to begin preparations for MONSTER SQUAD.  In anticipation of creating so many creatures and make-ups, Stan rented a third unit in the industrial complex.  While we began putting together tables and moving equipment and clutter out of the main building, Stan, himself, began designing the monsters.

Yes, I saved my screening invitation!
 It was clear from the beginning that this was not going to be a Universal picture, and, unfortunately, Universal held the rights to "certain features" on their classic monsters such as Frankenstein's flat head and neck bolts, as well as Dracula's widow's peak, etc., so Stan was instructed by production to re-design the monsters so that they would be instantly recognizable without infringing on copyrighted material.

Stan began doing pencil sketches on tracing paper (his favorite technique) and soon had approved designs for all of the monsters: Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy, the Wolfman, and the Gillman.  Dracula would only require dentures and lenses from us, while his make up would be designed and handled by make up artist, and frequent collaborator, Hungarian-born, Zoltan Elek.

While Stan was drawing, we began working on anything that we could that needed to be made but didn't necessarily need a finished design.  A couple of zombie/corpse puppets were sculpted; one, of which, Dave Kindlon mechanized with refined radio-controlled Muppet techniques.  Three actresses were cast as Dracula's brides and teeth and chest casts were made for fangs and "stake plates" for when Rudy dispatches them with a crossbow.

Stan's lifers divided up the supervisory duties per creature: Tom Woodruff, Jr. would sculpt the prosthetics required for the Frankenstein's monster, Shane Mahan took on the Mummy responsibilities while John Rosengrant supervised the Wolfman and Alec Gillis would design and oversee the various "bat-guises" for Dracula.  The Gillman (that's the Creature from the Black Lagoon to most of you folks) would be handled by Matt Rose and his friend who had joined him from San Jose, California, Steve Wang.  Richard Landon would supervise the mechanical shop, assisted by Dave Nelson, Steve James and Dave Kindlon.

There was no mistaking that most of the lifers were HUGE Universal Studios Monster Fans.  During the prep, John Rosengrant, an avid plastic model builder, brought in some of his classic Aurora Monster models for inspiration.  I had grown up watching the Universal monsters and reading Famous Monsters of Filmland, but I had a penchant for BIG monsters.  King Kong, Godzilla and pals, Reptilicus, Ray Harryhausen's creations - those were the monsters that beguiled me.  Not that I wasn't happy to be working, because, trust me, I couldn't have been happier, but after seeing those photos of the Queen Alien from ALIENS, I really wanted to work on a big monster.

John Rosengrant's finished Aurora Frankenstein kit.  Expertly done!
Rosengrant's finished Aurora Dracula kit!
Rosengrant's Mummy
Rosengrant's Wolfman.  I had never seen these kits done better so I photographed them all.  Wish he brought the rest in.
 Crews were organized by the lifers utilizing the remaining employees.  Lindsay McGowan went to help Alec sculpt bats, Emilio Gonzales (an East Coast transplant) and I went with John to work on the Wolfman and his transformations.  Lenny McDonald, a very talented artist that would go on to work for Steve Johnson for many of his films, floated in the shop doing everything from making the Gillman's eyes, to painting the undersuit for the wolfman, to sculpting the subliminal skull mask used in but a few frames of the film (the lightning strike visage - you remember!).  Eric Fiedler helped out in the mold department (a serious misuse of his talents) and a young man, Grant Arndt, from the midwest, became our runner.  However, as his talents would be recognized, he would move into the shop to work and would be replaced by Brian Simpson (Drone-performer, Doug Simpsons' younger brother).

Foam latex was run by a recent Rob Bottin studios transplant, Jackie Tichenor and David Leroy Anderson (Lance Anderson's son) joined the crew impressing everyone by making swift silicone/matrix molds on life casts in a DAY (which was no easy task)!  Dave Matherly and Anton Rupprecht helped round out the lab department.  Last, but anything but least, was Michiko Tagawa, a skilled puppet builder from Japan who had helped Stan construct the dog-creature puppet for THE THING.

So much work was done to create the monsters for MONSTER SQUAD, that all I can do is try to supply you with some highlights based on the creatures themselves...

