Monday, March 4, 2013

Part 46: The Saga of THE PREDATOR, Part 2

Never had I seen two individuals whom artistically work so well together have such divergent work styles.  While Matt Rose would sit in front of his Predator head sculpt, wearing headphones and listening to Ronnie James Dio cassettes, Steve Wang would have pop music (I can recall Janet Jackson, for sure) playing out on the studio's sound system while he worked.  It wasn't unusual for Steve to step back away from what he was sculpting to demonstrate a dance step or two.  No.  I'm not kidding.  But under the circumstances, what else was there to do?  Fret?  I was doing that for everyone, including Stan.  As I understood it, my ass was on the line.  Steve and Matt, having head-strong youth on their sides, were indefatigable machines working non-stop for hours and staying much later than any one else on the crew.

During the show, our runner, Jackie Lancette, was bumped into the front office to do clerical work and needing a new runner, Brian Simpson was hired.  Brian was Drone Performer, Doug Simpson's younger brother who aspired to be a stuntman like his brother, but hadn't established himself in the industry yet.  I had worked with runners before and since and I can say that Brian was the absolute best of the best.

None of us condoned speeding to pick up supplies, but Brian was somehow able to find, pick up, and in some cases, substitute correctly one product for another in about one half of the time I had ever experienced it before.  Not only that, but he didn't care or grouse when he was sent to the same hardware store 5 different times in one day.  There was no bullshit with Brian.  He just....did.  Believe me, it was a blessing.

Matt had roughed in the head and it was evident that he would have to remove the mandibles and sculpt them as an appliance to be attached afterward. From being able to detail the inside of the fleshy membranes to sliding the finished foam-latex over the mechanics, it was definitely the best way to go.  Matt made the mold on the Predator head, himself (with assistance from a couple of us).  For those of you who like to know these things it was an Ultracal 30 mother mold with GI-1000 (silicone) poured into it.  It was a BIG mold and I can still remember Matt sliding the stone mold pieces into place before sealing it up and beginning to pour the silicone.

We ran lots of foam latex in silicone molds in those days with good results.  Most of the time, moisture and steam would be alleviated by utilizing a stone core, or a fiberglass core that had been peppered with tiny vent holes.  Whenever silicone molds were baked, the temperature of the oven was reduced to about 160 to 180 degrees and the molds were baked for 8 to 10 hours in some cases.  The only problem was that if too many runs were necessary, the silicone began to turn white (instead of its customary blue hue) and break down.

As Matt was sliding the mother mold into place, he nicked his sculpture (I would indicate where, but I like to keep that information secret - that way when people tell me that they have somehow managed to get a pull from the original Predator head mold, I can look at it in a second and know whether or not it is genuine).

A black self-skinning soft urethane casting of Matt's Predator head. Steve Wang and Grant Arndt look on in horror!
 When the mold was opened a quick stone positive was poured out to the lower face area so that Matt could begin sculpting the mandibles.  While he was waiting for the positive to be cast, he turned his attention to an unfortunate problem.  The feet, having been sculpted prior to the body being completely finished, did not extend up the leg far enough (and consequently, there were other aesthetic issues).  Matt jumped in and re-sculpted the feet.

Meanwhile, Steve was furiously busy sculpting and building the Predator weapons.  Using a combination of clay and model parts, he constructed the cannon which was molded in silicone and cast in very thin fiberglass.

The casting was turned over to Dave Kindlon who was busy mechanizing the gun mount so it could be puppeteered.  The idea was that the Predator's helmet and gun were tied together.  As the Predator shifted his focus and attention, the shoulder cannon would automatically focus on what he was looking at.  Of course, in 1986, we didn't have the know-how to make this happen automatically, but it would be executed by coordinating and rehearsing Kevin Peter Hall's movements so the puppeteer could anticipate and move the cannon accordingly.

An on-going disagreement had existed between mechanics in just about every studio and the people that ran the foam-latex skins.  If the foam rubber was too dense, like it had been on MONSTER SQUAD, it did two things that mechanics hated: It limited the movement of the mechanics and burned out servo motors. After receiving the first test skin of the head (which was akin to shoe rubber) I set out to insure that I would hear no complaints from the mechanical department. Having extensive experience running foam latex and having been frustrated along with everyone else at the dense MONSTER SQUAD foam, I took a look a what was being done in the foam room and discovered a very basic problem - too much foam was being run in the mixers.  Since the raw chemicals would fill nearly 1/3 of the bowl, when the high-speed mixing began, the volume would reach the top of the bowl quickly without whipping enough air into it.  Hence, the result was dense foam.

