Friday, May 27, 2011

Part 24: Life with Mark Shostrom

Technology is a wondrous thing.  Between the Internet and cell phones you can not only start, but stay on top of your business 24/7.  I-pads, I-phones, and their non-Mac counterparts are becoming mainstays in the public not just for entertainment, but for the organization and communication of important company data.  In minutes, you can design, build, and launch a business website and reach potential customers all over the world.  These are incredible times we live in.  But this is 2011 (at the time of this writing), and when I moved in with Mark Shostrom, it was the summer of 1982.

Phone calls out of you area code were expensive.  There were only a handful of professional publications in which you could advertise to attract business.  And then there was the Make Up Union (706).  It was a typical "Catch-22."  In order to work on a set, you had to be in the union, but the only way to get into the union was to have logged in enough hours on a union set to qualify.  If you weren't in the union, you weren't working in movies.  It was just that simple.

Mark was a burgeoning Special Make Up Effects artist and that meant he was doing it all on his own.  He had worked on some low budget films and for Rick Baker on VIDEODROME, but he hadn't had his "break out" opportunity that would cement him into the community.

There is no denying that Mark was talented.  All anyone had to do was walk around his studio and see some of the sculptures on his shelves to see that.  Mark was just a victim of the times back then.  No agent, no publicist, no partner scanning the trades and making introduction calls on his behalf, he was truly doing it on his own, which was admirable.

One of the little "gags" Mark Shostrom had lying around his studio back then...
 I recall telling James Fujii that I was leaving and James, being the sweetheart that he is, understood and then informed me that I could keep whatever I needed to in his garage indefinitely.  I packed everything that I could into The Lizard King, said adios, and drove down the 210 freeway to Pasadena and Mark's apartment which was on California Ave. just off of Lake.  (Note: The building we lived in has since been demolished - not through any of our actions.  The landlord really didn't want to invest any money into the building, but more on that later).

As I was driving down the freeway, The Lizard King started to cough.  It was like a slight, intermittent, misfiring of the cylinders. Hmmmm.  I figured the old car just needed a tune up, and I'd get that done when I landed at Shostrom's.

The building looked like an old brownstone with a long driveway that led to a parking lot in the back.  I cannot recall right now whether it was two or three stories tall, but irregardless, Mark was on the bottom floor.  I didn't have much stuff, actually, so moving in was quick.  Mark slept on a small army cot, while I had a tiny single bed.  The room was so small, that when I slept, my feet were under the fold-out writing surface of a desk!

Mark, like so many other effects artists (to this day, actually) had some "irons in the fire" and so he asked if I would be interested doing some work to help one filmmaker generate interest and secure his financing so the movie could move forward.  It was a Country/Western Horror film (which was being touted at the FIRST Country/Western Horror film) entitled THE LAST RESORT.

I guess the director, who I can't remember, was married to a Country/Western singer, who I can't remember, so he wrote this "beauty & the beast" type story about a creature that....uh....sucks the DNA out of your body to kill you.  Of course, it turns out that the creature is SO enamored with the singer that he is "protecting" her from guys that want to exploit her in one way or another.

A dummy head I sculpted for THE LAST RESORT. This is what happens when you DNA gets sucked out...I guess.
 I did a few illustrations of the creature in different expressions.   I guess, the beast was going to be able to take on a human persona and then via air bladder/change-o effects become this weird monster.  I also sculpted a dummy head that we never molded of a victim having had his DNA sucked out (through the creature's fingers, you see).  Hey, I can't knock it too much.  At a time, now, where the SyFy channel produces movies like SHARKTOPUS how could have THE LAST RESORT been any worse?

The LAST RESORT creature in "Angry Mode."  Don't judge so harshly, I was 20 when I drew this.
 Fate, however,  had other plans, and the film was never made.

Mark also had received call from a commercial producer needing a life-sized (which meant LARGER than life-sized) Renaissance-type sculpture.  Mark and I knocked out a maquette and quickly photographed it for the meeting, but that job, too, dissipated.

Mark and I sculpted this in a day or two as I remember.  Excited to get a job...any job!
 For reasons, too numerous to go into, we had to move out of the building.  Let me just say this: There was a hole in the wall under the sink that occasionally CATS would crawl in the apartment from outside!  So, we packed up everything and moved out to a small house in eastern Pasadena.  The plan was this: Mark and I would move into the house, and Steve Burg, who was in New Jersey, would come and live with us in January.  Unfortunately, it all sort of went south.

First of all, during the move, The Lizard King continued to sputter and cough.  It would never get above third gear when it would just die.  I worked on that car myself as much as I could.  I changed the fuel pump, and Mark's friend Anthony Showe and I even put a new carburetor on it, but no luck.  Finally, I took it to Andy Granitelli's Tune Up Masters, which was a chain of garages like Midas Mufflers.  They had a policy: "We fix it right the first time, or we fix it for free."  Needless to say they are no longer in business.  I took the Lizard King there and had it "fixed" about 4 times.  I paid for the first time, the other three times were free.  It confounded them as well.  The car would just die above third gear and it wasn't the transmission or carburetor.  Everyone was stumped and I suddenly didn't have a car.

Spending all of this money (my CELESTIAL LORDS savings) forced me to look for some kind of practical work.  I signed up at Volt Temporary Services and they placed me in a long, black building in downtown Pasadena, working for Bank of America in the Versateller division.

Every morning I would get up early, ride the bus into town, do my 8 hours, and ride the bus home.  And since I was working with numbers on a computer (thank GOD there was really no "math" involved), I would be whipped.

Concurrently, Tracy and I started fighting over the phone because I had fallen into a black hole of communication.  I hadn't been writing letters for some time, and I couldn't call because I had to save every penny.  She had graduated High School by this time and was now in college at the University of New Orleans leading her own life, meeting new friends, still telling everyone that she had a boyfriend (In absentia)  in California.  Things were tense.

Mark finally landed a job on a Sandy Howard produced film called DEADLY FORCE, but it was truly a one-man show, so while Mark worked in the garage, producing bruise make ups and wounds and things for the film, I was downtown approving customers for ATM cards.

The only distraction from my personal misery came when Anthony Showe asked me if I would sculpt him a texture stamp to help him complete a Creature From The Black Lagoon suit he was making for himself for Halloween.  Anthony was under six feet tall for sure, AND he had what is now commonly referred to as "a muffin top" but he wanted a sculpture from me, and it was better than pushing buttons on a keyboard, so I agreed.  I sculpted a scale pattern in a large square and molded it in plaster for him.  He picked it up, thanked me, and went to finish his costume.

We didn't hear from Anthony until a few days after Halloween.  We asked him what he did and he said that he had gone to Hollywood boulevard with a friend (who was dressed as a robot) to walk up and down the street.  He didn't finish his costume until late that night, so he and his buddy left the house around 10 p.m. arriving at the boulevard around 10:30.

At first, he said, everything was great.  People were stopping them to have their photos taken and making a big deal about them but the tides changed.  First of all, both of them are covered from head to toe, and both have limited vision and some difficulty breathing.  Back in those days, the city didn't close off the street so traffic continued, and that is important to the story.

A street gang showed up and started hassling the guys.  Anthony's buddy got hit in the face with a stick, knocking the robot head around backwards and was pushed into the street amongst the cars. Meanwhile, they started beating on Anthony with sticks, but he was covered in essentially foam-latex padding so they weren't injuring him enough.  Anthony told us that they were looking for something glass, like a bottle to break so they could cut into his suit, when a rival gang showed up and started a fight.  Anthony and his buddy escaped, pushing through a bunch of thugs trying to kill each other.  Happy Halloween.  Oh, to have been a fly on the wall.

