Saturday, April 30, 2011

Part 16 - A Front Row Seat to the Make Up Effects Boom

My brother flew back to New Orleans and almost immediately re-enrolled in college at the University of New Orleans.  Seems like the thought of me graduating before him, really got under his skin and so he was determined to finish before me. 

Meanwhile, I was adjusting to just about everything: living in California, going to an Avant-garde college (whatever that meant), meeting new people, adjusting to a new roommate, etc...  And I'm sure that Steve Burg had just as much to adjust to, but I think we did it in different ways.  It would be safe to say that I was "Goofus" and he was "Gallant" as far as time management was concerned.  I spent a lot of time doing my work study, and writing Tracy (she'll debate this, but I started out REALLY good...I was writing her almost daily).  At the same time I would run to the mailboxes daily to see if I had received anything from her.  She, on the other hand, wrote nearly every day.  And Steve....Steve began painting.  He was an art machine cranking out one fantastic oil painting after another (like, one a day...seriously).

My side of our dorm room.  Steve's side was neater...but not by much...
It is impossible to understand, and having a daughter in college, currently, it is ridiculous how much things have changed -

In 1980 - We had a phone in the dorm room.  Pacific Bell was the carrier and it was roughly $1.40 a minute to call.  That meant that a 5 minute call would cost about $7 and if I called Tracy, we'd stay on the phone for 30 minutes or more and it would cost me over $50!

In 2011 - My daughter not only has a cell phone, she is linked to our cell phones so it costs her NOTHING to talk to us.  If she calls someone else, it reflects on our phone bill.

In 1980 - We corresponded by letters and cards and it took time.  The mail from Los Angeles to New Orleans and back was inconsistent.

In 2011 - My daughter not only corresponds with us via e-mail, facebook, and sometimes video-chatting.  We are an active part in her life.

In 1980, it was like being on the opposite side of the planet, or even the moon.  We were basically cut-off.  We had to figure things out for ourselves and rely on each other, rather than having the luxury of leaning on our parents emotionally.

So that's how it was for Steve, me, and our CalArts friends - we tried to share, meals, transportation, whatever we could.  We'd celebrate birthdays in the dorms with ice-cream cakes from Baskin-Robbins.
We'd also go to movies when we had the time and the money.

The only movie theater in the Valencia area in 1980 was a single-screen theater next to the bowling alley in Newhall, a neighboring town.  That meant we would have to drive to Los Angeles to see films and our favorite destination in the Fall/Winter of 1980 was WESTWOOD!

Now, for those of you outside of California, Westwood is just North of Santa Monica on the West side of Los Angeles and is the home of UCLA.  "Mr. Broken-Record" here is going to start repeating himself, but Westwood has undergone MAJOR changes in the last 30+ years.

When we would go to the movies in Westwood, the streets were like a weird, safe, bizarro, version of Mardi Gras.  People were walking around on the street, going to eat, going to the movies, going to bars (I guess...we never did) and although there were instances of college hijinks, nothing ever got out of hand.  We never felt like we were in any danger.  It was clean.  It was nice.  It was also like a 45 minute drive from Valencia.

We'd pile into my GTO (Steve and I - sometimes we'd have a guest like Matt O'Callaghan, or Jim Belohovek) and we'd drive to Westwood to go to the movies.  I recall that for some reason we had decided to see a double feature: THE EXTERMINATOR (with Robert Ginty) and HALLOWEEN (which I had never seen).  Although the second feature was much better and effective, the first film featured something that none of us was expecting - an on-screen decapitation -

The eyes and mouth opened as his head was cut off with a machete! EEK!
It really took us off guard.  Later, I discovered that it was the work of Stan Winston.  Now, I had heard of Stan, I'd seen and read articles about him.  Until that moment, however, I saw him primarily as a make up artist who executed fine character work like W.C. FIELDS AND ME or THE WIZ.  But this was different.  This was full-on animatronics.  Later, either Starlog Magazine, or maybe Fangoria ran an article about Stan that showed the intricate puppet he and his crew produced and I was incredibly impressed.  That....was just the beginning.

Meanwhile, in school, Steve and I went through our classes.  Every morning Jules Engel would host a survey-class of  "experimental animation" that would run from 9:00 until noon.  You haven't lived until you have experienced 3 hours a week of floating colored squares and squiggly lines accompanied by a bass violin, for what seemed like an eternity.  Jules knew I HATED it.

There were other classes that were more pragmatic.  Introduction to cameras and equipment with the Film School vice-chair, Myron Emery, was at least a hand-on class where we learned about the loading and care of 16 mm cameras (Bolexes and Arriflexes).  He also took us through the use of the editorial equipment and lighting equipment.

We met other students that weren't on our dorm floors, and weren't in our section. I recall so many of them, but am driven to mention a few.  The first one was an ex-lumberjack from Boston, Massachusetts named Mark McInerny and he looked like you would imagine.  He was tall, paunchy, curly black hair accented with streaks of silver, and a beard and mustache that framed his broad smile.  All I can say, was thank god for Mark McInerny because it was he, that got Steve and I through our critical studies class: Twentieth Century Form In Conflict.  Yes, it was a boring as it sounds.

Every Wednesday morning, before we went to that class, we would meet in the Film Graphics room.  In it was a magazine rack full of old issues of National Lampoon.  Mark would pick one and we'd go to the large auditorium and sit in the very back row.  Properly separated from the rest of the class, Mark would read cartoons and stories from National Lampoon in his thick Bostonian accent.  It was all Steve and I could do to not lose it and disrupt the class.  Mark loved Frank Zappa and he made a really far out film to Frank's song "Uncle Meat."

The other student, who was much more in step with what I would classify as a typical CalArts student from 1980.  He was very thin and looking back, kind of resembled Crispen Glover.  He had shaggy hair and would wear a long black duster, a pink feather-boa, and one long opera glove.  His name was Mark Brooks and...he was nuts....or stoned....or both.  I remember being in class with Mark Brooks watching him stare off into space twisting his hair on the end of one of his fingers.  Then, when say, Myron Emery, was ready to move on to another topic, Mark Brooks would ask a question about something Myron had mentioned 20 to 30 minutes prior.  It was maddening.

Lastly, I recall walking through a hallway in the main building, and hearing synthesizer music, I stopped.  I was under the impression that someone was watching HALLOWEEN, and I opened the door and peeked in.  Sitting in front of a bank of synthesizers was a skinny guy with shoulder-length hair who looked around and introduced himself as Drew Neumann.  He was working and composing on synthesizers that he was building.  We became friends and still talk (via Facebook) today.
As for making creatures, I had decided to at least make a go of making good on my Beowulf project and started by sculpting and casting a 1/2 mask.

I signed this photo for Jim Belohovek, the "whipee" still applies.
Jim Belohovek helped me a lot during this time because he was familiar with the procedures it took to produce masks, etc.  He actually taught me a lot about two piece molds and literally made a clay wall along my hands and arms to produce two piece plaster molds that I ran latex into to create fake arms.  He also cast my face, in stone, and since he didn't have any petroleum jelly to prevent the stone from sticking to my eyebrows and eyelashes, Jim used Vicks Vapo Rub telling me that it was essentially the same thing.