I initiated a new formulation that would put a smaller amount of the chemicals into the mixer and whip it until it reached the top of the bowl and the result was a super-light foam latex that enabled the servos to move it with little resistance.  While that served the head, the body was a different issue.  Since the armor had been sculpted onto the body, we ran small amounts of dense foam, poured it into the armor sections, let it gel, pushed it down to make it even DENSER, then ran a softer foam for the skin sections.  Because of the time constraints, we knew we would only be able to run two suits for the entire shoot.

Ah, yes, the entire shoot -- let's address that now.  Originally, we were told that this was to be a 5 day pick-up shot week just to put the creature into the completed film (by and large, the film WAS completed).  What could we possibly need more than two suits, right?  Oh, yes, and for much of the film, the Predator would be optically camouflaged which meant that instead of our cosmetic suit, he would have to wear a red spandex suit that had the basic silhouette of the creature.

Enter Joel Hynek of Robert Abel and Associates.  Quick VFX history lesson - Bob Able was New York based and had established a reputation for producing unique, strange, visually arresting commercials, especially in the 70's.

Since I was an effects nerd, I knew of their reputation and was looking forward to working with them.  Again, be careful what you wish for!  In all fairness, everyone was just trying to do their jobs with a difficult schedule and challenging effects.

Now that I'm older and more experienced, the thought of having to track a figure running through the jungle, removing the red element out and having to produce the displacement effect via traditional animation and optical printing techniques would make my head pop like I was being scanned!  Then, however, I was a stupid 24 year-old kid who, although I was a fan, had big logistical head aches of my own!

I had to figure out how the red suit was going to be made and more importantly who was available to do it!  Then I remembered my friend Leslie Neumann.

Leslie was married to my friend, composer, Drew Neumann with whom I had attended CalArts (in the experimental animation program).  Leslie had worked at a place called Shafton's (that may be spelled incorrectly) and had been instrumental in building walk-around character costumes but when I contacted her, she was basically working out of her house from project to project.  I discussed what we needed for the show and she agreed to meet me at the studio.

With the clock ticking, we knew that there were going to have to be some compromises.  The first, most obvious one was having to sacrifice the Predator's "dreds" represented in the red suit.  It wasn't that we didn't have some solutions to how to do it; it was that we really didn't have the time to test and build yet a fourth set of dreadlocks when we were rushing to just to finish the other three Predator heads.

Steve Wang supervises Eddie Yang as he trims and trims Pred-dreds! My grey camera bag sits on the counter behind them.
 I spent a lot of time on the phone with Joel Hynek discussing all of these issues prior to our showing up on set.  After all, since Joel had been part of the Puerto Vallarta shoot, he had the practical experience and had indicated the type and color of the material Leslie would be building the red suit out of, as well as the fabric paint (Design Master brand - sold at Michael's) that we would need to have on set for painting out any stains that (we knew) would occur.

A simple set of polyfoam pieces were given to Leslie, along with a body form, and she went back to her house to begin sewing and assembling.

Now in the midst of all of this activity, some very important things happened - Stan became attached to a film as a director.  For years, Stan had fantasized about directing his first film.  Among them was one that he had developed, co-written, and with the help of his crew had done an incredible amount of art/sculptural work for entitled MORGOOLUM.  However, MORGOOLUM would have to wait as Stan was being given the opportunity to direct PUMPKINHEAD, a script by Gary Gerani and Mark Carducci.

Without going too much into PUMPKINHEAD at this point, what is important is that Stan called his lifers back from their vacations to begin the design process while the PREDATOR crew continued pushing forward.

The Predator Back Pack run in black fiberglass, awaiting gun mechanics and finishing!

Earlier that year, my girlfriend, Tracy, and I had been burned by the IRS to the tune of $3500 (which was a lot of money for two twenty-somethings in 1986).  Our accountant had told us that we would have cut that amount in half if only we were married and not living together.  We decided, quite unromantic, that we should make the time and get hitched.

Knowing that Thanksgiving weekend was coming up and it would be the only 4 consecutive days off between November and February, we went to the L.A. County Courthouse and got married the Wednesday before Thanksgiving- the 26th of November, 1986 .  And, just because Tracy and I took four days off didn't mean Matt or Steve did.  They were back to work on Friday and continued to work through the weekend.

