Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Part 33: All Aliens Great and Small

I was in!  I was working at Stan Winston Studios!

But for me, anyway, there was a catch:

In order to arrive at Stan's on time, I would actually have to be early.  There seemed to be about a 20 minute gap between buses, so I could either show up at 7:50 or 8:10.  However, due to the RTD schedule, it would be required to catch my first bus at 5:30 in the morning. That would mean getting up around 4:45 a.m.!

Thank God, I caught that early bus because I discovered later that one of Stan's pet peeves was tardiness! 

Everyone started filing in and I'm not sure but someone (it could have been Tom Woodruff) walked me to an auxiliary unit in the same complex that was being used as a molding and casting shop.  I was introduced to the people working there including Howard Berger, Bob Kurtzman, Everett Burrell, Scott Wheeler, and Steve James.  Steve and I were shown a very clean, thin fiberglass body form that would be used for alien warrior construction but since they wanted the suit pieces to overlap, we would have to cut the body in half at the waist and extend the abdomen section with new fiberglass.

The mold shop.  When I met Bob and Howard they were standing behind this table.  Note the Alien back-tube mold.
 Steve and I made a plaster bandage mold from the chest to the hips and when it was completed, we sawed the body in half (it had been filled with rigid polyfoam) and sealed it.  We reassembled the mold on the shortened torso section and cast fiberglass and polyfoam into it.  When we were done, you would have thought it had been made that way originally.  I'm not sure if Steve James had ever done that type of work before, I know I hadn't, but there was something about the expectation level at the studio that seemed to drive everyone a bit further.

Later that day, I was in the main shop and saw the two guys who had interviewed before me.  They were sculpting an alien warrior tail.  The younger, shorter of the two was Matt Rose, the older taller one was his roommate, Mark Williams.  Although I didn't know of Mark, Matt's reputation preceded him.

Fangoria Magazine ran a contest for young monster makers to design characters and the winners were from San Jose, Califorina.  Matt Rose and Steve Wang, at 18 and 19 years old, had won the national contest and their incredible masks were featured in the magazine.

"The Ghoul Brothers" - I had forgotten that they were parodies of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.  Oops!
 They were not the only sculptors of whom I had heard rumors.  When I was at Mark Shostrom's, a story of a young sculptor who lived in San Diego had circulated around the shops.  Apparently, he was so incredible that Stan would allow him to sculpt at home and drive the finished sculptures up to the shop once a week.  That was for the television show "Manimal" but now, that sculptor was in Stan's shop sculpting the Queen Alien's legs; his name was Greg Figel.

When I reminisce about those days, we all must have had the same inner insecurity and curiosity, because there was a lot of shop portfolio viewings and it was VERY clear that here was a community of very talented and very competitive people.  Some were very blatant about the situation and some were aware of it but remained laid back.  For myself, I felt like they were all out of my league and I was struggling just to keep up.  And because there were job opportunities around town and that underlying competition eating at everyone's guts, some people were already LEAVING Stan Winston's for what was perceived as "better opportunities."

And as those folks left the studios, new replacements would be hired including Gino Crognale, a heavy metal kid from Philadelphia,. Gino joined us in the mold shop and began seaming a few alien eggs that had been run in latex and polyfoam.

One of the alien eggs resting next to one of Gino's bags of Laura Scudder's chips.
This section of alien egg was made for the mechanics to work out the "flowering" mechanism.
We were informed that most of the actual building and finishing of the effects for ALIENS was going to happen in England.  Most of the work we were doing in Los Angeles was molding pieces from the original suit that had been lent to us by legendary collector, Bob Burns.  As the molds were finished, they were packed and shipped off.

In terms of finished creatures, the one piece I recall being fairly completed was the chest burster that Tony Gardener had sculpted.  Before it was shipped, there had been a completed mechanism and a test skin glued onto it so we were able to see its potential before it left.

The task of mechanizing the face huggers fell to Rick Lazzarini who had been researching many different methods of creating a controlled, effective run which was something that had not been seen in the first film.  There was even a He-Man "Spydor" toy that was purchased for reference but ultimately another solution would present itself later...

Cool? Yes, but ultimately not good for a face hugger.
Meanwhile, another sculptor, who's name escapes me (perhaps one of my colleagues can remind me in the comment section) was given the task of sculpting a miniature Sigorney Weaver puppet that would be in scale to the miniature Queen sculpt.

One of my strongest recollections about Stan Winston studios at that time is what I will refer to as the collective soundtrack that seemed to be ever present at the shop. 

Whenever I hear Dire Straits "Brothers in Arms" or Stuart Copeland's "The Rhythmatist" I'm immediately taken back to Northridge in 1985 because I would venture to say that not a day went by that both of those cassette tapes would be played in the main shop.

And all of the while, the two shops were being coordinated by Stan and the "lifers." The preferred way for Shane Mahan and a few others to get back and forth was via skateboard and it wasn't unusal to hear the din of the wheels as someone from the main shop would appear at the large open bay door.