When Jim pulled the plaster off of my face, my lids were swollen closed and I feared that I was blinded!

Jim Belohovek, and his roommate James Biehold told Steve and I of a former student, who was in the Disney Animation Program and had not only been interested in monsters, but had left the school to pursue his career.  His name was James Cummins (what's with all of these guys named JAMES?!) and we would hear that name again very soon.

Meanwhile, the first important boom in Make Up Effects happened.  Steve and I witnessed it in Westwood at the Wilshire Theater (now the Saban Theater).  The movie was called ALTERED STATES and it was a cornucopia of prosthetics, puppets, and full suits.  Ken Russel's film about a scientist using drugs and a sensory deprivation tank to physically alter his body to reflect his hallucinations went beyond anything we had experienced.

What a TRIP!
When the film concluded and Steve and I exited the theater, he stopped me and told me that he had to sit on a bench and regroup after the intense experience.  Me? I was electrified!  I couldn't wait to get back to school and start making stuff.

I had sculpted a dinosaur hand puppet and I wanted to get some latex into the mold.  At the school,  in the wood shop was a 55 gallon drum of latex that you could purchase for $9 a gallon.  I went in to buy a couple of gallons and I was told the drum was empty.  Empty?  I just bought latex a few weeks ago?!  It turned out that the entire drum was purchased by an alumnus, James Cummins.


Thursday, April 28, 2011

Part 15: CalArts, Fall of 1980

Driving North, up the 5 freeway took my brother and I past downtown Los Angeles, which looked deceptively small.  After all, unlike a city like New York, we didn't understand that Los Angeles was a VAST city comprised of smaller communities and to get to CalArts, we would have to drive through some of them.

After driving through Glendale, Burbank, and Mission Hills, the houses and strip malls began to become scarce again and we found ourselves driving through canyons again as we left the San Fernando Valley and entered the Santa Clarita Valley.  We noted the 14 Fwy which led further North to Palmdale and Lancaster where my brother would finish the rest of his stay in California this time and then as the valley opened up before us, I could see it sitting on top of a hill: The California Institute of the Arts, my new school!

We took the McBean Parkway exit and drove past the yellow gate onto the campus.  Parked in the lot were trucks.  A lot of trucks, actually, and I could see movie production people moving equipment back and forth between the trucks.  I couldn't believe it!  If this was the FILM SCHOOL, I had hit pay dirt for sure!  It all looked so professional.  Following the instructions provided by the school, we drove past the main school building and parked by the only other building on campus, the dormitory.

I checked in with the dorm office, received my necessary information and keys to my dormitory room and my brother and I began to unpack.  As we entered the elevator we were joined by two students, who, by their malaise attitude, seemed to have been at CalArts for a while.  I couldn't tell you who the woman was, but the man was a young acting student who would graduate from CalArts and go on to a short but successful career, Merrit Butrick. "You new to the school?" he asked me in the elevator. "Yeah," I replied. "I'm Merrit, welcome to Calarts." he said and shook my hand.  The other woman introduced herself and welcomed me.  We got off the elevator, letting Merrit and his friend get off first since we were moving boxes.  Halfway down the hall, Merrit's friend removed her shirt and walked down the hall topless.  What the f was going on?

Remember Merrit from Star Trek and Square Pegs?
Yes, I was from New Orleans and I had seen a lot of unusual things, especially during Mardi Gras, but I confess that I hadn't expected this sort of a display, and I had no idea that this was a minor but defining moment at CalArts. 

I unlocked the door to my dorm and went in.  Scott was shocked at the size of the room, reporting that my dorm was nearly twice the size of the room he was in at LSU.  The walls were white, painted, cinder block; toward the front was a small kitchen area with no appliances.  There were two small single beds, a couple of tables with plastic bin type drawers and two free standing closets to store hanging clothes that separated the living area from the kitchen.  The bathroom was shared with an identical room on the other side forming "suite" as it was referred to.  My room mate hadn't arrived yet, so I chose a bed and quickly unpacked.

It was time to explore.  I wanted to see what was going on by those trucks and so we left the dorm and walked across campus.  Arriving outside of the site, we met a youngish guy with long hair holding a clip board.  I asked him what was going on and he said that they were shooting John Carpenter's new film ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK inside.  As we spoke, Andrienne Barbeau approached and told Jeff she was going to be in her trailer if they called for her. (I remember the name, I imdb'd him and realized it was probably Jeff Chernov who I worked with decades later on UNDERDOG!)

Turns out that production had dressed the Main Gallery in CalArts to double for the lobby of the World Trade Center.  Later, my brother and I sneaked into the set during production lunch and checked it out.  To our surprise there were destroyed cars, graffiti on the walls, a tepee and a smoldering fire!  What the heck was this movie about?!

"Mr. President, I need to get you out of Valencia, California!"
When we returned to the dorm, my roommate was there.  He was tall, thin, had light brown hair and was a bit awkward and shy.  This was Steve Burg.

Steve was from New Jersey, and like me, was interested in motion picture special effects.  Amongst the things he brought was a small color television, art books, and magazines.  I had brought a stereo, a telephone, I had purchased as small refrigerator locally, a hot plate, and I had the car between us.  The three of us shared dinner at a local Taco Bell, and then bidding Steve good bye, drove my brother to Lancaster to stay with The Porters, who were friends of our family.

Leaving Scott with the Porters, I returned to CalArts a day or so later and reintroduced myself to Steve and we began exploring the school.  ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK had pulled up stakes and disappeared after carefully restoring the Main Hall to pristine condition.  We found the book store, which was fairly well-stocked for a small school store, and we found the Film Graphics Department.  Our new department as he, too, was enrolled in Film Graphics even though neither of us was clear on what that exactly meant.

The room was large and divided into cubicles, several of which were already occupied by returning students.  We began to see names on certain desks: Steve Holland, Steve Eagle, Peter Chung.  All of the desks were vacant except one where an animator was seated working on some drawings.  He introduced himself as Dexter, and he had a summer job with Hanna Barberra in-betweening (which is producing the multitude of drawings between the extreme poses created by the animators), he was laid back and told us that school was fine and we'd be fine, and everything was going to be fine...If only it could have been that simple.

A day or so later I ran into an upperclassman named Gary Schwartz who stopped me in the Film Graphics room and asked me if I owned a 16mm camera.  I told him no, which launched Gary into a long sales pitch explaining how difficult it was going to be for me (or any freshman) to check out cameras and since all of the editing bays were 16mm based, I was going to need access to a 16mm camera.  Long story short, in my stupidity, I bought a full bolex package for $800.  In retrospect, I'm sure Gary (or his buddy with him) needed some cash, fast, and I was the rube from Louisiana that they put the pinch on.  I owned that camera for years, after only using it once.  I recently donated it to filmmaker extraordinaire, Michael S. Deak, who is one of the last film-shooting hold outs that I know.

I was suddenly $800 lighter in my budget, but it was not to worry.  Part of my Financial Aid package was a Work/Study job, and I was going to be working in the "Athletic Department" of the school.  I figured that a school with no organized sports team wouldn't have a large athletic department and the job would be a cinch.

