Blood Sweat and Latex

By now, most fans credit Steve Wang and Matt Rose for the creation of the Predator. However, in my conversations with Steve, in particular, he feels that an unfair amount of credit has been given to him; it was a team effort bringing the Predator to life, and he couldn’t be more correct. During Monster Squad, Matt and Steve, who had been responsible for the Gillman, had worked through the weekend, grabbing precious few hours of sleep, while they established and painted the final suit. On Monday morning, it stood in the middle of Stan Winston’s satellite shop in all of its amphibian beauty. Stan saw it and his jaw bounced onto his chest. He had NEVER seen anything like it. It impressed him so much, that he, literally, stopped the work in the studio, gathered all of his employees around it and heaped praise upon these two kids (Matt was roughly 21 and Steve 20…maybe?). He said it was the best thing he had seen in his career thus far. Probably not the best strategy in the world. Months earlier, he was in England with his crew working on the Queen Alien, and now he was recognizing these two studio newcomers as the best. Where most of us in the shop agreed with Stan, there was some dissension.

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There are events that define one’s existence that go beyond being learning or growing experiences. They become scars. Battle scars. They may fade in time, but they don’t go away. They persist. The memories of the events may become blurry, but every now and then, you run your fingertips along the raised, healed wound and remember. It all comes back like a punch in the nose. I had been on movie sets before and believed that I had been trained. The snarky ADs , the disinterested teamsters, the hustling, the waiting, they were all nearly second-nature to me, especially with the close of my on-set involvement with Monster Squad. However, nothing could prepare me for what I was going to face. My first location experience. My first time out of the country. My first time working set on a big budget film. My first time supervising a team. Predator would be all of those things and it would change my life forever.

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After working with both Mark Shostrom and Sonny Burman on Evil Dead II, I had ended up back at Stan Winston’s studio. Stan and his permanent crew of John Rosengrant, Shane Mahan, Tom Woodruff, Jr., and Richard Landon were back in the shop from England and Aliens, and had just completed the Robert Zemekis episode of Amazing Stories, “Go to the Head of the Class.” The next assignment was a mechanical boar for the Debra Winger/Theresa Russell vehicle Black Widow. No, you didn’t miss anything. The sequence was cut just as we finished the puppet. Alec Gillis returned to the studio in time for the next Amazing Stories episode “Miss Stardust” for which we created three intergalactic beauty contestants. Ironically, it was during the shooting at Universal Studios, that Stan told us what the next assignment was going to be: A cross between The Goonies and Ghostbusters entitled The Monster Squad. Okay, confession time here. I do like the original Universal films Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolfman; I’m not a huge fan of The Mummy. Yes, my brother and I saw all of the films and collected the Aurora model kits (so good) but my love of monsters truthfully was for giant monsters: King Kong, Godzilla, Ray Harryhausen pictures, dinosaurs – those were the monsters that really ignited my imagination. I was partial to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but technically, this was a 50s monster and not a 30s monster like its cousins. So when Stan told us […]

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You never know. You just never know. I wonder if back in 1930, Universal Studios make up artist, Jack Pierce while constructing his “monster” make-up on actor Boris Karloff, had wondered if he was creating something transcendent. Something that would forever infuse itself into the western culture generation after generation, becoming the mental image that every brain would access when it heard the name “Frankenstein.” I bet he didn’t. I bet ol’ Jack had an assignment, did the best job that he could, collected his meager paycheck and was grateful to be working during the depression. Truly, that is the way it is. You never can tell what will connect with audiences. You just do the work, collect your salary, and thank God you are not pounding the pavement looking for your next job. Evil Dead II is one of those cult favorite films that so much of has been discussed and revealed through interviews, articles, supplemental videos on DVD’s, convention panels, etc., that I’m not sure what I can add to all of this information besides my individual view point. Forgive me if you’ve heard much of this information before; just know that what you are now reading is not being pushed through the filter of a reporter. I was there in Mark Shostrom’s South Pasadena studio. And although, again, I didn’t go to location in North Carolina, what I designed and sculpted at Mark’s would follow me to this day.