FRANKENSTEIN'S MONSTER, as most of you know was played by actor, Tom Noonan.  Noonan came into the studio for a life cast, which was supervised by Tom Woodruff, Jr. They cast his entire head and hands.  Dave Anderson turned a based life-cast mold around in a day and Tom started sculpting the make up design that he would break down into prosthetic pieces.  I believe he also sculpted the back of the hand appliances.  Since Universal Studios-style neck bolts were out of the question, Stan put bolts on the monster's temples; I can still see Tom bending the small brass clamps that were used to give the illusion that they were securing the monster's skin at the forehead.  After the pieces were molded, foam rubber appliances were manufactured.  I'm not sure how many sets were needed, but I bet Tom Woodruff, Jr. could tell you because he painted all of them.

(L to R) A painted study of the Frankenstein Monster makeup, The Frankie Halloween mask sculpted by Steve Wang, a skull and the Subliminal Dracula Skull Mask sculpted by Lenny MacDonald.
 THE MUMMY was played by a diminutive performer named Michael MacKay.  To say Mike was skinny would be like saying that jalapeno peppers are a bit spicy.  Mike was emaciated which was the perfect base for Shane Mahan to build his Mummy.  The idea would be that MacKay would be in a suit, wearing a latex mask and for inserts, Dave Kindlon (and Steve James, I think?) built a mechanical puppet to really show the skeletal appearance of this mummy.  I'm hoping that one of the other crew will contribute to this in the comment section, but I recall that Michiko built the mummy's bandage suits.

Shane Mahan's Mummy Puppet.
THE GILLMAN would be Tom Woodruff, Jr.'s creature suit debut.  A long time fan of classic creature-suit performer Janos Prohaska, Tom convinced Stan that he would be an asset in a suit, not just because he was thin and over 6 feet tall, but also he felt that because he knew what went into making a creature suit, he would have a better idea of how to make it move well.  He wasn't wrong.  Tom was a fantastic Gillman and it was the start of a career performing in suits that continues to this day!  The suit itself would be constructed almost exclusively by Matt and Steve.  Steve, a relative newcomer to the shop, impressed Stan with his portfolio and was hired on the spot.  After casting Tom's head, hands, feet and body, Steve and Matt insisted on shaving Tom's body cast down 1/4 of an inch all over it, to insure that the suit would be tight and form-fitting.  Matt began sculpting the nail finger extensions on stone copies of Tom's hands, while Steve began sculpting the feet.  The hands and feet were completed, molded and cast so that they could be put onto Tom's body cast so Steve could sculpt the scales to match exactly as they transitioned from the suit to the gloves and boots.  A cast of Tom's head was made to be removed from the body form so that Matt could rough it out in water-based, WED clay and then pop it off of the body to be able to continue sculpting using a stand. This enabled Steve to work on the body without having to worry about Matt being in the way.

When Steve had the shoulder area of the body finished, a quick mold was taken and a stone plug was fashioned so that Matt could use it as blending reference for the head sculpture.  The body was molded in fiberglass by Steve Patino while the head was silicone with a stone matrix.  The entire body and head were cast in foam latex.

Matt Rose's and Steve Wang's Gillman Suit.
 THE WOLFMAN actually required quite a bit of work since actor John Gries would portray the man cursed with lycanthropy and Carl Thibault would play the final creature.  Gries had a slighter build and was of average height, where Carl was taller and beefier.  Unlike Lon Chaney, Jr. who portrayed both Lawrence Talbot and the Wolfman, Stan's theory was that the illusion would be better sold if the Wolfman was physically larger after his transformation.  Stan was insistent that there was a philosophical difference between a "Werewolf" which was something more like Rick Baker built in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON or Rob Bottin had constructed for THE HOWLING and what we were attempting.

It was the mid-1980's and makeup effects was enjoying its Renaissance so producing foam-latex appliances wouldn't be adequate for our Wolfman.  Stan designed a face that was an obvious departure from human facial anatomy, spreading the eyes apart and significantly lowering the forehead.  His goal was that when the audience saw this Wolfman, they would know that it was not just an actor wearing prosthetics.  Our Wolfman was to feature state-of-the-art animatronics.