As amusing as this story was, my situation and options had run out.  Any money I made went to rent.  I had absolutely no time to do any work for myself.  I had patched things up with Tracy, but I did need to find a way to get home and spend some face time with her.  But there were so many obstacles, I just didn't see a way out, until I got a call.

It was my mother.  She told me that she had had a premonition that I was in trouble in California (probably exacerbated by the fact that I hadn't spoken to her in months).  She asked if I wanted to return home.  She would pay for my ticket and I could live at the house for a while and regroup.  I didn't see any other choice.

I put an ad in the Pennysaver to sell The Lizard King for $400.  By this time, the battery was now dead from trying to start it, so it was basically a pile of junk (or so I thought).  Two Mexican men showed up on evening with four hundred dollars in cash and a car battery.  They gave me the money, and then hooked up the car battery and started up The Lizard King.  They stood over the open hood of the car and began revving the engine as hard as they could, speaking to each other in Spanish.  I approached and saw what they were looking at: tiny pinholes in the gas lines began spraying thin lines of fuel like a small fountain.  After everything, a $20 hose could have fixed everything, but a deal was a deal.  They taped over the holes and drove the Lizard King out of my life.

I surrendered nearly everything I owned to Mark so that he could sell it to make up for my sudden exit. He was understandably upset because I was now saddling him with the responsibility of coming up for the rent for the entire house and it wasn't going to be easy, especially during the holidays.  It was mid-November and Steve Burg was not due out until January. I had put him in a bad place and I felt horrible.

Mark did drive me to the Van Nuys fly away bus so I could get to LAX, but I could sense that things weren't good between us.  He wished me luck and left.  I flew home.

I was met at the airport by my mother and Tracy, both of whom were beaming with happiness and relief.  I was home safely and didn't look like a derelict.  After the kissing and embracing, my mother handed me a newspaper clipping.  It was from the classified ads.  I had a job interview at the New Orleans Hilton Hotel the next morning.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Part 23: The Long Slow Spiral Downward Begins

My wife, Tracy, has told me that there have been new studies publishing evidence that people under the age of 25 have less developed brains than the brain of a mature adult, especially where it comes to reasoning.  That's all I needed to hear to rationalize my actions in the spring semester of CalArts.  I wasn't getting anything out of my classes and I started not going.  I spent all of my time either working in the Life Support Office, or in Fujii's garage working on my masks.

I think what really killed any enthusiasm for CalArts was two things:  1.) The school had received a Motion Control Camera system (from the United States Navy, I was led to believe). We were told that no "commercial" type work was to be done on the camera and students were only going to be allowed to "experiment" and find new applications to make "art" with the equipment.  Ugh.  That would mean we would have to sit through more abstract shit produced by a top of the line system without being able to use it in more practical applications. 2.) At my sophomore art review, the Assistant Dean Myron Emery looked at my work and told me that if I knew I wanted to work in Hollywood movies, I should just go out and get a job.

It was obvious that the school didn't support my goals, and I didn't buy into their philosophy.  What we had there was a failure to communicate.  I left the school at the end of the semester on academic probation.

I received a notice from the Financial Aid Office informing me that I had used up my allotted money for Work/Study which meant I lost my job at the Life Support Office.  Knowing that I needed to continue paying rent and gas, clay, plaster, latex, etc. I had to find a job and I had to find one quickly.

Answering a job placement ad for a sculptor, I landed a commission to replace the head of a cowboy dummy in a local dentist's office.  They paid me $100 and materials.  He even gave me some alginate and dental trays

Even if I had better photos of the dummy, I'd never publish them.  Sheesh!
 I heard that my friend, Jim Belohovek had landed a job with miniature builder Sue Turner of Visual Concepts Engineering.  VCE was run by CalArts alumnus Peter Kuran and they were working on post production for THE THING. Steve Burg had left for New Jersey for the summer, informing me that he hoped to return some time next fall or as soon as he could.  My Disney school friends has either left for Disney (or competing studios like Don Bluth) or were drawing caricatures at Magic Mountain.  James Fujii even offered to train me, but I knew in my heart that I just couldn't draw like the animators.  I had tried and failed.

Jim in his dorm room.  Jim graduated after he did a 2-D animated film about the sinking of the Titanic.
 James Cummins and his crew had left for Canada to work on a sci-fi film entitled STRANGE INVADERS, but he said that due to the schedule and the amount and quality of the work that they needed to do, he didn't feel comfortable hiring me, with no professional experience.  It all seemed pretty hopeless.  I'm fairly confident that the other problem was that I didn't have enough money to return back home and I knew I couldn't be a further financial burden on either of my parents.  There was no other alternative.  I began searching for a job. 

(NOTE: I find that actually typing the following words are causing me a small but significant amount of physical pain - )

The only thing I could find was at a new Carvel Ice Cream parlor that had opened up in a brand new strip mall in Canyon Country. Yes, I bought white jeans, white shirts, learned how to scoop, make sundaes, and dip cones into molten chocolate.  In fairness, they were really nice people to work for, but even at nineteen years old, I was three years older than most of their other employees.  They did rely on me to do some light assistant manager type things - lock up at the end of the night, that kind of stuff.  But it was a bit humiliating.  "Big monster maker", "next big make up artist", scooping ice cream for lines of Santa Claritans.

One night, however, Jim Beinke showed up, with a friend, looking for ice cream and discovered me there. He could have laughed (he may have, I wouldn't have blamed him) but instead asked if I was interested in working on a theater project.  It paid, roughly what I was making at Carvel, and at least I would be making something other than banana splits.  I couldn't get out of there fast enough.

The show turned out to be the official entertainment of the Gay Olympics being held in San Francisco that year.  It was a Sci-Fi themed stage show entitled "Celestial Lords" and required masks, head dresses, and costume pieces for different "ages".  We were working out of the "Wonder Shop" (the theater set/prop building shop) at CalArts and since it was the summer, we pretty much had full run of the place. The costumes had been designed by the guy who had designed all of the "Holidays on Ice" shows and he determined what parts of the costumes we had to make, the shop and production was supervised by one of the CalArts theater scenic instructors, Marcia Hinds.


Marcia and her crew built this giant octopus armature for the show, but for the life of me I can't remember what it looked like finished...
 It was better than working at Carvel, for sure, but the work was a bit "rough" in many ways.  We were just a couple of cheap kids who didn't mind working round the clock for the little cash that they were paying us.  I think that the most ambitious and successful thing we did was a couple of "skeleton" suits that when the dancers who were wearing them stood in a specific pose, it looked like giant dinosaur skeletons.

These were giant Phoenix wings cut out of styrofoam and then covered with expanding soft polyfoam.  The first time I had ever used that material.  It was like some sort of toxic miracle!
 Jim did most of the sculpting, but I did sculpt the "post-apocalyptic" gas mask helmet and cod piece (which looked like a pair of grenades masquerading as testicles).  Most of what we made ended up being cast in latex, and we had taken one of the public restrooms (that wasn't being used for the summer) and converted it into an oven.  Now what I'm about to tell you is important:

Jim and I worked in a "tool cage" on one side of the shop.  It was set up with tables, lamps, etc. but was within a chain-link fenced off section of the shop.  Then there was the shop itself that was easily 150 feet or so in length that was cluttered with band saws, drill presses, sanders, table saws, etc.  Through a pair of doors on the opposite side of the shop from the tool cage, was a hallway that led to the bathroom/oven where the latex pieces were drying in their molds.