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I realize that I am one out of millions when I say how much influence the original Star Trek series had on my life when it premiered in 1966. I was four years old then, had an older brother of seven and we were hopelessly addicted to the adventures of the USS Enterprise and her crew. When Star Trek conventions started popping up in New Orleans in the very early 1970s, I even put together a “Gorn” costume (the lizard creature from the episode “Arena”) and won an honorable mention. When Star Trek disappeared from television, it was a bit shocking for us young fans, and it would be a few years before it reappeared in syndication, at least in New Orleans. When Star Trek: The Motion Picture opened, I was in High School. Already tainted by the adventures of Luke Skywalker and pals in Star Wars, I was a bit less enthusiastic by this big screen effort. However, when I saw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in college a few years later, I knew that Star Trek was back on track! I was a fan again. Getting the call from make-up effects artist Richard Snell was one of the early highlights of my career. I had worked with the bay-area artist on House but our paths had diverged since. I knew that the Star Trek IV job was “floating” around Hollywood because I had done some bid sketches for James Cummins who was also pursuing the project. […]

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Doug Beswick’s career, like many creature makers, began with a love and practice of Stop Motion Animation. My understanding is that he met Rick Baker when they both worked at Cascade Studios (most famous for doing the claymation for the series Gumby & Pokey) and later had joined Rick’s crew as a mechanical, animatronics designer. I don’t know the details of how and why Doug decided to open his own shop, but his facility was in a small, industrial park, north east of the San Fernando Valley in Sunland. Prior to my arrival, Doug had gained some notoriety with a couple of projects. The first was Terminator in which, Beswick had built and animated the endoskeleton miniature for the few full body shots of the robot walking. The second was a Disney live action film entitled My Science Project. For that film, Rick and Doug had teamed up to build an impressive, miniature, mechanical Tyrannosaurus Rex puppet. It is interesting to see how logical progressions occur (albeit rarely) in Hollywood. Doug had built a sophisticated, miniature, mechanical puppet that looked phenomenal on film, AND he had prior experience working for James Cameron. The result: Doug was hired to build the miniature mechanical puppets for Aliens. See how that worked?

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For newbies to the column, I’m recalling defining moments that made me what I am: A Special Effects Make Up Artist looking for relevance in the 21st Century. The time is 1985, and I have finished a tour of duty for Stan Winston’s Studio. I am 23 years old. Freelance. Footloose and fancy-free. Unemployed again. I had tasted of the good life and knew that, somehow, I needed to return to Stan Winston Studios. It was everything I imagined working in a Hollywood special make-up effects studio would be and more. It certainly was first class all of the way but at the moment, it was irrelevant. Alec Gillis and Rick Lazzarini had left and joined Stan and the rest of the crew in England to continue work on Aliens. I, on the other hand, needed to find work. Toward the end of Invaders from Mars, a rumor began circulating that Rick Baker was putting together a crew to build a Sasquatch suit for a film entitled Harry and the Hendersons. Now, regardless of what others may or may not think, I knew that my work was below the established standard of excellence at Rick’s studio. This was confirmed when I interviewed with him and I wasn’t hired.

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As a kid, I loved the original Invaders from Mars. To me, it was more akin to The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T than The Day the Earth Stood Still. An alien invasion seen through the experiences of a child meant an attack on the familiar, more personal, visceral level. Teachers, classmates, neighborhood cops and parents all fall prey to mind-controlling Martians, who drag their victims underground via a sand pit. The paranoia and frustration created by director, William Cameron Menzies, was only surpassed by the film’s strong, dramatic, dream-like design sense. So, when I discovered that Tobe Texas Chainsaw Massacre Hooper was directing the remake, I was skeptical. Now, before I get misinterpreted and receive hate talk-back and e-mails, I want to go on record as recognizing that Tobe has directed a few films that are outstanding and have withstood the test of time. Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist, and, yes, even The Funhouse are very effective, however Invaders from Mars would bring with it, a set of unique challenges.

