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 that we would be creating new versions of the classic monsters, I was interested, but it would have been impossible to match the excitement level of my colleagues.
While we busied ourselves around the shop, cleaning and organizing after the “Miss Stardust” shoot, Stan set to work designing the monsters himself. His challenge was that he would have to create recognizable versions of the monsters without infringing on the strict Universal Studios designs. No bolts on the neck for Frankenstein’s monster, no widow’s peak on Dracula, etc. Instead, Stan turned largely to the work of monster comic book artist Berni Wrightson for inspiration. As designs were finalized, Stan’s lifers divided up the creatures amongst themselves. Tom would take on the Frankenstein’s Monster duties, Shane Mahan tackled the Mummy, John Rosengrant would be responsible for the Wolfman, and Alec Gillis would supervise the Dracula transformation pieces. That left the Gillman duties to two relative new comers: Steve Wang and Matt Rose.
Matt had worked at Stan Winston’s on Aliens, having sculpted the Alien Warrior tail and his friend, also from San Jose, Steve Wang, joined the studio after Stan had reviewed Steve’s impressive portfolio. These “kids” (they were both barely 20 at the time) had built full monster suits in their homes for conventions and short films that they had made (surely you have heard of Kung Fu Rascals?). So, Stan decided to give them a shot and have them supervise and construct the Gillman suit that would be worn by Tom Woodruff, Jr.
Like a high school gym class, the workers were chosen by the supervisors to work on different teams; I was chosen to assist John Rosengrant with the Wolfman.
Stan put a lot of thought and effort into the design of Monster Squad’s Wolfman. He had done dozens of drawings of this creature and had made the distinction that our Wolfman was a wolf-man and not a Werewolf like the monsters featured in An American Werewolf in London or The Howling. His intention was to expand the idea of a lycanthrope to the limits of contemporary, animatronic technology, and, as was always his goal, he wanted to fool audiences and push their suspension of disbelief.
This meant that doing a prosthetic make-up, like Tom was doing for Frankenstein’s monster, was out of the question. This was to be a completely animatronic mask worn by a suit performer. Actor, Jon Gries, had been cast as the human victim of the Wolfman’s curse, and we would have to execute an on-camera transformation as well. However, Jon would not be playing the actual Wolfman, those duties would fall to Carl Thibault who was larger than Jon, thereby enhancing the illusion that the Wolfman’s body had undergone a dramatic transformation.
We cast both actors, made the necessary molds to generate body, head, hands, feet, and teeth positives to begin sculpting. John Rosengrant assigned me the task of sculpting the wolfman’s paws and feet, while he concentrated on the torso and the head. Trying to impress my colleagues I went to town, sculpting powerful, large, vein-y, arms but when it got close to molding the pieces, we took a look at the first sculpts and realized that they were too thick. Once the fur would be punched into the arms they would have had Popeye proportions. Flustered, I had to quickly sculpt another pair that were thinner and less anatomically exaggerated; they would be covered with fur anyway.
Aside from the transformation and the suit, there were a couple of additional werewolf moments that would have to be designed and built: a transformation bladder arm for when a presumed-dead Jon Gries begins to transform in the back of an ambulance, and post-explosion Wolfman parts that under some sort of supernatural power, recombine (proving that the only way to kill a Wolfman is with a silver bullet).
Too much time has passed for me to recall who came up with the idea, but my guess is that after a discussion between mechanics, Dave Nelson, Dave Kindlon, and Steve James, it was decided to build a remote control dismembered Wolfman arm. Steve James (to my memory) built most of the mechanics that drove the arm utilizing radio-control car technology. I had made a fiberglass core out of one of the Wolfman glove molds for Steve to work with, and he was even able to work in some limited wrist and finger movement!
After the arm was completed, we took it out to the parking lot and videotaped its maiden voyage, driving around, hopping over speed bumps. As it hit one of the humps, it tumbled and couldn’t right itself; this necessitated the addition of two thin stabilizer rods that prevented the arm from rolling. It was an impressive piece to be sure.
In contrast, for the torso and legs we ran latex and polyfoam pieces, finished them somewhat crudely and puppeteered them via monofilament. The mechanical head was temporarily set onto the torso in the hope of adding some facial movement to the otherwise limited puppet.
On the day of shooting, we put the body in place against the wall, attached monofilament to it and then filmed it writhing around in pain. Next we attached monofilament to the thigh area of the Wolfman’s dismembered leg and then dragged it through the shot. Finally, it was time for the arm to make its screen debut.
I wish I had had a camera on Stan’s face as Steve James appeared with two radio controllers and the mechanical arm. It was as if some invisible force had punched Stan in the solar plexus. “What is THIS?” he demanded. We told him that it had been built specifically for this shot. “WHAT?! WHY?! Why didn’t you just pull something along on a piece of monofilament like the rest of the parts?” I answered, “Because the radio controlled arm can do this!” I placed the arm around the corner and Steve James expertly drove it right to where Stan was standing. Stan wasn’t impressed, and we didn’t understand.
“How much money did we spend on this?” he asked. We shrugged. We didn’t know. We built it and no one had stopped us. Right? Stan went on to say that the arm dragging around a corner could still have been accomplished using a simple latex and soft polyfoam arm on the end of a piece of monofilament. To him it didn’t matter how cool the piece was, it was a complete waste of money.
To add insult to injury, since it was the last body part to be filmed, it was decided that they would just shoot the arm moving in a straight line for about 10 feet.
Oh well, when you are building so many monsters and effects for one film, it is easy to lose sight of what is required vs. the budget. Hey at least it made it into the movie.
At the Gillman camp, they had built a puppet head furnished with a frog-like tongue that could be extended out to eat a fly in the air; I don’t think ever made it in front of camera!
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.
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