Shannon Shea has done special effects work on over sixty films. From Evil Dead II to Predator. From Dances With Wolves to Jurassic Park. From In the Mouth of Madness to Sin City. Every week he delves into his personal and professional history to tell the story of how he became a monster that makes monsters.
So there I was, in a small conference room in Woodland Hills, California on a warm February afternoon in 2009. I knew that the meeting would go long, and I would have to spend at least an hour driving home to Los Angeles. Sitting next to me was Mark Dippe, Industrial Light and Magic alumnus and director of the movie Spawn, and across from me sat Dean Cundey, the guy that not only shot all of John Carpenter’s early movies, but also shot Jurassic Park and Back to the Future just to name a few. At the end of the table was producer Tom Kiniston; I had worked with Tom on the Tremors TV series, and next to him was Brian Gilbert, formerly of Stan Winston Productions. The director was Brian Levant, whom I had never worked with personally. However I was familiar with him because I was representing KNB EFX Group, and KNB had made the Turbo-Man Suits for Jingle All The Way, a Mr. Levant effort. We, along with other department heads had gathered to discuss Scooby Doo and the Curse of the Lake Monster.
As we began to go through the storyboards, I would occasionally steal a glance across the table and look at Dean’s face which was a combination of boredom and pain. See, I had worked with Mark and Dean on Jurassic Park, and although no one said anything out loud, I’m sure we were all thinking the exact same thing: “What has led me here? What did I do? What didn’t I do?” Okay, we all have to work, and I had prostituted myself out for MANY a low budget film, but what were the chances that three people who had contributed to one of the most iconic, big special effects extravaganzas of all time would be sitting in a room discussing how much of the titular Lake Monster was going to be practical for certain shots of a made-for-dvd video? It was a hard reminder that times in Hollywood were not only tough, but that there was a definite changing of the guard, and it was unclear who would remain to contribute to “The New Hollywood.”
We had gotten one third of the way through the storyboards and someone took pity on me. “Hey, we all know what Shannon is going to build for the show. Does he have to stay through the rest of the meeting?” I looked at Dean’s face again. Envy. Brian Levant dismissed me, I thanked everyone and left. During the drive home, I couldn’t help but fight that creeping, depressing feeling that, ironically, had been hiding in the shadows since 1992. As I sat in the freeway traffic I had been dreading, my mind wandered back to that question: “How the hell had I gotten here?”
It isn’t a short answer. It wasn’t the result of anything that had transpired a year or two ago. This went back, WAY back to childhood.
I was one of three children born to Janet and Al Shea in a suburb of New Orleans, Louisiana. Like so many other special effects artists before me, I was hooked by seeing the original King Kong on our black and white television when I was three. At that moment, a die-hard dinosaur fan had been created, and whenever I was asked what I was going to be when I grew up, the answer I always gave was “Paleontologist.”
Television was a huge influence on us kids, and we were lucky enough to witness the birth of shows like Star Trek (TOS), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Lost in Space. These shows were like tent poles that supported a growing fandom in both my brother and me. At the movies, we were fed a diet of James Bond films (starting with Thunderball for me), Stanley Kubrick’s timeless masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, and of course the Planet of the Apes series.
The more I saw, the deeper my interest and curiosity grew. The most significant obstacle was information. Even though I was an avid reader of “Famous Monsters of Filmland,” there was rarely an article that went into depth about how monsters and special effects were created for motion pictures. I was a huge fan of Willis O’Brien and although it would be years before I would see his earlier efforts, the work on King Kong and Mighty Joe Young was enough to recognize him as an effects god.
Like many who eventually ended up building practical monsters for motion pictures, my main focus was stop motion animation and it goes without saying that Ray Harryhausen was a prominent influence as well. Believe it or not, I wrote Ray, in care of Warner Brothers Studios, when I was a kid to ask him questions about the Allosaur in The Valley of Gwangi, but was never answered. I also wrote to (and drew a bunch of dinosaurs for) the original King Kong puppet builder, Marcel Delgado, when “Famous Monsters” editor, Forry Ackerman, announced that Mr. Delgado was in ill health.
Yes, my passion ran that deeply.
In the mid-seventies, more information began to trickle out albeit slowly. I found a paperback copy of the book “Movie Magic” by John Brosnan (I still own it…) and I began subscribing to “Closeup Magazine,” which was devoted to the art of stop motion animation. “Movie Magic” was like Pandora’s Box; it was so full of photos, information and stories that began with silent pictures and progressed all the way to Tora, Tora, Tora and the then-contemporary Irwin Allen disaster classics The Towering Inferno and Earthquake. What Mr. Bosnan’s book taught me was that the term “Special Effects” was very broad and covered everything from glass matte paintings to physical explosions.
“Closeup” was a short-lived glossy paged periodical published by David Prestone. I believe I first read about it in the classified ads of an issue of “Cinefantastique Magazine.” The first issue dealt with the television series Land of the Lost, and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, but the most extensive story was coverage of Flesh Gordon. Even though there were no…questionable photos in the magazine, I still took great lengths to conceal it from my parents.
The second issue was on Puppetoons (George Pal and Rankin/Bass efforts, etc.), and in one of the articles was the first piece of real information I could glean: the puppets were cast in “self-vulcanizing latex.” I happened to be at a community theater where my mother was performing when I asked the scenic designer (who went on to leave Louisiana and become an actor), Don Hood, what that meant.
“Latex?” he asked, “You can get bottles of latex right down the street from the Vieux Carre Hair Shop.” WHAT!? BOTTLES OF LATEX???? DOWN THE STREET?????
I was doomed.
NEXT WEEK: “The Latex Genie in the Bottle”
Shannon Shea, a native New Orleanian educated at The California Institute of the Arts, has enjoyed a 27-year tenure designing, constructing, and performing animatronic creatures and characters for Motion Pictures and Television. He has had the pleasure of contributing to such diverse films as Predator, Dances With Wolves, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Spy Kids, The Chronicles of Narnia, Drag Me To Hell and 2012’s Men In Black 3.
Not limited to the confines of Motion Pictures, he paints (having been shown in New York, North Carolina, and Los Angeles), sculpts, writes and authors a new blog about his motion picture experiences called Monster History 101. Recently, he was tapped by the Stan Winston School of Character Design to be one of their instructors for a lecture series entitled Garage Monsters. When not participating on Hollywood projects, he enjoys producing, writing, and directing his own short films including Hotel Superman, Blind Passion, and his current Internet project Phantom Harbor. Shannon lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tracy, an Operatic Soprano and their daughter, Molly, who attends the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago.