Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Part 35: Martian Madness!!

The day before our martians went before the movie cameras was a load in day so we packed all of our gear into a rental truck and drove down to San Pedro (which was about an hour and fifteen minutes away from the shop) to an old retired naval building where the set had been built.

It was enormous.  The art department had fabricated the interior of the Martian spacecraft as well as a few underground tunnels that led to the ship's interior.  The facility provided the Stan Winston crew with a couple of rooms to store our gear and the drone suits.  Judging by the state of the rooms, I would have guessed that it was scheduled for some major overhaul.  While some of us unloaded the Martian Drone suit pieces, the others broke off to move the Martian Supreme Intelligence to his platform which was easily 30 feet or so from the ground.

The Supreme Intelligence makes its appearance by flying out of a portal above an altar-type structure and that altar-type structure was on the second story of the set.  Using a scissor-lift, the puppet and controls were raised into the air, while crew members, including chief mechanic, Dave Nelson, moved the puppet onto the platform.  As Dave oversaw the preparation of the puppet for rehearsal, some of the rest of us returned to continue setting up the rooms under the direction of Alec Gillis.

The Drone Crew Clockwise from left: David Nelson, Scott Wheeler, Everett Burrell, Alec Gillis Steve Wang, Matt Rose, Shannon Shea, Gino Crognale, and Brian Penikas
One of our "Drone Rooms" (l-r): Alec, Everett, Scott, Steve, Brian
 One of Alec's functions was to coordinate with the other departments, especially when there would be what I would call "overlap." For example, when the Drones or the Supreme Intelligence were shot by U.S. Marines, it would be required for them to be squibbed by the Physical Effects department led by Phil Cory.  There were other instances of overlap, including a scene that was shot, but cut out of the film where the Drone eats a pile of "W&W" candies (get it? M&M's upside down) in a gentle but ineffective jab at E.T.   However, one of the major concerns was the Martian blood.

Going into the project, it was understood that this was going to be somewhat of a family picture and gallons of red blood spurting out of the Martians just wasn't going to cut it.  It had been decided, therefore, that Martian blood was a combination of yellow and lavender fluids.  Normally, when we make studio blood, we use corn syrup as a base, but the Art Department was concerned with how this would stain and affect the sets, especially when we had to dress gallons of it in puddles around fallen Martians.  I don't know who at Stan Winston's studio found the substance, but we had gallons and gallons of the base of what Mattel Toys used to use for their popular "Slime" toy.
Remember this crap?
With the absence of green coloring, this slime looked translucent white and was soon referred to as "Bull Ji--" well, let's just say we had a rude term for it.  Oddly enough, it turned out to be exactly what we needed to do the job.  It took color extremely well, was able to be poured into thick, controlled puddles, the two separate colors could be swirled on set with out homogenous mixing, and it "peeled" off of the floor with relative success leaving almost no residue.

On the other hand, the Physical Effects crew prepared their squibbing blood with an oily glycerine base.  After a disastrous initial test, Alec realized that the inside of the polyfoam Drone skins would need to be sealed to prevent damage from the glycerine.  This meant that someone(s) would have to craw into the suits with premixed wax cups of a flexible but strong urethane and paint the entire inside of the skins.  As luck would have it, Brian Penikas and I lost the toss and had to do the brushing duties.  Not wanting to get covered with streams of dripping, catalyzed urethane, I protected myself appropriately.

Ready to do paint urethane into a Drone Suit!
 When the Drone suits an pieces were stowed, and the batteries for the radio controls in their chargers, we returned to the platform where Dave Nelson and John Dykstra were ready to begin rehearsing with the Supreme Intelligence.  The two wires that were assisting with the flying of the puppet were fed through the portal and, as I recall, suspended by a couple of physical effects guys in a scaffold above, while the rest of us were behind the set, on the platform, ready to push the puppet on a boom arm attached to a counter-weighted dolly on a track.  On action we would push and the Supreme Intelligence would emerge, displacing layers of copper-colored, soft polyfoam "fingers" and would lite upon its throne.  Then, on action we would pull the puppet back, all the while assisted by puppeteers on controllers attempting to keep the Supreme Intelligence from looking straight at the ground.  After a few tries, the puppet was covered with a plastic tarp, we secured the Drone rooms and returned to Northridge, and the Stan Winston studios parking lot.

Most of us lived in the valley within a few miles of the studio.  I didn't, however.  In fact, during the build of the show, I had purchased my first car, a white Honda Civic from Alec Gillis for $800.  It was the only car that Tracy and I had between us and since I would basically be on set for 12 -14 hours, she would get up early in the morning, drive me to Stan Winston's studio where I would meet a carpool, drive home, go to work, drive home and then drive back to the studio that night to pick me up and take me back home.  Although the trip was not as long as it would take via a bus, it was, however a good haul back and forth - twice!  Yes, I married well.

