I'M RUBBER, YOU'RE GLUE
This excerpt is about the making of HOUSE (aka HOUSE - Ding Dong, you're dead)
One rainy afternoon, two gentlemen from Northern California appeared, both with their portfolios seeking employment on House. The first was Tony McVey, a sculptor whom had proven himself by working with stop-motion luminary, Ray Harryhausen. In addition to his portfolio, which was exciting because of the nature of his work, he had brought along a carpet bag. After he turned the last page of his portfolio, he reached into the carpet bag and presented two stop-motion puppets: A Tyrannosaurus Rex, and a traditional Medieval Dragon (neck and head only). My heart stopped. I had never held a stop-motion puppet in my hands and this opportunity transcended the interview that was being conducted.
Tony informed us that only the extremities (head, hands, feet) had been sculpted/molded/cast and everything else was 'built up' meaning that using upholstery foam and thin sheets of latex cast in a flat plaster mold of reptilian scales, he carefully built up the muscle forms then covered them with the latex skin. He had skillfully gathered the thin, scale-y, latex skin in natural wrinkles where they would occur which only added to the realism of the piece. It was impressive to be sure. I hoped that I would have the opportunity to work with Tony because it would have been my plan to pester him for information constantly, but it was not to be. Tony's pay rate was outside of what James could afford, so Tony would be spared my incessant questioning for the next 10 weeks of his life; he was safe.
The second gentleman was Richard Snell. I don't know what happened during that interview, perhaps having just been turned down by Tony McVey left a bad taste in James' mouth, but whatever the reason, James was not responding well to Richard. And to tell the truth, I didn't get it at all. Richard's portfolio featured clean sculptures, some light mechanics, skillfully painted maquettes and things – he even had an over-sized mechanical dragonfly for which he had done all of the sculpture/molding/casting painting as well as the mechanical design and construction. James was unimpressed by any of it, and was not disguising that fact. Richard, unfazed by James' reactions, continued.
Reaching into a paper bag he had brought with him, Richard snapped a pair of beautiful fangs he had made into his mouth. Richard revealed that his grandfather was a dentist and had taught him how to make exquisite custom teeth that were, by casual observation, better than any fangs/teeth I had ever seen. James sat, unmoved.
Richard was not to be ignored and went into what I call “full-salesman mode.” After James became dismissive of Richard's sculpting, mechanical, and dental skills, Richard reached back into the bag and handed a custom-tied wig to James. Richard went on to say that he was a “wig master” (meaning he knew how to block and tie custom wigs – a process too involved for me to describe here) whom had furnished wigs to many important clients including Dolly Parton. James held the wig in his hand, examined the tiny knots that held the individual hairs into the delicate netting, and handed it back to Richard. James had been swayed a bit, but not quite enough to bite.
However, Richard wasn't done, not by a long-shot. He reached into his bag and produced a small, black case, he opened it and produced something that was unheard of at that point: custom painted, opaque soft contact lenses.
To put this in proper context, you have to understand that before that time, custom contact lenses were predominately made by one company in Los Angeles under the supervision of Dr. Morton Greenspoon. They were made of hard plastic, hand-painted and sealed with a thin layer of acrylic. They were expensive to make and painful to put in an actor's eyes.
And there sat Richard Snell, with the first comfortable alternative to the process. If there had been a game show-type board, it would have started flashing “WIN!” Richard opened a small bottle full of saline solution and “poured” an orange lens with a vertical cat eye pupil painted on it and put it into his eye. It was impressive. He then went further and put a pair of lenses into James' eyes. James went to a mirror and looked at his orange cat eyes and smiled. Richard was hired on the spot.
As Tony and Richard left, Rick Brophy asked James why he had hired Richard. James said that the soft-contact lenses alone were reason enough, but Richard did have skills that were needed for the project, even if James didn't like him. It never got better between James and Richard.
Within a couple of weeks, James and Rick had rented a shop space. Located at what was called the “Golden Mall” in Burbank, which was home to struggling boutique shops, questionable eateries and liquor stores before the grand re-gentrification of the 1990s. Homeless people shuffled around like zombies from a George Romero movie in contrast to the nearly non-existent foot traffic from shoppers.
The space itself was not rated as a manufacturing zone (which is what, technically, makeup effects studios are) which was evident by many things. First of all, it was located upstairs, over a used/collectible book shop. Next, most of the floors were carpeted. At the top of the stairs was a large landing that must have been designed as a reception or waiting area for whatever business should have been conducted. There was one corridor than ran the width of the building from front to back and on either side were rooms (probably offices) with wood paneling. James assigned room-functions (sculpting, mold-making, etc) and then assigned people into these rooms.
Since the space was empty, the first order of business was building tables. Our “runner” was also James and Rick's assistant, a woman I had seen around campus at CalArts named Bobbi Heller. In retrospect, I'm sure that it must have been a very frustrating job for her to keep driving around Los Angeles picking up hardware and supplies and returning to Burbank only to discover another 100 things that had been forgotten, however, she didn't appreciate her all too frequent trips back and forth to the hardware store.
The tables, made primarily of 4' x 8' plywood on top of a 2”x4” wood frame were designed by Larry Odien who had blown us all away with his excellent portfolio that demonstrated unparalleled skill in both the art and mechanical departments. A native-Californian and ex-surfer, Larry was easy-going, enthusiastic, and an effective and frequent problem-solver. Under Larry's direction, the rest of us cut wood, drilled holes and bolted (rather than using screws or nails) the heavy duty tables that would be burdened with large sculptures and even larger molds.
Once all of the tables had been put into place and a small wooden foam oven was built, we were all assigned duties and rooms and the work began in earnest.
While we waited for actors to be cast for the demon children, the witch and the zombie-version of “Big Ben” (whose living incarnation would be portrayed by actor Richard Moll), we began working on things that we didn't necessarily need actors in order to begin. Steve Burg, Howard “Howie” Weed, Brent Baker, Bill Sturgeon and myself began sculpting creature gloves for a scene where the protagonist, Roger Cobb (played by William Katt) would be threatened by primarily unseen creatures on the other side of a medicine cabinet.
After a couple of days of casting each others arms, we began sculpting. Meanwhile in the lobby area, Tracy and Barney Burman had been set up with a long metal armature for a tentacle that was to join the medicine cabinet creatures that would attack Roger Cobb. However the most impressive of these projects was a Marlin fish wall trophy that was to come to life.
If there was one person that I would have to shine a light on and dump praise upon during House, it might have to be Eric Fiedler. Where it came to that Marlin, Eric was an impressive one-man band.
Once he received a fiberglass taxidermy form of a Marlin, Eric went straight to work sculpting. Within a short few days, he had the sculpture completed, he made a quick mold of the eye area then began the process of making a large resin eye that was expertly painted. He molded the sculpture in fiberglass, cored the mold (again, using fiberglass) molded the core (I could go on and on), etc...The bottom line was that Eric nearly single-handed made that entire puppet and it looked amazing.
So for those of you reading this blog regularly, you see that I'm going into much more detail about certain projects and of course there will be links to photo and video galleries.
Thanks to my family, my friends, my co-workers, my students and my fans. Time to begin another 30 years!