Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Another Diversion from the Time Line - A Message to Fans

Recently, I've been accused of being "disgruntled", "angry", even a Practical Effects turn-coat.  It seems that I'm in danger of having my "fan" card revoked.  I think that much of this has to do with what many feel is my "bitching" about some of my experiences on different motion pictures either here on my blog, in comments that I've made on Facebook (my account, as of this writing, has been suspended), as well as blog/magazine interviews.

Well folks, today is the day I set it all straight:

Is Shannon Shea a disgruntled makeup effects artist?  No.....and yes.  One of the reasons I've started this blog is to give you a first-hand account, a personal account of what I experienced coming up through the ranks.  Much of what happened was the result of the industry being fairly new, me being very young and immature, and the changing climate of Visual Effects altogether.  But what I think fans - especially fans today - don't get is that this is not all one big party out here.  This is work.  Yes, we make monsters, have fun doing it, but at the end of the day it is commercial art.  We have always had not just  a responsibility to fans, but a very real responsibility to clients who pay us (never enough) money to execute effects for motion pictures.

Sure, there are a lot of side things that happen, pranks, cartoons, short-films, personal projects, Halloween costumes that are a big part of the working environment, but at the end of the day, what we do is no different from any other manufacturing concern in the United States.

So, you're knee-jerk reaction is probably - "Shannon Shea doesn't care about making monsters any more than some factory worker putting shoes together."  That is simply untrue.  I chose this profession.  I've been a HUGE fan of dinosaurs, science-fiction, horror, and fantasy since I was a kid.  Read the blog.  Understand.  But unlike SO many others who dreamed about pursuing this career, I got in my car and drove out of Louisiana to actually DO IT.  And, I would hope that anyone who was designing shoes, cars, furniture, software, shampoo bottles, etc. was doing it BECAUSE THEY LOVE IT!  Not, just for the money.

If I was only interested in money, I can think of a million better, more effective ways of generating money than sitting in an un-air conditioned room, full of fiberglass dust and chemical fumes making monsters.  I have done this because I love (still love) making monsters.

The only reason I can be labeled disgruntled is because, from a purely personal stand-point, I think that the best years of practical effects were still on the horizon when digital solutions became the mainstay.  Don't believe me?  Look at WALKING WITH DINOSAURS (the live stage experience) or HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (the live stage experience) and tell me that you don't just gawk at how friggin' amazing it is.  But....for some reason....producing this type of illusion is generally seen as not cost effective.

Blame unions, blame untalented directors, blame whomever you want...practical effects are a very viable solution in the hands of courageous, mature-minded, clear-thinking filmmakers.  Wimps need not apply.

Spraying glass micro-beads to this mockup penguin for BATMAN RETURNS. Not wearing a mask!

Why does Shannon criticize the work done in movies that so many of us love?  Do I?  What?  JURASSIC PARK If all you ever seem to get from me is criticism than you are only listening to half of it.   JURASSIC PARK was hard work.  Yes, I did mention the project to Stan before anyone else.  I got a hold of the UNPUBLISHED manuscript from Castle Rock productions through Greg Nicotero.  No one had ever HEARD of "Jurassic Park" prior to that.  I made a copy of the manuscript and gave it to my friend and dinosaur lover Mike Trcic.  Stan had NO idea what we were talking about during TERMINATOR 2 because NO ONE had any idea what we were talking about, with the exception of the VERY few that read the manuscript.  Those are the facts.  Accept them, disregard them.  You are free to believe whatever you want, but that is the truth.

Now, if you are one of the super-fans out there who thinks that I have no right to say anything disparaging about the year and a half we spent making the world's first, full-scale, fully-animatronic, dinosaurs for a motion picture (no, I'm not counting the amazing dragon in SIEGFRIED because there was only one and it had a bunch of guys in it) then I'd ask you to do something: put yourself in my shoes while I tell you this quick story:

I grew up LOVING dinosaurs.  My love of monsters grew out of looking for photos of Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen's dinosaurs in Famous Monsters of Filmland.  I had spent most of my life collecting toys, model kits, magazines, books, video tapes, everything I could about dinosaurs.  It was my life's ambition to  work on a project like LAND OF THE LOST or VALLEY OF GWANGI. So, imagine how I felt when I was told that I wasn't good enough, artistically, to key one of the main dinosaurs.  I was 30 years old at the time.  Full of piss and vinegar.  Was I good enough?  Probably not.  But I doubt anyone is 100% self-aware and at the time it was a tremendous blow to my ego.