On the set of MISS STARDUST, Stan discussed how our Wolfman transformation would feature something that hadn't been seen before.  Doing air-bladders beneath appliances had been done to death by this time, as well as long, drawn out transformations between puppet heads.  In the script, the only time the full transformation from man to wolf...uh, wolfMAN was featured would be in a phone booth (remember those?).  Stan came up with the idea of putting down a circular dolly track around the phone booth and using the corners of the booth as optical wipes between makeup stages.  That way, our tortured lycanthrope would transform rapidly as the camera moved.

So, it all had to begin with life casting.  John Gries came in and we cast his head in two expressions, neutral and wincing in pain, then we cast his arm in a dynamic position as well as his back.  We also cast Carl Thibault from head to foot and began making sculpting forms and clay presses to begin work.

John Gries' transformation arm cast.
 John Rosengrant was nothing if not pragmatic.  He knew that there was a strategy needed to complete the Wolfman suit and began sculpting the head and the body simultaneously to insure proper proportions.  He asked me to sculpt the hands and feet, but honestly, unlike what Matt and Steve had done with the Gillman, there was no way to pop the arms on and off of the main body to match proportion so I attempted to do it by eye.

My original Wolfman hand sculpts.
Sculpting Wolfman feet.
 When the body was finished, a quick fiberglass mold was made and a spandex, soft polyfoam suit was run, put onto a form and then handed over to fabricators who then made a Lycra covering.  Lenny McDonald painted the suit, enhancing the sculpted muscle forms and freckling skin tones over it.  The suit was then turned over to a crew to tie hair into it.

(L to R) The blown apart Wolfman puppet, the transformation head puppet, and the final suit with RC Head.
 While the long process of suit tying began, John finished off the Wolfman head sculpture and I finished the arms and feet.  Or so I thought.  It turned out that in my "enthusiasm" (which is a kind way to say that I didn't know what I was doing), I sculpted the arms too thick.  Whenever you sculpt something with the intention of punching hair into it, the sculpture should be thin because the hair will add bulk.  You've seen it before - a big, fluffy cat gets wet and looks like a skeleton.  So, with the clock ticking I banged through a thinner, less anatomical pair of gloves.  It was very disappointing.

The Wolfman hands that I had to sculpt in a day.
Compared to what I did originally, these are disappointing but became the gloves. Ouch.
 Speaking of disappointing, now would be a good time to tell you about the transformation.  Again, John would handle the head puppet; Stan insisted that  ONE puppet head be able to do just about everything.  I was given an arm to do.  The idea was that the arm would be sculpted mid-transformation so the exterior of the arm looked human while a wolf-like pad would be developing in the palm.  Like the head, Stan wanted one arm to carry the transformation illusion, so I worked closely with Eric Fiedler and Richard Landon.

The palm of my transformation arm sculpture.
I really tried to work some fleshy transformation elements.
And a LOT of detail!
The idea was that the arm would be shot in reverse.  We'd start on the underside of the arm, see the coarse fur, the wolf-pad on the palm, and long nails.  On action, we'd pull the nails in, the camera would move around to the back side of the arm and we'd pull the fur in through the skin.  The result on screen would be that the arm would sprout hair, the camera would move, we'd see the wolf pad on the palm as the sharp fingernails grew.  How much more simple could it be?

The arm was made of foam latex over a fiberglass core that was peppered with small holes.  Richard built the mechanism that would give the hand some movement at the wrist and enable the nails to grow.  Eric punched all of the hair and then tied clumps of the punched hair together with cords.  On action, we would pull the cords and the hair would just zip through the skin.  Simple!

To say the arm was a cluster-f*ck on set would be an understatement.  It was a HUGE failure.  There were too many variables, too many people involved; all I will say is this: it was the first BIG on-set failure I had ever experienced.  And, because it was so labor intensive, we only had ONE SHOT at it.

At some point we had heard from production that John's performance in the telephone booth was VERY animated and he was punching the glass as he screamed in pain.  Cutting to a static arm with a purposeful camera move wouldn't cut into the scene, so we had to be prepared to slam the hand into the wall prior to executing the effect.  That meant that the rig the arm was on would have to be rebuilt at the last minute to accommodate this change.  Also, fearing too much drag on the foam latex, Eric lubed the hair so it would pull in more smoothly (which wasn't a bad idea, but the variables of the shot had changed).

