Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Part 44: "We're the MONSTER SQUAD"

When we completed shooting on "Miss Stardust" we returned to the shop excited to begin preparations for MONSTER SQUAD.  In anticipation of creating so many creatures and make-ups, Stan rented a third unit in the industrial complex.  While we began putting together tables and moving equipment and clutter out of the main building, Stan, himself, began designing the monsters.

Yes, I saved my screening invitation!
 It was clear from the beginning that this was not going to be a Universal picture, and, unfortunately, Universal held the rights to "certain features" on their classic monsters such as Frankenstein's flat head and neck bolts, as well as Dracula's widow's peak, etc., so Stan was instructed by production to re-design the monsters so that they would be instantly recognizable without infringing on copyrighted material.

Stan began doing pencil sketches on tracing paper (his favorite technique) and soon had approved designs for all of the monsters: Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy, the Wolfman, and the Gillman.  Dracula would only require dentures and lenses from us, while his make up would be designed and handled by make up artist, and frequent collaborator, Hungarian-born, Zoltan Elek.

While Stan was drawing, we began working on anything that we could that needed to be made but didn't necessarily need a finished design.  A couple of zombie/corpse puppets were sculpted; one, of which, Dave Kindlon mechanized with refined radio-controlled Muppet techniques.  Three actresses were cast as Dracula's brides and teeth and chest casts were made for fangs and "stake plates" for when Rudy dispatches them with a crossbow.

Stan's lifers divided up the supervisory duties per creature: Tom Woodruff, Jr. would sculpt the prosthetics required for the Frankenstein's monster, Shane Mahan took on the Mummy responsibilities while John Rosengrant supervised the Wolfman and Alec Gillis would design and oversee the various "bat-guises" for Dracula.  The Gillman (that's the Creature from the Black Lagoon to most of you folks) would be handled by Matt Rose and his friend who had joined him from San Jose, California, Steve Wang.  Richard Landon would supervise the mechanical shop, assisted by Dave Nelson, Steve James and Dave Kindlon.

There was no mistaking that most of the lifers were HUGE Universal Studios Monster Fans.  During the prep, John Rosengrant, an avid plastic model builder, brought in some of his classic Aurora Monster models for inspiration.  I had grown up watching the Universal monsters and reading Famous Monsters of Filmland, but I had a penchant for BIG monsters.  King Kong, Godzilla and pals, Reptilicus, Ray Harryhausen's creations - those were the monsters that beguiled me.  Not that I wasn't happy to be working, because, trust me, I couldn't have been happier, but after seeing those photos of the Queen Alien from ALIENS, I really wanted to work on a big monster.

John Rosengrant's finished Aurora Frankenstein kit.  Expertly done!
Rosengrant's finished Aurora Dracula kit!
Rosengrant's Mummy
Rosengrant's Wolfman.  I had never seen these kits done better so I photographed them all.  Wish he brought the rest in.
 Crews were organized by the lifers utilizing the remaining employees.  Lindsay McGowan went to help Alec sculpt bats, Emilio Gonzales (an East Coast transplant) and I went with John to work on the Wolfman and his transformations.  Lenny McDonald, a very talented artist that would go on to work for Steve Johnson for many of his films, floated in the shop doing everything from making the Gillman's eyes, to painting the undersuit for the wolfman, to sculpting the subliminal skull mask used in but a few frames of the film (the lightning strike visage - you remember!).  Eric Fiedler helped out in the mold department (a serious misuse of his talents) and a young man, Grant Arndt, from the midwest, became our runner.  However, as his talents would be recognized, he would move into the shop to work and would be replaced by Brian Simpson (Drone-performer, Doug Simpsons' younger brother).

Foam latex was run by a recent Rob Bottin studios transplant, Jackie Tichenor and David Leroy Anderson (Lance Anderson's son) joined the crew impressing everyone by making swift silicone/matrix molds on life casts in a DAY (which was no easy task)!  Dave Matherly and Anton Rupprecht helped round out the lab department.  Last, but anything but least, was Michiko Tagawa, a skilled puppet builder from Japan who had helped Stan construct the dog-creature puppet for THE THING.

So much work was done to create the monsters for MONSTER SQUAD, that all I can do is try to supply you with some highlights based on the creatures themselves...

