Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Part 41: Evil Dead to Cute Dogs

As Mark Shostrom and company left for North Carolina, I found myself unemployed again. That was short-lived after a call from a friend, Scott Wheeler, who was working for Ellis "Sonny" Burman at Cosmekinetics in Northridge, California.

Apparently, Sonny had been hired by the EVIL DEAD II production to make some specific props: A giant Evil Tree puppet, three miniature Evil Tree hand puppets, and the Evil Deer Trophy Head for "the Laughing Room" scene.

How could you forget THIS guy?!
But more importantly, Sonny built the all-important, iconic chainsaws that Bruce "Ash" Campbell eventually uses to replace his dismembered hand.

Sonny made several versions of this saw for different purposes.
Scott, again, was going to North Carolina while I was going to remain in the shop with Sonny, but in any case, they needed assistance with running foam latex, and some finishing work before the pieces shipped to location.

Cosmekinetics was in the same industrial park that Stan Winston's studio was located in, but however close together they were, the studios themselves were worlds apart.  Sonny Burman, first of all, was ex-military.  At first that may sound a bit daunting, but I found Sonny to be a straight-shooter.  He never said anything that he didn't mean or couldn't back up and I admired that.  When I worked for him he must have been in his early 50's and I'll tell you this: He looked like he could have crushed a girder with his bare hands!  I had heard a rumor that during the shooting of THE TERMINATOR, James Cameron was frustrated with the Endoskeleton puppeteers who were working in a trench and began yelling at them.  Sonny responded, by shouting that if Jim didn't shut up, he (Sonny) was going to leap out of the trench and knock Cameron's dick in the dirt!  True?  I don't know, but if Sonny had yelled that at me, I would have unloaded my colon into my pants.

Sonny's partner was Bob Williams who was intelligent, level-headed, and had a wry sense of humor.  The entire time I was there, I never saw Bob get ruffled.  Frustrated? Yes, but he always handled it calmly and with a droll quip.

Arriving to work my first Monday, I was greeted by the sight of a casting of the full-sized Evil Tree puppet.  It was only 1/2 around (I would say roughly 3 1/2 to 4 feet in diameter)I want to say that the casting was latex and soft polyurethane foam behind it.  It was backed by fiberglass, but not the traditional laminated layers of cloth or matte, but was covered in "chop" from a "chop gun."  Pardon my naivete but I had never seen fiberglass chop before and I was impressed. It made sense. Something that sized, to laminate layers of matte would have taken a few people many hours to build up a significant thickness.  With the chop gun, it had taken one person just a few hours.

"Calling all evil trees!  Calling all evil trees!"
Unfortunately, all of the chainsaws were completed by the time I showed up.  All expertly aged and matching one another, Sonny and Bob had built at least 3 that I recall: a hero working chainsaw (with no chain), a light-weight smoking shell that Bruce wore on his hand, and a soft version for stunts. There may have been more, but it is difficult to remember.

What I do remember were molds.  Four of them to be exact.  All made from pink Tool Stone (which was a mold making favorite back in the day). Three of them were miniature Evil Tree puppets complete with Tool Stone hand positives in puppeteering poses.  The last was the Evil or Laughing Deer Trophy Head.  Scott Wheeler had sculpted the deer head and for some reason we had run the foam latex for it at Mark Shostrom's shop.  Perhaps that's what gave Scott the idea to call me to work at Sonny's when the Shostrom team left for North Carolina?

Scott took the skin back to Cosmekinetics and finished off the deer there.  He recently told me that he hand-laid crepe wool for the fur!  That's a lot of work.  However, when it was time to run the miniature Evil Tree molds, I was working at Sonny's.

A little more information for those of you reading this who don't know of the pitfalls of running Foam Latex:  it is environment sensitive. How the foam reacts has a lot to do with the air temperature and humidity.  Most shops have environmentally enclosed rooms to run the foam latex, but Sonny?  Nope.  I was to run the foam latex on a shop table in the middle of the room during spring time in the San Fernando Valley.  Difficult? Yes. Impossible? No.

As a consolation tactic, Sonny and Bob bought an electronic Ph meter so that I could get a reading prior to adding the last gelling chemical that reacted based on the mixture's ammonia content. So, I would stand at the Sunbeam Mixmaster spinning my bowl, watching my stopwatch, then Sonny or Bob would come over with a small plastic case that housed a "pen sensor" on the end of a coiled wire.  They would dip the end into the mix and let me know if I had to add more ammonia or not before the gel.  Believe it or not, we got it to work and  somehow or another I managed to run the foam.

Working for Sonny was a joy.  It truly was.  And Sonny was so cool; he took most things in stride.  Like the time I found one of the HOWLING II werewolf masks just bunched up under a table.  I unbunched it, put it on, and then leaped into Sonny's office growling.  Sonny, who was reading a Motor Cross magazine, lowered it for a second and said, "Damn that Jack Bricker." (Jack Bricker had supervised the show for Sonny), and then lifted his magazine and went back to reading while I stood there with a smelly old foam latex mask on.

Some time later, he also decided that it was time that I get over my ridiculous fear of snakes. See, Sonny had this terrarium that was at about eye-level and in it was a disgusting rattlesnake that he kept as a pet.  One day, Sonny arrived on his motorcycle with a small cardboard pet carrier.  On the exterior of the box it read: "Someone loves me." and "I've found a home!" 