One night, I was getting ready to leave the shop.  It was late at night, Jim and I were by ourselves working late and I was tired.  Jim as in the middle of sculpting something and asked if I would go check on some molds in the oven that we had just poured an hour ago.  I agreed and began walking across the shop.  About halfway across, I can "tell" that Jim is walking behind me so I just start talking to him about what was going on, what we had to build, what-not.  We go through the double doors and into the restroom oven.  I reach inside of the "Iron-Age" Helmet mold and it is completely dry after only an hour.  From behind me I hear an impressed whistle.  "Yeah,", I said, "I can't believe they are dried out already." I turn to Jim and he's not there.  In fact, NO ONE is there!  Standing in the middle of this hot oven, I suddenly got FREEZING COLD!  My first thought was - "Shit! Jim's playing a prank on me." I ran into the hall - no one.  I sprint into the shop, hoping to get a glance of Jim running between tables back to the cage - nothing.  I run into the cage and ask Jim if he was messing with me.

Suddenly, his eyes grew wide. "You saw IT!" he said, "I can't believe it!  I've worked here for a year and have NEVER seen it!"  My heart started pounding.  I asked him what he thought I saw and he answered "The ghost; this place is haunted everybody knows that!"  He then went on to recall a series of sightings in the CalArts Modular Theater.  Even the entire cast and crew of the show SOLID GOLD that was shooting there, saw a figure in an unused, locked, stage control room.  The Dean of the Theater department used to walk around campus with his dog who would follow him everywhere, except into the Modular Theater.  The dog wouldn't cross the threshold.

Try as we might, we could never get the ghost to make contact.  We even made a Ouija board and put it into the theater lighting catwalk hoping that the planchette would have been moved from the position we place it.

The "Fish Guy" Helmet that Jim Beinke sculpted, being molded in sections
Another view.
Jim also sculpted this Fish Guy Shell Back Piece.  Note the ALIEN poster in the back.
Here is the Post-Apocalyptic Gas Mask I sculpted.  I lathed the custom hose out of s\Styrofoam and molded it.
The "Iron Age" helmet.  Wish I could remember the guy's name who's wearing it.  That's Marcia's husband's back.

We finished building and the pieces were sent up to San Francisco to the costume department who would make adjustments and make it all work with what they were fabricating.  My summer job was over and I certainly didn't want to return to Carvel.  I was sure that they wouldn't take me back anyway.

I was so broke that I called Tracy and asked her to send me some money, which she did.  I was out of school, out of work, borrowing money from my girlfriend, and not sure how I was going to pay rent the next month.

Not knowing what the next step was to be, Fate made it for me.  I received a call from Mark Shostrom.  He was looking for a roommate.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Part 22: Magical Mystery Tours

Molds began stacking up in the garage as I sculpted, molded, cast, and finished one creature after another.  Sure, they were rough, the designs were goofy, but I was practicing daily, often working late into the night. Every now and then, I could count on James Cummins to come by and make suggestions.  He did tell me that I was wasting time molding and casting them. He suggested that I should just paint the clay sculpts and photograph them, but I was enthralled with the latex casting procedure and because I was a stubborn kid, I just kept making latex masks.

Sometime soon, James suggested that I call Tom Burman and arrange a tour of his studio.  I was thunderstruck.  Tom's studio had incredible success with their effects for the remake of THE CAT PEOPLE.  I called and spoke with Tom's wife, Sandy who arranged a time for me to stop by their studio in Van Nuys.

Actress, Natassja Kinsky in mid-transformation in CAT PEOPLE.
 I was petrified at the thought of meeting him.  I really didn't have a portfolio, but I had a bunch of drawings and photos of my masks, so I put them in a manilla envelope and brought it with me.

When I arrived that the studio, I wasn't prepared for what I experienced.  First of all, Sandy Burman who greeted me at the door, was so incredibly nice and personable, you would have thought she had known me for years.  She led me in the back and introduced me to her son, Rob, and Dale Brady (who was painting a California Condor on a ceramic tile - I'll never forget that for some reason?).  Then I was introduced to the man himself, the one and only Tom Burman.

My impression was that he was huge, not fat-huge, just a big guy, but in retrospect, I think it might have just been his personality, which was considerable.  He was such a sweet, sweet man.  Jovial, funny, full of great stories.  He looked through my photos and drawings, took his time, and made positive and constructive comments about them.  And then, he took me on a tour through the shop.

The Burman Studio, at the time, had completed their work on CAT PEOPLE (obviously) and THE BEAST WITHIN, and were currently working on the effects for HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH.  He demonstrated a decapitation effect of a character in the film that turned out to be a robot and  then let me study the details of the faux robotics that they had fabricated.  I saw another Smooth-On Elastomer head for another scene where a vagrant had his head ripped off.  It was very realistically painted and even had beard stubble punched into it.  I had never seen anything like that in person.

Some of the Burman Studios work.  Photo courtesy Kidtrauma.com
I had the pleasure of watching Tom at work, when an actor arrived to have Tom mix a custom-color foundation base for him.  He took a glass palette and a palette knife and started mixing colors until he had matched the actor's skin color expertly and then scraped it into a little plastic container.  Tom then introduced me to the actor as a  brand new talent in the Make Up Effects community.  I was over-the-moon elated.  What a nice thing to do.  He didn't have to do that, but he did.  That was Tom Burman.

Finally, it was time to go and Rob and Dale invited me to a beach party, but I declined, mainly because I was too nervous to show up without knowing anybody. I drove back to my garage recharged with new inspiration.

As I've said, I worked in the Life Support Office at CalArts but technically I was in the "athletic" office (which was a closet full of sporting goods - okay, not full, but we had some fencing foils, a frisbee, some softball equipment, etc).  One afternoon, I was forwarded a call from someone representing the Pasadena Art Center Student Life Committee (or some such nonsense) challenging CalArts to a basketball game.  Since there was no one around to take care of it, the responsibility became mine.

I'm not even sure how I pulled it all together, but by the time the game was to happen, I had found enough interested students to participate, arranged for a space to play, publicized it enough around the campus to attract a small crowd, etc.  The Art Center team arrived wearing cool, professional looking uniforms and had a group of cheerleaders, equally wardrobed for the event. The CalArts team, bless 'em, looked like they had just come from a local schoolyard, but when the chips were down, they delivered and CalArts beat Art Center that night.

Since I was the student representative, it fell to me to give them a tour of the school, which I was happy to do.  When we arrived in the Film Graphics room, we passed by my table of monsters and one of the cheerleaders, Shan Ogdemli, spoke up and said that I should speak to her boyfriend, because he does this kind of work.  His name was Mark Shostrom and he lived and worked in Pasadena.

As they got into their bus and left, I looked at Mark's phone number that Shan had given me.  I decided I would call him the next day.

Mark answered the phone and immediately I was impressed by how effectively he communicated on the phone. Seriously, his voice had an FM disc jockey sound to it and before long, he had invited me to come down and see his studio.

Pasadena was quite the haul from Newhall and it took me nearly 45 minutes to reach Mark's apartment/studio.  Again, I wasn't prepared.  Mark was an affable guy with long blonde hair and wire rim glasses.  He invited me in and I was thunderstruck.  It looked like a real studio!, I was used to working out of a garage, with limited resources, but this was completely different.  There were racks and racks of small prosthetic molds that looked like they had come directly from Dick Smith's basement.  There were Roma clay sculptures and full, clean, stone life casts on shelves. There were even a couple of full body maquettes (small sculpture studies).