FRANKENSTEIN'S MONSTER, as most of you know was played by actor, Tom Noonan.  Noonan came into the studio for a life cast, which was supervised by Tom Woodruff, Jr. They cast his entire head and hands.  Dave Anderson turned a based life-cast mold around in a day and Tom started sculpting the make up design that he would break down into prosthetic pieces.  I believe he also sculpted the back of the hand appliances.  Since Universal Studios-style neck bolts were out of the question, Stan put bolts on the monster's temples; I can still see Tom bending the small brass clamps that were used to give the illusion that they were securing the monster's skin at the forehead.  After the pieces were molded, foam rubber appliances were manufactured.  I'm not sure how many sets were needed, but I bet Tom Woodruff, Jr. could tell you because he painted all of them.

(L to R) A painted study of the Frankenstein Monster makeup, The Frankie Halloween mask sculpted by Steve Wang, a skull and the Subliminal Dracula Skull Mask sculpted by Lenny MacDonald.
 THE MUMMY was played by a diminutive performer named Michael MacKay.  To say Mike was skinny would be like saying that jalapeno peppers are a bit spicy.  Mike was emaciated which was the perfect base for Shane Mahan to build his Mummy.  The idea would be that MacKay would be in a suit, wearing a latex mask and for inserts, Dave Kindlon (and Steve James, I think?) built a mechanical puppet to really show the skeletal appearance of this mummy.  I'm hoping that one of the other crew will contribute to this in the comment section, but I recall that Michiko built the mummy's bandage suits.

Shane Mahan's Mummy Puppet.
THE GILLMAN would be Tom Woodruff, Jr.'s creature suit debut.  A long time fan of classic creature-suit performer Janos Prohaska, Tom convinced Stan that he would be an asset in a suit, not just because he was thin and over 6 feet tall, but also he felt that because he knew what went into making a creature suit, he would have a better idea of how to make it move well.  He wasn't wrong.  Tom was a fantastic Gillman and it was the start of a career performing in suits that continues to this day!  The suit itself would be constructed almost exclusively by Matt and Steve.  Steve, a relative newcomer to the shop, impressed Stan with his portfolio and was hired on the spot.  After casting Tom's head, hands, feet and body, Steve and Matt insisted on shaving Tom's body cast down 1/4 of an inch all over it, to insure that the suit would be tight and form-fitting.  Matt began sculpting the nail finger extensions on stone copies of Tom's hands, while Steve began sculpting the feet.  The hands and feet were completed, molded and cast so that they could be put onto Tom's body cast so Steve could sculpt the scales to match exactly as they transitioned from the suit to the gloves and boots.  A cast of Tom's head was made to be removed from the body form so that Matt could rough it out in water-based, WED clay and then pop it off of the body to be able to continue sculpting using a stand. This enabled Steve to work on the body without having to worry about Matt being in the way.

When Steve had the shoulder area of the body finished, a quick mold was taken and a stone plug was fashioned so that Matt could use it as blending reference for the head sculpture.  The body was molded in fiberglass by Steve Patino while the head was silicone with a stone matrix.  The entire body and head were cast in foam latex.

Matt Rose's and Steve Wang's Gillman Suit.
 THE WOLFMAN actually required quite a bit of work since actor John Gries would portray the man cursed with lycanthropy and Carl Thibault would play the final creature.  Gries had a slighter build and was of average height, where Carl was taller and beefier.  Unlike Lon Chaney, Jr. who portrayed both Lawrence Talbot and the Wolfman, Stan's theory was that the illusion would be better sold if the Wolfman was physically larger after his transformation.  Stan was insistent that there was a philosophical difference between a "Werewolf" which was something more like Rick Baker built in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON or Rob Bottin had constructed for THE HOWLING and what we were attempting.

It was the mid-1980's and makeup effects was enjoying its Renaissance so producing foam-latex appliances wouldn't be adequate for our Wolfman.  Stan designed a face that was an obvious departure from human facial anatomy, spreading the eyes apart and significantly lowering the forehead.  His goal was that when the audience saw this Wolfman, they would know that it was not just an actor wearing prosthetics.  Our Wolfman was to feature state-of-the-art animatronics.

