Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Part 42: Back at Stan Winston's Studios

During my first tour of duty at Stan Winston's back in 1985, things were a bit unusual.  Stan's "lifers" as they had been called, had left for England within a few weeks of my employment with the exception of Alec Gillis.  Although I had been introduced to and worked a bit with the others, Shane Mahan, John Rosengrant, Tom Woodruff, Jr., and Richard Landon, I honestly didn't know that much about them or their working habits.  But now, I had found myself back at Stan Winston's studio, invited by Stan himself, to join the team in their latest effort which was building a mechanical boar for the film BLACK WIDOW.


Upon my re-introduction to the lifers and after working with them for a few days this is how I would classify them:

Shane Mahan was an artist.  A dreamer.  He had such a charming and deep sense of self-deception that it was difficult to not like him instantly.  He loved art, especially traditional fine art as well as the trappings of what I would call "the good life."  I still like Shane very much but have a difficult time resisting the temptation to knock his rose-colored glasses off.  Shame on me.  Years after I left Stan's, my wife would tell me that Shane actually had the right idea about how to live life.

He wore leopard print slip-on shoes in the kidding...
 Tom Woodruff, Jr. was the perfectionist.  Highly talented and detail oriented.  Of all of the TERMINATOR heads that were on display, Tom's was the one that was the cleanest.  I recall being at Tom's house and seeing one that he had made for his home display that was more perfect than the one in the studio!  Possessed of a wicked sense of humor, Tom's true passion was writing.  He had dreams of writing screenplays and one day moving his family back to his native Pennsylvania.

I like this frame grab of Tom because you know he just did something he's embarrassed about...
 John Rosengrant was the ramrod.  It is difficult to see what a necessary and thankless position that is for anyone, and there were many times, in my immaturity, that I would see John as a frustrating figure at the studio.  A bit hot-headed and deed-oriented, John made goddamn sure that the work was moving forward in the shop!  Having had that position myself, since, at other shops, I recognize what a difficult position it is.  I'll take this opportunity to apologize to John for my youthful lack of vision.  He was doing what was best for the studio, which is what made him invaluable to Stan.

I forgot to mention that John, too, was a good sculptor.
 Richard Landon was the head of the mechanical department.  Educated and intelligent, Richard attempted to bring logic and dispassionate thinking into the studio which was a difficult notion.  Ironically, Richard was also very sensitive and polite which meant that he wasn't always heard above the rabble.  I admire Richard for his stalwart service to Stan Winston and his bottomless patience.  I never possessed those admirable qualities.

Richard looks like he's thinking about something.  He was always thinking about something, bless him.
 Other familiar faces had returned to Stan's as well, such as Dave Nelson, and Steve James, who were designing and assembling the chain link running mechanism for the boar (truly amazing).  And it was during this time that I met someone who would become a life long friend, Stan's son, Matt. 

Matt was just instantly likeable.  He was such a fan of his father and the studio's work that it was disarming!  He had boundless energy and enthusiasm and would be working at the studio that summer between school years.

At the time of my return, Alec Gillis had taken a sabbatical and was helping his friend Kevin Yagher with a demon puppet for a film entitled TRICK OR TREAT.  But he was due to return sometime in the future.  Of course, at the helm, was the man himself....Stan Winston.

There he sat in his office, no multiple Oscars nor high-tech furniture yet.  A star on the rise.
 As I put my tool box down on a workbench, I was greeted by a large, red fiberglass mold; its silhouette was immediately recognizable as some sort of pig.  Also, in the mechanical area of the shop was a chain-link mechanism.  These were the parts of the boar puppet that were under construction for BLACK WIDOW.  The idea was that the antagonist, played by Theresa Russell's, would trick the protagonist, Debra Winger into the forest where she would be threatened by a wild boar.

For shots of the wild boar chasing at Ms. Winger's feet, this puppet would be utilized.  Built like a wheel-barrow, it was only the front 2/3rds of the body.  Where the rear legs would have been, instead was a beefy frame with wheels that a puppeteer could motivate, coordinating with the movements of the front legs to give the illusion of running.

Here is the mechanism balanced across the foam room counters.

For those of you who are mechanically inclined, here's a close up of the shoulder array. Very impressive stuff.
I was told that it would be my responsibility to cast the skins for the puppet.  The head would be run out of foam latex, and the body would be a thin skin of regular latex over a soft urethane filler.  The mold was cored to create a thickness of about a half an inch, so that was going to be a challenge.