Mark shared his portfolio with me which was a collection of very meticulous character make ups, bladder make up tests (inspired by ALTERED STATES), and some pretty gruesome gore effects.  However, the quality was so much better than what I was used to seeing from someone in their own home studio.

Okay, so this isn't from our first meeting, but it should give you some idea of the level of Mark's talent and commitment.
 He was very patient as I looked around and asked questions.  He took a look at my photos and generously spoke about my work and ambitions. He told me that he and a friend had just finished working at Rick Baker's on VIDEODROME and he was currently producing a series of sculptures depicting characters from Stephen King's hit post-apocalyptic book, THE STAND.

It would be fine, just saying that Mark was a nice guy, which he was.  Or, it would not be inaccurate to say that he was extremely talented, because he was that too.   But, what I discovered about Mark Shostrom, was that he had a very wicked, and creative sense of humor.

No matter how I will try to describe this, there is no way I would ever do it justice.  Mark had what was called "A Comedy Board."  This free-standing bulletin board had a unique collage of absurd newspaper articles, magazine articles, headlines and photos that had been "matched up" by Mark to induce laughter and that it did.  For example, Mark had found an article about Australian adventurer, Dick Smith, and his hot air balloon trip to New Zealand. Mark had removed the Australian man's photo and seamlessly replaced it with a photo of legendary Make Up Artist Dick Smith.  Okay, I guess you had to be there. The weird thing is that they looked like they could have been brothers...Dick Smith and Dick Smith. Okay, I get it.  You had to be there.

By the time I left to return to the House of Fujii, I had a new friend.  A new friend whose talent was matched by his generosity and willingness to share his knowledge of Make Up Effects with a novice like me.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Part 21 : James, James, Jim, James, Allen, Steve, Doug

Dear friends, in recounting these stories that took place (some over) thirty years ago, and not having them written down any place for me to refer to, I wrack my brain trying to put important events in order on a timeline.  Having said that, I need to wind the clock back, because an event that I thought happened in May of 1982, actually happened in May of 1981.

James Cummins was turning 21 years old on May 22 (a little less than 30 years, exactly from this posting) of that year.  Because this was an important milestone in his life, he decided to celebrate with his friend Henry, and his room mate Ellen Carlomagno (who went on to become a horror feature writer for magazines).  They did what most people do when they turn 21; they got drunk.  Imagine my surprise when a drunk James Cummins called me on his birthday to tell me this news: Rob Bottin had hired him as a sculptor on THE THING.

I recall that summer I didn't hear much from James.  But, by the Fall, James would come up to the House of Fujii with a handful of Polaroid photos he had taken from their workshop at Universal Hartland.  Of course, what he was sharing was incredible.  It started out with photos of the dead, misshapen Norwegians that were burned in the pit. Then, it was photos of Benning's hands and the unused, Blair "crate monster."  I was blown away by the incredible quality of the sculptures and designs.

James Kagel sculpted these.  The skeleton has torn out through the hands and the skin has bunched around the base.  The sculpts were insane!

Through James Cummins, I began to hear new names like James Kagel (ANOTHER freakin' James), Vince Prentice, Margaret Bessara and the legendary mold maker Gunnar Ferdinandsen (who appears as the guy with his throat cut in the Norwegian camp)

Wish I had some of those Polaroids of these sculpts.  They were excellent
Of course, it would be about a year before the movie hit the theaters, so I won't talk that much more about it but I will add that before the film started shooting and before Rob Bottin and his crew had finished building everything, James quit the show.

I'm not 100% sure why he quit then, but after 27 years of doing this, I can now imagine that it could have been any one of a thousand reasons.  But...having "left" shows and studios myself, I can say with complete confidence that it is a problem within.  James, at his core, must have been unhappy for some reason and working on the show wasn't rewarding him enough to offset that unhappiness.  It happens.  Now, to a 19 year-old Make Up Effects goof like myself, it was unthinkable.  To be working with ROB BOTTIN and then QUIT??? Who would DO that?

But there was other just as crazy news happening around the CalArts campus.  The theater department was doing a production of FAUST and a friend who went to the performance asked me if I had made the goat-like "Pooka" demon mask in the show.  I hadn't.  It turned out to be the work of a new Theater Arts student, Jim Beinke (yet ANOTHER "James").  Like me, Jim was interested in Special Make Up Effects, but wisely joined the Theater Arts school rather than the experimental animation school.  I say this in hindsight, because Jim was required to work in the "Wonder Shop" at CalArts which was a down-and-dirty construction shop for building sets and props.  It wasn't an animation classroom (or even a garage).

Jim lived in the dorm with his roommate Andrew (who was a fine art painter that was influenced by the Swiss artist, H.R. Giger).  Like so many others, their room was a disaster, but Jim had also spilled gelatin on their kitchen carpet that had hardened into a dark red puddle.  Occasionally, Jim would come down to the garage and do some work, but his car was unreliable, and why work in the garage when you can work in a shop?  However, he did sculpt, mold and cast his entry for Fangoria Magazines' "Create Your Own Thing" contest in the garage.

Increasing the Special Effects Make Up Community at CalArts by 50% (as they were now two of us) meant nothing.  I lived with animators and their influence was everywhere. They were all superior illustrators to be sure, however James Fujii had a real knack for charming illustration.  He gave me a copy of a drawing he had done of baby T-Rexes blowing soap bubbles because he knew of my love of dinosaurs. He also introduced me to Anime.

In New Orleans I had seen SPEED RACER as a kid, knew it was Japanese, and loved it, but now James Fujii was introducing me to stuff like SPACESHIP YAMATO and later MACROSS.  Actually, it was both James and Peter Chung who would share their Japanese animation books with Steve Burg and I who had no access to things like that.

My other roommate, Alan Wright had a great sense of Superheroes.  His bound sketchbook was full of heroic human forms in dynamic poses.  He drew established characters as well as is own designs.

And since I lived with two animators, the house was always full of them, very talented men and women who would go on to become traditional character animators.  The talent level I was surrounded by was humbling.  My bound sketchbook was full of monsters, most of which (when I dare peak at them) were banal .  I tried my hand at sculpting a Peter Sellers mask that ended up looking like Thurston Howell from GILLIGAN'S ISLAND.  I sculpted a caveman with limited success, but I never got discouraged.  I just pushed on...

In Fujii's garage with my caveman screaming over my shoulder.
Steve was always around to photograph my sculptures and  make suggestions.  He was such a huge fan of the work of Douglas Trumbull that when we heard he was going to appear at the Director's Guild for a career retrospective, we had to go.

In the lobby was a collection of the practical electronic machinery from the James Whale (that James, doesn't count) production of FRANKENSTEIN.  Damn, they were incredibly beautiful and LOUD!  Inside, we took our seats and proceeded to have our minds blown because first, Mr. Trumbull showed his effects reel, I think it was all in 70mm, from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY to STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE.  Then he told us about the new film he was working on, BLADE RUNNER and showed us the effects reel.  No live action, just the completed effects shots.  All of them...okay, most of them.  They were beautiful.  After the presentation, during the question and answer period, someone asked how the effects for DRAGONSLAYER were done.  Doug smiled and just said, "I don't know.  I didn't do the effects for Dragonslayer." Classic.

