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.
The year 1980 had ended with Dick Smith’s incredible transformations of actor William Hurt for Altered States and as if he hadn’t wowed us fans enough, Smith came back in January of 1981 with his incredible psychic-war effects for Canadian-director, David Cronenberg’s Scanners. Where, before, articles on Make Up Effects Artists were superficial interviews that either focused on one film or a survey of a career-in-progress, suddenly in-depth articles arose where the specifics of the construction and execution of a film illusion were discussed.
Exotic casting materials were introduced like Smooth-On Elastomer for creating the air bladders that rippled beneath foam latex appliances and DuPont’s Elvacite that Smith utilized to create the “bleeding” vessels for Scanners. So much information was becoming available that staying ahead of it was challenging.
It was during this time that I had the pleasure of being introduced to a former CalArts alumnus named James Cummins. James, a native Missourian, had attended the Disney school before he left to pursue his career in Make Up Effects, something he had loved since he was a boy. When I met him, he had just returned from Canada where he had been working on a Made-For-TV rip-off of the movie Alien entitled The Intruder Within. I knew that James existed prior to meeting him. His reputation preceded him amongst his fellow schoolmates who had remained at CalArts and, for The Intruder Within, James had purchased ever drop of latex that CalArts normally kept on hand for students.
When James walked into our dorm room, he looked around and saw all of the movie posters that Steve Burg and I had put up and said, “Looks like I’m in the right place.” This first evening started a friendship between the three of us that would span decades.
I think that no matter what unique differences existed between Steve Burg, James Cummins, and myself, what we shared was a profound love of movies, especially genre pictures. Steve and I would see just about anything that featured some element of the fantastic in it, however, James would try to see everything. James’s ambition was to become a writer and director, not to remain a Make Up Effects artist. He was especially fond of the writings of Algernon Blackwood and had an ambition to adapt some of his horror stories into films, but for the time being, making monsters seemed like a great introduction to the motion picture field.
None of this mattered at the time. We were all full of confidence, and with what we knew from magazines, there was no perceptible end to the genre movies being produced. The future seemed certain and focused. In the meantime, poor James tried in vain to teach me how to mimic his signature sculpting style that is difficult for me to describe any other way than “ropey.” I believe what set James apart from anyone his age entering make up effects was that somehow, he had developed this signature style and it was so unique that it got him hired at different studios. I never really got the hang of it.
The late Spring and early Summer of 1981 brought with it what I believe was the second defining moment in what would continue this eruption of Make Up Effects, and that was Joe Dante’s film, The Howling. Cinefantastique magazine had already run a story about the film and its effects artist, the relatively unknown Rob Bottin.
Being a fan, I knew a few things about Mr. Bottin – he was a protégé of Rick Baker. He had been responsible for making the leprous ghosts in John Carpenter’s The Fog, and he had made an ape creature for a little known adult/fantasy film entitled Tanya’s Island. But prior to The Howling, I’m not sure if anyone truly knew the potential for Make Up Effects.
This was the first time the transformation from a man into a wolf would be accomplished without the use of optical dissolves and make up stages. Instead, it would be executed cleverly by a combination of progressive prosthetics, air-bladders, a mechanical head, careful lighting and editing. The result, for the time, was astounding and launched Rob Bottin to the forefront of practical make up effects. But it was not without its controversy.
In interviews, Bottin revealed that Rick Baker had started the film’s effects and many of the transformation ideas were to be utilized in an abandoned film for John Landis, entitled An American Werewolf in London. During the preparation of The Howling, John Landis received a green light for his film and Rick had to bow out to begin work on An American Werewolf, leaving Bottin to finish the Dante job. Whereas Rick’s werewolf would be more like an actual wolf, Rob Bottin’s werewolves were 8 ft. tall, bipedal giants.
If that weren’t enough, Dick Smith’s protégé, Carl Fullerton, was busy doing high-end gore effects for Michael Wadleigh’s film The Wolfen, based on a novel by Whitley Strieber about a pack of super-intelligent wolves surviving and hunting in downtown New York. The world of Make Up Effects was expanding!
By the summer, An American Werewolf in London opened and audiences, once again were dumbfounded as actor David Naughton seemed to transform into a giant wolf but this time did so in a brightly lit room in an attempt to impress upon the audience that Rick Baker’s brilliant work wasn’t relying on careful, dramatic lighting to enhance or hide what the audience was experiencing.
However, Rick’s work wasn’t limited to the werewolf and the transformation. Rick also designed and executed very graphic gore effects as well as the incredible physical deterioration of one of the main characters, Jack, played by Griffen Dunne. Jack, having been killed by a werewolf, revealed himself to be undead to David Naughton and appeared progressively more rotten until, at the height of his decay, was replaced by a sophisticated puppet.
As we all know, 1981 represented three other major motion picture events.
The first event was the passing of the Stop Motion torch. Ray Harryhausen’s last film, Clash of the Titans, in late Spring/early Summer and represented a first for the iconic animator. He turned to fellow animator, Jim Danforth, to assist him with the animation of the flying horse, Pegasus, which was unheard of up to that point because Ray worked primarily alone. Although I loved Stop Motion animation, in the shadow of Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, Close Encounters, and Altered States, there was something quaint and old fashioned about Clash of the Titans that didn’t ignite the imagination as much as his previous films had. If that wasn’t enough, a Disney film opened that summer that kicked Stop Motion up a notch: Dragonslayer.
Dragonslayer’s dragon effects were primarily executed under the expert eye of animator Phil Tippett. He had been looking for a way to eradicate the tell tale “strobe” which is the result of Stop Motion being a series of single shots projected that produces the illusion of motion. When normal motion is photographed at 24 frames per second, it blurs naturally. So Tippett developed what would be called “Go Motion” which entailed attaching rods to the stop motion puppet that would move it slightly via stepper motors while the aperture of the camera was open. The result was that the stop motion puppet appeared to blur, naturally.
No one had ever seen anything like that on the Motion Picture screen and it confounded us. We literally had no idea what we were looking at, but we knew that traditional Stop Motion creatures would be more difficult for audiences to accept from then on.
The second event needs very little to be said about it. Raiders of the Lost Ark was THE summer film and inspired all of us interested in special effects.
Lastly, George Miller’s post-apocalyptic sequel to his film Mad Max opened and took the nation by storm. The Road Warrior was a deft combination of action, brilliant production design, practical physical effects, direction, story, and characterization.
And that was just by the summer of 1981.
There was so much to be inspired by when I returned to CalArts in the Fall. And now that I no longer lived on-campus in the dorms, I discovered that I now had a garage shop at my disposal. Time to make monsters!
NEXT WEEK: “Getting a Foot in the Door”
…And last time on Blood, Sweat and Latex: The Good, The Bad, and the Avant-garde
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.