But it wasn't just that.  It was business also.  While most of the crew went onto set for TERMINATOR 2, I babysat the shop, making sure the rest of the construction of the effects was getting done.  Why should it matter?  Because of the money.  I was making significantly LESS money than my fellow set supervisors.  When JURASSIC PARK arrived, I had 10 days, being paid as a puppeteer, on set.  That, in comparison to the WEEKS others received.  So....bitter?  At the time....you bet.  But wouldn't YOU be?

When the Jurassic Park residual checks arrived, yes, I received a sizable amount of money, but nothing compared to my co-workers who could afford to put down payments on new homes (and, many of them were SINGLE and not raising a daughter).  So....bitter?  At the time....you bet.  BUT....

I grew up a bit.

I realized what was really important to me artistically and that was creating - not just being a pair of hands making things for clients, but creating stuff for myself.  I've made short films, painted, made and sold prints of my art, sculpted, produced a web series, written scripts for stage and film, acted and yes, even learned some 2D digital skills.

So why am I perceived as such a grouch?  Because I won't drink the Kool-Aide.  I refuse to.  I know what it is like to have $10 in my pocket and need to figure out how to make a zombie for a short film.  I know what it is like to have hours in order to make and shoot a miniature cave set.  I don't complain.  I love doing it.  But when you ask me to praise a $200 million dollar film with an army of digital artisans that have had two decades of technical development,  visual reference and inspiration for their efforts my response is: Why should I be impressed?  It was THEIR JOB to make those visual effects, and unlike folks who are making things in their garages or living rooms (I'm looking at you Miguel Ortega), these large VFX concerns have a responsibility to turn in digital effects that are at least on par with whatever the last enormous Hollywood Tent Pole Digital Epic was.  There is little innovation past new software and user interfaces.  Visually, the work is looking repetitive.  So just BECAUSE there's a star ship crashing into San Francisco bay doesn't mean I have to wet my pants over it.  It SHOULD look good.  It had BETTER look good for as much money as they spent on the shot.

I'm not a grouch.  I'm a realist.  And before you bang on about all of the talented people who flatten their asses moving pixels around, I get it.  I've seen enough people flattening their asses pushing clay around and let me tell you....with little exception (and there are exceptions) most of those artists do it FOR THE MONEY.  They expect to be WELL PAID let me tell you.  If all of these folks loved their work so much, wouldn't they do it for free?!  Isn't that what actors do now?  It's all for "the love of the craft" the money is secondary.  That's what the actor's union would want you to believe, otherwise our residual structure, and health care would at least be on par with what it was 20 years ago!!!!!

I am nothing if not encouraging to new talent.  Yes, a few folks have sent in over-exposed, out of focus photos of blood poured over their friends and have asked me how to work in movies (and how much they would be paid - seriously!) and to those folks I'm honest.  I point out how much competition there is out there compared to what it was like 30 years ago.  I point out that they have to bring their "A" game each and every day.  Learn the craft!  Learn the history!  You have to now.  It isn't a suggestion; it is a requirement.

Some folks say that I am dismissive about relocating to Los Angeles to find work in a studio.  The accuse me of trying to "hang on to my job" and am discouraging competition.  I have a secret.  I don't have a job.  I'm freelance and now do so much more than pouring urethane in an effects lab.  The reason I'm discouraging is because I receive at least 20 legitimate inquiries a year and I know too many people out of work to burden the industry further.  Sure, if you are a trust-fund kid and don't NEED money, by all means COME ON OUT!  Be an intern, work all day and get no pay, if that suits you.  But when your request comes with "How much money will I get paid when I come out to work?" then forget it.  This is a discussion for another entry, but I think you get my meaning.