Within a few days, Steve and I started meeting other students, primarily on our dorm floor.  Our "suite mates" were Tony Anselmo (who is now Disney's voice of Donald Duck) and Matthew O' Callaghan, a Chicago-native who is now an animation director.  Both of them were in the Disney school and were a year ahead of us.  Across the hall, we met another Disney-school student Jim Beihold, and his roommate James Belohovek.

James was in the Film Graphics Department, like Steve and I, and he was very interested in building miniatures for motion pictures.  In face, he had a very cool Cygnus-inspired space ship miniature in his room.  Steve and I had found more allies!

It is interesting, the different yet similar influences we had all shared.
Steve could appreciate Jim's ship and THE BLACK HOLE, but Steve was a complete Doug Trumbull aficionado and had been completely taken by the dry-dock sequence in STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE.

Steve was an ardent student of this work of Doug Trumbull's.
And me?  I was the monster guy, unaware that the Special Make Up Effects boom was months away with the opening of an unique film that would change everything for decades.



Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Part 14: An 8-Track, A Deer, and the Never-Ending State of Texas

My1974 GTO had some modifications that made it a "Seventies-Mobile."  It had an automatic transmission and originally, the shifter was on the steering column.  It had been converted to a B&M "slap shifter" on the floor.  This meant that the standard bench seat had been removed and replaced by two green bucket seats (both of which only had 3 out of the 4 bolts holding them to the floor.  I had no idea what a "slap shifter" was or how to use it in street racing, but the prior owner, Pat Boudreaux, told me that this car had won him many a street race.

When I bought the car from him, it had over-sized rear wheels and air jacks in the back to give it a street dragster look. I had the foresight to change the rear tires to normal sized ones, but used the air shocks to off set the weight of the traveling cargo. There was a car stereo in it....a top of the line, 8 Track Tape player that was wired to two box speakers that sat on the back seat.  No, really.  I know what you are thinking: Why the HELL would YOU buy this car?

At the time, finding anything that I knew would get from Louisiana to California without breaking down for under two thousand dollars, was a miracle.  So, "The Lizard King" (after Jim Morrison of The Doors) was born.

Prepared for a long trip, we had a faux-leather case with 8 Track tapes including The Beatles, The Doors, and this:

This, factory-sealed, now goes for just under $10,000...can you imagine?

We drove before sun up on our first day, my brother and me, speeding past swampland along the I-10, westbound.  Again, this was WAY before anyone had a GPS, so we relied on a AAA Triptik map (a narrow, spiral-bound detailed map that you get free as a member of the Auto Club).  Hotels, gas stations, and even some speed traps were indicated in the pages and it was gratifying every time we would flip a page - another 50 miles behind us.

Being from Louisiana, we were flat-landers.  Yes, I had been to the Great Smokey Mountains on a trip once, but the experience of driving anywhere that wasn't flat was relatively new to us.  When we arrived in Kerrville, Texas we were amazed by the rolling green hills and the sheer beauty of the place.  It was late, and we decided to stay the night.

Beautiful shot of Kerrville, TX by Tim Lookingbill
 Attempting to stay on schedule, we woke up the next morning before sunrise, ate a quick breakfast at the motel, and pulled onto the black I-10.   We weren't 5 minutes away from the motel when I noticed glowing eyes on the side of the road and before I could react....THUMP! SMASH!  I had hit a deer.

Unfortunately, these are the only "Monsters" in today's entry.
If you have ever struck a large animal with your car, you know it can be emotionally shocking.  And to this day, there is some debate about what happened.  My brother swears I killed the deer.  I recall looking in the rear-view mirror and seeing it dash off of the road.  There was no lump of a carcass lying there.  However, the front left side of my car was crushed.  Luckily, the headlight still worked but there was no blood, or fur in the grill - just crumpled steel from the impact.  Great.  It's the second day and already we've had a "tragedy" that we won't recover from before we get to California.

That day we drove across the rest of Texas, and drove, and drove, and drove.  Once you get past Dallas, the Texas landscape becomes flat and dry.  The state is so large that, when you are 18 and can't wait to be on the West Coast, it can become disheartening to drive across.

By the time we got to the border town of El Paso, we were celebrating.  We had put one, very large State between us and Louisiana and it only took two days!  We pushed on to Las Cruces, New Mexico and thus ended our second day of driving.

The third day took us through Western New Mexico and Arizona.  We had the STAR WARS 8-Track playing and it was coincidentally on John Williams' music for the Tatooine desert while we drove through mesas and buttes in awe and the massive rock outcroppings.

To a Southern Boy, this is alien territory!
 I can remember entering California along the I-10 at the city of Needles and thinking: It looks like Arizona. This changed as we arrived in San Bernardino; there was some genuine Los Angeles smog there to greet us.
We had made it.  No cell phones, no credit cards, no GPS, just foolish youth and a head full of ambition.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Part 13: Leaving for California...the first time....

No matter how I looked at it, my life had become an extended countdown.

Countdown to graduation, countdown to leaving for California, countdown to starting classes at CalArts.

It was equal parts frightening and exciting and there was no stopping it.  The plan was that toward the end of August, my brother and I would drive from New Orleans to Los Angeles in my car, a 1974 GTO that I had bought from a friend for $1500.  Once I was at school, he would spend a few days with a family friend that lived in Palmdale, CA and then would fly back to New Orleans.

Ah, yes...the GTO..Mine had "The Lizard King" painted across the back of it.
But there was another countdown...and that was the opening of the sequel to STAR WARS, entitled THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

After three years, the highly anticipated sequel was preceded by a novelization (which, of course I read because I couldn't wait) and the Soundtrack album that had photos from the movie inside.  My head reeled from what I was reading and seeing: Walkers, Taun-tauns, snow speeders, and YODA!  I couldn't get in line fast enough for this film and so...we did....

Perhaps one of my friends reading this can remind me whether THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK opened before we graduated or after, but it doesn't matter.  We arrived, once again, at the Lakeside Cinema but this time in our own cars and early in the day to stand in line.  In fact, I think we were the first to show up.  Standing and waiting in line, had been standard practice for years.  Many of us stood in long lines for ROCKY 2, ALIEN, SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, as well as STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE.
However, the sequel to STAR WARS demanded that we forget any obligations to school or work and get to the theater early and get in line.

Again, the details are fuzzy, but I know we were HOURS earlier than the opening of the box office, and, because technically we were High School students, and some of us technically were over eighteen, we began drinking while we waited.  By the time the box office opened, some (if not all of us) were sufficiently buzzed.  However, as the STAR WARS logo exploded onto the screen, and the famous three paragraph crawl began to roll into outer space, I think we were all sober.

As Luke, with his artificial hand, Leia, and the droids watched Lando and Chewbacca leave the rebel fleet at the end of the film, the entire audience cheered.  We all loved it.  But when all of the electricity faded, and I was at home talking with Tracy about the film over the phone (she wasn't allowed to skip school to see it), I began to feel a bit flat about it.  True, there were some INCREDIBLE sequences: Hoth and the Walkers, the asteroid field escape, and Yoda (although he did sound a BIT like Fozzie Bear to me), but other parts like the Cloud City and the "I am your father" scenes didn't ring true for me. STAR WARS had seemed so...genuine...and this felt forced some how. And I knew that it would be another two years or so before we found out what was going to happen to Han Solo and Boba Fett, the bounty hunter.

