Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Part 27: Ghost Soldiers Pre-Production September 1984

I don't remember going to the airport or how I got there.  Too many years have passed and I think that the nervous excitement of actually participating on a "real" movie was an intoxicant that affected many levels of my rational judgement.

Mark had called and made me this deal: If I could get out to Los Angeles, and find a place to live, he would pay me $200 a week to work on the film.  Now, before you catch flies in your gaping mouth, remember the year, remember I was 22, and know that it was about $20 less than I was already making at Driller's Electric.  As an entry-level opportunity, I could have done MUCH worse.

I spoke with my old CalArts roommate, Steve Burg, who was working for Visual Effects artist, Peter Kuran, at VCE and was living in a one room apartment in Alhambra (a neighboring town to South Pasadena, where Mark's home and studio were located).  Steve said I could crash at his place, but he had little room and nowhere for me to sleep, so I would have to figure out a solution.  It came in the form of a camper's cot which is a roll of canvas that stretches over a narrow, collapsible, metal framework.  Done.

Mark had described some of what we were going to provide for the movie and had gone so far as to send me a photo of the test make up he had done on friend and art director, Phillip Duffin, that landed him the job.

Mark's test make up on Phillip Duffin (photo courtesy Mark Shostrom)
 Because of budgetary limitations and story requirements, we wouldn't be going the prosthetics route, instead sculpting latex masks and fabricating suits and gloves.  I had never done anything like that before.

Mark picked me up at LAX and drove me to South Pasadena where his studio was at the time.  I'm not sure if Bart Mixon was with him, but the three of us ended up in a coffee shop on Fair Oaks for dinner.  Bart Mixon was from Houston, Texas and had been working on low budget genre films for a few years prior.  I believe that he met Mark on the set of the film FORBIDDEN WORLD.  In any case, it was clear that Mark and Bart had much more practical experience than I did.

Afterwards, I met Steve Burg and saw the little piece of floor in his tiny apartment that would be my home for the next few weeks.  It was clear that Steve was working in a different world.  He had to be at VCE early in the morning, and would not get home until after 7 p.m. most nights. I, on the other hand, was keeping Mark's hours which generally started around ten in the morning and would go on until about two or three o'clock in the morning.

The next day, I walked to work and met the final member of the crew, Ed Ferrell.  Ed, was another Southerner, however he was from North Carolina.  Mark had met and befriended Ed on the set of the low-budget slasher movie THE MUTILATOR.  Originally a commercial fisherman, Ed was sort of a "jack-of-all-trades type of guy who demonstrated his versatility repeatedly on the show.

Crew Clockwise from Left to Right - Bart, Ed, Mark, and yours truly.
As we assembled, Mark told us that we would each be doing some prep work before we started seeing the actors who would play the Ghost Soldiers and begin the life casting process.  Ed started a mechanical skeletal hand that would be needed for insert shots.  Bart started a skeletal sculpting form that would be molded for the construction of insert puppets and I went to work on a few drawings.

Ed Ferrell and his mechanical arm

Getting into the spirit of the design process.
Mark had already built a maquette using a skeleton model kit as a base.  From there he built up a clay sculpture that he "dressed" and painted.  Before long, actors began appearing for life casting.  The first ones were to be the performers we would dress as the Ghost Soldiers.  Because of their skeletal, mummy-like appearance, very thin actors (and one actress) were cast.  We body cast three of them but ended up doing head and hand casts on all of them.

Mark's cool Ghost Soldier Maquette
Here are the head casts we did for the show...
...and the hand casts!
A body cast mishap!  How could we have let that happen?!
We did so much mold prep work that Mark drew this cartoon of us.
 Bart and I poured rigid expanding foam into the plaster bandage molds over armatures that Ed had built and after a day or so, I started noticing that I was breaking out in a rash all over my face.

Making body forms in the alley!  Hey Bart, don't think that dust mask is protecting you from anything!
 "It's a worry-rash." Mark suggested.

I shrugged it off, a.) inexperienced that expanding polyfoam was toxic as hell, b.) unaware of being necessarily worried about anything and c.) ignorant of what a "worry rash" was to begin with.  I kept on pouring rigid foam, sanding it, sealing it, until finally my rash erupted and bloomed to a point that the side of my face was so affected that my eye was in danger of being swollen shut.

"Jesus, you're really worried about SOMETHING!" Mark offered.  It wasn't his fault, or my fault.  It was just youthful ignorance.  I began a topical cortisone ritual that began to clear the affliction after a few days.  The truth is that since that show and for the rest of my career, I have had a sensitivity to expanding polyfoams.  Once we figured out that I had this sensitivity, Mark was kind enough to insist that I never run polyfoam for him again.  In fact, that led to a funny story I'll have to tell you when I get to the movie FROM BEYOND!