Our set calls were generally very early, between 6:30 and 7:30 in the morning which meant having to leave Stan Winston's no later than 5 a.m.  I can recall one trip driving south on the 405 freeway when I was at the wheel of Stan's car as he lay back in the passenger seat.  Every morning the drive was easy until we reached the hill at Mulholland Drive where traffic consistently backed up. Frustrated, I asked a rhetorical question aloud: "Why is there always traffic right at this point?" to which Stan answered, "It's because of all of the people who live in this area, all trying to get on the freeway."

"Really?" I asked. Stan sat up in his seat looking shocked at my naivete, "Shannon, look around you.  Do you see tons of street lights and houses in this area?" No, the hills were dark.  In fact there were nearly no lights on the hill. "Oh." I said and Stan sat back and closed his eyes for the rest of the trip.  What was the answer?  I don't know and now I just try to avoid the 405 whenever possible.

The Drone Suits would be the first thing we would prepare for camera.  There were four main Drone performers: Lonny Low, Matt Bennett, Scott Wulf, and Doug Simpson and basically two Drone suits.  The idea was that the performers could trade off during the day, should one team or individual get tired, another one could step in and continue shooting.  This did mean, however, that each of them had a pair of custom Drone boots that fit just their feet.  Suiting them up went something like this:

Scott Wulff assists Doug Simpson, in Drone Suit.  Note the video monitor just below his face.
 The suit was divided into several parts: the head, the body, the boots, and the ski pole arms.  The performer would step into the suit while it was on a frame, suspended by a spring-button pin.  As their legs came through the holes, one of us would be there to guide their feet into the boots.  Then, shoulder and waist straps would be adjusted and tightened and finally a video monitor would be locked into place on their chests.

The head would slide onto the frame and get locked into place with pins while the skins were stretched closed using very wide velcro patches, then the performer would stand, taking the weight of the suit, and the pin would be pulled from the top, enabling them to walk out from under the frame.  Then, they were handed their ski poles.  A long opening in the rear of the creature was held open with two aluminum braces so the performer could talk with director, Tobe Hooper, or stunt man, Steve Lambert.  Most of the early shots of the drones did not require any mouth or vestigial arm movement, so the little people including Debbie Carrington, Phil Fondecaro, Sal Fondecaro, Tony Cox, and Margarite Fernandez, wouldn't be required to be strapped onto the performer's backs right away.

Toby, Dr. Pepper in hand, tries to figure out just what the hell is going on.
The first shot we did with the drones was their reveal in the throne room of the Supreme Intelligence.  In order to add confusion to their appearance, Tobe decided that the two drones should be face-to-face, snuggled close so that at first appearance they looked like one, big, eight-legged blob that was "bouncing" lightly.  On cue, they would back away from each other and turn to face the altar.  Raising their ski-pole arms in salute, they would beckon for their leader who would then emerge from the portal, etc.  Easy, right?  Well, it was very manageable when done in stages.

After we finished filming the drones doing their bounce and separating, we moved the Supreme Intelligence down onto his altar.  He had two long tentacles strapped to the sides of his body for when he was "flying"; these were detached and draped behind the altar.  Two mechanical tentacles were then dressed over the sides of the altar and their controllers concealed.  Three puppeteers then moved beneath the body of the Supreme Intelligence via the hollow altar and opened up the skin. This gave two puppeteers access to directly puppeteer the mouth and the two little arms in front of the creature that Dave Nelson lovingly referred to as the "croissants".  The last puppeteer hooked plastic tubing to an array of valves controlled by a custom keyboard to operate the air bladders in the creature's body.

The Supreme Intelligence is position ready for filming.
 What this meant for the crew was that we were doing double duty for a lot of the scene.  When we weren't assisting and dressing the Drone performers, we were busy doing maintenance on the Supreme Intelligence puppet.  And in the middle of all of this chaos was director, Tobe Hooper.

I think I can sum up my experience of working with Tobe Hooper by repeating how someone (who I can't remember right now) described him: "He's the Yosemite Sam of the D.G.A." Determined, easily aggravated, short-memoried, reactionary, funny but...but...a very sweet guy.  It would be easy for me to criticize Tobe and the resulting film, but in retrospect, I can imagine the immense obstacles that were in his way between him and directing a classic science fiction movie.