I realized something else.  Now, I'm willing to give this the benefit of many doubts: Maybe I was a bit too old.  Maybe I knew I was leaving for college in a few months.  Maybe I was saving my money for things like car insurance, gas, and dating.  But no matter what the reason, I didn't run out and buy every EMPIRE STRIKES BACK magazine, etc. that came out the way I did with STAR WARS.  Something was different, but only I seemed to notice, or care.

I think I only saw EMPIRE two more times in the theater....20 viewings less than STAR WARS and easily 5 viewings less than CLOSE ENCOUNTERS.

Jaded with franchise, you have become.
Meanwhile, my father had "decided" that I wasn't leaving for college in California.  Not that he had any influence by this point.  Since my mother had already written the check, and all of the paperwork had been sent in, I don't see how there was any alternative BUT for me to leave in August.  Oh well...

As the summer wore on, I tried to see Tracy and spend as much time as I could with her.  I think that her parents, sensing how difficult the separation would be to their daughter, did whatever they could to cool things off between Tracy and I but that just wasn't going to happen.

Decades later, on a film set, a woman asked me and two other happily married men when we realized that our wives were "the one."  We all answered similarly:  We knew when we met them.  Right from the start.  I knew that I would end up married to Tracy Fletcher, but there would be some tough years ahead of us.

Time moved differently in those days and the Summer of 1980 seemed like the Endless Summer of Beach Boys fame but the departure date drew near and I made plans for the trek across the country.

Two days before we left, I met my friend Jeff at a theater on the East Bank to catch one last film: PLANET OF DINOSAURS which was part of a double bill with GODZILLA ON MONSTER ISLAND.  We arrived to an empty theater and took our seats.  The theater was odd because it had been split in half horizontally so now the balcony seats were one theater and the main floor was another.  Because we were upstairs we looked down on a theater screen that looked like it had been pegged with soft drinks and candy.

We weren't surprised when the film started.  We had seen enough photos in CINEFANTASTIQUE magazine to know what we were in for and it delivered!  For the time, there were PLENTY of Stop Motion dinosaurs by Doug Beswick, Steve Czerkas, and Jim Apperle, on the other hand there was a deficit of story and acting.  About a third of the way into the film, two gentlemen appeared a few rows behind us lofting a huge portable stereo that they propped on the seats between them.  Soon, all we could hear was the blaring of their music, but it didn't matter.  We weren't there for the electronic score of the film.

He couldn't eat the cast fast enough for us!
Another stop before my adventure was to say good bye to my father who was still laboring under the delusion that I had just made all of this up, or it was a fever dream, or he had been drunk and misheard what I had told him.  I showed up on the front door of his apartment and explained that Scott and I would be leaving the next day.  He acted like it was the first time anyone had told him anything.  I remember him tearing up and hastily taking what little money he had in his wallet and crumpling it into my hand.  "God speed, son." was what he offered as he closed the door.

The last stop was Tracy's house and it was very emotional (so emotional that I'm having difficulty reliving it now).  A lot of promises were made: writing letters, phone calls, etc. Finally it was time to say good bye and I drove away, feeling sad, but knowing that somehow this was all going to work out.

Scott, who now lived in his own apartment, stayed over that night.  We had dinner with my mother and sister and packed the car for an early departure the next day.  My sister, channeling my father's feelings clung to my leg and sang the K.C. (of the Sunshine Band fame) "Don't go."

The next morning, Scott and I got up early, said good bye to our bleary mother and left.  My destiny in California awaited!

CAN'T GET ENOUGH MONSTER KID TALES?  CHECK OUT MY COLUMN ON FILMSCHOOL REJECTS HERE:
http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/features/blood-sweat-and-latex-confessions-of-a-career-make-up-effects-artist-shannon-shea.php

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Part 12: Higher Education

Being with Tracy was great, but it had its drawbacks.  First of all, technically she was not allowed to date until she turned 16.  Her birthday was late in the year (November) which meant she was a 14 year-old sophomore while I was a 17 year-old senior.  However, I was allowed to hang around her house on the weekends (until 10 p.m., then I was sent home). We had been allowed to see one movie together during this time, ROCKY 2, but that was it.  We would have to get creative in order to meet outside of her house.

We were both on the Speech Teams of our respective schools, so we would meet at a Speech Tournament, lose in the first round (on purpose) and then tell our families we were moving forward and then go on a date.  I'd return her to the tournament location in time to be picked up by her parents or sister or whatever.

Sometimes, after a midnight movie, I'd sneak by her house and knock on her bedroom window.  Thank God her bedroom was on the first floor.

Regardless, I had made up my mind to leave New Orleans for college and that would mean leaving Tracy.  It wasn't a pleasant thought, but she understood my need to get out of my home and pursue my life out of the state.  She had very similar desires.

My father wouldn't hear of it.  Even though he now lived in a small apartment in the French Quarter, he was determined to keep me in New Orleans for my college education.  My mother, again, was my savior.  I had received information about two prospective colleges: USC Film School and California Institute of the Arts. Both colleges were respected for their film programs, so I applied to both of them, along with The University of New Orleans, in case things went horribly wrong.

USC was the home of George Lucas and believe me, in 1979 his name was thrown all around the Film School catalog to attract prospective students.  On the negative side, was an article by Rolling Stone magazine that was titled: "What Ever Happened to the Class of 1967?" which chronicled the careers of other USC film school graduates of the same year as George Lucas.  Needless to say, most of their stories were less than positive.

The Prestigious USC Film School in downtown Los Angeles
 The CalArts catalog boasted names like Pete Kuran and Adam Beckett (who I recognized as Special Effects artists names).  I knew VERY little about the school, other than that it was referred to as "The School that Disney Built" and that wasn't altogether a bad thing.

I SWEAR this is the same postcard I got informing me that they had received my portfolio.
When I received acceptance letters from both universities, I had to make a tough choice.  Both of them would not only be my introduction to my film career, they would also be my introduction to California.  The decision was based, to-be-honest, on my laziness.

USC sent what my class requirements would be as a Freshman and it was SOMETHING like this:

Algebra
English Literature
History
Science
Film Appreciation

CalArts' Freshman requirements looked something like this:

Introduction to Film Graphics
Introduction to Oxberry Animation Camera
Introduction to the Optical Printer
Critical Studies: 20th Century Form in Conflict
Basic Film Equipment introduction

Now, you tell me.  Where was I supposed to go?  ALGEBRA?  Are you nuts?!  I barely got out of High School Algebra with a D.  If there was something I didn't want to do it was spend two more years struggling through Algebra.  And so, it was decided that I would attend The California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California.

This was in the late winter/early spring of 1980 and Ronald Reagan had just been inaugurated at the President of the United States.  Government programs were being cut quickly, especially funds toward college students.

If you are a hippie or were a hippie or ever want to be a hippie you should not read the following paragraph (you have been warned).

It seems that during the late sixties, when peace and love and LSD erupted on college campuses, there was a specter hidden amongst the student bodies: Federally Insured Student Loans.  These loans were easy for students to obtain and the repayments were "flexible"  and not being enforced by the government which, according to Mr. Reagan's cabinet, contributed significantly to the National Debt.  So now, it was time to bear down on students, especially those who would be going to expensive, private schools.

