Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Part 34: "Droning" on....

With the majority of Stan Winston's "lifers" in England, that left the running of INVADERS FROM MARS to Stan's then most recent permanent employee, Alec Gillis.  It was clear from the outset that Alec was born to lead. If his Dudley Do-rite chin wasn't enough, he had a innate sense of diplomacy and a calm confidence that got the most results with the least amount of dramatics.


The build list, superficially seemed modest: 2 drone suits, 1 mechanical supreme intelligence puppet, one bullet riddled puppet of the supreme intelligence, a bunch of bullet hit appliances that we had to be able to apply and remove, a pair of insert mechanical drone "arms", a Mrs. McKeltch "eating rig" and one drone stand in (which would play a significant part during shooting). However, it was very challenging work.

Since his skateboard accident, Stan had a cantaloupe-sized contusion on his hip and he would hobble around in stretch work-out pants assisted by a cane.  He was going to join the crew in England just as soon as the drones and the supreme intelligence had made their debut on stage.

Here is the drone frame/backpack from the side.  Look closely and you can see the chair meant for the little performer riding on the larger performer's back.
 Before I began work at Stan's, the lifers had sculpted the drones and sent them off-site to be molded by the Reter brothers (who specialized in large-scale fiberglass molding).  With the exception of the molded maquette and the under-structures,  I had no idea how large a drone was going to be until the molds were delivered.  I couldn't say who made the decision how to run them and in what material, but it was probably Stan who decided not to attempt to run foam latex into the molds.  At that time, I don't recall there being a large, walk-in, foam oven there, so it was decided that the drones would be run completely in urethane.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with urethanes, they are chemicals that when mixed together (or in some cases just exposed to air) form a plastic-like compound in different densities and flexibilities.  They tend to be oil-based and, in general, dislike moisture.  Being oil-based, they also tend to be difficult to paint. At that particular time, we were using a combination of urethanes for the drones: BJB Enterprises' SC-89, which we were using as a "skinning" urethane, and Polytech Corporation's 10-14, which was a two-part, expanding, soft polyfoam.

After the molds were released, they were sprayed with thinned, tinted SC-89 using an industrial sprayer .  The solvent in the SC-89 would "flash off" or evaporate, leaving a thin, somewhat fragile skin, until backed with the 10-14.  It was Rick Lazzarini who devised how the foam would be delivered into the molds, because the size and shape of the molds prevented us from simply "open pouring" the expanding urethane into the molds and closing them before the chemical reaction took place.  In fact, the foaming of the chemicals happened so rapidly in the hot workshop, it became necessary to store all of the raw chemicals in a refrigerator to slow the reaction time.

Lazzarini referred to his urethane delivery system as "Octo-Injecting" and I will do my best to describe the process.  The mold had been prepared by drilling large holes into it that corresponded to the size of a  small, plastic, threaded, plumbing fitting.  These "vents" then had large diameter, clear plastic tubing clamped onto them, the length of which led to a huge plastic 5 gallon bucket that, too, had plastic plumbing fittings attached at the bottom of it.  The lid of the bucket had two holes cut into it, one to fit a shop-vac (set on exhaust) and the other to fit a high-pressure, air compressor nozzle.  The bucket, with all of the plastic tubes running from it to the mold, resembled some far-out, tentacled creature, hence, Octo-Injecting.

The process was far from simple, but when done correctly, yielded a perfect skin every time.  We divided ourselves into teams that would each perform one task in a chain.  After the chilled chemicals were weighed correctly, and all of the hoses were in place, we would pour, mix, dump, shut, and blow.  The urethane would travel through the tubes into the mold at strategic areas. Then we'd take the lid off of the bucket and stand back as the expanding foam pushed its way back up through the tubes.  Once set, we'd remove all of the tubes, push the excess foam through the fitting (as not to snag the skin), open the mold, remove the skin and begin the process all over again.

One of the skins, fresh out of the mold! Some assorted limbs lie on the table behind it.
 The head was one mold and the body was another LARGER mold so this process was repeated at least 12 times between the two molds.  And, to answer a question that may or may not have crept into your brain, no the process was not fool proof.

On more than one occasion we would discover that the chemicals in the refrigerator had some level of moisture contamination and would either collapse into a gooey mess or not expand at all.  When this happened, the molds needed to be scrubbed with a solvent, Methylene Chloride. Believe it or not, during this process , I once spilled about 6 ounces right on my lap.  The solvent traveled right through my jeans and by the time I ran to the restroom, my genitals were cold and numb.  Yes, eventually, feeling and function returned and I did manage to father a perfectly normal daughter.  Hey, wait a minute....(kidding)

On the other hand, once the chemicals reacted so dramatically that they expanded too rapidly, shot back up the hoses and blew the lid off of the bucket dowsing Mark Williams and Matt Rose with urethane.  Matt got a little on his clothes, but Mark Williams, whom I had already mentioned, sported a long, heavy metal coiffure, had to scissor strips of his urethane coated hair off of his head.  Speaking of Matt Rose and Mark Williams, by this time we were joined by their third roommate who would have a huge impact on the studio in the coming years, Steve Wang.

