Monday, May 16, 2011

Part 21 : James, James, Jim, James, Allen, Steve, Doug

Dear friends, in recounting these stories that took place (some over) thirty years ago, and not having them written down any place for me to refer to, I wrack my brain trying to put important events in order on a timeline.  Having said that, I need to wind the clock back, because an event that I thought happened in May of 1982, actually happened in May of 1981.

James Cummins was turning 21 years old on May 22 (a little less than 30 years, exactly from this posting) of that year.  Because this was an important milestone in his life, he decided to celebrate with his friend Henry, and his room mate Ellen Carlomagno (who went on to become a horror feature writer for magazines).  They did what most people do when they turn 21; they got drunk.  Imagine my surprise when a drunk James Cummins called me on his birthday to tell me this news: Rob Bottin had hired him as a sculptor on THE THING.

I recall that summer I didn't hear much from James.  But, by the Fall, James would come up to the House of Fujii with a handful of Polaroid photos he had taken from their workshop at Universal Hartland.  Of course, what he was sharing was incredible.  It started out with photos of the dead, misshapen Norwegians that were burned in the pit. Then, it was photos of Benning's hands and the unused, Blair "crate monster."  I was blown away by the incredible quality of the sculptures and designs.

James Kagel sculpted these.  The skeleton has torn out through the hands and the skin has bunched around the base.  The sculpts were insane!

Through James Cummins, I began to hear new names like James Kagel (ANOTHER freakin' James), Vince Prentice, Margaret Bessara and the legendary mold maker Gunnar Ferdinandsen (who appears as the guy with his throat cut in the Norwegian camp)

Wish I had some of those Polaroids of these sculpts.  They were excellent
Of course, it would be about a year before the movie hit the theaters, so I won't talk that much more about it but I will add that before the film started shooting and before Rob Bottin and his crew had finished building everything, James quit the show.

I'm not 100% sure why he quit then, but after 27 years of doing this, I can now imagine that it could have been any one of a thousand reasons.  But...having "left" shows and studios myself, I can say with complete confidence that it is a problem within.  James, at his core, must have been unhappy for some reason and working on the show wasn't rewarding him enough to offset that unhappiness.  It happens.  Now, to a 19 year-old Make Up Effects goof like myself, it was unthinkable.  To be working with ROB BOTTIN and then QUIT??? Who would DO that?

But there was other just as crazy news happening around the CalArts campus.  The theater department was doing a production of FAUST and a friend who went to the performance asked me if I had made the goat-like "Pooka" demon mask in the show.  I hadn't.  It turned out to be the work of a new Theater Arts student, Jim Beinke (yet ANOTHER "James").  Like me, Jim was interested in Special Make Up Effects, but wisely joined the Theater Arts school rather than the experimental animation school.  I say this in hindsight, because Jim was required to work in the "Wonder Shop" at CalArts which was a down-and-dirty construction shop for building sets and props.  It wasn't an animation classroom (or even a garage).

Jim lived in the dorm with his roommate Andrew (who was a fine art painter that was influenced by the Swiss artist, H.R. Giger).  Like so many others, their room was a disaster, but Jim had also spilled gelatin on their kitchen carpet that had hardened into a dark red puddle.  Occasionally, Jim would come down to the garage and do some work, but his car was unreliable, and why work in the garage when you can work in a shop?  However, he did sculpt, mold and cast his entry for Fangoria Magazines' "Create Your Own Thing" contest in the garage.

Increasing the Special Effects Make Up Community at CalArts by 50% (as they were now two of us) meant nothing.  I lived with animators and their influence was everywhere. They were all superior illustrators to be sure, however James Fujii had a real knack for charming illustration.  He gave me a copy of a drawing he had done of baby T-Rexes blowing soap bubbles because he knew of my love of dinosaurs. He also introduced me to Anime.

In New Orleans I had seen SPEED RACER as a kid, knew it was Japanese, and loved it, but now James Fujii was introducing me to stuff like SPACESHIP YAMATO and later MACROSS.  Actually, it was both James and Peter Chung who would share their Japanese animation books with Steve Burg and I who had no access to things like that.

My other roommate, Alan Wright had a great sense of Superheroes.  His bound sketchbook was full of heroic human forms in dynamic poses.  He drew established characters as well as is own designs.

And since I lived with two animators, the house was always full of them, very talented men and women who would go on to become traditional character animators.  The talent level I was surrounded by was humbling.  My bound sketchbook was full of monsters, most of which (when I dare peak at them) were banal .  I tried my hand at sculpting a Peter Sellers mask that ended up looking like Thurston Howell from GILLIGAN'S ISLAND.  I sculpted a caveman with limited success, but I never got discouraged.  I just pushed on...

In Fujii's garage with my caveman screaming over my shoulder.
Steve was always around to photograph my sculptures and  make suggestions.  He was such a huge fan of the work of Douglas Trumbull that when we heard he was going to appear at the Director's Guild for a career retrospective, we had to go.

In the lobby was a collection of the practical electronic machinery from the James Whale (that James, doesn't count) production of FRANKENSTEIN.  Damn, they were incredibly beautiful and LOUD!  Inside, we took our seats and proceeded to have our minds blown because first, Mr. Trumbull showed his effects reel, I think it was all in 70mm, from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY to STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE.  Then he told us about the new film he was working on, BLADE RUNNER and showed us the effects reel.  No live action, just the completed effects shots.  All of them...okay, most of them.  They were beautiful.  After the presentation, during the question and answer period, someone asked how the effects for DRAGONSLAYER were done.  Doug smiled and just said, "I don't know.  I didn't do the effects for Dragonslayer." Classic.

But if that wasn't enough to make our evenings complete.  Doug Trumbull stood at the very next urinal to Steve Burg in the restroom.  I asked if he tried to shake his hand and introduce himself.  He didn't. 


  1. Shannon, at the time did you realize how big of a cult following anime would gain in America?

  2. Hey, you wouldn't happen to be able to get your hands on pics of the "Crate Monster" would you? As far as most of the public and fans know, it was only a storyboard.