When I returned to the studio on Monday morning, I was surprised to see some new faces working there including Screaming Mad George who was painting a fiberglass Predator helmet that Matt had sculpted.

By now, I'm sure that most of you know that the iconic helmet or "mask" of the Predator underwent changes during the build.  Yes, production had given us a piece of artwork that has been attributed by veteran VFX artist/designer/supervisor Alan Munro:

We got this image PRIOR to beginning the work.  Yes Alan did have some influence over the final design.
However, we weren't following Alan's design to the letter and so Matt sculpted the first mask to be intimidating, beautiful, and yet look somewhat functional.  If you have never seen it, here is a photo of the Predator wearing Matt's first mask:

Isn't it lovely?!
But that wasn't the only element that would be changed.  Steve and Matt fresh off their success with the Gillman from MONSTER SQUAD had sculpted individual finger cups that served as nails and finger extensions to give the predator long, thin, spindly fingers.

Production was going to stop by to see our progress, putting Kevin into the suit.  I'll never forget Steve Wang showing me a photo of a locust and telling me that he was going to use it as inspiration for the paint job.  In my ignorance, I didn't understand, but it would be an industry changer -
It wasn't THIS photo, but one like it that Steve showed me in a book!
Steve began painting the body while Matt turned the mandible sculpture over to the mold department.

The foam latex suit ready for painting!

Steve paints the body.  BTW - Check out what he's painting it with - A Paache "H" airbrush!
Richard Landon, supplied with fiberglass under skulls, soft foam rubber test skins and acrylic teeth had begun to mechanize the head.  I recall that he fit 9 servos into the hero head that controlled brow movement, a cheek "squint" and the mandibles open and closed.  When he demonstrated the mechanics to Stan, the lower mandibles opened but did not spread out away from the mouth.  Stan asked that Richard add the movement in the 11th hour and with no more room in the head, he accomplished the engineering using an external servo that was about the size of a baseball.  I remember him handing us the finished mechanics with the servo hanging from two cables on either side and saying, "Sorry, you're going to have to hide this somewhere.

Luckily, the foam in the back of the suit was so thick, that we could skive an area out for the servo to slide into perfectly.

On the day of the Los Angeles (technically, it would be Northridge, California) fitting, producer Joel Silver, director John McTiernan, and Kevin Peter Hall showed up at Stan's.  We suited him up with as much as we had finished which was a suit, a pair of unpainted hands with the finger extensions, and a test, stunt head that Steve had painted but had no dreadlocks on it.

As we stepped back and looked at the creature, we noticed that some things were going to have to change instantly.  Kevin, although his fingers looked long and spider-leg-like, was having difficulty handling the weapons and holding onto the little tools in his medical pack.  New gloves would need to be sculpted, molded, run, seamed and painted immediately.  Also, originally there was to be a sword handle sticking out of the backpack close to the gun.  You can see the "curve" of the blade represented by the curve of the backpack (which always reminded me of a shrimp for some reason).  But when Kevin turned his head to the left, the protrusion of the Predator's muzzle would smack right into the handle of the sword so it was eliminated.

From a trivia point of view - there were two fiberglass swords that were run and painted.  They ended up hanging, blades crossed on the wall of our truck when we got to Mexico.  Look closely in behind-the-scenes photos and videos and you can see them hanging there.

Then, we put Matt's original helmet on to show them.  Joel hated it instantly.  He said that part of the mystery of the Predator was that first he was "invisible" then next when we see him, he's wearing a mask, and finally he takes the mask off to reveal the face.  Matt's design "tipped the hand" too much revealing what was going on underneath.  Matt, Steve, and I didn't agree.  We loved Matt's mask, but being professional, commercial artists, a new mask had to be sculpted AND FAST!  Our deadline was approaching.

Oh yeah - something else.  When Kevin put the suit on the crotch of it looked weird.  Remember how I said that Steve had raised the belt line on the suit to give Kevin the illusion of having longer legs and a shorter torso?  Well, now it was evident.  Something had to be done.  Grabbing a sheet of suede fabric, Steve created a quick loin cloth that not only covered most of the front (with the exception of the metallic codpiece) but the behind which looked like a pair of silver hot pants was camouflaged as well.
Matt Rose begins sculpting the new mask as Shane Mahan looks on.
Meanwhile, I called production and asked what the location was like.  They told me that it was jungle.  Not Hollywood-fake jungle - no, REAL jungle.  They suggested that we prepare ourselves by purchasing military boots and rip-stop pants.

What the hell were we in for?

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