I may be remembering this incorrectly, but I recall that a half a dozen or so small maquettes of the martian drones were run in self-skinning, expanding urethane and interested crew members were invited to take a figure home, design a paint job on it, and then return the following day (clever way of getting free design work).  I'm not sure how many people fell for it....excuse me...I meant to say took advantage of the opportunity, but I recall two figures that were instrumental in designing the look of the drone paint job: One by sculptor Willie Whitten, and the other by Steve Wang.

One of the original Drone maquettes
 Adopting aspects of both painted figures, the drones would be painted with a toad-like skin pattern, while the huge, weird liver-like structure on top would be a fleshy, veiny, reddish color.  Since the traditional rubber cement paints didn't stick to urethane, acrylic paints were used instead.

You can see the paint job in this horrible flash photo that I took on set.
 While we were casting drone skins in the mold shop, mechanic, Dave Nelson, was designing and building the large mechanical structure that was to support and move the main body tentacle of the martian supreme intelligence.  Using thick cables, a formidable tentacle mechanism was built in hopes of puppeteering the creature out of a small, round, portal and onto an alter/throne where it would sit.

Dave had already completed the facial mechanics which were unbelievable .  He had an innate knack for understanding the subtleties of nature and facial expression and it was the first time I had seen an eye mechanism with a "slaved lower lid."  What that mean was that even though the puppeteer could close the eyelids or blink them, the lower lids would move along automatically with the movement of the eye, like a real eye does.  Look in the mirror some time and you'll see what I'm talking about.

Mr. Supreme Intelligence awaits his set debut.  I fabricated and soldered all of the veins in the top of his head.  That is a vacu-form plastic shell on the top and since the veins had to keep their shape while appearing to be suspended in some sort of "brain jelly", I fabricated them out of brass rods that were sanded into shape.
 I need to take a moment here to mention a couple of things about Dave Nelson.  Dave was originally from Manchester, England, and was a sailing enthusiast.  These two facts affected the running of Stan Winston studios thus: Every day at 4:15 we had tea time.  Dave would not sacrifice his tea time just because he was now living in the colonies. Dave, also, was part of a sailing ship crew, which meant that he had to leave work early every Wednesday to go sailing.  Both of these idiosyncrasies had been approved by Stan before Dave's hiring, but it didn't stop Stan from sporting a mask of disbelief and confusion on Wednesdays when Dave, carrying his bag, would leave the shop around 3:00 announcing, "I'm off!  Time to go sailing." 

As successful as the supreme intelligence's face was mechanically, the body mechanics didn't fare as well.  Unfortunately for Dave and his crew, the tentacle was an inverted triangle with the narrowest part at the base and the widest part at the tip.  No matter how Dave tried to engineer the body, it just couldn't overcome the leverage problem and it was decided that it would have to be "flown" via external wires on the head.  The visual effects supervisor on the film was John Dykstra (YES!  THAT John Dykstra!!!) and when the decision was made, I'll never forget him saying: "Ahhh, if anyone in the audience sees a wire and complains, I'll personally give 'em their seven bucks back!"  (Btw - that would be Joe Viskocil on HOUSE and now John Dykstra on INVADERS FROM MARS...only two years in the business and nerd paradise!)

I don't think he's willing to pay you NOW if you see wires, so FORGET IT!
 While pieces were being finished and assembled, we at Stan's were treated to another surprise: Legendary make up effects artist, Dick Smith came by for a visit!  Stan took Dick around through the shops and just let him wander around, approach different artists and speak with them.  I was working on a drone body when he approached me and asked about the casting process.  When I described it to him, he was flabbergasted and then asked if we were all taking the proper safety procedures.  He was concerned about the off-gassing of the polyfoam (which we all knew was hazardous).  I assured him that we were (well, SOME of us were, most of the time) and then I thanked him for his encouraging letter which he claimed to remember. "See?  What did I tell you?  Now you're working for one of the best studios on the West Coast." he said.

That's right...Appear calm and professional...calm and professional....calm and professional...
 A week or so later, we finally got one of the drones put together enough to do a proper in-studio test.  Performer Doug Simpson suited up with little person, Debbie Carrington on his back.  The camera was functioning, we closed up all of the velcro tabs and Doug began walking backwards.  The effect was initially disarming!  The illusion really worked well and Stan was pleased.  So pleased in fact that for the second fitting, he called Tom Burman over to visit the shop and see the drone for himself.

When Doug had come out of the suit, he mentioned that it would be good if we mounted some fans to circulate the air around and we could see that we would need to fabricate some foam ring spacers to close some of the gaps between the legs and the suit.  We were making the adjustments quickly because shooting was just around the corner and we would have to do it at least twice!

All the guests have gone...Time to get back to work and seam that tentacle!
 To be continued - On set with Invaders from Mars!





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