Stan Winston's foam room was just a bit bigger than a utility closet in those days (see the photo above).  He had several Sunbeam Mixmasters and two injectors that were acrylic-bodied with machined aluminum tips and plungers.  The injectors were not something you could just stroll down the street and pick up, they had been custom built per specifications; one held about two large Mixmaster bowls, the other about four bowls of foam.  The acrylic had been machined on the ends, threaded like a big screw so that the cap and tip as well as the plunger guide could be attached to withstand the immense amount of pressure exerted on the injector while filling molds.  To make matters worse, the threads were relatively thin, meaning that it would take a fair amount of revolutions to completely seat the cap on the acrylic tube.

I've spoken about running foam latex in many of the past blogs, but running foam at Stan's and using those injectors was a new experience.  Prior to running the foam, it became a responsibility to clean out the injector, castor oil all of the rubber O ring seals, and make sure that everything would be ready to go, quickly, in order to get the foam latex into the injector, cap sealed, and then material injected into the mold. It sounds easier than it was, especially doing the lion's share of the work by myself.

The initial run of any mold for a mechanical character, would be a test skin.  The overall quality of the foam and the run was less important than providing the mechanical department with something that they could begin working with to strategically plan how they were going to assemble the animatronics. The skin served as a departure point for the engineers to request a softer foam while indicating stress areas to be reinforced. It also gives the foam runner the opportunity of working out any bugs in the casting of the skin, so that subsequent runs only get better.

So there I was in this tiny foam room, with a red, fiberglass, boar head mold.  I had delicately attached a nylon stocking over the core positive (the piece inside of the mold that displaces the foam to a specified thickness) and had cut out the areas where the core contacted the inner surface of the mold.  I had drilled tiny "bleeder" holes throughout the core to allow air to escape while injecting that would cause air bubbles or voids in the skin.  Everything was ready.  Injection gun was clean and I was ready to run foam.

Chemicals weighed carefully, Mixmaster speeds and running times executed and recorded with precision, it became time to add the final chemical that would "gel" the foam to prevent the air cells from collapsing as the material baked out in the oven.  At this point, I leaned out of the foam room and asked someone to help me.
Sometimes it was Matt, or Shane, or Tom...whomever was free to throw on a smock and lend a hand.

Dispersing the gelling agent into the foam was putting the operation against a unreliable stop watch.  As I've said before, there were so many conditions that could make foam latex gel too fast, or not at all, so what any foam runner had when they were performing their task, was an idea of how much time they have to effectively get the material into the mold.

The foam was front-loaded into the injector (the cap end) as the plunger sat at the very bottom of the tube.  Once filled, the cap was screwed on (All those threads!  It felt like an eternity!) and then the plunger was carefully pushed upward allowing the large air voids and bubbles in the mix to escape until the foam latex hit the cap.  A bit of material was allowed to escape from the tip and then into the mold the injector went!  Slow, steady pressure was exerted on the plunger as spirals of foam began appearing at the bleeder holes.  When finally, all of the holes bled and there was enough back pressure on the injector, a ball of water-based clay was pushed into the injector hole as the injector was removed to maintain the pressure and prevent the latex from spewing out.  WHEW!  Done!  Now all that had to be done was let the foam gel and then into the oven.

Within a few minutes, the foam had gelled completely. Ah, success!  I carefully moved the mold into the oven, set the temperature and timer, and then returned to the foam room to clean up (another thankless task for foam runners!).  I went to open the injector cap to clean it out and it is stuck.  Solid.  Like through some alchemy the acrylic had permanently bonded with the aluminum.  The cap, which was about three inches in diameter, was larger than any channel-lock pliers in the shop and the acrylic was too fragile for me to put it into a table vise.  I held the injector between my knees and tried to twist the cap off.  It wasn't moving.  I unscrewed the bottom, pulled the plunger, and the excess foam out of the tube and tried to clean as much as I could from the reverse.  I tried to twist again...nothing.  Ugh...

I opened the foam room door and asked John Rosengrant for a hand.  He came in, saw what I had done and slapped me upside the head, like a father from the '60's would do after his kid  had just wiped his ketchup stained lips with  his shirt.  It was more shocking than painful, but...he had just hit me...right?  "Don't let the foam gel in the closed injector!" he snapped.  All I could do was hang onto the acrylic tube while John wrenched it off.  "After you finish injecting the mold, unscrew the cap immediately next time!" he added, and then left.

What could I do?  Go tell Stan?  Confront John and get my ass handed to me?  I was too shocked and stunned to know what to do.  I had just arrived back at one of THE best creature effects studios in the world.  Was it worth risking dismissal?  At the time, I thought not.  My ears and cheeks burning red, I continued cleaning the foam room.

It was a sad and defining moment at Stan Winston's studio for me.  I had returned, but not in the way I had hoped.


  1. I like your blog..... and enjoyed the background info on Stan Winston Studios....

  2. Rosengrant sounds like an asshole. Albeit a talented one.