Everett Burrell and I casting something..who knows what?  Everett was the one who opened the wooden crate and showed me H.R. Giger's complete alien suit in the shop.
 So effective was this mode of transportation that on one occasion Stan decided to make the trip himself.  A few of us were walking between shops when Stan appeared on the skateboard, then suddenly he lost control. BAM!  He hit the ground, hard! A little bruised, he stood up and said, "You know what they say when you're thrown off of a horse; you get right back in the saddle." No sooner had he gotten back on the skateboard, then it shot out from under him again and BAM! His skateboarding days had drawn to a close.

As the ALIENS work began to be completed and shipped, more of us were shifted over to INVADERS FROM MARS duties. 

When Bill Sturgeon first walked me through the studio, he had shown me a few cast maquettes for the alien drones (or warriors) for the film.  In order to confuse the audience with what they were seeing, the performance of the drone suit would require two performers: A large stunt man who would walk backwards and a little person sitting in a specially designed harness on the stunt man's back.  The little person's legs would control the gross jaw movement while the eyes and brows were radio controlled.  Although the drone's main legs were the stunt man's legs (with the knee facing backwards, remember) it also had a secondary pair of legs that were operated by the stunt man holding ski poles.  It was as ingenious as it was cumbersome.

Here are a couple of the drone frames waiting for their fiberglass under structures and their skins.

Tom Woodruff, Richard Landon, Shane Mahan and John Rosengrant all left the shop to go to England and begin the ALIENS construction there.  Although it looked like martians were in my immediate future, it would not be the end of my involvement with ALIENS.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Part 32: 19201 Parthenia Street, Northridge, California

I believe Bill Sturgeon set up my interview with Stan Winston.  I don't recall speaking to anyone prior to my visit like a receptionist or another employee; I was to meet Stan on July 12, 1985 for a portfolio interview. didn't happen.

Recall, I didn't have a car in those days and I was the victim of Los Angeles Public Transportation.  Without computers, or cell phones, you would have to call the L.A.P.T. hotline, give them your starting point and ending point, and then they would supply you with bus numbers and pick up times to coordinate your commute.  I was about to find out how fragile that system was.

Tracy had gone to California State University, Northridge to look into enrolling in the music program there, so she knew most of the connections, but Stan Winston's studio was further west and on a parallel street.  With my appointment time of about 1 p.m., and armed with a list of bus numbers and times, I set out, portfolio under arm, from Eagle Rock to Northridge.  It would require 3 bus transfers.

Ah yes, the chariot that would deliver me to my destiny!
 Everything went like clockwork until I arrived in Burbank.  I got off of one bus only to see my connecting bus drive off.  SHIT!  What else could I do?  I waited for the next bus.  I'm confident that enough of you readers have experienced waiting for a bus.  I wonder if you have ever waited for a bus under a time deadline! Because if you have, then you understand that it is absolute torture!  Every other bus seems to arrive at the stop, sometimes two of the same number drive by, people come and go, and it is easy to feel like you are the only one waiting for a specific bus that appears to be on a break.  It wears your patience thin; you begin to crawl into that negative, reptile part of your brain where every person in a car that is whizzing to their destination is a jerk because you have to take public transportation and the reason more people don't take public transportation is because of things JUST LIKE THIS!!!

By the time I arrived at the last bus stop that would take me to my interview, it was already 2:30.  I called Bill from a pay phone and told him I wasn't going to make it.  He spoke to someone and said to just come by the next day at the same time.  I walked across the street and took the two buses back home.  I had lost.  I had failed.

I walked into the apartment and explained the whole situation to Tracy.  She reminded me that in a couple of hours we had to hot foot it down to the bus stop again, because we had tickets to see soprano, Kiri Te Kanawa at the Hollywood Bowl (see? THIS is how I knew exactly what day it was!).  I was in no mood, but we had never been to the Hollywood Bowl, had never seen Ms. Te Kanawa, and didn't have the luxury to just throw money away.  We got dressed, walked to the bus stop, and caught the two buses to get to the Bowl.

As the concert started, I truly was in no mood to be there, but as Kiri began to sing, I admit that all of the day's frustrations and all of my anger seemed to melt away.  It turned out to be a fantastic evening, and I found the renewed strength to get on those three damned buses in the afternoon and reach Stan Winston's.

For those of you who are interested in the concert, here is a link to the archived Los Angeles Times review:
Kiri Te Kanawa debuts at the Hollywood Bowl

The next day, I started off all over again, but things were different.  All of the buses showed up as promised and I soon found myself at an industrial complex in Northridge, CA.

Yes, this is where it all was happening!
As I approached the front door emblazoned with a gold "Stan Winston" signature, I noticed two other young men carrying their portfolios entering the building ahead of me.  However, unlike yours truly, these two were sporting long, heavy-metal rock-n-roll hair cuts and wearing black T-shirts.  I had no idea who they were but apparently, Stan was seeing a bunch of people that day. 

My recollection was that a young man, Brian Penikas, was there to greet us, and had me sit in the lobby while Stan saw the two other guys.  After a short amount of time, they came out of his office shaking his hand and Stan had Brian take them into the shop and show them around.  I was nervous as hell.

