Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Part 39: Boldly going where three films, a television series, and an animated series had all gone before.

I was first contacted about STAR TREK IV by James Cummins.  It was strange because, although we were still friends,  he had been disapproving of my professional decisions such as when I went to work for Stan Winston on ALIENS.  Not that he was working, in fact, it was quite the opposite.  Regardless of what IMDB says, James' contribution to ALIEN PREDATORS (as it was released) had been prior to HOUSE when the project had been called THE FALLING.  That means that over a year had passed since HOUSE and James hadn't taken or landed any work.  In his defense, he always had said that he wanted to write and direct his own films and was one of the first (to my knowledge) to face the stigma of the "Make Up Effects Artist Who Wants to Direct". While he was fighting for his opportunity, his money began to run out and he needed to find work.

I'm unclear on the details but enter Kirk Thatcher.  (It is difficult for me to write objectively about someone who is such a good friend, but I shall endeavor to do so.)  Kirk was (is) a very big personality.  A talented illustrator and designer in his own rite, Kirk had done some conceptual art pieces for HOUSE prior to James' arrival on that project.  I believe that prior business relationship was the catalyst that drove James to speak to Kirk (who was then assistant to director Leonard Nimoy) about submitting designs and bidding on STAR TREK IV.   Who could have foreseen that Jame's pursuit of the show would cost him a friendship?

James called me because he recalled an alien design I had done in New Orleans and was interested in reworking it. You might recall this (I can't remember if I posted this earlier...):

My Shrimp-Headed alien drawing.

I had already sculpted a maquette of the design...
I had finished up at Doug Beswick's, was looking for work and the thought of participating on a STAR TREK movie seemed to good to be true.  It would still be a few years before STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION so all anyone knew was the classic crew and their exploits.  I agreed and James asked me to show up at his house on Saturday morning with the drawing in hand (no Internet or e-mail).

When I showed up to drop the drawing off, James then asked if I was interested in spending the day sketching alien concepts for him...for free.  Having no pressing plans so I agreed.  As we took our seats in James' home office, he gave me some guidelines.  Having met Leonard Nimoy earlier in the week, James now felt he had a grasp on what they were looking for.

He said that Mr. Nimoy had cited the major difference between STAR WARS and STAR TREK was that the latter dealt with alien cultures and civilizations and not just alien animals and creatures.  I pointed out to James that the alien illustration he held in his hand was basically a "Shrimp Guy" (okay, I'm cheating a little.  That is how Bill Sturgeon describes aliens built for the MEN IN BLACK series: ___________-guy; I just think it's funny).  James said that he felt the design was strong enough, that with his tweaking, would end up being one of the stronger concepts.  Whatever.  I was just happy that I could have the opportunity to work on a STAR TREK movie.
The rest of the day found me sketching a lot of "alien cultural beings" - think Ming and the denizens of Mongo rather than Jawas and Sand People.  James would look at a sketch and say "No!" (and discard it) or "Yes!" (and take it and redraw it in his style).  By the end of this crazy drawing session, I would say that James ended up with 20 or so designs, all done in his distinctive style.  Great!  Now just to show them to Mr. Nimoy and we start building! Right?


For whatever reason, James was not awarded the show.  Instead, it went to  Richard Snell, a bay area make up effects artist that James had hired on HOUSE! (See:The Making of House)

I first met Richard Snell when he showed up with sculptor Tony McVey at James' house in Glendale, California  to show their portfolios to be hired on HOUSE.  I liked Richard from the beginning.  I recall James not being as enamored with Richard as he was with Tony, but Richard, bless him, just kept selling and selling.  He started with his sculptures, then his make ups, then his wigs, then the teeth he had made, and finally the soft painted effects lenses he manufactured himself.  At this time, most effects lenses were HARD and a bitch to deal with.  Needless to say, Richard got the job, made lenses and hair pieces for HOUSE but I recall him being very frustrated with his treatment.  By now, I'm sure that most of you know that sometimes in life, people just don't "click" and I think that is the way it was between James and Richard.

So, the spiral downward of my friendship with James started with a call from Richard offering me a position on STAR TREK IV.  He asked my rate, I told him, and without hesitation, hired me on the spot.  As a courtesy, I called James and told him I was going to work for Richard on STAR TREK.

"Betrayal" was the word he used a lot in our conversation. I suppose it was a matter of perspective. I needed to work.  I was offered a job.  James' designs were rejected. Richard was going to pay my rate.  I couldn't understand how this warranted "betrayal".  A job was a job after all.  I didn't get angry when I was asked to "donate" a day and countless drawings so that James could redraw them and represent them as his ideas. It was a job.  Nothing personal.  Or so I thought.  Changing tactics, James then told me that he might have something going soon for a television show.  I might have still been green but I knew the difference between a couple of weeks of work versus a month or so of work.  I told him that I had committed to Richard and it would be unprofessional to quit before I started.  Poof!  Our friendship vanished.