But if that wasn't enough to make our evenings complete.  Doug Trumbull stood at the very next urinal to Steve Burg in the restroom.  I asked if he tried to shake his hand and introduce himself.  He didn't. 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Part 20: The House of Fujii / The Year of Mask Making

Newhall, California, in 1981 was a sparse suburb off of the I-5 freeway at the Lyons Avenue exit.  Lyons Avenue was like a giant spine that ran the length of the the town as smaller streets leading to neighborhoods radiated out from it.  There were grocery stores, like Alpha-Beta, the local Tempo Records, (both of which no longer exist) and even a decent book store, and a great pizza restaurant called Vincenzo's which was THE pizza destination as designated by Matt O'Callaghan. 

James Fujii's family lived in Santa Barbara and they purchased a small three bedroom/two bathroom home for their son to live in while he attended CalArts and off-set the mortgage by renting two of the rooms to students.  The other student, Alan White, was also in the Disney program and I hadn't met him at the school.

I pulled the Lizard King up to the house, and James and Alan were already there and moved in.  James helped me unpack, and introduced me to his Doberman Pincer, Kitty (the sweetest Doberman I would ever meet).  Then, James said something that was to change my life, again.  He offered to help me put an area of the garage together as a work space for me to make monsters!  In a scant, few weeks, I would become a garage monster maker (something I have continued my entire life - when I had a garage!) I was at once, moved and elated.

That's me in front of the house of Fujii in 1981.  I believe he and his family still reside there!
However, things were different.  Not being on campus just felt different. Knowing I had to drive to school, daily to attend classes instead of just rolling out of bed and running across campus made me feel a bit detached.  A few days after I arrived, I had to register for my classes so I drove the Lizard King up to the school and got in line.  While walking from table to table signing up for classes, I bumped into Steve Burg and something incredible happened - all of the strife, all of the frustration, all of the negative emotions that had been between us just seemed to dissipate.  I was so happy to see him, I remember giving him a big hug (which always upset him!) and then asked if he had seen DRAGONSLAYER.  He smiled.  We were back on common ground.  I asked him how the hell they had done the effects and he said "I have no idea!"  We were friends again.

After registration, I followed Steve back to his dorm room and met his new roommate, a stocky fine arts student (I think his name was Randy) who was somehow connected with baseball.  He played baseball before coming to CalArts?  It's all fuzzy.  But then, through Steve, I met some new students who would become life long friends.  Steve Moore, a Disney animation student, was from Port Norris, New Jersey.  He was blonde, a bit quiet, but had a VERY wicked sense of humor.  His roommate was from Michigan, Dan Jeup who was gregarious and an impressive animator.  Through them, I met others like Tim Hauser, Rob Minkoff, Kevin Lima; truly there are too many to mention.

I have to stop and mention something.  I posted a story about the joy and frustration of working with Super 8mm film here:  http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/features/blood-sweat-and-latex-an-ode-to-super-8mm-film-shannon-shea.php

In that story, I mentioned that I hadn't seen much Super 8mm work that was any good.  Here is my exception to that fact:

What impressed me about both Steve and Dan is that they, like Steve Burg and Jim Belohovek, had managed to do some incredible stuff on Super 8 film.  So much more superior to the stupidity I was up to.  Steve Moore had made a few short, comedy films (sound!) that he said were originally produced to fulfill class assignments rather than writing papers.  Dan, had made a pencil test (pencil drawings on paper) animation based on Stevie Wonder's SECRET LIFE OF PLANTS, of a bee wooing a flower.  He had figured out how to synchronize the picture and sound (which used to be VERY difficult to do pre-computers) with very crude technology.  They were both 18. None of these gentlemen let the small format or the lack of technology get in the way of their creativity.  In some ways, I think it inspired them to push harder.

Eventually, James Cummins showed up at James Fujii's house to see my new situation and the gang was complete.  A new school year had begun and little did I know that it would be the year that would define the rest of my life.

Here we all are: Top Row (L to R) : Dave Coste, Alan Wright, Tim Hauer, James Cummins, Steve Burg, Seated on Sofa (L to R) Steve Moore, Dan Jeup, Dan Karpeles, Seated in Front: Your Truly and James Fujii

 My mother had generously underwritten my first year at CalArts, but now, I had to resort to Financial Aid, which meant a Student Loan (which during President Reagan's administration was a difficult thing to secure), and, of course, Work-Study.  My first year, I was hired as the "Athletic Assistant."  That meant that I was second in charge to sign out any school-owned athletic equipment, and since CalArts had zero organized sports, I thought that it would be an easy job.  I worked under an older photography student named Craig, who never seemed to be around (or interested), so it eventually just became me.

Sensing that there was not enough work to keep me occupied, the "Life Support Office", which was the parent office to the athletic office, absorbed me and I became part of a larger work force that provided counseling (both academic and psychological), job placement, and foreign student affairs.  Of course, I still signed out the occasional frisbee or foam bats, but otherwise, I answered phones, filed and did light office work.  The law stated that the maximum hours I could work was 20 a week, and I found myself working the maximum amount of hours.

What I also found myself doing was skipping classes.  It wasn't that I was some bad-ass or anything; the truth was that MOST of my classes were jokes.  I'll give you an example:

One semester I took a class that I thought would actually help me called "Sculpture Seminar."  The description said that the group would study different sculptural techniques and movements, blah, blah, blah.  Not exactly a monster sculpting class, but what the hell.

I showed up in a class with 7 other students and a Teacher's Assistant (I NEVER met the teacher of the class....ever...).  The "T.A." then told us that he was instructed to tell us that we each had to prepare a "lecture" on a sculptor or sculptural movement and include as much visual material as we could.  We drew lots and then from that class on, a student would lecture about something they were interested in.  No teacher.  No real seminar.  Just a group of people bringing in slides (and in my case, films) of a sculptor or discipline.  Yes, I'll admit that in some ways it was "healthy" to challenge the students, but with no guidance it became the students teaching each other....what did we need a teacher for?  Oh, that's right....THERE WAS NO TEACHER!  There were more frustrating classes. I took a beginners piano class thinking I'd learn how to play the piano.  It turned out to be just theory and very little practice.  I think all we did was play scales in different keys.  Never did I have any sheet music plopped in front of me.

So you see?  This is why I started to spend less time in class, and more time at work...AND MY GARAGE WORKSHOP!

Most of my sculpting materials, I purchased at the CalArts bookstore where they had basic blocks of plastilina, oil based clay that doesn't harden or dry.  Having no other knowledge of any other clay and no exposure to anything else, I purchased white bricks of plastilina with the intention of sculpting my first over-the-head mask.  Up to that time, I had only sculpted latex prosthetics, a failed foam latex prosthetic, and face masks.  The latex arms I had poured up were from life molds made by Jim Belohovek, so this was going to be a big step for me.

Being a huge fan of Rick Baker's, I decided to sculpt a melting man-type mask using a styrofoam wig block as a base.  I sculpted a rough skull then, I cut down two ping pong balls for the eyes, then started rolling small balls of clay "drips" and applied them to the skull until I had built up what ended up looking like a melted candle. When Steve Burg saw it, he called it "Waxman" and the name stuck.  I made my first two-piece mold with really no lessons other than what Jim Belohovek had taught me.  When the mold was finished, I cleaned out the mold and then brushed layers of latex into it.  By the time it was done, it had shrunk so much that it wouldn't have fit even if I had cut it up the back.  But I painted it and put it on my shelf.  My first real mask!  Well, sort of...