Stan invited me into his office, I introduced myself and he asked where I had been working. I handed him my portfolio and went on to tell him about THE SUPERNATURALS, HOUSE and my "experience" at Make Up Effects Labs.  While I was talking, Stan was paging through my portfolio like a speed-reader. Zip! Zip! Zip! Occasionally he would stop a specific picture and ask a question like: "Did you sculpt this?" or "Did you paint this?" or "How long did this take you to do?" and then ZIP! Off he went through the pages.  When he and I had both reached the end, he asked me point blank how much money I had made working for James Cummins.  I told him the absolute truth: I had made $450 a week. Stan closed my portfolio, handed it back to me and said: "I'll pay you $100 a day and don't forget, that's more money than you asked for!"

And just like that, I was working at Stan Winston's Studio. 

Bill Sturgeon had been paged and walked me through the shop and introduced me to most of the crew.  When I look back on the crew that was working on both ALIENS and INVADERS FROM MARS (both shows were happening concurrently), it was a who's who of individuals who would one day own and run their own shops.  In no particular order, the crew included:

Alec Gillis/Tom Woodruff, Jr. - Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc.
Rick Lazzarini - The Character Shop
Tony Gardener - SEA QUEST, TOMMYKNOCKERS, and most of the Farrely Brothers' movies
Bob Kurtzman and Howard Berger - KNB EFX Group
Dave Nelson - Animated Engineering
Everett Burrell - Optic Nerve

The facility, itself, was more impressive than anything else I had seen at the time.  Unlike M.E.L., Stan's shop was certainly on a level of professionalism that was intimidating.  It was spotlessly clean (something I found out soon enough about how things ran at Stan's), past work was carefully displayed for clients.  There were framed photos and drawings by Stan (some of which I had seen printed in "Making a Monster") hanging on the walls and there was a big, brightly lit Make Up room with two barber's chairs. 

However it wasn't just the facility that was mind numbing, it was also the work that was going on.  As Bill walked me through the shop, he began to explain the plot of ALIENS to me and as he explained about the Queen Alien, I witnessed the Stan Winston artists, Shane Mahan, John Rosengrant, and Greg Figel all working on the miniature Queen Alien sculpt!  Propped up, as a guide, were color print outs of design artwork that I learned was done by Jim Cameron, himself.  The work was superlative! 

A small sculpting room separated the main shop from the Make Up room and in it, Tony Gardner was sculpting the new "chest burster" for ALIENS, while Kevin Yager sculpted bullet hit wounds and appliances for the martians for INVADERS FROM MARS.

In the main shop, the area was divided between molding and mechanical effects.  Dave Nelson and Ted Rae (who was an accomplished Stop Motion Animation and Effects cinematographer) led a team working on the "Drones" and the "Supreme Martian Intelligence" animatronics.  Everywhere I looked it seemed like a geek-dream.  I saw the TERMINATOR puppet heads, including one that Brian Wade had sculpted and shown me photos of during HOUSE.  There was a full Endoskeleton standing on a work table in the corner.  There were beautiful display heads of the the Academy Award nominated make ups Stan did for HEARTBEEPS. 

At the end of the tour, Bill explained a couple of things: One, work began at eight, and ended at 6:30, Monday through Friday and two, at six o'clock every day, work would stop and clean up would commence for a half an hour at Stan's insistence.  That is why the shop looked the way it did.  I was to start the next day, Friday, July 14th at 8 in the morning.  I would be working in the mold shop on ALIENS.

The ride home on the bus, was the best ride I had taken on public transit. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Part 31: Outside of the Comfort Zone

I'm sure most of you have heard the old adage: "It's not what you know, it's WHO you know!"  That isn't just a saying, it is the hard, cold fact of the world of motion pictures.  HOUSE was over and Tracy and I were in our little Eagle Rock, one-bedroom apartment.  James Cummins was busy writing a script for a Horror anthology film he hoped to direct.  He tapped Steve Burg and I for some art work to try and sell the project.  Steve did three paintings, I did one design and sculpted a diorama for James.  One of the stories dealt with jack-o-lanterns that came to life and decided to do a little carving themselves.  James said that the shot of the pumpkin, coming to life and becoming the carriage in the Disney film CINDERELLA had been his inspiration.

I sculpted this knive-wielding jack-o-lantern for James.
Photoshop wouldn't exist for YEARS!  Everything was done in camera!
 I recall that screenwriter, Ethan Wiley, had spoken to Steve Burg about producing some paintings for a project entitled A STRANGER IN LEADVILLE.  I did a few concept sketches for that as well.  I would tell you the plot, but it is too cool to just spill it out here.  I still have hopes that one day this project will come to fruition.

These projects, along with my own sculpting, were keeping me busy but they weren't paying bills.  However, that changed with a call from my friend, Mike Spatola, who had been the primary painter on HOUSE.  Mike had worked previously at MAKE UP EFFECTS LAB (M.E.L.) for Alan Apone and Doug White.  The studio was doing some work on the new remake of INVADERS FROM MARS and Mike asked if I was interested in working there.

Another project that was not paying the bills: A Demon sculpture.  He's holding a fragment of gravestone.
 For the record, Tracy and I didn't own a car.  She would catch a bus into Glendale to work and I would have to do the same to get to M.E.L. in the San Fernando Valley.  Of course, I jumped at the chance.

Mike introduced me to Alan Apone first.  Alan was definitely a personality.  He looked through my meager portfolio and then took us to lunch.  My strongest recollection was Alan asking me who I had worked for and who I had worked with, only to tell me that he had, at one time or another, fired them from M.E.L.  For instance, Alan would ask who was in the mold department on HOUSE and I would mention an individual and he would say: "Oh yeah, I know that guy, I fired him on METALSTORM." And it wasn't just one or two people; it was more like five or six people!

You can imagine my surprise when I got hired.  I met Alan's partner, Doug White, who was an affable fellow.  My first job at M.E.L. was to prep some make ups and effects for NEON MANIACS which had a few days of reshoots scheduled.  Doug had made a pneumatic severed arm that was supposed to twitch on the floor of I bus (as I recall).  The core was rigid urethane that had been cut and jointed to move via pneumatic cylinders in the lower part of the arm; the skin was made of skinflex (a soft, flexible urethane that had been used to make Daryl Hannah's mermaid tail in SPLASH).  My job was to drill out some broken plastic joints that were cemented into the finger core sections and replace them.  I discovered later that the reason it was broken was that Doug had been testing his BB machine gun and had shot a fluorescent lighting fixture from the ceiling which had fallen and crashed onto the arm.

No.  Don't!  Not even out of morbid curiosity.
 M.E.L. was a working studio and I had heard of them by reputation.  I, actually, liked their "Baal" make up for the film METAL STORM: THE DESTRUCTION OF JARED SYN.  It was kind of a cool, cyborgy thing, complete with a telescoping mechanical arm.  It was YEARS ahead of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION "Borg" characters and at the time, was every bit as effective.  I had also heard of NEON MANIACS, which I can only describe as a typical, low budget, colorful, 80's horror film.  Mark Shostrom and make up effects artist, Rick Lazzarini, had bid on the film and lost to M.E.L.  Lazzarini bragged to me later that upon hearing the news, he wrote the producers and chastised them, citing that he, Rick, was a literal genius since he was a member of M.E.N.S.A.

I thought this BAAL make up and character were pretty cool.
 Nobody ever said that Hollywood was attracted to big brains, that's for sure.

So, M.E.L., populated with artists like Mike Spatola, Bruce Zalavah, Larry Odien, etc. had produced a team of exotic killers, each with their own look and specialty, which became the NEON MANIACS. They were kind of like THE VILLAGE PEOPLE of slasher characters. I recall walking through the shop and discovering a dense, bubbly foam latex appliance sitting on top of a heap of trash in a garbage can.  I picked it up, and examined it then asked Doug if it was a reject piece.  His eyes bugged out of his head and he snatched it out of my hand saying that not only was it an acceptable run, it was to be used on set to do the make up.  What?!  I had never seen a foam-latex appliance taken out of a garbage can then glued onto an actor's face two days later!

And I should say that it was glued down, patched with "cab-o-patch" (which is Pros-Aide medical adhesive, thickened with cab-o-sil to a paste consistency) and colored with Rubber Mask Greasepaint and put in front of the cameras.  No one would ever know the difference. Truly, how many of you actually went to the theater and sat through NEON MANIACS?  That might be a trick question; I'm not sure if it was theatrically released or not.  By the time I saw it on cable TV, it really didn't matter one way or the other.

It was one of these appliances for "SLASHER" that was in the garbage can.
 One of the Neon Maniacs was "Decapitator" who was a headless figure, sporting two lethal blades for arms.  Since no one was around to fill the costume, I got to put it on for an insert of Decapitator slashing out toward the camera.  I don't recall if I could point that shot out if I had the film in front of me.

Seriously...not even out of "I'm-so-high-and-I-would-laugh-at-anything" curiosity.
 For a scene where one of the maniacs is dissolved, Alan had the idea of pressing cotton candy onto a plastic skeleton and then hitting it with water.  There was no budget to make our own custom colored cotton candy, so big cases of brightly colored pink and blue cotton candy were purchased and taken to set.  Alan referred to it as "spun glucose" (see? he wasn't an official MENSA member as far as I knew, but he knew what spun glucose was!).  When it came time to prepare the skeleton with it's melting flesh, Alan, in front of the production crew, asked me to get the "spun glucose."  Of course I, being an asshole, answered back, "You mean the cotton candy?" "No," he snapped, "I mean the SPUN GLUCOSE!"  It was amusing watching everyone try to hide the fluorescent blue and pink "spun glucose" with colored powders.  No liquid could be used for painting the surface, obviously.  I don't even remember if the effect worked or was even in the film.

Spun glucose.

My involvement on the INVADERS FROM MARS remake consisted of me carving skin detail into plaster casts of two actors who would be revealing their Martian neck probes in the film.  I don't know why this tickles me, but of the people that I met and worked with at that time, I was introduced to a young man, sporting an "effects mullet" (we all had them at one point or another) who was sculpting miniature antlers.  I think it had something to do with another low budget slasher film M.E.L. was doing called BOARDING SCHOOL, but I can't be sure.  His name was Mike Smithson, and judging by the work he had in his portfolio as well as his graphic design sense (he had a fantastic business card), he didn't belong at M.E.L.  He was destined for (an has accomplished) better things!

I'm sure this blog entry sounds like I'm biting the hand that fed me, but first of all, this was 1985 - this is all ancient history, second, I was just a punk lab technician who was still cutting his teeth, and third, yes, I'm biting the hand that fed me.  M.E.L. was LESS serious than Mark Shostrom's studio and Mark didn't have the facility that M.E.L. had.  Mark didn't have a Periodic Chart and High School Chemistry books in HIS foam room for chrissakes! (There's a subtle joke in there for you...)  Once, when I was grinding some plastic at M.E.L., a shard flew up into my eye (no, I wasn't wearing eye protection).  I ran into the bathroom looking for eye wash and I opened the medicine cabinet to first aid, no personal hygiene products, no glass shelves, in fact.  No.  What there was, instead, was a magazine photograph of a woman masturbating.

So what finally drove me from this circus?  A rock video.

On a Thursday, Alan came to me and gave me these instructions: Pour up two latex feet from the Burman's PRIMAL MAN project (M.E.L. had purchased the molds at a Burman garage sale).  Pour up one latex glove from the M.E.L. gorilla suit that was used in a film entitled TOBY'S GORILLA.  Paint them brown and glue some 4-way stretch fur fabric material to make insert werewolf feet and one hand.  That's all they need for the shoot.

Pour up two neanderthal feet and one gorilla hand and turn them into werewolf appendages.  Fine.  Why not?  And that's just what I did.

The next day Alan was golfing and Doug was running the studio on his own.  I was furiously fabricating werewolf nails for the feet and the gloves when the producer's came in to see the progress.  Doug, freaking, took the feet (which were finished) and brought them to the client to discuss them while I finished the glove. And then....nothing happened.  Time started going by and I began to get nervous.  What the heck was happening.  More time went by and I was now really fixing up this werewolf glove by trimming the hair and refining the paint job.

BOOM!  Doug rushes into the room belly-aching!  "He's done it to me, AGAIN!" He cried.  He was referring to his partner, Alan.  It turned out that this video production did not want a pair of werewolf feet and a werewolf glove.  Oh no.  They wanted to do a transformation sequence where a man turns into a vampire so they wanted stretching feet and stretching fingers like...wait for it...AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON.  Instead they got a gorilla hand and two cavemen feet with claws and brown hair.

Needless to say, they were not pleased.  I had had enough.  I thanked Doug and left the studio.  I have no idea if or how they managed to make change-o limbs for the rock video, but stranger things have happened in this industry; so I sure something made it in front of camera.

Stranger things WERE happening.  I had received a call from Bill Sturgeon.  Stan Winston studios were looking for people to work on the sequel to ALIEN and he had given them my name.  I had an appointment to meet Stan the next day.

It was based, solely, on who I knew.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Part 30: Making a HOUSE call

While the Golden Mall operation closed down and moved to James Cummin's back yard, I was, thankfully, going to set with a few of the effects.  I had missed out on puppeteering Jim Belohovek's winged skull creature.  I recall that Jim and Barney Burman went to set with that along with a couple of other folks. (Sorry, it's a bit fuzzy).  I was also absent from witnessing Peter Pitofsky's performance as the witch on set.  I was lucky enough to be there when she got her head decapitated by the hedge trimmers though.
Gotta make sure that glove isnt' going to fall off...Why do I think that Barney Burman is in the suit?
Jim Belohovek shows off his jaw mechanism he would install in the Winged Demon.
Here's a shot of Jim's assembled mechanical puppet waiting for fabricated wings and a cool paint job.
I was walking around set, turned a corner and ran right into the finished puppet!  I think Howie Weed sculpted this.

Larry Odien had created a electronic remote control dismembered witch and with moving fingers that had been shot on an exterior location.  It was even fit with a "bite plate" for William Katt's mouth so that it could appear to be holding onto Roger Cobb's face.

HOUSE was written by Ethan Wiley from a story by Fred Dekker.  I remember meeting Ethan at the studio (sorry, Fred - don't remember if you ever stopped by) and was struck by his enthusiasm for what James and his crew were accomplishing. Director, Steve Miner, who was a long-time collaborator with producer Sean Cunningham, found himself a long way from Camp Crystal Lake and Jason Vorhees.  HOUSE was a horror-comedy much more in the vein of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF or the later EVIL DEAD 2.  Walking the line between scares and laughs would be a challenging undertaking, but he was surrounded by actors who were no strangers to comedy, Richard Moll (Big Ben), and George Wendt (Harold Gorton).

I couldn't guarantee it, but I recall that the interior of the House was built at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood and it was my first time on a real, honest-to-goodness studio set.  I had been on locations before and had been for years.  My father took my siblings and I to Hannibal, Missouri to visit the set of TOM SAWYER in the '70's and not only did we meet Johnny Whitaker (SIGMUND AND THE SEA MONSTERS), and Jeff East (SUPERMAN and PUMPKINHEAD), but we also met Jodie Foster, Warren Oats and PLANET OF THE APES producer, Arthur P. Jacobs!  I should have posted about that experience....darn! However, I digressed...

Tracy and I on set.
The bathroom set complete with medicine cabinet - the gateway to an alternate universe!
Look how HUGE this set was.  Here is the main foyer.
The War Demon Room.  Note the Richard Hescox painting of the Marlin speared through a man's chest.
Mold maker extrodinaire, Brent Baker on the set!
  For the better part of a week, we were on set working on effects that happened in specific locations of the House.  It's funny because as strong as my recollections are of helping get the Demonic Child puppet up stairs, and wrangling all of the cable controls into the room where it would be peering from, I don't think I was around when the little people were suited up for their roles wearing our masks (I know Howie Weed sculpted the big kid mask, I honestly don't recall who sculpted the little me out in the comment section, somebody).

Who is that holding the Demonic Kid puppet????
It's Howie Weed!
 We crowded behind the medicine cabinet, all wearing our monster gloves to attack William Katt.  For expedience sake, the tentacle was just latex and polyfoam and shot in reverse so that it appeared to strike out and wrap around Roger Cobb's arm.

For the scene where Roger dumps the dismembered witch's hand into the toilet and flushes it down, I was wearing the witch glove.  Physical Effects man, Taslsio Bauer, taped plastic bag material in a loose cone around my shoulder.  On action, I spun around (on a saw horse!) and with water dumping down the toilet, pulled my hand down the pipe. Voila!  My on-screen debut!

To shoot the scenes where Roger falls through the darkness and lands in a nondescript body of water, we shot in a pool (at a High School?  YMCA? - it was on location for sure).  The grips draped large sheets of black duvetine (which is heavy black fabric used to block light) into the pool until it became a giant watery void.  James puppeteered Richard Snell's spitting puppet to rise up with Katt, and I fired a Hudson Sprayer to spit in William Katt's face.  James said that swimming in the blackened pool was a very weird, disorienting experience.

Big Ben was a big responsibility and presence on set.  Curt Wilmont, who played the skeletal character would require being suited up in a specially constructed pair of pants that were a combination of foam latex rotted legs, concealed within tattered army fatigue pants.  He would then pull the rib cage, that was constructed of latex reinforced with cheesecloth and nylon tubing over his head.  A pair of foam latex gloves were pulled on, and a foam latex neck would be pulled over his head and tucked in around his collarbone.   When they were ready for Ben to make his appearance on set, a milky contact lens made by Richard Snell would be inserted into Curt's right eye, and then the mask would be put on and blended around that eye (since the other eye was sculpted to be dead and staring - Curt could only see out of his right eye).

James supervises as I do a quick touch up on Big Ben.
 Generally, when you are shooting a low budget movie, the schedule is crucial (time = money, right?) so the company was shooting and moving as quickly as humanly possible.  Not to use ANOTHER cliche so soon, but haste makes waste.  For the scene where Big Ben shoots through a door and then punches a hole in it to grab for Roger, the door was outfitted with explosive squibs to simulate the bullet hits.  The film crew was on one side of the door with William Katt waiting for the bullets and the punch.  On the other side of the door was the FX team and Curt, dressed as Big Ben waiting for his cue to punch through it. Gordon Boos, the first assistant director, counted down, "3...2...1...GO!" BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!  Not a single bullet hole appeared in the wood.  The door had been squibbed on the wrong side!

The War Demon was an ambitious animal for any motion picture.  It required just about every one of us on the crew to bring it to set and operate it.  Members of the crew who had not been on set, worked an all-nighter to complete the creature, so that by the time it was unloaded from the truck, and put into position, Bill Sturgeon was thrashed.  The War Demon's frame was connected to a dolly that rode on tracks and required a few people to push it forward so it could emerge from the closet.  The arms were puppeteered separately by crew members either holding the physical arm to strike out, or operating the cable controls for the fingers.  And, of course, the head features were, also cable controlled.

Brent Baker (left) and Bill Sturgeon prepare the War Demon puppet on set.
 The timing was imperative, so as the cameras would roll, we had worked it out so that as Gordon would count down, we would push on a specific number so that when William Katt opened the door, the war demon would already be in motion.  We spent the better part of two days shooting the two different scenes where the monster made his appearance.

William Katt faces off with the War Demon! (thanks for the photo Brent!)
Monster Stew coming at YOU!
 The last shots we had to shoot were with Big Ben - One was the shot where Roger shoves a live grenade into Ben's ribs and explodes.  For this a dummy was built using a rigid body foam of Curt Wimot that was cut and positioned to match the pose that Curt was in prior to his demolition.  Latex casts of the gloves, legs, ribs, and head were made and glued onto the form and painted.

Barney Burman assembles the exploding Big Ben puppet...or else he's performing a pelvic exam.
 For the explosion, pyrotechnical expert, Joe Viskocil (of STAR WARS!) was on set to rig the body to explode on cue.  Hollowed sections of the body were filled with black fuller's earth and cork to simulate dry rotted flesh and bones blowing apart.  I'll admit that being in the presence of a geek god was too much.  I never got the nerve to approach Joe and tell him what a huge fan I was (am).