This was a major turning point in my life.  I had tried to reason with James, but he was attempting to manipulate me with guilt (being raised Catholic, that was an easy thing to do). We had been friends by that point for 6 years.  He had been VERY generous with Tracy and I, but I felt that this was crossing the line.  To my knowledge, James was not the victim of some cabal, it was business and for him to ask me to not take work as a symbol of "loyalty" was not the sign of a true friend.  He hadn't worked for OVER A YEAR!  I couldn't afford that kind of a break!  So, unfortunately we parted company.

Richard didn't have a permanent shop.  In fact, I believe that this was the first show that he was keying on his own.  He rented a small industrial unit off of Willis Street (how do I remember that? Willis O'Brien of course) in Van Nuys.  It was a crappy area of town, but good enough for the needs of the show.  To fill out the crew Richard had hired Brian Wade, Dale Brady, and Craig Caton-Largent all of whom were seasoned veterans by this time.  Our ambassador to production was Kirk Thatcher who would come in from time to time to see the progress and make suggestions based on Mr. Nimoy's reactions.  The script was top secret, so Kirk basically told us the entire story so we would have a better understanding of where and how our aliens would play in scenes.  I recall that he actually remembered large sections of dialogue and acted it out for us.  I love Kirk!  For those of you who don't know him, he is famous amongst Star Trek fans as "the Punk on the bus" in Star Trek IV that Spock shuts down with his famous Vulcan neck pinch.

"I hate you and I berate you!!!"
The work load was something like this: Vulcan Ears for Spock, Sarek (Mark Lenard), and Saavik (Robin Curtis), a couple of Klingon appliances (one for lead Klingon, John Schuck) a protsthetic make up for a new alien navigator for the U.S.S. Saratoga, an alien appliance make up for Michael Berryman, an alien look for former Go-Go's band member Jane Wiedlin, and some masks and puppets to fill out the Star Fleet Federation council.

Richard told us that Leonard Nimoy's daughter, Nancy, was going to be contributing to the alien designs and we would be receiving them soon.  I asked Richard if I could do a piece of artwork, on my own, at home, revisiting some classic Star Trek aliens.  I did a pencil illustration of the "Tellarite" (a pig-nosed alien from the episode "Journey To Babel") as well as an "Andorian" (a blue faced alien with antennae from the same episode) and finally, a "Gorn" (a lizard-like alien that Kirk fought in the episode "Arena" - one of my all time favorites).  I turned the artwork over to Richard, who gave it to Kirk, who discussed it with Mr. Nimoy and it came down that we would do Tellarites and Andorians, but no Gorns.  See, the Federation has never made peace with the Gorns...Well, two out of three ain't bad!

We started off with life casting.  Richard met Leonard Nimoy at Paramount and cast his ears at the production office, however Mark Lenard and Robin Curtis both came to the little shop and had their ears cast.  I recall that Mr. Nimoy was VERY specific about the size, shape, and curve of his famous pointy ears so Richard took it upon himself to sculpt them to Mr. Nimoy's satisfaction.

I'm not sure "Fascinating" would be the word used to describe sculpting and designing these ears...

I sculpted these ears for actress, Robin Curtis and...
...these ears for Mark Lenard.
 We did full head casts of John Schuck, Michael Berryman, and Nick Ramus who would play the helmsman of the U.S.S. Saratoga.  Of all of the actors who came in for casting, I remember Michael Berryman most.  Having seen his as the face of THE HILLS HAVE EYES, I was a bit thunderstruck when he came in.  I recall that he couldn't have been nicer and told us of his wolf sanctuary and the work he did protecting these animals.

Nick Ramus as the navigator of the U.S.S. Saratoga.  Richard designed this make up.  I think Brian Wade sculpted it?
Michael Berryman in his alien guise.  Sculpted by Richard Snell.
There really weren't specific designs sent for Mr. Berryman, Mr. Ramus, or Mr. Schuck so appliances were just sculpted based on discussions between all of us at the shop.  I recall a big shop debate to bring the Klingon appearance closer to STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE and less like STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK. That was a doozie! The end result kind of looked liked a compromise between both designs.