Okay, you can start reading again.

My mother, in her unconditional love and support, agreed to empty a savings account in order to pay for my Freshman year at CalArts, so I knew I was committed.  I couldn't take my mother's money and not pursue my goals.

A year earlier, a young director exploded on to the scene with a film that would redefine the horror label for the next decade.  The director was John Carpenter and the movie was HALLOWEEN.


  Now, to be completely honest, I hadn't seen Halloween at this point in my life.  Like the rest of the world, I knew about it and was curious, but I think because I knew that it wasn't a traditional "monster" movie, I was less interested in it and more curious about films like the remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, or 1977's ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, or a new film that was coming out called PROPHECY.  I mean, come on...look at this poster and tell me what you think:


I saw this art as a glossy insert in Variety then I ran out and bought the paperback book.
It literally said "The Monster Movie" on the bottom of it.  Nail-on-the-head advertising.  No question.  This was going to be a MONSTER movie.  Historically, yes, HALLOWEEN was/is a MUCH MUCH MUCH more effective horror film, but for me, and my tastes in the fantastic, this:


didn't ignite my imagination as much as this:

And, yes, I was disappointed when it looked like a bear suit with latex dumped on it.
We all know that HALLOWEEN was a sensation, launched John Carpenter to the top of the field, redefined Horror movies, redefined Independently produced film making, and was the green flag for the rash of murderous maniacs that flooded the screen for the next decade.  PROPHECY on the other hand, came and went, and only now has surfaced as filler on "Action" cable movie channels.

The name Tom Burman, who had built the Prophecy-bear, and had executed the fantastic make-up effects for THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS remake was appearing frequently magazines as he became more prolific.  So now it was Dick Smith, Rick Baker, Tom Burman, and Tom Savini who were occupying the Make Up Effects Mount Olympus, however, new names were being introduced through a new magazine that seemed to be created just for me called CINEMAGIC.

Originally published as a fanzine by Don Dohler on the East Coast, Cinemagic was picked up by STARLOG press and fed to us hungry would-be Special Effects artists.  Within the pages, I learned new names like Ernest Farino, John Dods, and Craig Reardon.  All relatively new to the business and doing fantastic, inspirational work.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Part 11: How the movie ALIEN saved my life.

I was a fat kid.  Sorry, there is no kind way to put it.  I had been called all sorts of "cute" names throughout my childhood referring to my weight: Pudgy, Fat Christmas Goose, Buster Boy (ok, the last one doesn't seem to be related to my weight, but TRUST ME...if you had heard my father say it, you'd respond, "Oh, I get it.  You're the fat kid."

Wearing your belt high, only makes things worse...I loved my dog, though.
 It wasn't just an awkward age, much of it had to do with heredity, but a lot of it had to do with conditioning.  It is no secret that there was not a parent in the house interested in cooking.  We were far from a traditional household anyway, but cooking became a chore for one of them to do and it was treated with the same level of contempt. 

On weekends, my father would cook huge pots of stuff like stew (with the cheapest, stringiest, hunks of gray meat floating around in it) and then would freeze it for use later in the week.  He'd cook cube steaks (which years later, I discovered were quite tasty when chicken fried) and smother it with some sort of dark, lumpy, semi-translucent gravy that the family called "meat flaps" behind his back.  They were disgusting.

My siblings were picky eaters and both of them had lists of foods that they wouldn't eat. Walnuts, cherries, raisins, their lists went on and on. So you can imagine what dinner was like when suddenly there was a steaming meat flap sitting on the table in front of them.  Let us just say that King Kong would burst through the gate and the evening would be ruined.

I overcompensated.  I tried to still my father's temper by choking down as much of the stew, or flaps, or whatever horror was put in front of me.  And what did he do?  When my sister would refuse to eat her portion, he would scream at her, send her away from the table, and then scrape the remains onto my plate to finish.  Stuffing the Christmas goose. By the time I was 16, I weighed over 185 pounds (and stood 5'8")

I, however, had good taste in movies...
Now, I'm sure some of you are looking at these photos and saying, "Are you kidding?  You don't look THAT bad."  What do you think, I'm crazy?  I seriously can't find the REALLY bad photos of me.  I think I've hidden them from myself.

Towards the end of my 16th year, I broke.  My father had been kicked out of the house and Mom was in charge.  I told her I wanted to lose weight and she put me on a diet and exercise program of her own design.  By February, I had lost 35 pounds and looked something like this:

Ralph Macchio, right?
Needless to say, this completely changed my social life and now I was actually getting dates with girls.

NOTE: Don't worry, there will be monsters soon....I promise....

For my Junior Prom, I asked a Freshman girl, Kim M., (from the "sister" all -girl Catholic School, Archbishop Blenk) to go with me and soon we were "dating."  This was quite the change for me.  I was generally drunk and hanging out with my friends watching Horror films (which wasn't altogether a bad thing) but now things were different.  I was "double dating" with other friends who had girl friends.  My social circle became larger.  I'm not going to say it was good, or bad...it was just...different.

Kim's family glommed onto me pretty quickly.  Her mother was convinced I was the son that she had never had and that Kim and I were going to be married.  He father actually tried to help me anneal ball bearings so that I could drill and tap them to build my Stop Motion creatures.  What I'm about to say is the absolute truth...this was fully a YEAR before the movie SUPERMAN was released.

Kim's father told me that I had, "been put on this planet for a purpose."  He wasn't sure what that was, but he was convinced that I was going to make something of myself.

It all seems good in the movies.
This is a lot of pressure for a seventeen year-old.  Purposes, marriage...what?!  I went along with it because I had a date on the weekends, but truthfully, dating Kim was trying.  When I asked her if she was hungry, her answer was "I don't know.", if I asked her what she wanted to do, she'd answer "I don't care."  The scary thing is...SHE MEANT IT.

Kim didn't take an interest in the things I liked, and to be truthful, I didn't know what she liked.  She never told me.  She was making average grades, never seemed to read, had no outside interests in school, she just...was.  The only thing I remember her talking about was her 18 inch waistline (which, when you are 15, is no big deal anyway, right?).

So, how did ALIEN save my life?

ALIEN was opening on May 25, 1979, just over two years since STAR WARS and at the exact same theater, The Lakeside on the East Bank.  I asked Kim if she wanted to go, and she answered, "I don't care."  Unruffled, I picked her up early that night, we went for dinner.  Was she hungry? She didn't know.  We went out to the Lakeside Shopping Center (knowing that there would be a huge line at the theater) and as we walked around she pointed to a black cowboy hat that she liked.  She finally had liked something so I bought it for her.

Cowboy hat in hand, we joined the throng surrounding the theater when it happened.  Two college guys standing ahead of us in line began talking about the soap opera ALL MY CHILDREN and before I know it, I meet Kim.  She goes on and on with these two guys about the characters and situations.  I had no idea.  She had never mentioned it to me.

Jealousy? Well, sure.  I was seventeen, these guys were college guys and they had managed to have a conversation about something with my girlfriend.  However...ALL MY CHILDREN?!  Ugh. 