The very last shot involved another legendary effects company, Dreamquest.  It was for the shot looking up at Roger hanging on the edge of the house as Big Ben was stepping on his hands to push him into the alternate reality.  Accomplishing this one shot took all day to rig and shoot.  An elevated section of the exterior of the house was constructed in front of a blue screen (that took most of the day to light in those days).  Proper reference photos and careful recording of lens, exposure and camera angles all were taken prior to rolling cameras.  Curt was still in his Ben suit, but William Katt was not wearing the harness and rig to support him from the edge of the house; a stuntman wearing a wig and matching costume stepped in for this.

A conventional matte painting would be done to render the rest of the house.

Yes, nerd that I am, I still own my prop copies of Roger Cobb's books!
 Three quarters into the building and shooting of HOUSE, Tracy and I moved into our first apartment in Eagle Rock, California.  When the show wrapped, all of us went our different directions.  James and Rick wanted to take some time off for a while and I think Mark Shostrom was working on A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2 and was already crewed up.  Tracy, keeping consistent with her lack of interest in pursuing a career in Motion Pictures, got a job at Carl Fischer music store in Glendale.  As for me, I had to find another job in Make Up Effects.  Somewhere.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Part 29: HOUSE guests

Shortly after ringing in the new year 1985, I received a phone call from James Cummins.  I had returned to New Orleans the prior November after finishing up on THE SUPERNATURALS.  Mark Shostrom had been contacted by the production company to do a few pick up shots, but, understandably,  couldn't afford to have me fly out again for a few days work.  However, James had big news: He was going to supervise the construction of the Make Up Effects for a new film entitled HOUSE.  Not only that, but he was offering me work, if I wanted it.

James was back in Los Angeles after spending a lot of time working for Chris Walas on ENEMY MINE up in Marin County, California.  Upon his return, he moved into a house with a roommate named Rick Brophy who was acting as James' manager.  The idea was that when James eventually directing movies, Rick would be his producer, protecting James' interests.  So James made the offer.  Come to Los Angeles and work on this new project.  He wasn't 100% sure when it was going to start, but he felt that February would be a safe time to come to Los Angeles in preparation for the show.

I explained to James that it was going to be tough for me to come out there with no place to stay, but James insisted that he had enough room for me to crash with he and Rick.  There.  It was settled.

When I mentioned this to Tracy, she had another take on the situation.  She wasn't going to let me leave for California a fourth time alone.  She was coming with me.  I resisted.  I knew I didn't have a lot of money saved, and neither did she since she was paying for her own college tuition.  Then something unexpected happened.  James Cummins spoke with her, and offered her a job and a place to stay at his house.  It had nothing to do with me.  A job and a sofa bed were waiting for her if she was interested.  It looked like the population of James and Rick's house would double in a few weeks.

Ding,'s coming!
Like any show, there were stalls at first.  Tracy and I packed suitcases and left Louisiana to the chagrin of her parents.  They wouldn't speak to us for over a year, but it didn't matter because we had struck out on our own to begin a crazy new adventure together.

We lived with James and Rick for a few weeks before the show started.  During that time, we began to meet people that had either worked for James before, like Bill Sturgeon, or sat in during interviews of new prospective artists like Larry Odien.  It was thrilling to watch a varied group of artists and technicians come together from different studios like Rick Baker's, Tom Burman's, Make Up Effects Lab, Chris Walas, and Stan Winston's.  It was going to be an INSANE crew.  Next up we needed a place to work.

James and Rick found an old office unit, on the second floor of a building in Burbank's "Golden Mall." No one on our crew cared much about its appearance since we knew that it was going to be used as a manufacturing center.  And come to think of it, I wonder if the folks downstairs running the antique book shop must have thought that all of the commotion and noise upstairs was a crew doing improvements.  How ironic.

The Golden Mall was an outdoor strip of storefronts along San Fernando Blvd. before the big Burbank image-improvement that occurred a few years later.  No, this Golden Mall appeared to be a location populated by individuals that would have been comfortable either in a George Romero or Frederico Fellini film.

I'm going to attempt a crew list here as clear as I can remember it, if I leave your name out, PLEASE publish a comment and chastise me.

When the crew was assembled for the show, it was this (in no particular order):

James Cummins, Rick Brophy, Eric Fiedler, Larry Odien, Brian Wade, Earl Ellis, Bill Sturgeon, Howie Weed, Brent Baker, Lauren Vogt, Mike Spatola, Tony (Anton) Rupprecht, Tracy Shea, Steve Burg, Richard Snell, Cary Howe, Dirk Von Besser, Barney Burman, James Belohovek, Steve Frakes, and myself.

There was another artist who had done some preliminary designs for the show, Kirk Thatcher, whom I had met briefly during the pre-production.  A talented artist, I recall him stopping by the shop to check out the creatures as well as on set during shooting.  However, we would work together again a year or so later...

Like any show being run by someone without a permanent shop, the first order of business was to actually BUILD the shop.  We all chipped in and built work tables designed by Larry Odien and Eric Fiedler and within a week, you would have thought we had been there for months.

James broke down the main creatures amongst the mechanics: Eric Fiedler would be responsible for the marlin trophy that comes to life, Larry Odien would handle the demonic child puppet mechanics, the severed witch arm, and war demon arms, Bill Sturgeon would handle Big Ben and the witch head mechanics, and Jim Belohovek would build the flying skull puppet.