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I was fortunate to meet and work with artists who, unlike me, had already began their nomadic careers moving from shop to shop like a herd of dinosaurs in search of water. I would either call or get a call from a fellow make-up artist and the gossip and rumors would begin. There was no Internet and no cell phones so the only way to hear about upcoming work was through word of mouth. In 1985, make-up effects was still on the rise, so there appeared to be a lot of projects happening around town. Of all of the opportunities, however, the best one was presented to me by Bill Sturgeon. For those unfamiliar with Bill, not only did he do incredible mechanisms on House and Strange Invaders for James Cummins, but he was also one of Rick Baker’s original six staff artists who had created the effects for An American Werewolf in London. Bill called me from Stan Winston Studios. In the wake of the success of The Teminator, Stan was re-teamed with director James Cameron on Aliens. However, a few months prior to this announcement, Stan had committed the studio to work on Tobe Hooper’s remake of Invaders From Mars, so now his team was taxed with two films that both required a large amount of work.

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Nearly anyone can do something once. Repeating an experience for a second time, in some ways, is more daunting than the first time. When you are new to a situation, everything is potential. Possibilities. Every result is either positive or a “learning experience.” However, shouldering an experience for a second time, it is easy to let negative questions and self-doubt wander into your psyche, especially when that second experience, in comparison to the first, appears grander and more demanding. Confused? Let me explain. The Supernaturals was a “friendly experience.” Mark Shostorm and his small crew bonded quickly over a challenging but manageable amount of work. We all parted friends and remain in touch (except Ed Ferrell – Where are you Ed?). After the wrap of the show, I had returned home to New Orleans to spend the holidays with my (then) girlfriend Tracy and my family. I had no idea when fortune would take me back out to California to work on another film, but somehow, I knew it was going to happen. I knew so positively that I didn’t run out and get a job. As fate would have it, I was correct.

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For those new to the column, I am revisiting important events in my life that have made me what I am today: A Special Effects Make Up Artist seeking relevance in the 21st century. You start at the bottom, right? You pay your dues. You put in the hours and the effort and experience the pain and frustration of being a novice. Yep, that just about sums it all up. It was September of 1984, and I was in South Pasadena working on a project for Mark Shostrom entitled Ghost Soldiers*. The plot seemed simple enough: A group of young inexperienced soldiers, led by a seasoned drill instructor, is taken to a remote, rural area for a training exercise. They aren’t prepared to face a small battalion of resurrected Confederate, Civil War soldiers intent on killing them.

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For those of you new to the column, I’m recounting key experiences of my life that made me what I am today: A Special Effects Make Up Artist looking for relevance in the 21st century. I’ve dropped out of CalArts after my sophomore year and have moved in with up and coming Make Up Artist Mark Shostrom, who was seeking a roommate. I am nineteen years old… I had never experienced a Motion Picture dry spot before. In fact, I hadn’t worked on a film yet. My friend, James Cummins had left and returned from Canada with Margaret Beserra, Brian Wade, Bill Sturgeon, and Henry Golas after executing the alien effects for a film entitled Strange Invaders. Although I asked to accompany them and work on the film, James told me that he didn’t feel comfortable hiring me with no professional experience. Now, back in Los Angeles, James wanted to focus on his screenplay writing and wasn’t pursing any creature effects jobs. Clueless how to get hired at any other make-up effects studio, I stayed in Pasadena, setting up in Mark Shostrom’s apartment. Mark bid on a few small projects. One job in particular was to produce a life-sized statue in the Greco-Roman style for a commercial. We even went so far as to sculpt a maquette (a small scale model) of our proposed design, but did not land the job. Mark had also been developing some creature effects for an independent film entitled The Last Resort (which has nothing […]