This, however, has little to do with the hundreds of students I've encouraged in person and on the Internet.  I LOVE seeing great work and I LOVE seeing the enthusiasm that comes with youth.  I encourage anyone and everyone who wants to make monsters to do so.  I still LOVE Halloween and every year, like a moth to the flame you can find me at Michael's, Jo-Ann's, Target, and of course, Halloweentown browsing around, getting inspired by what is being offered for the season.  And when I see that someone has taken that extra step decorating their yard, then I can be an annoying stalker.  I respect the effort that went into it, the creativity, and the commitment.

See? Does this sound like a grouch?

This is as far as I was allowed to paint the full-sized baby Triceratops head for JURASSIC PARK; somehow I have no right to feel disappointed that I was not allowed to bring it to fruition.
Shannon, why are you not in support of Practical Effects anymore?  Who said THAT?  Because I don't run around condemning digital effects I'm a turn-coat?  As you have already read, I don't praise them emptily either.  I will always love and produce practical effects where ever I can.  If a script or a shot can be done in the camera, that's what my aim is.  However, only a fool throws out the advances that digital effects can bring.  Removing Ralph Fiennes nose in HARRY POTTER... that was cool.  Davy Jones in PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN....come on....f-ing excellent.  AND, yes, the dinosaurs in the JURASSIC PARK series.  I love them all.  I love the bugs in STARSHIP TROOPERS....I do.

But this does not make me a turn-coat.

There's a new GODZILLA movie coming out.  I have no idea what the plan is.  But show me collapsing digital buildings and a digital monster and I don't care how realistic it is....yawn time.  I've seen it.  I keep seeing it.  I'd rather see a state-of-the-art suit with model buildings, high-speed cameras and PYROTECHNICS!

I'm no turn-coat.

I've produced two ULTRA low budget films this year and I've hired practical effects folks both times.  Yes, they were fairly new to the industry and I didn't pay them tons of money, however, they delivered 100% and I couldn't be more proud of them.  I've done very little 2-D digital animation, and some compositing but that, in my opinion, is what the computer excels at: it is a HELL of an optical printer.

The Makeup Effects tent on SCREAM AT THE DEVIL - All practical, all fantastic!
 So to sum up - I had some rough times coming up through the industry.  I know many of you want to hear "OHHhhhhhh, everything was GREAT!  It was all GREAT!  Everyone was friendly and supportive and ready to help me at every turn."  While there were many moments that happened, there were equal (if not more times) that I fell victim to ego, immaturity, greed, envy, exclusion, by myself and others.  It's not a pretty picture, but it is the truth, and at least with me, I'll give you my version of the truth as I experienced it, not some white-washed, jazzed-up press release story.  You all deserve to hear my truth but have the responsibility to draw your own conclusions and decide whether I was victim to my own demons or the stupidity of others.

I'm not a crank.  I've said it before: I like what I like.  You like what you like.  When we disagree we should spend less time trying to convince the other that our particular opinion is anything more than that...our opinion.  So go piss theater seats watching over-blown digital nonsense...I'll piss my couch watching VALLEY OF GWANGI.  I'm still a die-hard fan of the stuff I love.

 I'm no turn-coat. I'm a practical effects guy through and through, but I do recognize the necessity for digital effects when it is necessary, not when it is a crutch.

Lastly, if being a fan means that I'm required to stuff my flabby body into a pair of Hawkman wings, or automatically like any sequel, remake, re-imagining of any genre film, television series, comic book, web-series or novel because "it is good for the genre so it will generate more work for the industry" then do me a favor - revoke my card.  Supporting crap is supporting crap. I don't care how phenomenal the effects are, I don't care from whom it came, SHOW ME SOMETHING GOOD DAMN IT!  Not "comparatively good."  Someone recently told me that the new responsibility of the fan is to "find something redeeming" in every genre film. F-that!  It's not MY responsibility to wade through shit to find a Snicker's Bar.

I choose to not climb into the shit pit.


Hey folks, just wanted to share some of my practical effects work on SCREAM AT THE DEVIL. First, we need a shot of gathering storm clouds, so we MADE them with polyfil:

The bottom picture shows the "lightning" effect by inserting small light bulbs into the polyfil cloud!
 We also needed a quick shot of HELL, so, I made this miniature in director, Joseph Stachura and actor Shari Shattuck's garage:
Wait till you see what comes out of the PIT!!! All practical!  Not digital at all!
So, the practical effects continue!  And for the moment, so do I.