We finally get to our seats and the movie begins.  I, like the rest of the audience, am terrified.  The incredible tension created by director, Ridley Scott, was so intense, it had stunned us all into silence.  This was not going to be STAR WARS...this was going to be different.

When the character Kane, finds himself on the derelict ship, on a alien planet, surrounded by the now iconic, leathery eggs, I was not sure what I was looking at.  It looked far too organic to be anything, but real.  And when he bent over, looked into the open egg and got a face-hugger on his mug, the audience went nuts!  Screaming, cursing, pop corn went flying; everyone was affected.

What was that stuff?

Then came the big scene.  The scene that would set the standard for motion picture horror for years to come.  The last "normal" group meal on the space-freighter, Nostromo.  We all know what happened.  The character Kane, after the face-hugger has dropped from his face, begins choking at the table and pop!  An alien chews its way through his organs and ribs and now sits in a nest of gore.

Expert work from British artist Roger Dicken
The audience is beyond terrified.  No one is making a sound.  I can't believe what I've just seen.  Then, to my right, I hear Kim.  Kim uses that moment to offer an opinion in a quiet theater, "Oh, look how cute."  And...SHE MEANT IT.

Now, through the decades, counter-culture has produced many contemporary young women who might agree with this.  But recall, that this is 1979.  There was no Hot Topic, there was no Marilyn Manson, there was no "goth", or "Lydia" aesthetic from BEETLEJUICE and what was considered "modern" Make Up Effects were in their infancy.  So this comment demonstrated something to me:  Kim and I had no future together (crazy, isn't it?).

I broke up with a confused Kim.  At least I think she was confused.  I'm sure she was hurt somewhat but she was 15 and would get over it.

Two days later, what I did sank in and I felt like an asshole.  I moped around for weeks.  I avoided my family and friends.  I considered calling Kim and apologizing but something kept me from doing it.  Her family called me a few times to urge me to reconcile, but by that time I had ignited something in Kim and that was anger.

On June 30th, 1979 I was sitting at home, feeling sorry for myself when I received a call from a friend, Pat Nolan, who told me he was on his way to a tri-school Speech Team party.  I told him I wasn't in the mood and he finally talked me into going, even though I was in no condition to go anywhere.

We got to the party, and I look out at a group of familiar faces I had seen at Speech Tournaments throughout the city when my eyes fell to a group of girls sitting on a sofa.  The one sitting farthest from me leans forward and I see the face of an angel complete with a yellow ribbon in her hair.  She introduces herself to me by saying "You're Shannon Shea!"  I knew her.  I had seen her photo a couple of times in the arms of another friend of mine, Tommy Cortazzo.  I had heard her name by Pat Nolan, telling one of my best friends that he was going to set him up with her (it never happened).  I turned to her, "Yes, and you're Tracy Fletcher."

Tracy with her version of the Farrah flip
That began a courtship that, despite the best efforts of her family, blossomed into a relationship that continues to this day.

When I used to watch the Academy Awards, I'd often wonder why most people thank their spouses and now that we've been together for as long as we have.  Now that we've survived disasters natural, financial, man-made. Now that we have raised a daughter to adulthood.  Now that I see how much work and sacrifice has come into our lives....I get it. She makes me laugh; she tries to take care of me; she talks with me (no one who knows Tracy would classify her as un-opinionated -to which I say, thank God), and she encourages me.  I try to do the same for her.

And the most important thing is that we are still in love and very much best friends.

So had it not been for ALIEN, the timing would have all gone wrong.  Who knows what my life would have been like?  Different? Maybe.  Better? No way. 

Remind me to thank Ridley Scott for that when I meet him.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Part 10: Changing Times

With influx of information about Special Effects, I began reading more about Rick Baker who had made aliens for STAR WARS, the titular character in KING KONG, and the monsterous baby in IT'S ALIVE.  It turns out that he seemed to be at the center of most of the best looking monsters on screen.  True, his rival since KING KONG, Carlo Rambaldi had provided the alien for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, but it was obvious that it didn't look that good primarily because of the way it was shot (back lit, with lots of atmospheric smoke)

Ummm..what's on the side of your face? And are you wearing some sort of shirt?
Mechanically, it was impressive, but I had seen a big shark jump onto the side of a ship and chew up Robert Shaw two years earlier, and that looked good.

At home, I had begun shooting more films.  I, like many others, had delusions of grandeur and I expected to be filming my magnum opus in my garage.  I constructed a small miniature set and built a little wire puppet with a hairy body and big eyeballs (based on one of my brother's friends designs) and set about animating it.  The plot (for what it was worth) concerned this little guy building and launching his own rocket.  When the engines fire, the entire thing explodes and our little buddy is blown up along with it.  Yeah, I know, not too impressive however it was in focus and it got completed ON SUPER 8mm FILM!

My friends Pete, Tim, and Jeff would get together with me either all together or some combination of the three and we would "test" things.  Like Pete pointed out in one of his comments, we suspended a plastic bag (about the size of a baseball) via a black thread from the metal swing set frame.  We taped a black cat firecracker to the side of it, lit it, and ran.  Now, what was the purpose of this?  We were attempting to recreate the Death Star explosion as best we could.  There was a popping noise as the firecracker detonated and a literal rain of fire that fell onto the back lawn.  Spectacular? Yes.  Death Star explosion? No.  Worth risking my new Super 8 camera mounting it beneath the explosion to simulate 0 gravity?  NO!  But we had to make sure of our findings so we tried it a few times.

Pete showed up one night at my house with Magnesium tape.  What was the point?  Who knows, but we lit it with a match and watched the backyard illuminate with blue-white light.  To be honest, at least when Jeff shot his films, they had a plot, he had a shot list, and we would all help to get his vision on camera.  Jeff had a nice collection of monster masks...and a car and sometimes combined the two while we were driving around New Orleans.  Not the most intelligent thing to do, especially at night.

About this time, we were getting old enough to go to "Midnight Movies", which were a big craze not just in San Francisco and New York, but New Orleans as well.  This was more than just going to the theater at midnight, it was what was being shown that made the experience worth participating in.  I was never a stoner, but 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was big amongst pot-smokers because of the colorful Stargate sequence.  The original LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was one that we saw, a few times.  When you are a bit drunk, the villains (although they are technically murders and rapists) seemed so poorly acted and over-the-top, that they seemed to be from a John Waters film.

We saw all sorts of stinkers like EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW, DIRTY DUCK, LET'S MAKE A DIRTY MOVIE (and Italian sex farce that was decades before ZACK AND MIRI...), and NIGHT OF BLOODY HORROR (that we discovered was shot in Mississippi!  Horrible!).

Even drunk, there wasn't much to enjoy about this one.

 In one of the many new science fiction magazines that were on the newsstands, I had seen photos from a new movie being directed by Ridley Scott (a relatively unknown director by my standards).  They showed characters walking around in bulky, space suits, as well as pre-production art by illustrator Ron Cobb.

The teaser trailer began to show up on television and, like the light at the end of the horizon for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, the enigmatic images in the trailer were more effective than showing scenes from the film.




But before I was introduced the Alien, my friends and I braved another film first.  Initially rated "X" in New Orleans, I remember putting on a Tulane college sweater to get into seeing DAWN OF THE DEAD.  It was a special advanced screening and by the end of the film, I didn't know what to think.  I had never seen that much gore and violence in my life and so effectively done in the hands of Tom Savini.



