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.


  1. Wow, completely forgot about that picture Steve and Matt's early Fangoria appearance.I was a friend of a friend of theirs at the time that issue came out and I was so inspired. I was already headed in a similar direction as they were, but seeing the ghoul brothers picture and knowing that they were from my own town was such a motivator for me. I was a year or two younger than them and they had already gotten going in LA. But great memory there. Thanks for the posting that.

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