Sunday, August 7, 2011

Part 38: What Makes Doug Beswick SO Great!

I had understood that my work on FROM BEYOND was going to be brief and that was fine.  I was happy to have worked with Mark Shostrom and Bob again, and it was a pleasure meeting and working with Dave, John, Aaron and Greg.  However my phone had rung and I was about to embark on another adventure.  The phone call was from Tony Gardner who was then working with Doug Beswick on the miniature Queen Alien/Power Loader unit for ALIENS.  Brian Penikas (God love him!) had recommended me to Tony when they found themselves needing some additional help.  Now familiar with this routine, I was happy to jump in and go back to work on ALIENS.

I don't know how else to say this, but Doug Beswick is great.  He is.  Those of you whom have met him know what I'm talking about and those of you who haven't, know this: He is a fantastic person.  Let me get back to my correct "tense" here:

Since you have been reading this blog, you already know of my love of Stop Motion Animation and I was familiar with Doug Beswick's career before during and after his tenure with Rick Baker.  In photos, Doug always seemed a bit intense (which, I imagine, is how you look when you are shooting Stop Motion?) so I wasn't prepared to meet such a warm guy with a big smile when I arrived at his studio.  In fact, his wife, Vicky was working in the front office and she, too, was so welcoming and friendly that I instantly knew I was going to enjoy the heck out of working there.

The studio was northeast of the San Fernando Valley in Sunland in a modest, industrial space.  Doug was not just a talented Stop Motion animator, but was a very clever animatronic designer and machinist.  Because of this, a great deal of his shop was dedicated to machining, however Doug was a good sculptor as well; remember he did sculpt the Cantina Musicians for STAR WARS!  By and large the art department tables were set in the back and at one of these tables was my old college buddy, James Belohovek!  I had worked with him earlier that year on HOUSE, but since then we had fallen out of touch.  It was good to see that a talented miniature builder like Jim had been tapped to build the Power Loader and he had already begun making parts that had been delivered to Brian Penikas for molding and casting.

Jim, attaching the claw assembly. 
Assisting Doug with the mechanics was another gentleman whom I hadn't met before, Phil Notaro.  I admit that up to that point I hadn't had THAT much experience meeting animatronic specialists, and I hadn't worked on enough big budget films that enabled these mechanics to really shine their brightest.  That said, Phil Notaro was a genius (still is, I imagine).  Obtaining the molds of the scaled down Queen Alien from Stan Winston's studio, Phil had already begun making the sophisticated mechanical puppet and it was no easy task.  True, because things were scaled down, leverage was on his side, but because things were scaled down, it was more of a challenge to machine and insert the mechanisms into the figure.

Doug Beswick (left) and Phil Notaro with the miniature Power Loader.  Sorry about the crappy photos, they are scans off of a color copy from the page of a Japanese book.
Those of us at Doug's had not seen the full-sized Queen Alien that was shooting in London.  True, I had seen some of the videos sent back from Tom Woodruff, Shane Mahan, and John Rosengrant in England while they were sculpting the full-sized Queen, but beyond that point, I hadn't seen much (in fact, I think the last video I saw showed some of the British crew making molds on some of the large pieces).  But part of Phil and Doug's job was to make sure that this miniature puppet could replicate most of the movements of the full-scale puppet.  I say most of the movements because I don't think it was necessary that our miniature's head descend from the carapace like the full-sized Queen did, etc. To see this diminutive puppet move so gracefully was mind-blowing!

Doug was such a trooper and he put up with my nerdy, fan, enthusiasm with a lot of patience.  I badgered him until he showed me pieces of the Terminator stop motion puppet (unfortunately, a lot of the mechanical pieces had been machined - once - and the only complete figure was in James Cameron's office.  He also shared some old photos of the STAR WARS aliens as well as the Tyrannosaurus Rex puppet he had mechanized for MY SCIENCE PROJECT.  NOTE: This was 6 years before we would begin construction of the T-Rex for JURASSIC PARK and Doug's T-Rex was the most sophisticated real-time dinosaur puppet built up to that date.

Doug and his Endoskeleton model.

