Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Part 17: Letting Go - The Power of Destiny

It is sad watching one of your childhood heroes become irrelevant.  As much as I loved STAR WARS and admired the work on ALIEN, SUPERMAN, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, my interest in Stop Motion Animation and monsters had brought me to CalArts.  It was evident (although I had "fooled" myself) with SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER that Ray Harryhausen's work, although still the best of its kind at the time, looked like a cinema anachronism by 1980.

Don't get me wrong, Trog....I still love you....
It was easy to see that by Christmas of 1980, the shift was moving from Stop Motion to practical creature creation.  Granted, we had seen Phil Tippett's work on the STAR WARS series, and it truly kicked up the quality of motion picture Stop Motion work, but I believe that the titular character from ALIEN and Dick Smith's work on ALTERED STATES began to focus on pushing what could be accomplished live on a movie set.

Pre-"Go Motion" but still impressive as hell!
 Having sat at an animation disc, in the Film Graphics Room, and having to complete the "bouncing ball" pencil test exercise (where you attempt to animate a ball falling and bouncing realistically), I had a realization:  My teenage short-attention span was not conducive to animation.  And at that moment I had shifted my attention to making monsters as puppets, prosthetics, and masks.  I let go and got swept up in the current having no definitive idea how I was going to make career out of it.

Meanwhile, classes were by and large very silly with the exception of the "Introduction" classes where we would be trained to use the huge Oxberry Animation Stand and the Optical Printer.  The real lesson we were learning was how incredibly expensive it was going to be to shoot a film on 16mm.  This prompted Steve Burg and I to grab our Super 8 cameras and shoot some movies of model cars and helicopters exploding using the fireworks that had been smuggled into our dorm room via a toaster oven mailed from New Orleans by my brother.

Money and materials were so tight that I ended up using that toaster oven to bake out foam latex in my dinosaur hand puppet mold.  It was crude, and didn't turn out to my liking but it did test my resourcefulness skills.  Speaking of my brother, Scott, he and I had made another money-eating discovery before he had returned to New Orleans, and that was the Hollywood Book and Poster Company.

Of course, nothing like that store existed in New Orleans or New Jersey for that matter, so once a month or so, Steve and I would head down there to buy magazines, including Cinefex (I believe we both bought our first issues there...?) posters, and movie stills.

It was through the magazines that you could feel something big was on the horizon.  Articles mentioned movies like SCANNERS, THE HOWLING, CONAN THE BARBARIAN and AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON along with a new film by Steven Spielberg that was hushed in secrecy called RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

Now, of course, being a Stop Motion fan, I had heard of a long-since abandoned project called RAIDERS OF THE STONE RING and wondered.....

Here are Lizard Men Models from The Primevals aka Raiders of the Stone Ring.

I have heard that when you make a commitment to "the universe", your request is answered by the manifestation of opportunities that clear the path and set you on your way.  That's how it worked for me.

When I got home during Christmas break, I know I had spoken to Tracy about what I was going to do and told her that it would be some sort of strategy where I'd finish at CalArts, get a job, we'd get married, and move out to California.  Funny how life decides to alter your plans.

I know that I told everyone back in Louisiana about how trying it was to be at CalArts.  It was.  The handful of people I've described was just that for the most part - a small, handful of artists who wanted to have a career in motion pictures.  We were surrounded by a multitude of men and women who enjoyed nothing more than to sit around (in various stages of intoxication and undress) and talk about what they would eventually do one day and how it would be the ultimate expression, blah, blah, blah.... My youthful impatience had no time for that.  I already knew what I wanted to do and no one at the school, other than some of the people I was friends with, was qualified to teach anything practical.

I learned about mold-making from Jim Belohovek (the hard way, for sure).  I watched Steve Burg make an alien craft by running fiberglass into a stone mold (and then rolled the discarded mold down the hill outside of the dorms where it picked up speed and ended up in someone's backyard!). I had seen the quality of drawings and character design by Peter Chung and spoke with him frequently about his work (even though he was a bit scary).  And then, there were the Disney animators.  If Steve Burg was intimidating to work with, the Disney animators were downright frightening.  The amount of quality work that they were EXPECTED to produce was staggering and so unlike the rest of the school.

Please understand that I do take partial responsibility in all of this, however recall that my family made no effort for us to visit the campus and take a look around.  Blame money, or disinterest, or just a basic lack of understanding, but whatever the cause, it was now taking root and affecting me.  Just when I thought there was no reason to hang around CalArts in the late Winter/early Spring of 1981, James Belohovek brought a guest to meet Steve and I - James Cummins.

James Cummins had been a Disney School student at CalArts who had left to pursue a career in creature building.  He and fellow CalArts alumnus, Henry Golas, had just returned from Canada where they had completed the creature effects for a made-for-tv film entitled "The Intruder Within" aka "The Lucifer Rig"

James told us that the instructions from the producers were to make something like ALIEN and JAWS but different.

James was about 21 at the time.  Steve had turned 19 in January, and I was still 18.  Still the three of us hit it off and started hanging around.  We went to a double feature, at James' suggestion: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and the new film SCANNERS in, where else? Westwood.  I had never seen TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and was so disturbed by it, that by the time people's heads were exploding in SCANNERS, I was already numb.

Yup, no one had seen anything like this since DAWN OF THE DEAD.
As dramatic as Canadian effects artist, Tom Schwartz's exploding head was, the "psychic battle" at the end of SCANNERS was jaw dropping.

Dick Smith, took the air bladder technology that he had used on ALTERED STATES (and THE EXORCIST prior to that) to a new level by making them out of a plastic called "Elvacite" developed by DuPont and pumped fake blood and other liquids to simulate psychically-forced, blood engorged arteries and veins. The effect was breath-taking and shocking!

Warning: This is what happens when you attempt to suck another Scanner's brain, dry.
The second blast wave of make up effects had hit explosively! Air bladders, puppets, and fake heads began to get more sophisticated, but no one could foresee what was headed to the theaters just a scant few months away...

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