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In 1983, the California Institute of the Arts, being a liberal arts college in, what was then, a remote part of the Santa Clarita Valley had garnered a few reputations. It was not unusual to see helicopters hovering around the dormitory on weekends because of the “clothes optional” pool (if you enjoyed seeing naked hippy-types). There were also the drugs. It was well known that on the west side of the dorm building was the “fourth floor walk up” which was the only floor not accessible by an elevator. I visited that corridor once and it was like walking into an opium den. The air was thick with marijuana smoke and half of the dorm room doors were open all of the time. However, I believe what CalArts had become most infamous for was their Halloween party. Every year, attending students and alumni who were fortunate to call in early and request tickets would gather in the Main Gallery room for a party that resembled something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. You name it; it was there. I can best illustrate with this short story:

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For those of you new to the column, I’m revisiting formative events in my life that have made me what I am today: A Special Effects Make Up Artist looking for relevance in the 21st Century. I have completed one year at the California Institute of the Arts Film Graphics program, and I have returned for my second year, I have moved off campus and have a small garage shop to make monsters. I am nineteen years old… My second year at CalArts, I ended up on Academic Probation. That was no easy task since students were not graded on an A, B, C, etc. scale. Instead, it was High Pass, Pass, or Incomplete. There was no “fail” but every two years (sophomore & senior) all students were “reviewed” by a board made up of a few faculty members. It probably had something to do with my cessation of attending classes primarily because they truly weren’t much more than glorified “wrap sessions.” It would be unfair to mention faculty names, but I will mention some of the classes to illustrate what I mean. I took a class called “Direct Animation” which the course description promised the manipulation of three-dimensional objects in front of a camera. To me, that is a description of Stop Motion Animation, right? It was finally something in which I had a passionate interest.

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For those of you new to the column, I am revisiting formative events in my life that have made me what I am today: A Special Effects Make Up Artist searching for relevance in the 21st Century. I left my home in a suburb of Gretna, Louisiana, traveled to Valencia, California where I attended the California Institute of the Arts. I am nineteen… Being in college, in California, in 1981, was like being in the front seat of an incredible roller coaster. Unlike how it was in New Orleans, where I would be lucky if I was able to get a hold of a genre magazine like Cinefantastique because it was not consistently available in news stands, now I felt like I was closer to “the hub” than ever. Magazines, trade papers, Hollywood poster stores, all were up to date with what was happening in motion pictures. There was also the benefit of being in one of the two (or three) “preview” cities for new films. Altered States, for instance, had opened in late November rather than at Christmas time when it opened wide, nationally. This, for a fan and initiate to Make Up Effects, was like being at ground zero.

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California Institute of the Arts or CalArts as it was known, informally, was set on a hill just off of the 5 freeway in Valencia, California (NOTE: It is still there, I toured it four years ago as a potential college choice for my daughter, but I’m telling a story here, right?). In 1980, when I arrived, CalArts was basically two buildings: The Main School building, and a set of dormitories. Inside the Main building, the schools were cordoned off like “Delos” in Westworld, but instead of “Westworld,” “Medievalworld,” and “Romanworld,” CalArts had the Music School, the Drama School, the Fine Arts School, the Dance School, and the Film School. The Film School, then, was subdivided into three departments: The Disney Animation School, The Live Action School, and The Film Graphics Department. I was in the last of those three. Keep in mind, that there was very little in the way of consumer computers in 1980 and there might have been some people messing with digital graphics at CalArts in 1980, but it was nowhere near what is being produced today. The Disney School was the most structured of the three film schools from what I could tell. Every day, lines of students holding drawing boards and carrying plastic Art Boxes would go through the wooden double doors to attend classes in Life Drawing, Design, Animation, Color Theory, etc. And folks, that is where the structure at CalArts seemed to end.