After a week or so of healing, I still look like crap!
 As the chemicals react they release what has been described to me as "isocyanates" ( and I happen to be allergic to them.

The night we cast the last Ghost Soldier actor, Larry (something or other...sorry, Larry), I was in one of the two rooms that comprised the studio when I heard a loud thumping impact, over and over again.  Confused, and a little frightened I walked into the adjoining room to find Mark wearing a dust mask around his forehead.  He had stuffed two great handfuls of hemp fibers so it looked like he was wearing a crazy, long, scraggly, blonde wig and he was HURLING balls of water clay against a door with a deranged look of complete glee on his face.  The target: Larry's headshot. 

When it came time to begin sculpting the Ghost Soldiers, the duties fell to Mark and Bart who were much more adept sculptors.  Mark asked me to knock out a "rib cage form" sighting that it didn't necessarily have to be anatomically accurate, but it had to have enough depth so that we could built tissue paper and latex as well as foam latex on top of it so that it would look like a rotted body.  I still shudder when I think of that sculpture.

Mark Sculpts!
Bart sculpts, too!
One of Mark's oil clay sculpts.
My favorite sculpt, done by Bart.
 I ended up sculpting one Ghost Soldier mask, but being too literal and not having enough experience to understand sculptural cheats, it ended up looking a little like "Molesar" from THE KEEP.

No, I was SOBER when I sculpted that!
 Finally, a couple of the on-screen actors showed up for life casting for a couple of specific effects.  Anne Bandcroft's son, Branford, was one of the cadets who was going to get stabbed in the chest with the fragmented arm bones left on a Ghost Soldier that had its hand blown off.  We cast his chest in order to produce and insert piece for a shot of the bones actually piercing the characters flesh.

Brandford's chest (one of my illustrations is on the wall behind it)
 We also cast actor Bobby Di Cicco (the dancing boyfriend from 1941) who was to be shot in the forehead.  Mark ended up making a DuPont Elvacite appliance for this effect.

Ed Ferrell and Mark also designed and rigged both the effect where a Ghost Soldier has his hand blown off with an M-16 machine gun, as well as, another shot where a Ghost Soldier has his jaw knocked off.  Both effects required crude, but effective soft urethane molds (Ad Rub).  We made one silicone mold on GHOST SOLDIERS, which by that time was being called by its release title THE SUPERNATURALS.  Silicone was extremely expensive and our humble project didn't have the resources to use the material the way it is used currently.  Because of this, only Bart's skeletal sculpting form was the only thing we molded in silicone and it became an investment mold that Mark would use for years to come.

Here's the Ghost Soldier that eventually lost its jaw.
Some of the "FX" arms made for the show.

The skeleton sculpture base is prepared for a silicone brush up mold.

The final silicone mold and...
Here's what you would get if you ran it!

 The four of us worked incredible hours, on an average about 16 hours a day and most of the time, 6 days a week!  On the one hand we needed the time to do the job correctly.  We produced something like 6 Ghost Solider costumes with corresponding gloves and masks.  Every suit was built using either Bart's or my sculpted rib form glued onto an under-suit.  I'd run foam latex (the Charlie Schram formulation), we'd spatulate it onto to the ribs and under-suit and then using texture pads and wood tools, we'd sculpt directly into the foam latex.

Sculpting rib "forms." Sheesh! I still shudder when I look at this photo.
 I recall that this was about the time that GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES had already opened in theaters and somehow, Bart had gotten a hold of a set of "Greystoke" texture pads used at Rick Baker's studio by the sculptors.  We molded the pads and then all ran a set for ourselves.  They were beautiful and PERFECT for the task at hand.

The foam was run, but now we had a new problem: Where the heck were we going to bake all of the suits?



  1. Hey Everyone!

    Just wanted to interject something here: This story is over 25 years old and represents my first, real professional experience. My allergic reaction to Rigid Polyfoam was something unforeseen and I don't hold Mark (or anyone) to blame for it. I'm healthier now at 49 years old than I've been in a decade or more. This leads me to something I feel compelled to say. You've all heard the expression: If you're going to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs. Any time anyone manufactures something, some sort of waste is generated. Safety and health standards in the Make Up Effects industry have improved 1000 fold as the industry matured. Safety and waste management is important, but it shouldn't stop us from making things. Real things. So, go out and make real things!

  2. I had a similar experience working on my first Movie while I was casting up Rigid & Soft Polyfoam, nobody told me about the hazards of Polyfoam so I started having Flu-like symptoms which lucky for me went away as I moved to the seaming & patching department...

  3. Hi Shannon,
    I loved reading this piece! Well written!

    Merlen Hogg