On the way home from the theater, I was so shaken that I nearly killed all of us by barely missing a cement divider on the highway as I screeched to make an exit that I was driving past by accident.  DAWN OF THE DEAD was the cause of the only reoccurring nightmare that I occasionally experience to this day.  As far as I'm concerned, it is the best of the genre and the primary reason that I don't often watch zombie movies.  Why?  Anything that I want from a zombie movie I got from DAWN OF THE DEAD.

NOTE: Years prior to this, Sterling Smith, my dad's buddy (ha!), made a big deal by running NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, uncut on television.  It, too, scared the hell out of me and I was shocked at the sight of zombies eating human intestines.


Inexpensive, effective, frightening and classic.
All of this horror seemed like an escape for what was going on at my house.  After 19 years of marriage, my mother had had enough of my father and kicked him out of the house.

Before my mother gets painted as the bad guy here, let me just say some important things about my dad.  I loved him (he died in August of 2009) but when we were kids, he was an unpredictable monster.  Like I've said, he yelled and hit us at the slightest provocation.  His nickname around the house was "King Kong" and not because he was hairy and was 30 feet tall.  It was because he was always bellowing around the house looking for a fight.

He and my mother didn't sleep together for 13 years, and while that might seem...acceptable under certain circumstances, I know that it certainly didn't help their marriage.  Without going into too much detail, let's just say that when dad was gone, I knew my mother would finally have the peace and the life she deserved.



Sunday, April 17, 2011

Part 9: A Destiny, Unmapped

It was like the top of my head had been opened, my brain had been doused with lighter fluid, and someone had put a match to it. Thoughts raced through my head so fast that it was difficult to control them.

I was not alone.  The collective consciousness of America had been changed and, the way that I could tell, was that it hadn't happened over night. It was like a heavy freight train that was starting to roll from a complete stop to an acceleration rate that threatened to derail it. I'm speaking, of course, of the impact that STAR WARS had on the United States and then, the world.

Proof positive that you don't need Photoshop to sell a good movie
 It had taken a long road for me to get from my house in Terrytown to Lakeside Cinema across the Mississippi River.  See, when STAR WARS opened in Louisiana, it had opened in one theater.  That's what I mean about slow burn.  When the mania had reached a fevered pitch, then the film was more widely released to surrounding theaters.  It was brilliant.

Now, unless you are disinterested in Special Effects, which would make your reading this blog just plain silly, or you are from another planet, I don't have to tell you what a visual feast the original STAR WARS was (and in my opinion, still is).  From the very opening shot, I knew that I was in for the cinematic ride of my life.

Look, Ma!  No CGI!
Months earlier, I had made a wise move without even knowing it.  For my birthday, I had cut the subscription order form from the inside cover (ouch!) of my CINEFANTASTIQUE magazine that featured Ray Harryhausen and his models from SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER.

Mine has a rectangular hole in it now.
My subscription to Cinefantastique would begin with the STAR WARS issue.

One of the single greatest issues of any magazine, ever!
Inside this magazine were more photos and dense interviews with many of the foremost artists and technicians involved with the project.  I was learning names and connecting faces with people like Phil Tippett, Dennis Muren, Richard Edland, Robbie Blalock, Grant McCune, Adam Beckett, Joe Viskocil (ooo, a personal favorite because he blew things up!) and of course, Rick Baker.

I saw Star Wars in the theater 22 times.  No, really.  I would go to the Westside Cinema in the morning and sit through three showings and go home in the evening.  I was that obsessed.  And, you should see my copy of the Cinefantastique Magazine above...wait...you know what?  I'll show you what kind of condition it is in today:

A much loved, read, and reread magazine.
I believe this illustrates just one example of how much I loved this movie.  Never before had a movie made an impact of this magnitude.  There were new Science Fiction magazines springing up everywhere on news stands, and those that couldn't get access to photographs, would hire illustrators to paint Star Wars images.  It was a media melee and, I bought MOST of them.

Now, when my family or friends of my parents would ask me what I wanted to do when I got out of college, I would no longer answer "paleontologist", I would now answer "Motion Picture Special Effects."  The shift was complete.

But this was not the end of the year 1977.  It didn't begin and end with STAR WARS.  For one, there was a short article in the front of the Star Wars Cinefantastique about a modest Science Fiction film entitled LASERBLAST.  Although I could tell it wasn't going to be as huge (ha!) as Star Wars, I loved the designs of Dave Allen's Stop Motion aliens.

I was still a sucker for this aesthetic
There were a few really excellent cuts of Stop Motion in STAR WARS, and if there was one facet of Special Effects that I was leaning toward, it was still Stop Motion.  Maybe it was still the original Kong influence, or Harryhausen... who knows?  But LASERBLAST promised Stop Motion aliens and I couldn't wait to see them.  When the film opened in 1978, a small group of friends and I went to see it and although we didn't care much for the film, I, personally, LOVED those crazy Stop Motion aliens and became a fan of animator, David Allen.

Back at home, I began painting acrylic paintings of all of the scenes of Star Wars that I loved: X-Wing fighters, R2-D2, and the Escape Pod tumbling toward the planet Tatooine.  And finally, because this film had kicked open the door of interest about how Special Effects were accomplished, the information didn't just flow...it was a DELUGE both on page and on television.

By mid-summer of '77, I began hearing about a new film by the director of JAWS, Steven Spielberg.  Shrouded in secrecy, all anyone knew was that it was about UFO's and was entitled CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.  All anyone saw were photos of people wearing sunglasses and looking into the sky and this poster:

Incredible marketing.  What was just down that road?  We HAD to know!
So, being the son of an entertainment critic, I was a shoo-in for all sorts of studio Star Wars goodies, right?  Wrong.  My father had pissed off 20th Century Fox by panning too many of their films and so he was dropped from their list of favored critics.  However, he had critic friends in New Orleans who were happy to give up some of their Star Wars stuff not knowing that it would be worth beaucoup bucks in the future. Heck, for that matter neither did I.

My father brought home a laminated two-sheet sized poster of the Star Wars poster pictured at the top of this post that hung on my wall until I left for college in 1980.  I have no idea what I did with it.

Although he was off of Fox's list, he was in GOOD terms with the folks at Columbia Pictures and was sent out on a junket for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS.  He interviewed Steven Speilberg, Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, and Special Effects Artist Douglas Trumbull.  Columbia not only gave him a folio with color-coded, empty, audio cassette tapes, they also gave him a mini-cassette tape recorder with the CE3K logo on the side of it.

When he returned from the junket, he was tired and a bit miffed....at Douglas Trumbull.  After the interview, my father had told Mr. Trumbull of my passion for Special Effects and had asked him for an autograph. "I don't give autographs." Mr. Trumbull told my father. This set dad off.  "Who do you think YOU are?" he asked, "You should be thankful that anyone even WANTS your autograph." .....uh.....way to go, Dad.

Again, TIME Magazine had the scoop and revealed the first images of the Mother Ship from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and it was so UNLIKE anything I had seen in STAR WARS.

Even seeing it, I didn't understand what I was looking at...
Needless to say, I was intrigued.