On the set of MISS STARDUST, Stan discussed how our Wolfman transformation would feature something that hadn't been seen before.  Doing air-bladders beneath appliances had been done to death by this time, as well as long, drawn out transformations between puppet heads.  In the script, the only time the full transformation from man to wolf...uh, wolfMAN was featured would be in a phone booth (remember those?).  Stan came up with the idea of putting down a circular dolly track around the phone booth and using the corners of the booth as optical wipes between makeup stages.  That way, our tortured lycanthrope would transform rapidly as the camera moved.

So, it all had to begin with life casting.  John Gries came in and we cast his head in two expressions, neutral and wincing in pain, then we cast his arm in a dynamic position as well as his back.  We also cast Carl Thibault from head to foot and began making sculpting forms and clay presses to begin work.

John Gries' transformation arm cast.
 John Rosengrant was nothing if not pragmatic.  He knew that there was a strategy needed to complete the Wolfman suit and began sculpting the head and the body simultaneously to insure proper proportions.  He asked me to sculpt the hands and feet, but honestly, unlike what Matt and Steve had done with the Gillman, there was no way to pop the arms on and off of the main body to match proportion so I attempted to do it by eye.

My original Wolfman hand sculpts.
Sculpting Wolfman feet.
 When the body was finished, a quick fiberglass mold was made and a spandex, soft polyfoam suit was run, put onto a form and then handed over to fabricators who then made a Lycra covering.  Lenny McDonald painted the suit, enhancing the sculpted muscle forms and freckling skin tones over it.  The suit was then turned over to a crew to tie hair into it.

(L to R) The blown apart Wolfman puppet, the transformation head puppet, and the final suit with RC Head.
 While the long process of suit tying began, John finished off the Wolfman head sculpture and I finished the arms and feet.  Or so I thought.  It turned out that in my "enthusiasm" (which is a kind way to say that I didn't know what I was doing), I sculpted the arms too thick.  Whenever you sculpt something with the intention of punching hair into it, the sculpture should be thin because the hair will add bulk.  You've seen it before - a big, fluffy cat gets wet and looks like a skeleton.  So, with the clock ticking I banged through a thinner, less anatomical pair of gloves.  It was very disappointing.

The Wolfman hands that I had to sculpt in a day.
Compared to what I did originally, these are disappointing but became the gloves. Ouch.
 Speaking of disappointing, now would be a good time to tell you about the transformation.  Again, John would handle the head puppet; Stan insisted that  ONE puppet head be able to do just about everything.  I was given an arm to do.  The idea was that the arm would be sculpted mid-transformation so the exterior of the arm looked human while a wolf-like pad would be developing in the palm.  Like the head, Stan wanted one arm to carry the transformation illusion, so I worked closely with Eric Fiedler and Richard Landon.

The palm of my transformation arm sculpture.
I really tried to work some fleshy transformation elements.
And a LOT of detail!
The idea was that the arm would be shot in reverse.  We'd start on the underside of the arm, see the coarse fur, the wolf-pad on the palm, and long nails.  On action, we'd pull the nails in, the camera would move around to the back side of the arm and we'd pull the fur in through the skin.  The result on screen would be that the arm would sprout hair, the camera would move, we'd see the wolf pad on the palm as the sharp fingernails grew.  How much more simple could it be?

The arm was made of foam latex over a fiberglass core that was peppered with small holes.  Richard built the mechanism that would give the hand some movement at the wrist and enable the nails to grow.  Eric punched all of the hair and then tied clumps of the punched hair together with cords.  On action, we would pull the cords and the hair would just zip through the skin.  Simple!

To say the arm was a cluster-f*ck on set would be an understatement.  It was a HUGE failure.  There were too many variables, too many people involved; all I will say is this: it was the first BIG on-set failure I had ever experienced.  And, because it was so labor intensive, we only had ONE SHOT at it.

At some point we had heard from production that John's performance in the telephone booth was VERY animated and he was punching the glass as he screamed in pain.  Cutting to a static arm with a purposeful camera move wouldn't cut into the scene, so we had to be prepared to slam the hand into the wall prior to executing the effect.  That meant that the rig the arm was on would have to be rebuilt at the last minute to accommodate this change.  Also, fearing too much drag on the foam latex, Eric lubed the hair so it would pull in more smoothly (which wasn't a bad idea, but the variables of the shot had changed).