My first mask.  On the shelf behind me are my "Jenifer" and Zombie masks.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Part 19.5 - I say Stop Motion; You say Go-Motion!

I left you all in the car with me heading back to CalArts, but I forgot another very, very important shift that had happened in the Summer of 1981 - CLASH OF THE TITANS vs. DRAGONSLAYER.

How could I forget this?  Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy!
 I'm labeling this as a decimal installment because in the timeline, it starts in the very early Summer.  I mentioned that Cinefantastique had run an article about Rob Bottin and THE HOWLING.  That issue had  about report on Ray Harryhausen's latest effort, CLASH OF THE TITANS, on the cover.  Now, I've not hidden my love for Stop Motion Animation or Ray Harryhausen, but I can recall hearing that his latest film was going to be his biggest and his best.  With an all-star cast including Lawrence Olivier (you have to wonder if, when Ray was animating the moon-cow during FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, he ever thought Lawrence Olivier would one day star in one of his films!), Maggie Smith, Claire Bloom, Burgess Meredith, and Harry Hamlin.  Seeing photos of the Kraken (which had the signature Ymir mustache), I knew I was in for a good old-fashioned Harryhausen movie.  In fact, everything looked great with the exception of a mechanical owl called Bubo.

Bubo was kind of a Jar-Jar forerunner.
 Now, I have read that screenwriter Beverly Cross (whom I believe was Maggie Smith's husband at the time) had gone to great lengths to preserve as much of the ancient mythology as possible and that Bubo (in some incarnation) was part of the story.  But that's about as much leverage as I'm going to give it.  The scenes with Bubo were trying for a late teenager like myself.  The truth is that with everything I had seen in STAR WARS, EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, ALTERED STATES, etc, CLASH now looked dated even for a new movie.  Sure, there were some great moments of animation in the picture and I don't think that Medusa (even when compared to her digital facelift in the remake) has EVER been as effective as Ray Harryhausen's.

She was just downright SCARY!
 It was no surprise that this would be Ray's last film.  Historically, he was ending his long and influential career on the highest note he could accomplish in the light of what was happening in Hollywood at that time.  However, whether he was considering another film or not, the end of the traditional Stop Motion creature film was signaled, ironically, by someone who always had great respect for Ray.  The someone was Phil Tippett and the film was DRAGONSLAYER.

DRAGONSLAYER, a live-action Disney film, appeared at theaters with very little bally-hoo preceding it.  In fact, take a look at the poster:

Who knows what the hell is going to be in this film?
I had seen the trailer months prior, but aside from one shot of the full-sized, mechanical Dragon, there was no indication of what ended up in this film.

A bit like something you'd expect from THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT...
See what I mean?
But what audiences got was something that confounded me for the rest of the summer.  It was a flying, fire-breathing wonder that was seamless.  By seamless I mean that it was nearly impossible to figure out just exactly I was looking at.  I knew it had to be some kind of puppet or animatronic or something and you know what....months later I found out that I was right.  It was everything.

The dragon, named Vermithrax Pejorative, appeared in several incarnations from the full-sized prop made by the Disney Motion Picture Studios technicians, to a hand puppet made by Chris Walas (from another little film that had opened in June called RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK) to an augmented Stop Motion puppet by Phil Tippett.

Unbelievable!
 I am an old man and I repeat myself, but I must stress this: No one, ever, ever-ever had seen anything like this and on a big screen in a theater.  It went beyond inspiring...it was confusing.

Now, I would be VERY remiss to not talk about RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, but my feeling is this:  As much as I love this movie, and as many times as I saw it in the theater (which was plenty, believe me), so much exists about the phenomenon that was Indiana Jones, that to add to it would just be redundant.  The only thing I will add is that in 6 months the Motion Picture Association decided that an exploding head no longer warranted an "R" rating.

Okay, so it wasn't as "graphic" as the SCANNERS head!
I now return you back to the established timeline...get back in the Lizard King!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Part 19 - Home for the Summer of '81

It had only taken 10 months for me to forget how long it felt making that drive across West Texas again.  I could be crazy, but I believe that I had moved some of my stuff into James Fujii's garage for the summer, and packing what little I thought I would need (including a half-full 5 gallon water bottle full of latex) had set out across the country by myself.

Driving solo, you have a lot of time to figure things out for yourself like: nothing quenches thirst like water.  Soft drinks made me thirstier and nothing was worse than a frosty shake from a fast food restaurant.  All that did was coat my mouth and throat with a sticky film that required me to stop for water, again .  You also have the opportunity to test your stamina against your patience.  Did I REALLY need to stop for a rest?  Maybe ONE more little town before I stop in for the night.  12 hours vs. 14 hours vs. 16 hours.  Well?  What was is going to be? I had no one to answer to but myself.

It was during the second day driving between El Paso and Houston when I heard the POP!  My initial fear was that one of my tires had gone, but when the ride was unaffected, I figured that something else had happened.  Now, I noticed that there was a spray of something across the ceiling of the car and then realized....the latex.  Ugh!  I pulled over to the side to find that the 5 gallon bottle of latex, that had been sitting in the sun, had popped its lid and shot like a cannon because of the heat building in my car.  I pulled over to the side found the lid, capped it and rearranged the crap in the back seat so that it would be in the shade for the rest of the trip.

Being home that Summer was like being in limbo.  I remember I drove to Tracy's High School and met her in the school gym the first day.  It was good to be home, but no matter how much I tried, I knew that there was an invisible, barely perceptible timer counting down the days before I would return to CalArts for my second year.

I'm unsure now of what exactly I did that Summer.  I think I got a job at the Winn-Dixie grocery store, where my friend, Tim worked.  I say that because (as you will see) it is the only thing that makes sense in my crazy time line.  I did work at Winn-Dixie in the produce department (at sometime for sure!).  I even painted a giant poster of King Kong holding the Chiquita Banana in his paw.  When I wasn't working, I did my best to see Tracy as much as I could.

One night, her parents agreed to let me take her out on a date (remember, she wasn't even 16 at the time...birthday in November) and we went to see AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON.  Just when Jack appeared to David for the second time, all green and rotted, the film stopped, the theater went dark for a moment and the emergency lights came on.  We sat there for what seemed like 5 minutes, then an usher showed up, told us there was a problem and if we wanted to, could line up at the box office for a rain check or reimbursement.  We all started filing out of the theater, and I want to say we were outside of the lobby when someone yelled that the movie had come on again and we all stormed back into the theater to watch the rest of the film.

"Didja ever talk to a dead guy?  It's boring!"
Okay, honesty time here: When the movie concluded and we left the theater, I remember not being BLOWN AWAY by the film.  It was entertaining to be sure.  Some parts were funny.  Some parts were startling.  Some parts were gory.  It just didn't add up in my 19 year-old head.  Maybe I had built it all up so much that it didn't deliver to my high expectations.  Whatever the reason, I walked away initially not being a huge AMERICAN WEREWOLF fan.  I don't think it had to do with anything Rick Baker had done.  All of his stuff was cool (and still is for that matter!).  Beats me.

Another film I took Tracy to that summer was THE HAND.  She still teases me to this day about my attempt to frighten her in the theater with that film.  I'll admit that I had seen a photo of Michael Cane, losing his hand in Cinefantastique magazine so I got a bit freaked in the theater until actual point where his hand was severed and a geyser of blood shot out everywhere.  Then, it was just kind of funny.  The film, as a whole, should have been better, but as it was, it just seemed ridiculous.