Last but not least, my parents were friends with a family in New Orleans named The Bishops and their son, Shawn, had been cast in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS.  We all got together the night of the advanced screening of the movie and I sat next to Shawn who would point out the tiny moving "stars" in the night skies prior to the big UFO reveal in the film.

And then...the Mother Ship rose up from behind Devil's Tower...

Oh...my....god...
...and I began to giggle in shock and wonder.  I hadn't seen anything like that...ever...

And then, just like that, my ambitions changed...I didn't want to do Special Effects anymore...I wanted to DIRECT!



Thursday, April 14, 2011

Part 8: The Calm Before the Storm

The weeks before the opening of Dino De Laurentiis' KING KONG were full of characteristic ballyhoo and I tried to get my hands on anything that was Kong related.  Of course, FAMOUS MONSTERS had published some questionable pre-production art that showed a more humanoid Kong, but readers were assured that this concept had been dropped and Kong would be a gorilla, HOWEVER, there would be no dinosaurs!  Time Magazine even ran Kong as their cover story.  There was no doubt that the studios wanted this to be an event, and despite my mounting disappointment (no Stop Motion, no dinosaurs), I admit that I allowed myself to be swept up in it.

Naive me...back then I had no idea that studios PAID for this kind of publicity.
On the local independent television station in New Orleans, Channel 26, local media personality, Sterling Smith got in on the act announcing a Kong contest.  Now, I have NO idea where all of this came from, but in the studio, Smith had a small statue of Kong and to win it (WIN IT?!) all you had to do, was answer this question: "How many feet of hydraulic hose were in the full-sized Kong robot?"  Okay, so this might not be "kosher" but my father had given me an advance copy of the paperback book "The Making of Dino De Laurentiis's King Kong" so I jumped out of my chair and I tore through the pages looking for the answer.

When I got it (I can't remember what the answer is now, and I'm too lazy to get the book off of the shelf to find out), I wrote it on a card, stuffed it in an envelope and drew Kong fighting dinosaurs all over the envelope.  I pleaded with my father to drive me to the post office that evening because it would get to the studio that much faster.  I'm not even sure why he agreed.

Dad was off of WDSU-TV by now and was writing newspaper reviews for two of the smaller papers in New Orleans.  He had little interest in this Kong remake, and he didn't care for Sterling Smith. Sterling Smith hosted a movie show not unlike Turner Classic Movies now.  You might say that Smith was the local version of Robert Osborne.  However, my father would sit in front of the television watching Sterling Smith and he'd get nuts every time Smith would make a point, and then follow it up with a "pointing gesture" at the camera a half a beat later. "Come on!" he'd yell at the television, "Get your gestures timed with what you're saying!" I'm sure he was envious and was just dealing with it as best as he could.  All that aside, Dad drove me to the post office.

It didn't take long.  A few days later, a package appeared in the mail with my name on it.  It was flat.  That meant only one thing: It wasn't the sculpture.  I opened it up to find a King Kong poster and a key chain with a few hairs suspended over a card that read: "Actual hair from King Kong." It was the second place prize.  Years later, I met another Make Up Effects artist from New Orleans named Earl Ellis.  Earl had won the sculpture and the reason he was first was because his parents drove him to the television station so he could deliver the answer in person.  As Kurt Vonnegut would say, "So it goes."

My father took me to an advance press screening of the film and I have to admit that I was underwhelmed.  The story, the acting, the effects were okay, but certainly not the event we  were led to believe.  I was curious about the full-sized robot and how it would function, but it is common knowledge that it was only used in one quick shot and even at a distance, it looked and moved like crap.

Everybody-a gonna cry when-a my Kong-a dies!
The only redeeming facet of the film was Rick Baker's Kong suit that anyone with half a brain could tell was the "real" Kong utilized throughout the film.  I'm not sure now if it was in FAMOUS MONSTERS, CINEFANTASTIQUE, or STARLOG (yes, the new Sci-Fi magazine on the stands) that showed Rick with drawings of the different Kong expression heads he had constructed for the film.  It was unbelievable and intelligent.  I recall him saying that was his solution because of the range of emotion that Kong was going to have to demonstrate throughout the film and there were limitations to the mechanics and materials used to construct the masks.  There was even a photo of Rick wearing a gorilla contact lens to change the appearance of his cornea.

But what really blew me away, was when I found an issue of AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHER magazine showing Rick wearing what was referred to as a "condom suit."  Apparently, Rick had built a muscle under-suit with water-filled sacs to add realistic movement beneath the fur.

I should have asked Rick about this.  I wonder if it was mis-information?
In any case, the bar for gorilla suits in motion pictures had certainly been raised and even though Rick had mother-f*ckered his way through an interview and stated how much he was disappointed by the final look of Kong, I couldn't see it.  I thought it was genius.

The problem isn't the suit...it is obviously the sound stage ceiling
 With the Kong experience now fading, I began obsessing about another Science Fiction film that would soon be released.  My father had just returned from Dallas, Texas where he had been interviewing the stars and filmmakers of this upcoming film, and he handed me the paperback novel it was based on: LOGAN'S RUN.  I had no idea what it was about, but sat right down and began reading it from cover to cover.  In the center of the book were color pictures from the film and the aesthetic was very cool.   Needless to say, by the time the movie came out, we all wanted to be Sandmen.

Run, runner!


On the horror front, another film that was based on Catholic lore had surfaced.  Loosely based on the predictions of the Book of Revelations in the Bible, movie audiences were introduced to the Anti-Christ in THE OMEN.



THE OMEN, whether consciously or not, followed in the vein of THE EXORCIST that had proceeded it.  With Gregory Peck and Lee Remick leading the cast, the film was perceived as a "big picture" as opposed to something like THE DEVIL'S RAIN, which, admittedly had a better poster:

I, of course, knew about THE DEVIL'S RAIN because of FAMOUS MONSTERS and it was in that article that I had first heard the name Tom Burman and The Burman Studios.  Tom had done all of the make up effects for the film including the climatic "melting" scene at the end.  But I digress.

With an "A" cast, expert direction by Richard Donner, and a spellbinding score by Jerry Goldsmith, THE OMEN was a huge success and spawned sequels and a recent, disastrous remake.  But back then, we sat transfixed in the theater and watched as Damien, the Anti-Christ, began his evil empire on Earth, one grisly death at a time.

Stuart Freeborn's decapitation of David Warner. A new height of screen shock!
So, this was the lay of the land before everything changed.  KING KONG, LOGAN'S RUN, and THE OMEN were the genre tent pole movies of 1976. 

A weekly edition of the VARIETY trade paper came to the house, and I was aware enough to rifle through it and check out what movies were coming out and I had seen rumblings of a new film entitled: THE STAR WARS.

The Summer of '76, dressed as a chubby Sandman, my friends and I returned to the VulCon that year and I picked up a paperback book (that I still own) entitled STAR WARS, FROM THE ADVENTURES OF LUKE SKYWALKER.  When I returned home, I read the book with just the art on the cover, my recollections of what I had seen in VARIETY, and a few photos inside of the book to help me visualize what I was reading.

X-Wing Fighters? Light Sabers? Wookies? I'm not sure what it all was, but I loved it.