The Klingon Commander from STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE
Christopher Lloyd as the Klingon commander Kruge in STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK
STAR TREK IV's Klingon.  I can still hear Kirk Thatcher's voice reading the lines Mr. Schuck would eventually say on screen!
 It was about this time that we received "designs" for the Star Fleet Federation Council.  Aside from the large-headed "China Dolls" as we called them and a design that looked like a strange welding mask, there were: Cat-man, Frog-man, Turtle-man, Pig-man (The Tellarite), and Lizard Man.  You could have knocked me over with a feather.  After James had made such a big deal about staying away from "animal" designs there they were - a virtual menagerie of aliens!  I suppose Turtle-people potentially can have culture too.

Another crew member that we only saw once and a while was Allen Feuerstein, a medical prosthetics expert, who consulted with Richard specifically about the design and construction of alien eyes. He seemed like a nice guy, but I don't remember what he specifically did because I recall that all of the eyes were either made by us in the shop or they would be contact lenses that Richard made and painted.  Allen did bring a cool display case with silicone medical prosthetics.  It was the first time I had seen silicone body parts and they were very realistic and creepy.

An Andorian.  The antennae were sculpted generically. 
 The aliens were divided amongst the sculptors and it fell to me to sculpt the lizard man puppet and a weird alien welding mask (that I didn't understand, especially since it had a long wig attached to it).  Dale sculpted the Tellarite (pig guy), and Brian Wade sculpted the cat guy ("Cat man doo" as Kirk would refer to it).  Craig sculpted the weird turtle guy and Richard sculpted the frog guy.

Brian Wade paints the Cat Man mask.
A finished Black Cat man, the back of the Tellarite's head and another Andorian in the back ground.
Craig Caton's Turtle guys.
Richard's Frog guy.
Dale Brady's Tellarite.
Another shot of the Tellarite with one of the China Dolls in the back ground.
One of the "China Dolls."
The "Red" Cat Man.
My W.E.D. clay sculpture of the Lizard Man...
Another view...
Still another view....I apologize...
...these are the only behind the scenes photos I've found!
My Lizard Man puppet.
And the weird hairy welding mask.  WTF?
Perhaps the most impressive of all: Kirk Thatcher pretending to be a Tom Savini puppet head.
Since most of the Federation Council were going to be in crowds, they were simple rubber masks - well, all but the Frog guy and the Lizard guy who were constructed to be latex and soft polyfoam puppets.  When it came time to shoot them, you guessed it, it was in San Francisco and was to be handled by union make up artists, so after all of the masks were painted and finished (I recall Craig Caton-Largent punching all of the hair in the China Dolls at break neck speed!) they were packed up and shipped out.

I asked Dale, Craig, and Brian if there was anything that they cared to recall.  Dale mentioned how FREEZING it was in the shop (it was January of 1986) as well as the make-shift oven we built (another one!) to bake the foam.  He reminded me that one night the thermostat broke and the entire foam run was burned and ruined!  Craig recalled one of us throwing a HUGE firecracker into the dumpster which amplified the sound so much that it drew everyone out of the neighboring businesses thinking something dire had happened.

My favorite recollection is of Richard Snell.  Richard was a very fair boss and, in my opinion, very talented.  But what I found more impressive is  that he took personal responsibility for his show (which is huge).  No matter what it was. When we needed supplies, it was Richard that would jump in his truck and go pick them up. When there was a problem that came down from production, Richard would step up, jump into the fray and try to work things out for himself.  What I had no way of knowing was that STAR TREK IV would be the last time I would work for Richard Snell.

He pursued a successful career in Make Up while I moved on  and pursued puppets and creature effects. Richard died  in 2006 of heart failure while working in the Bahamas on PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END.  He was a sweet man; I never had the chance to thank him for STAR TREK IV.

Richard Snell (1955 - 2006)
 POST SCRIPT: Working on a Star Trek movie was a big accomplishment since I had been such a huge fan when I was younger.   I have to admit that it was very cool seeing my name in the credits rolling past a shot of the U.S.S. Enterprise.  I know - NERD!
My friend, Tim Guillory wearing a Klingon make up I made for him to wear at a Star Trek convention in 1983


  1. Shannon - I love these posts. I keep wanting to commit to a similar series...Some day.

  2. Thanks Richard! I think that anyone who has worked in analog Motion Picture Special Effects has a familiar, yet unique take on the experience. What I love about that particular time was that we were all still learning things, trying new techniques and materials. Though it could be argued that the same thing is happening at shops today with new silicones and mold making materials, there now exists a grand foundation of information and experience that we just didn't have back then. I feel honored to have been amongst those who are part of that extensive history. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Gosh, I had no idea that Richard Snell had passed away. I loved the aliens that appeared in ST IV! How cool to see them all here, in one place. Well done!

  4. Thanks for your posts. It's good to read blogs and recollections of Rich. Dave Snell