Tracy, however, remains a fan of this film!

And then, there was HEARTBEEPS.  I think the less I say about this film, the better.  Yes, Stan Winston's make-ups and puppets were cutting edge at the time but the film itself was very tiresome to say the least.  What was interesting is that James Cummins had been working for Stan Winston on and off since THE EXTERMINATOR and had done some design work for the Catskil robot puppet from the film...

That's Catskil on the left, voiced by comedian Jack Carter
In order to preserve a smooth, metallic finish, Winston had used gelatin rather than foam latex, which is very challenging to do.  As the actor's body temperature increases during performance, or from the movie lights, gelatin has the reputation of literally melting off.  It must have been a nightmare on set!

James had also contributed to a little horror film that opened that Summer as well called DEAD AND BURIED.  Written by ALIEN's Ron Shusett and Dan O'Bannon, the story concerned a rash of murders in a small, sea-side tourist town.  The town's Sheriff,  James Farentino, along with mortician, Jack Albertson, investigate some very disturbing deaths, including one of the most effective post-burn victims ever on screen.  But if surviving being burned alive wasn't enough, it had to get worse as a murderous nurse injects the victim in his one good eye to finally kill him.

Stan Winston's disturbing puppet closed it's eye after the needle was shoved into it.  Gross!
There were many other moments in the film that showcased Winston's superb eye for detail (no pun intended).  At one point, another victim has had her head crushed and through a series of progressive heads, Jack Albertson, strips the victim's skin down to the musculature and reconstructs her until she is restored.

Even though the film had some very effective moments, it never seemed to rise above the level of a gory TWILIGHT ZONE episode.  Which, in retrospect, isn't that bad after all.

But alas, all good things had to come to an end.  My Summer was running out and I had to not just return to CalArts, but, now I had a room in a house waiting for me.  I decided it was time that I officially "moved out" of the house.  I rented a U-Haul trailer, loaded the furniture, books, records, my little portable tv, and my big bottle of latex into it and drove back out to California by myself this time.  It was sad to leave Tracy again knowing that I would be limited in being able to contact her until I would return for the Winter break.  I said good-bye to my family, and drove out early the next morning.

As I hit the Louisiana-Texas border, I hit inclement weather and discovered that I was driving through a tropical depression (which is a mini-hurricane).  The trailer in the back started swaying in the wind, but the Lizard King, with its 400cc engine dragged it through until the weather broke and I, again, faced the long drive through the West Texas desert.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Part 18 - The Monsters are Coming, The WEREWOLVES ARE HERE!

Things were changing rapidly during my second semester at CalArts.  For one, an announcement had been made that starting in the Fall, CalArts would be accepting more entering students so they would not be guarantee returning students places in the dorms.  A meeting had been called for all of the dorm students to explain how the school was going to handle it.

First of all, everyone was pissed; second, you have a large group of people who were not known for their responsible living habits; third, the school had announced that they would be breaking ground on a new dorm building that wouldn't be ready for more than a year.  Put that all together, and you have the making of a bad meeting and that's just what it was.

A Fine Art Student named Rubio (who I think was from Ecuador) showed up having shaved his head.  He had stolen a grocery cart that had two things in it: a boxer's weight bag with a face drawn on it with a felt marker, and a GIANT bottle of gold tequila with a hand pump on the top.  Rubio began screaming about how unfair all of this was (and, it was) and would punctuate his rants by pumping tequila onto the "mouth" of the weight bag, and then into his own mouth.  All the time, trying to maintain order, the school announced that there would literally be a lottery to see who would return to the dorms and who would have to find housing off campus.  My family (mother, really) couldn't afford the school as it was, and I knew that finding off campus housing was going to be difficult.  That is, until I spoke with a friend who came to my rescue.

James Fujii (ANOTHER James for those of you keeping score) was a Disney animator who I had met and befriended.  He taught me how to take Ohio Blue Tip Matches, twist the fuse of a black cat firework around it, mount it into a paper cone dart, and launch it with a blow gun so that the match would hit the ground and the "dart" would explode within seconds.  It was genius to say the least.  James' family had bought a house in Newhall, and he was looking for roommates.  The rent was reasonable, if not cheaper than what we were paying for the dorms, so I jumped at it.  To hell with the lottery.

To be honest, by that time Steve and I weren't exactly seeing eye-to-eye.  Familiarity had finally bred a bit of contempt and we had had enough of each other, even though we both kept hanging around with James Cummins.  It would be difficult to say exactly why, but my hindsight would just chalk it up to immaturity on both of our parts.

In the Winter 1980 issue of CINEFANTASTIQUE (with the CLASH OF THE TITANS cover) there was an article about a new werewolf movie, with Special Make Up Effects being handled by a protege of Rick Baker.  His name was Rob Bottin (Bo-teen) and the movie was THE HOWLING.  I had read articles about Rob in magazines about his work for director John Carpenter's second film THE FOG.

Rob Bottin wearing his leprous ghost make up in THE FOG
There were some make up effects in the film, including a quick, insert puppet head of one of the leprous ghosts (complete with squirming worms) but John Carpenter had decided to keep the films ghosts mysterious and mainly in silhouette.

Now, in this magazine, was a photo of Rob, holding a hand puppet of one of the coolest looking werewolves I had ever seen.  Once more, the article described that for the first time, an audience would see someone physically turn into a werewolf on screen with the use of sophisticated make up effects rather than what had been done in the past which was a series of optical lap dissolves of an actor as make up was gradually applied to suggest different stages of transformation.

Wolfman Wolf Man Lon Chaney Jr Transform Change Transforming On Wall Emoticon Emoticons Animated Animation Animations Gif


In a process that Bottin described as "hulking out" (referring to the TV series The Incredible Hulk transformation), the characters anatomy would change from human to wolf in progressive changes.  Again, remember that this was Spring of 1981, and with the exception of some parasites in THEY CAME FROM WITHIN, a swelling throat in THE EXORCIST, and the rippling arm, chest and forehead of ALTERED STATES, no one had attempted anything like this before.

Of course, I ran out, bought the paperback book written by Gary Brandner and counted down the days until the movie opened.  That Friday evening, a group of us went down to the Avco Embassy Theater in Westwood and thrilled as we saw humans turning into huge bipedal werewolves!

By today's standards, it might seem silly, but at the time, it was really cool!
That was one, big, bad wolf!
To be fair, within the article, Rob mentioned that the work had begun under the supervision of Rick Baker, who had to bow out to commence the work on friend/director, John Landis' movie AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, which was also to feature an on-camera werewolf transformation.

Now, here is where I kick myself.  Weeks earlier, during a visit to Hollywood Book & Poster Company, I had searched through a series of frame blow ups from THE HOWLING that were now color 8" x 10"s.
I, of course, purchased a classic shot of Rob's werewolf...

Wish I still had this photo...It's long since gone!
...but there were other photos of what looked like miniature set with Stop Motion Werewolves in it.  It confused me and I didn't buy the photos.  Months later, I learned that animator, David Allen, had animated a few shots of the werewolves as they fought to get out of the burning barn.  By the time the film made it to the theater, all but one quick shot of the Stop Motion werewolves remained.  It wasn't until the release of THE HOWLING on Dvd, had I actually seen that cut footage.

Needless to say that after the opening of THE HOWLING, Rob Bottin was the new, big name in Make Up Effects and werewolves and air-bladder transformations were the fashion.

Before I would leave CalArts at the end of my second semester, there would be two more films that would explode across the screen.  The first one was the big screen adaptation of Robert E. Howard's character CONAN: THE BARBARIAN.