The head, chest, and pelvis were the only parts I saw in person.  I think Willie Whitten sculpted them.
Doug and Phil's mechanism for the MY SCIENCE PROJECT T-Rex
Here is the T-Rex scene from MY SCIENCE PROJECT (pardon the quality):

Meanwhile, under Tony Gardner's supervision, I worked on casting pieces for the Sigourney Weaver puppet.  Phil had build a simple head turn mechanism that mounted to the plaster core.  To illustrate how sophisticated Phil was in his approach, as the mechanism turned left to right, the "chin" would automatically pitch up and down slightly to off-set the "mechanical" look.  Simple and brilliant.  I would affix the mechanism to the core and then inject hot melt vinyl (tinted flesh tone) into it.  The stone mold was good enough for most of the seam to just be plucked, but I smoothed the rest of it down, carefully,  with a dental waxer.  I was also given small armatures to put into arm molds to repeat the process.

Tony Gardener re-sculpted the Sigourney Weaver puppet.

I wonder why Mattel never issued a Power Loader Barbi?
On HOUSE, Jim Belohovek basically was working on the edge of his comfort zone, building simple mechanics to go inside of puppets, but now, at Doug's he was doing what he was best at: building miniatures.  I had seen Jim's model making prowess in college, but this was different.  No longer limited to materials he could afford on a student's budget, Jim blossomed and was fabricating pieces out of plastic, wood, and bondo.  Since the pieces needed to be rigid, all of the molds were made of silicone.  Brian and I molded what Jim built, then we would cast them.  The larger pieces were made out of thin fiberglass, the smaller pieces were cast in "Feathercast" (from BJB Corporation).  Brian and I would then seam the pieces and return them to Jim for final detailing and finishing.

Don't ask.  I'm working on the leg assembly apparently.
Jim paints an assembled leg.
The completed Loader ready to be shipped to England for shooting.
Of all of the shops I worked at, Doug Beswick's will go on record as having the ABSOLUTE least amount of drama than any other shop I have ever worked at.  I have no clue if Jim Cameron or a producer was screaming at Doug on the phone (I doubt it) because it never showed.  The entire crew would come into work every morning, and spend the day happily completing the scheduled tasks.  No back stabbing, yelling, complaining.  Nothing but happy workers.  Aside from his incredible talent, THAT is what makes Doug Beswick so great.


  1. Bill Forsche sent me this link on Facebook which further demonstrates the genius of Doug Beswick and his crew:

  2. Nice post, Shannon. I guess you came onto the project after I left. I sculpted the Siqourney puppet. I initially started on the power loader, but after a couple of days (having never made a model before), Jim came in and took over. He was brilliant. And yes, he was extremely funny with his superglue fingertips. Jame Cameron had taken a few Polaroids of Sigourney in her PJs for me to sculpt from, but they weren't that good, so I ended up using a frame from the film, or maybe an earlier film to get her face right with the proper expression James wanted. However, Tony did not resculpt my puppet, he only separated it for casting. Now what he did do was carve a smily face into her pubic mound, so when Jim had to take off the puppet's clothes to adjust something during a shoot, he saw it. Jim was angry and blamed me. And we all know what Jim was like when he got angry.

  3. Hey Stuart -
    Quite the contrary. I do remember you but sadly forgot your name; please pardon me. And now you and other readers know why I decided to post a blog, rather than writing a book. Input like yours in invaluable. Thanks for reading and contributing! I hope this response finds you well.

  4. Shannon I'm so happy to see this blog! Doug is one of the unsung genius' in this town. I can't say enough good things about his work and his character. He gave me my start as a runner on 'Aliens',(logged a lot of miles picking up UltraStone and trips to Industrial Metal...good times!). I ended up staying with Doug for several years and he,(and Phil) gave me a solid grounding in machining, puppet making, stop-motion, mold-making, as well as instilling in me a ethic of patience and resourcefulness. I often look back on those years in Sylmar as the best of my career...and life. I'm proud to be able to call him a friend.Thanks for the there a 'Road Hogs' page?

  5. It wasn't stop motion animation but a live puppet and it was removed by the original poster unfortunately.