War Demon Arm Mechanics!
Latex and Polyfoam War Demon Arms
A War Demon Arm hangs on Lauren Vogt's Foam Room door, awaiting seaming.
Eric Fiedler's Marlin after being shot - wish I had a before photo!
Here's another shot of Eric Fiedler's Marlin on the "Hot Set" (Shot!  Get it?)
 The sculpting duties broke down with Brian Wade, Larry Odien, Earl Ellis, and Eric Fiedler beginning since there were no actors yet.  Brian began sculpting the war demon neck using Roma Clay presses of crew faces, Larry and Earl sculpted the war demon arms, and Eric began sculpting the marlin.  The rest of us prepped for life casting.

We cast three little people for the demonic children, a mime/performer named Peter Pitofsky, who would play the witch, and Curt Wilmot (my understanding was the Curt was director Steve Miner's tennis pro, but who knows for sure?) who would play the resurrected Big Ben.

When we weren't prepping life casts, James let a group of us sculpt monster arm gloves for the scene where Roger Cobb, the protagonist played by actor William Katt, is grabbed when he opens the medicine cabinet.  For this, James encouraged us to do whatever we wanted since the idea was that a collection of all different monsters were reaching through.  I chose to sculpt a cartoony, six-fingered, Frankenstein-ish arm.

Tracy models my monster glove.
 Tracy, who had no prior experience, was given the task of roughing out a tentacle sculpture which would be finished by other sculptors later.  I recall her not enjoying the experience.

Tracy in tentacle hell.
"Tracy, you want a photo of the tentacle?" Tracy: "No." Well, here it is anyway...
  Finally, with life casts complete, the real sculpting began.  Earl Elllis began the witch, James sculpted the war demon head, Larry Odien sculpted the demonic kid puppet (later, Richard Snell would sculpt the "water spitting" version of the same character), Brian sculpted Big Ben's chest, etc.  A few of us, who had been sculpting the monster gloves, were asked to sculpt back ground demonic children masks.

The Mechanical Witch Mask sits next to a painted Big Ben skin.
Larry Odien works on the Demonic Child mechanics.
The Hero painted skin awaits glue down onto the mechanics.  It was sculpted by James Cummins.
Larry finishing the puppet glue down.
An impressive, frightening puppet!
I was given the opportunity to sculpt one of the Demon Children background masks.
A year later, I put new eyes in it.  Check it out: It's wearing a Chris Walas ENEMY MINE crew shirt!
 There was so much more to do than just the main characters, however.  A decapitated version of the witch needed to be fabricated along with a severed head, there was a mechanical severed witch hand, as well as a Big Ben severed arm. Eric Fiedler also had to make sure that they could squib his marlin to blow a huge hole in it.

The decapitated witch body sits next to the suit.  Note Richard Snell's "Spitting Demon Child" puppet skin in front.
Steve Burg and Bill Sturgeon with a mechanical arm.  No one can remember why we built this.
 At the risk of sounding repetitive, things were very different in 1985.  Although mechanics were a specialized field, it was understood that most of us would have to do anything from sculpting, to molding, casting, seaming, etc.  However, Mike Spatola was the stand out painter and was responsible for painting most of the hero pieces on the show.

James watches as Curt Wilmont is fitted into his Big Ben suit.
James places the helmet on Ben's head.
Ben's ready to kick Roger Cobb's butt!
By far, the largest and most complicated piece was going to be the war demon.  For a modest budget film like HOUSE, it was certainly the most ambitious effect.  I was given the task of sculpting the torso of the beast, but that was nothing in comparison to the enormous body sculpture that was a mass of twisted flesh, weapons and faces.  When it was completed, Brent Baker, Steve Frakes and Barney Burman made a six-piece stone mold on it in the main room of the upstairs office complex.
The War Demon Neck sculpted by Brian Wade - You can see his face cast in there somewhere...
The War Demon torso I sculpted.  I thought I was being oh so very clever sculpting hands to serve as ribs.  Whatever.
Brent Baker and Steve Frakes with their colossal mold.
"King" James addresses the War Demon Mold Crew - That's Barney Burman on the extreme right.
Steve Frakes helps rig the War Demon frame onto the under structure.  James Belohovek seems tickled.
The mold was so huge and heavy that it wasn't opened initially.  The team cleaned out the entire mold, ran a latex skin, backed it with expanding soft polyfoam, and finally cast a fiberglass shell all with the mold closed.  They opened the mold, once, to free the piece, however the mold was so heavy and cumbersome that even after we left (evicted) from the building, those mold pieces were left behind in the room that they were made.

Yes, we were eventually evicted from the Golden Mall, but thankfully most of the work had been completed.  I'm not sure how we finally were caught manufacturing in a retail zone.  Maybe it was the smell of the fiberglass, foam latex,  or the skinflex that was being cast.  It was probably a combination of all of it, along with the noise.  The operation had to be moved, quickly, and since there was not a tremendous amount of work to complete, getting another commercial space seemed foolish.  So where could we move the studio?

Why, James and Rick's backyard, of course!