We all knew about Arnold Schwarzenegger but this was before he was the enormous action star he would become.  In fact, I'm sure he would say this is the film that turned it all around.

The director was John Milius, whose interest in military and political history brought added layers of sophistication to what could have just been another sword & sorcery epic.  I would be lying if I said that was the reason the film was a success, but history has shown that it was the savage action of the film that delivered one of the screen's first, true barbarians.  And it also didn't hurt that actor James Earle Jones' character, Thulsa Doom, turned into a snake or that Conan fought a giant mechanical serpent.

Everyone was changing into animals in the '80's...
Bleed, yoo bastid, bleed...
Although CONAN was a huge success, the last film we saw before we left for the summer was the sequel to an Australian cult film called MAD MAX.  This film, directed by Aussie, George Miller was titled THE ROAD WARRIOR, and it set new standards in motion picture action!

A pre-nutty, Mel Gibson screamed across the post-apocalyptic Australian outback in his suped-up car looking for gasoline (a rare commodity) while avoiding wasteland crazies and personal attachments.  The car stunts and art direction did more than thrill audiences, it literally influenced a generation off young people who would adopt the look as their personal statement.

The character, WEZ, became the new face of anarchist terror!

"Just walk away....just walk away..."

So, with the summer starting, school ending, and a new address awaiting for me in the Autumn, I said good-bye to my new friends, shook Steve Burg's hand, packed The Lizard King, and started out back home to Louisiana.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Part 17: Letting Go - The Power of Destiny

It is sad watching one of your childhood heroes become irrelevant.  As much as I loved STAR WARS and admired the work on ALIEN, SUPERMAN, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, my interest in Stop Motion Animation and monsters had brought me to CalArts.  It was evident (although I had "fooled" myself) with SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER that Ray Harryhausen's work, although still the best of its kind at the time, looked like a cinema anachronism by 1980.

Don't get me wrong, Trog....I still love you....
It was easy to see that by Christmas of 1980, the shift was moving from Stop Motion to practical creature creation.  Granted, we had seen Phil Tippett's work on the STAR WARS series, and it truly kicked up the quality of motion picture Stop Motion work, but I believe that the titular character from ALIEN and Dick Smith's work on ALTERED STATES began to focus on pushing what could be accomplished live on a movie set.

Pre-"Go Motion" but still impressive as hell!
 Having sat at an animation disc, in the Film Graphics Room, and having to complete the "bouncing ball" pencil test exercise (where you attempt to animate a ball falling and bouncing realistically), I had a realization:  My teenage short-attention span was not conducive to animation.  And at that moment I had shifted my attention to making monsters as puppets, prosthetics, and masks.  I let go and got swept up in the current having no definitive idea how I was going to make career out of it.

Meanwhile, classes were by and large very silly with the exception of the "Introduction" classes where we would be trained to use the huge Oxberry Animation Stand and the Optical Printer.  The real lesson we were learning was how incredibly expensive it was going to be to shoot a film on 16mm.  This prompted Steve Burg and I to grab our Super 8 cameras and shoot some movies of model cars and helicopters exploding using the fireworks that had been smuggled into our dorm room via a toaster oven mailed from New Orleans by my brother.

Money and materials were so tight that I ended up using that toaster oven to bake out foam latex in my dinosaur hand puppet mold.  It was crude, and didn't turn out to my liking but it did test my resourcefulness skills.  Speaking of my brother, Scott, he and I had made another money-eating discovery before he had returned to New Orleans, and that was the Hollywood Book and Poster Company.

Of course, nothing like that store existed in New Orleans or New Jersey for that matter, so once a month or so, Steve and I would head down there to buy magazines, including Cinefex (I believe we both bought our first issues there...?) posters, and movie stills.

It was through the magazines that you could feel something big was on the horizon.  Articles mentioned movies like SCANNERS, THE HOWLING, CONAN THE BARBARIAN and AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON along with a new film by Steven Spielberg that was hushed in secrecy called RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

Now, of course, being a Stop Motion fan, I had heard of a long-since abandoned project called RAIDERS OF THE STONE RING and wondered.....

Here are Lizard Men Models from The Primevals aka Raiders of the Stone Ring.

I have heard that when you make a commitment to "the universe", your request is answered by the manifestation of opportunities that clear the path and set you on your way.  That's how it worked for me.

When I got home during Christmas break, I know I had spoken to Tracy about what I was going to do and told her that it would be some sort of strategy where I'd finish at CalArts, get a job, we'd get married, and move out to California.  Funny how life decides to alter your plans.

I know that I told everyone back in Louisiana about how trying it was to be at CalArts.  It was.  The handful of people I've described was just that for the most part - a small, handful of artists who wanted to have a career in motion pictures.  We were surrounded by a multitude of men and women who enjoyed nothing more than to sit around (in various stages of intoxication and undress) and talk about what they would eventually do one day and how it would be the ultimate expression, blah, blah, blah.... My youthful impatience had no time for that.  I already knew what I wanted to do and no one at the school, other than some of the people I was friends with, was qualified to teach anything practical.

I learned about mold-making from Jim Belohovek (the hard way, for sure).  I watched Steve Burg make an alien craft by running fiberglass into a stone mold (and then rolled the discarded mold down the hill outside of the dorms where it picked up speed and ended up in someone's backyard!). I had seen the quality of drawings and character design by Peter Chung and spoke with him frequently about his work (even though he was a bit scary).  And then, there were the Disney animators.  If Steve Burg was intimidating to work with, the Disney animators were downright frightening.  The amount of quality work that they were EXPECTED to produce was staggering and so unlike the rest of the school.

Please understand that I do take partial responsibility in all of this, however recall that my family made no effort for us to visit the campus and take a look around.  Blame money, or disinterest, or just a basic lack of understanding, but whatever the cause, it was now taking root and affecting me.  Just when I thought there was no reason to hang around CalArts in the late Winter/early Spring of 1981, James Belohovek brought a guest to meet Steve and I - James Cummins.

James Cummins had been a Disney School student at CalArts who had left to pursue a career in creature building.  He and fellow CalArts alumnus, Henry Golas, had just returned from Canada where they had completed the creature effects for a made-for-tv film entitled "The Intruder Within" aka "The Lucifer Rig"

James told us that the instructions from the producers were to make something like ALIEN and JAWS but different.

James was about 21 at the time.  Steve had turned 19 in January, and I was still 18.  Still the three of us hit it off and started hanging around.  We went to a double feature, at James' suggestion: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and the new film SCANNERS in, where else? Westwood.  I had never seen TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and was so disturbed by it, that by the time people's heads were exploding in SCANNERS, I was already numb.

Yup, no one had seen anything like this since DAWN OF THE DEAD.
As dramatic as Canadian effects artist, Tom Schwartz's exploding head was, the "psychic battle" at the end of SCANNERS was jaw dropping.

Dick Smith, took the air bladder technology that he had used on ALTERED STATES (and THE EXORCIST prior to that) to a new level by making them out of a plastic called "Elvacite" developed by DuPont and pumped fake blood and other liquids to simulate psychically-forced, blood engorged arteries and veins. The effect was breath-taking and shocking!

Warning: This is what happens when you attempt to suck another Scanner's brain, dry.
The second blast wave of make up effects had hit explosively! Air bladders, puppets, and fake heads began to get more sophisticated, but no one could foresee what was headed to the theaters just a scant few months away...