Sonny got off of the bike and told me that it was the day I was going to get over my fear of snakes.  He grabbed me by the shoulder and moved me to the rattlesnake tank.  He opened the pet carrier, removed a little white mouse and dropped it into the tank.  He then put his hands on my shoulders and held me, facing the tank, so I HAD to watch the rattlesnake eat the mouse.  As the rodent landed, I heard the rattlesnake buzzing angrily.  Sonny began saying that my fear of snakes was based on not having and understanding and an appreciation of how they work, what they do, how they do it.  If I just saw for myself...THUNK! The rattlesnake struck the mouse and the venom did its work.

At least I think so.

What Sonny didn't see was that my eyes were closed the entire time.  After I had heard the thunk, I opened them to see half of a mouse sticking out of the snake's mouth.  Yech!  Appreciation?  For THAT?  I'd just as soon stay away from snakes.  Indiana Jones and me.  We hate snakes.

Okay, the rattlesnake treatment didn't work....yech!
During my time at Sonny's, he landed another job.  It seems like Hollywood was going to produce another sequel to the successful BENJI dog movie by Joe Camp.  This one was going to be entitled BENJI, THE HUNTED and was going to to feature a group of puma cubs that Benji would rescue after their mother had been killed somehow.
No, that's not a Rob Bottin werewolf chasing them.  But.  Hmmmmmm....
Sonny had received a call from Steve Martin's working wildlife, a motion picture animal training and rental facility north of Los Angeles.  They needed some fake puma cubs to train Mr. Benji.  The idea was for Benji to carry the cubs like their mother would which is an unnatural action for the dog to perform. So, off to Steve Martin's working wildlife, I went,  with a camera and a measuring tape (Steve Martin's Working Wildlife).

I arrived , parked and began to walk up a hill to the compound where the puma cubs were.  As I walked, I froze as a black leopard came around a bend only to be followed a split second later by a trainer holding a leash.  If I didn't know better, I would have sworn it was one of the black leopards from THE CAT PEOPLE.  Who knows, it probably was.

I met the trainers, who were very nice, and they handled the puma cubs while I tried in vain to measure and photograph them.  They squirmed and tumbled while "crying".  The trainers explained that they would be needing a fake puma to work with the dog because every time they had given him something to carry the way they hoped he would carry the puma cub, he would shake it like a rag doll.  That would be disastrous.  The idea was that the body of the training puma would be hollow and they would be able to add weight to it in order to train Benji to not shake the damn things!  Also, if they needed shots where carrying the puma cubs would be dangerous, they could use the artificial stand in as to not risk the life of a cub.

So I returned to Cosmekinetics and Sonny felt that I should just build the cubs myself since I had been the one to see them in person.  I sculpted the puma in two pieces: the head, and the body.  I molded them separately and Bob made an armature that would be run into the foam latex to keep the arms and legs from being too floppy. There were at least three made: one that was a simple training cub, no frills just the bare minimum for what Benji needed for day to day training and two more that were essentially camera ready. 

With little to know experience, I did manage to do some fur transfer which is the technique of taking artificial fur, removing it from the material backing and adhering it to another surface (in this case, the artificial puma cub). The final product was effective and the clients were happy with it.

Okay, maybe not PHOTO real, but it would be good for dog training!

His hollow belly could be filled from the back with weight. Ironically, that's Stan's studio reflected in the doors to the left.
See? That cub would have been shaken like an old dish towel without the proper training!
 One day, while dumping a garbage can in the huge common dumpster that serviced the entire industrial park, I ran into Stan Winston.  The crew was back from England and already back to work.  He had seen the issue of Mad Movies that featured my Evil Ed puppet photo and asked if I had sculpted it.  I told him I had.  He then asked where I was working and I told him I was around the corner at Sonny's.  I couldn't tell him how long Sonny was going to keep me employed, so, Stan, being Stan, decided to come with me and ask Sonny himself.

Stan met with Sonny in his office while I went about my business cleaning up at the end of the day.  Finally, Sonny called me into his office.  He told me that Stan wanted to hire me and the only thing Sonny had coming up was to do on-set maintenance on an alien puppet for a television series called ALF.  They were going to start shooting the first season soon and I would be on set to repair the puppet if needed.

The photo Sonny showed me looked something like this.  Seeing the black, air brushed paint, I was not enthused.
Having no idea what the hell ALF was, I thanked Sonny and told him that I'd like to return to Stan's if that was okay with him.  We parted on good terms.

That was the last time I worked with Sonny, but of all of the bosses I have worked with over the years, Sonny was truly one of the best (if not THE best).  By this part of the story, EVIL DEAD II fans are probably wracking their brains wondering if they had seen Sonny's name in the credits.

I don't believe you do.

Sonny received a call from production during the shoot, unhappy about something, and I heard Sonny in his office read them the riot act.  Sorry, but I have to admire the courage it took to do this.   He dressed them down, standing behind his product and crew like none other.  It is this type of integrity that is so rare in Hollywood.  Right or wrong, Sonny sided with his business and in his opinion he had done what he had been paid to do - honest work for the price and if they didn't like know.  I had seen the work done by Cosmekinetics and so have many of you.  Sonny, like all of the effects companies, Shostrom's, Beswicks, Gardner's, had delivered.  Sonny just wasn't going to take production's shit and didn't.

Unfortunately, Hollywood is not the land of integrity and for what ever reason, a few years later Cosmekinetics closed.  I have heard through the grapevine that Sonny, also a talented make up artist, had gone back on the union roster and returned to make up full time.  What a loss.  I was sorry to see Cosmekinetics close, however it did raise one question in my mind....

What happened to that rattlesnake?


  1. Jim Henson himself declined to be associated with ALF for different reasons and because he didn't find this one enough interesting. Later, he became friend with Alf's creator and loved the serie.

  2. I don't recall the guy's name (I guess I could look it up on IMDB!), but the same guy that created the show was also ALF's voice.