Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Part 31: Outside of the Comfort Zone

I'm sure most of you have heard the old adage: "It's not what you know, it's WHO you know!"  That isn't just a saying, it is the hard, cold fact of the world of motion pictures.  HOUSE was over and Tracy and I were in our little Eagle Rock, one-bedroom apartment.  James Cummins was busy writing a script for a Horror anthology film he hoped to direct.  He tapped Steve Burg and I for some art work to try and sell the project.  Steve did three paintings, I did one design and sculpted a diorama for James.  One of the stories dealt with jack-o-lanterns that came to life and decided to do a little carving themselves.  James said that the shot of the pumpkin, coming to life and becoming the carriage in the Disney film CINDERELLA had been his inspiration.

I sculpted this knive-wielding jack-o-lantern for James.
Photoshop wouldn't exist for YEARS!  Everything was done in camera!
 I recall that screenwriter, Ethan Wiley, had spoken to Steve Burg about producing some paintings for a project entitled A STRANGER IN LEADVILLE.  I did a few concept sketches for that as well.  I would tell you the plot, but it is too cool to just spill it out here.  I still have hopes that one day this project will come to fruition.

These projects, along with my own sculpting, were keeping me busy but they weren't paying bills.  However, that changed with a call from my friend, Mike Spatola, who had been the primary painter on HOUSE.  Mike had worked previously at MAKE UP EFFECTS LAB (M.E.L.) for Alan Apone and Doug White.  The studio was doing some work on the new remake of INVADERS FROM MARS and Mike asked if I was interested in working there.

Another project that was not paying the bills: A Demon sculpture.  He's holding a fragment of gravestone.
 For the record, Tracy and I didn't own a car.  She would catch a bus into Glendale to work and I would have to do the same to get to M.E.L. in the San Fernando Valley.  Of course, I jumped at the chance.

Mike introduced me to Alan Apone first.  Alan was definitely a personality.  He looked through my meager portfolio and then took us to lunch.  My strongest recollection was Alan asking me who I had worked for and who I had worked with, only to tell me that he had, at one time or another, fired them from M.E.L.  For instance, Alan would ask who was in the mold department on HOUSE and I would mention an individual and he would say: "Oh yeah, I know that guy, I fired him on METALSTORM." And it wasn't just one or two people; it was more like five or six people!

You can imagine my surprise when I got hired.  I met Alan's partner, Doug White, who was an affable fellow.  My first job at M.E.L. was to prep some make ups and effects for NEON MANIACS which had a few days of reshoots scheduled.  Doug had made a pneumatic severed arm that was supposed to twitch on the floor of I bus (as I recall).  The core was rigid urethane that had been cut and jointed to move via pneumatic cylinders in the lower part of the arm; the skin was made of skinflex (a soft, flexible urethane that had been used to make Daryl Hannah's mermaid tail in SPLASH).  My job was to drill out some broken plastic joints that were cemented into the finger core sections and replace them.  I discovered later that the reason it was broken was that Doug had been testing his BB machine gun and had shot a fluorescent lighting fixture from the ceiling which had fallen and crashed onto the arm.

No.  Don't!  Not even out of morbid curiosity.
 M.E.L. was a working studio and I had heard of them by reputation.  I, actually, liked their "Baal" make up for the film METAL STORM: THE DESTRUCTION OF JARED SYN.  It was kind of a cool, cyborgy thing, complete with a telescoping mechanical arm.  It was YEARS ahead of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION "Borg" characters and at the time, was every bit as effective.  I had also heard of NEON MANIACS, which I can only describe as a typical, low budget, colorful, 80's horror film.  Mark Shostrom and make up effects artist, Rick Lazzarini, had bid on the film and lost to M.E.L.  Lazzarini bragged to me later that upon hearing the news, he wrote the producers and chastised them, citing that he, Rick, was a literal genius since he was a member of M.E.N.S.A.

I thought this BAAL make up and character were pretty cool.
 Nobody ever said that Hollywood was attracted to big brains, that's for sure.

So, M.E.L., populated with artists like Mike Spatola, Bruce Zalavah, Larry Odien, etc. had produced a team of exotic killers, each with their own look and specialty, which became the NEON MANIACS. They were kind of like THE VILLAGE PEOPLE of slasher characters. I recall walking through the shop and discovering a dense, bubbly foam latex appliance sitting on top of a heap of trash in a garbage can.  I picked it up, and examined it then asked Doug if it was a reject piece.  His eyes bugged out of his head and he snatched it out of my hand saying that not only was it an acceptable run, it was to be used on set to do the make up.  What?!  I had never seen a foam-latex appliance taken out of a garbage can then glued onto an actor's face two days later!

And I should say that it was glued down, patched with "cab-o-patch" (which is Pros-Aide medical adhesive, thickened with cab-o-sil to a paste consistency) and colored with Rubber Mask Greasepaint and put in front of the cameras.  No one would ever know the difference. Truly, how many of you actually went to the theater and sat through NEON MANIACS?  That might be a trick question; I'm not sure if it was theatrically released or not.  By the time I saw it on cable TV, it really didn't matter one way or the other.

It was one of these appliances for "SLASHER" that was in the garbage can.
 One of the Neon Maniacs was "Decapitator" who was a headless figure, sporting two lethal blades for arms.  Since no one was around to fill the costume, I got to put it on for an insert of Decapitator slashing out toward the camera.  I don't recall if I could point that shot out if I had the film in front of me.