On action, we slammed the arm into the wall of the phone booth, pulled the nails in and pulled the hair. There was a millisecond delay then, vip! the hair pulled through at such a speed it nearly disappeared.  Then the camera operator took his eye away from the lens and said that he didn't like the framing and asked if we could we do it again.  Ugh.  Shyte.

We had better luck with the change-O head that had a combination of mechanics and bladders that spread the human eyes outward to mimic the final Wolfman, while pushing out the snout and inflating the cheekbones.  Also, Emilio Gonzales built a back prosthetic with bladders that pushed muscle shapes and dental acrylic bumps to suggest growing vertebrae that also was effective.  Two out of three isn't bad, but it stings when you are the one out of three that fails!

For the scene where it appears that a dead John Gries transforms back into the Wolfman in an ambulance, a mechanical arm outfitted with bladders was built, and as the camera settled on the characters shoe, a puppeteer's hand inside one of the latex Wolfman feet burst through.  That shot still makes me wince.

The biggest disappointment was that the Wolfman was sculpted in a permanent roar.  For whatever reason, (my guess is that Stan just didn't want that Wolfman to look anything but ferocious at all times), it wasn't sculpted in a neutral expression, so Dave Kindlon was severely limited to what he could bring mechanically to the head.  In the end, it didn't matter much, because as we all know, the Wolfman had nards.

As work on the Wolfman dissipated, I transferred over to the Dracula crew, assisting Alec and his crew with finishing the large bat puppet, the transformation arms, and the puppet body that was to represent Dracula in mid-transformation from bat to undead man.  Lindsay McGowan had sculpted the little bat, while Alec had sculpted the bigger bat.  Dave Nelson was chiefly involved with the mechanics of most of the Dracula pieces.  The mid-transformation body was not unlike what Rick Baker had done with David Naughton in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON; the actor was put on a slant-board through a hole in the floor of the set and a puppet torso was glued and blended on to the actor's chest.

However, unlike THE AMERICAN WEREWOLF, Alec upped the stakes replaced one of the actor's arm with a puppet arm in mid-transformation, complete with elongated fingers and wing membranes.  A set of facial prosthetics resembling bat features were produced for actor Duncan Regehr, and the make up was finished with hair pieces.

I had the pleasure of going to set a few days on MONSTER SQUAD, certainly not as much as any of the other lifers who, in general, had to be on set with their respective creatures.  So while Stan, John, and Shane were on set, maintaining the Wolfman and the Mummy, and Tom Woodruff was in his Gillman suit, assisted by Matt Rose and Steve Wang, Alec ran the shop while we completed the Dracula transformation effects.

I worked on the first,  main unit shoot, not just for the disastrous Wolfman transformation, but for the day the Wolfman exploded and reconstituted (see: Blood, Sweat, and Latex: Lending a Motorized Hand to MONSTER SQUAD).  I do recall another day when we were on a foggy swamp set where all of the monsters were playing.  Duncan Regehr had some intense, quiet dialogue during a scene and Stan thought the camera had cut and just went into a loud, Jerry Lewis comedy routine.  I don't know what was funnier, the routine or the fact that Stan had ruined a take, blushing while the A.D.'s then yelled cut and then called out for quiet on the set.

Producer, Peter Hyams shot the scene at the beginning where Dracula transforms from a bat into his undead, human form.  The crypt set was beautiful and it was so strange having a live armadillo running around on set.  We shot a series of puppets and parts that day, starting with Lindsay's small bat, Alec's large bat puppet, then the series of transformation arms; I think there were three stages but only two were seen in the film (or maybe it was four stages and only three...).

How about a little supplemental video?



While crews were busy finishing pieces needed to complete MONSTER SQUAD, and working on set with the performers, a group consisting of a couple of producers and a director came to the shop to speak to Stan about their troubled picture.

It seemed that they had completed principle photography of their new sci-fi/action film, but were unhappy with the creature that another company had built and now, they wanted the genius behind the Queen Alien.

The movie was PREDATOR, and my life was about to change forever.