On action, we slammed the arm into the wall of the phone booth, pulled the nails in and pulled the hair. There was a millisecond delay then, vip! the hair pulled through at such a speed it nearly disappeared.  Then the camera operator took his eye away from the lens and said that he didn't like the framing and asked if we could we do it again.  Ugh.  Shyte.

We had better luck with the change-O head that had a combination of mechanics and bladders that spread the human eyes outward to mimic the final Wolfman, while pushing out the snout and inflating the cheekbones.  Also, Emilio Gonzales built a back prosthetic with bladders that pushed muscle shapes and dental acrylic bumps to suggest growing vertebrae that also was effective.  Two out of three isn't bad, but it stings when you are the one out of three that fails!

For the scene where it appears that a dead John Gries transforms back into the Wolfman in an ambulance, a mechanical arm outfitted with bladders was built, and as the camera settled on the characters shoe, a puppeteer's hand inside one of the latex Wolfman feet burst through.  That shot still makes me wince.

The biggest disappointment was that the Wolfman was sculpted in a permanent roar.  For whatever reason, (my guess is that Stan just didn't want that Wolfman to look anything but ferocious at all times), it wasn't sculpted in a neutral expression, so Dave Kindlon was severely limited to what he could bring mechanically to the head.  In the end, it didn't matter much, because as we all know, the Wolfman had nards.

As work on the Wolfman dissipated, I transferred over to the Dracula crew, assisting Alec and his crew with finishing the large bat puppet, the transformation arms, and the puppet body that was to represent Dracula in mid-transformation from bat to undead man.  Lindsay McGowan had sculpted the little bat, while Alec had sculpted the bigger bat.  Dave Nelson was chiefly involved with the mechanics of most of the Dracula pieces.  The mid-transformation body was not unlike what Rick Baker had done with David Naughton in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON; the actor was put on a slant-board through a hole in the floor of the set and a puppet torso was glued and blended on to the actor's chest.

However, unlike THE AMERICAN WEREWOLF, Alec upped the stakes replaced one of the actor's arm with a puppet arm in mid-transformation, complete with elongated fingers and wing membranes.  A set of facial prosthetics resembling bat features were produced for actor Duncan Regehr, and the make up was finished with hair pieces.

I had the pleasure of going to set a few days on MONSTER SQUAD, certainly not as much as any of the other lifers who, in general, had to be on set with their respective creatures.  So while Stan, John, and Shane were on set, maintaining the Wolfman and the Mummy, and Tom Woodruff was in his Gillman suit, assisted by Matt Rose and Steve Wang, Alec ran the shop while we completed the Dracula transformation effects.

I worked on the first,  main unit shoot, not just for the disastrous Wolfman transformation, but for the day the Wolfman exploded and reconstituted (see: Blood, Sweat, and Latex: Lending a Motorized Hand to MONSTER SQUAD).  I do recall another day when we were on a foggy swamp set where all of the monsters were playing.  Duncan Regehr had some intense, quiet dialogue during a scene and Stan thought the camera had cut and just went into a loud, Jerry Lewis comedy routine.  I don't know what was funnier, the routine or the fact that Stan had ruined a take, blushing while the A.D.'s then yelled cut and then called out for quiet on the set.

Producer, Peter Hyams shot the scene at the beginning where Dracula transforms from a bat into his undead, human form.  The crypt set was beautiful and it was so strange having a live armadillo running around on set.  We shot a series of puppets and parts that day, starting with Lindsay's small bat, Alec's large bat puppet, then the series of transformation arms; I think there were three stages but only two were seen in the film (or maybe it was four stages and only three...).

How about a little supplemental video?

While crews were busy finishing pieces needed to complete MONSTER SQUAD, and working on set with the performers, a group consisting of a couple of producers and a director came to the shop to speak to Stan about their troubled picture.

It seemed that they had completed principle photography of their new sci-fi/action film, but were unhappy with the creature that another company had built and now, they wanted the genius behind the Queen Alien.

The movie was PREDATOR, and my life was about to change forever.