Seriously...not even out of "I'm-so-high-and-I-would-laugh-at-anything" curiosity.
 For a scene where one of the maniacs is dissolved, Alan had the idea of pressing cotton candy onto a plastic skeleton and then hitting it with water.  There was no budget to make our own custom colored cotton candy, so big cases of brightly colored pink and blue cotton candy were purchased and taken to set.  Alan referred to it as "spun glucose" (see? he wasn't an official MENSA member as far as I knew, but he knew what spun glucose was!).  When it came time to prepare the skeleton with it's melting flesh, Alan, in front of the production crew, asked me to get the "spun glucose."  Of course I, being an asshole, answered back, "You mean the cotton candy?" "No," he snapped, "I mean the SPUN GLUCOSE!"  It was amusing watching everyone try to hide the fluorescent blue and pink "spun glucose" with colored powders.  No liquid could be used for painting the surface, obviously.  I don't even remember if the effect worked or was even in the film.

Spun glucose.

My involvement on the INVADERS FROM MARS remake consisted of me carving skin detail into plaster casts of two actors who would be revealing their Martian neck probes in the film.  I don't know why this tickles me, but of the people that I met and worked with at that time, I was introduced to a young man, sporting an "effects mullet" (we all had them at one point or another) who was sculpting miniature antlers.  I think it had something to do with another low budget slasher film M.E.L. was doing called BOARDING SCHOOL, but I can't be sure.  His name was Mike Smithson, and judging by the work he had in his portfolio as well as his graphic design sense (he had a fantastic business card), he didn't belong at M.E.L.  He was destined for (an has accomplished) better things!

I'm sure this blog entry sounds like I'm biting the hand that fed me, but first of all, this was 1985 - this is all ancient history, second, I was just a punk lab technician who was still cutting his teeth, and third, yes, I'm biting the hand that fed me.  M.E.L. was LESS serious than Mark Shostrom's studio and Mark didn't have the facility that M.E.L. had.  Mark didn't have a Periodic Chart and High School Chemistry books in HIS foam room for chrissakes! (There's a subtle joke in there for you...)  Once, when I was grinding some plastic at M.E.L., a shard flew up into my eye (no, I wasn't wearing eye protection).  I ran into the bathroom looking for eye wash and I opened the medicine cabinet to first aid, no personal hygiene products, no glass shelves, in fact.  No.  What there was, instead, was a magazine photograph of a woman masturbating.

So what finally drove me from this circus?  A rock video.

On a Thursday, Alan came to me and gave me these instructions: Pour up two latex feet from the Burman's PRIMAL MAN project (M.E.L. had purchased the molds at a Burman garage sale).  Pour up one latex glove from the M.E.L. gorilla suit that was used in a film entitled TOBY'S GORILLA.  Paint them brown and glue some 4-way stretch fur fabric material to make insert werewolf feet and one hand.  That's all they need for the shoot.

Pour up two neanderthal feet and one gorilla hand and turn them into werewolf appendages.  Fine.  Why not?  And that's just what I did.

The next day Alan was golfing and Doug was running the studio on his own.  I was furiously fabricating werewolf nails for the feet and the gloves when the producer's came in to see the progress.  Doug, freaking, took the feet (which were finished) and brought them to the client to discuss them while I finished the glove. And then....nothing happened.  Time started going by and I began to get nervous.  What the heck was happening.  More time went by and I was now really fixing up this werewolf glove by trimming the hair and refining the paint job.

BOOM!  Doug rushes into the room belly-aching!  "He's done it to me, AGAIN!" He cried.  He was referring to his partner, Alan.  It turned out that this video production did not want a pair of werewolf feet and a werewolf glove.  Oh no.  They wanted to do a transformation sequence where a man turns into a vampire so they wanted stretching feet and stretching fingers like...wait for it...AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON.  Instead they got a gorilla hand and two cavemen feet with claws and brown hair.

Needless to say, they were not pleased.  I had had enough.  I thanked Doug and left the studio.  I have no idea if or how they managed to make change-o limbs for the rock video, but stranger things have happened in this industry; so I sure something made it in front of camera.

Stranger things WERE happening.  I had received a call from Bill Sturgeon.  Stan Winston studios were looking for people to work on the sequel to ALIEN and he had given them my name.  I had an appointment to meet Stan the next day.

It was based, solely, on who I knew.


  1. I have to say, Shannon, that I love your sense of humour.... I have been enjoying this series of blogs immensely... and yeah, even biting the hand and all that, in this business, in those days... there are worse stories I've heard people tell, and you got there in the end, right? ;)

  2. Thanks! Honestly, I just think the stories are funny. Hey, I've done a million things in my career that I'm embarrassed about and trust me, I'm reminded all of the time! It was a life time ago and I hope that everyone involved will just smile, shake their heads and say "Yep, that was then...not now..."

  3. I stumbled across your blog from AICN. Thank you for the amazing Saturday morning read.

  4. Thanks D2! My next entry will be about getting hired at Stan Winston's during ALIENS and INVADERS FROM MARS! More behind the scenes photos and stories on the way!

  5. I guess finding a picture of a woman masturbating instead of medicine must have been quite the surprise

    why on Earth was that there in the first place?

  6. MEL would have made a great reality show back in the day. Poor Doug was always fixing Alans messes.