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Special effects master Shannon Shea continues his trip down memory lane in an attempt to find relevance in the 21st century world of movie-making… There was something I had known since I had seen Star Wars: I was going to leave the state of Louisiana to go to college. My older brother, who was a fellow film-nerd/fan/geek/whatever, had graduated in 1977 and gone to the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and was pretty much just miserable. True, there was a lot of drinking to do, but aside from his joining a band (he was much more into music than I was), he didn’t share his taste for genre pop culture with many of the other students. And, as a historical note, the drinking age in Louisiana at this time was 18 so being drunk on a college campus in Louisiana was as required as “Introduction to English Literature,” and the grades were easier. Needless to say that by the time I was a High School Senior, he had dropped out and worked for a salvage company. We both attended an all-male, Catholic High School in Marrero, Louisiana: Archbishop Shaw High School. It boasted being a “college prep” school, however, unless you were training to be an engineer, or a geologist, or some vocation that would keep you in a local oil field, Shaw had little to offer in those days. It did have football, which was a major focus for both the faculty and students. Not being from what […]

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For those of you new to this column, I’m revisiting important events in my life that made me what I am today: A Special Effects Make Up Artist looking for relevance in the 21st Century. By this time in the story, I have been at home, experimenting with foam latex, trying to make prosthetics and failing. I am seventeen years old. I had a job at a grocery store. This supplied me with money, but did nothing to fire my ambition or imagination. With the failure of my foam latex attempts, I decided that I needed to take a positive step toward my goals. I took a bunch of my pencil color renderings (I had gotten adept at copying TV Guide covers with pencil colors on colored paper) and went to see Herb Saussaye at the Vieux Carre Hair Store in the French Quarter (see: The Latex Genie in the Bottle). I showed him my sketches, and he hired me to help out in the shop on a part-time basis. I was elated. Working in Mr. Saussaye’s shop was the closest thing I had experienced to working in a magic shop. When you walked into the shop there were three glass cases that formed an upside down “U” the center of which formed a sales floor in the main room. Beyond the cases, was another room that was the workshop for the hair-tiers (that is tie-ers not tiers), who made custom wigs and hairpieces for theater, the Opera, and for […]

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For those of you who are new to the column, I’m revisiting formative events that have contributed to what I am now: A Special Make Up Effects Artist seeking relevance in the 21st Century. So, I’ve learned about liquid latex, got my camera, am hyped up on Star Wars, and ready to move up to the next level. I am sixteen – When the box appeared at my house, I was surprised at how heavy it was for its relative size. The shipping label was yellow and red, and in the upper left hand corner it confirmed that my order had arrived. “R&D Latex Corporation, Commerce, CA” it read. Finally, after a decade I held in my hands a box that contained the mystical material, the magical substance that turned actors into apes, had aged Dustin Hoffman to over 100 years old, and was the stuff of Ray Harryhausen Stop Motion Models! As you may remember, I read about R&D Latex Corporation in an article about building Stop Motion Models in “Super 8 Filmmaker” magazine, and I had sent in my fifty dollars (forty-five dollars for the one gallon kit plus five dollars shipping). By today’s standards that seems fairly reasonable, but in those days, when you worked at a grocery store and took home about $100 or less, $50 was quite the investment.

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For those of you new to the column, I am recalling pivotal events in my life that contributed to what I am today: A Special Make Up Effects Artist searching for relevance in the 21st Century. I had learned about liquid latex; I had my Super 8mm camera. Now, all I needed was the spark, the inspiration to push me. I am 15 years old… High School is a major adjustment for everyone, and I was no different. Archbishop Shaw High School in Marrero, Louisiana was not known for its liberal arts education. It didn’t have the reputation for being an Ivy League prep school. It was known for its football team. Consisting of an all-male student body you can imagine what life for a pudgy, sci-fi/horror loving, non-athlete was like. I was lucky, however, that when I entered the school as a freshman, my brother was already a senior. I had fallen in with a group of friends that carried over from grammar school that had similar interests, but for the most part, we knew we would have to keep a low profile in order to survive. That was Fall of 1976. America had enjoyed its big 200th birthday party that July and we movie lovers had a pretty good summer between King Kong, Logan’s Run, and The Omen. Hidden in my books were copies of “Starlog” and “Cinefantastique” magazines, and the margins of my notebooks were illuminated with sketches of creatures and space ships. We still had a […]

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