Lonny Low, in the Drone suit, seems please with whatever Tobe has just decided.
 Hunter Carson, who played David, was the son of co-star, actress Karen Black. Neither of them seemed to be excited about the film but in fairness to Hunter, he was a little kid and this was how he was spending his summer - on a hot set in San Pedro, California.  Karen Black could be found in between set ups, sitting on stage, on her mark, singing while grips and electricians moved lights and stands around her. Weird.  However, her friend Roscoe Lee Browne visited the set once and Matt Rose and I geeked out - BOX was on set. "Food, sea greens, plankton from the sea.  It's my job, to freeze you!"

On the other hand, James Karen who played the army colonel and Louise Fletcher, who played David's teacher were both professional and a joy to be around.  Whenever they were on set, they were ready for the day's work and would give their all for the takes.  When Ms. Fletcher had to be eaten by a Drone, Dave Nelson mounted one of the Drone suit heads onto a large lever (a see-saw type device).  Ms. Fletcher started the shot, by getting pushed into one of the Drone suit's mouths, then, stuntman, Steve Lambert in dress and wig was hooked up and dragged into the Drone's mouth that was rigged on the lever.  Finally, we dressed a pair of dummy legs wearing a matching dress, stockings and shoes into the Drone suit's mouth and Doug Simpson was able to move in a fashion that appeared that he was swallowing the teacher.

The Drone Rig is prepared to "eat" Mrs. McKeltch
Everett touches up the head before shooting.
Steve Lambert, in dress and wig, goes into the maw with assistance from Dave Nelson.
He's okay folks!  Now clean him up for take 2!
 Of all of the ingenious things about the shooting of INVADERS FROM MARS, I would have to go on record as saying that Tobe really got a lot of mileage out of the Drone suits.  They way it was edited, you would have thought we had at least eight suits on set, however it was just clever cutting.

We pulled off one cheat where a couple of us got underneath the painted stand-in drone and marched it forward like a Chinese dragon while another puppeteer reached for Hunter with an insert ski-pole arm.  Hunter then ran past the other two Drone suits so it strengthened the illusion that we had more than just the two Drones.

As we prepared to leave the throne room to move into the tunnels for filming, we had to begin our interaction with the United States Marines.  Led by military adviser, Lt. Col. Dale Dye, a real battalion of marines joined a few stunt men as they raided the throne room and shot the Drones and the Supreme Intelligence.  It was time for a few things: Squibs on the Drones and the Supreme Intelligence, changing out the face of the Supreme Intelligence to a new skin that was sculpted in a duress expression and putting everything back on set and puppeteering as Phil Cory and his guys fired spark and dust hits from air guns at the set.

All of us took our positions with one exception: Gino Crognale was now duct taped to a slant board in a Superman-Flying pose inside of the Supreme Intelligence.  On action, Dave Nelson and Everett Burrell would push down on the slant board from behind, causing the creature to rise and shift in pain as the squibbs detonated.  Inside, Gino would be puppeteering the "croissants."  I was one of the puppeteers on the camera-left tentacle.  We all tensed as the cameras rolled.

"Three, two, one, GO!" the A.D. shouted and suddenly the air was alive with miniature explosions, colored glycerin, sparks, dust and then...fire?  During the fusillade, the spark hits ignited the flammable paint on the set and soon burning debris began to rain down from the set walls.  I saw a small fireball hit Brian Penikas' foot and I grabbed a fire extinguisher and put it out.

Mind you, behind us was a sheer drop of about 10 feet with no railing or protection.  We  moved off of the set as fast as we could with just a narrow space between the altar and the studio floor far below.  Meanwhile, thinking quickly, Dave Nelson whipped out his knife and thrust it into the side of Supreme Intelligence and cut Gino out. He was still puppeteering since he hadn't heard anyone yell "Cut!".  Luckily no one was hurt and the fire was contained quickly.

The Supreme Intelligence in all of its glory!
 That sequence spelled the end of our filming in the Martian throne room, but then we were ready to take our drones into the tunnels to continue the shoot.  To do this, for some reason, we needed an extra hand and a friend of Everett Burrell's showed up on set to meet Alec Gillis and help out for the rest of the shoot.

Alec shook his hand and said, "You're that rich kid from Pittsburgh."

It was the first time most of us met Greg Nicotero.

FEAR NOT!  Next we move into the tunnels and finish INVADERS!


  1. Looking more closely at the photos (which get bigger when you click on them - but be warned! You need to hit the "back" button to return to the story), I noticed that Doug Simpson is actually wearing a MIRROR on his chest reflecting the image on the cumbersome monitor! Love it!

  2. Everett Burrell reminded me that production rented very expensive "Vari-lights" (probably spelled incorrectly)to light the Martian Spacecraft sets. These were the lights that musician, Phil Collins had invested so much money into because he used them on one of his tours.