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.
We would be providing the Confederate Ghost Soldiers, as well as the make–up effects gags (the on-camera illusions to simulate the scripted wounding and killing of specific characters). The crew was small by today’s standards, but for Mark Shostrom, at that time, having four full-time artists assisting him was a big deal.
Bart Mixon was from Houston, Texas and had been a life-long make-up effects enthusiast. His twin brother, Brett, had moved his way into visual effects. I have no idea how Bart and Mark met each other, but other than Mark, Bart was much more experienced than the rest of us.
Mark had met the next crew member, Ed Ferrell, in North Carolina when he was on location for a slasher film entitled The Mutilator. My understanding is that Ed worked on a commercial fishing boat prior to his indoctrination into make-up effects – which is why he affectionately referred to Mark as “Cappy,” and the nickname stuck for years.
I rounded out the crew, with my very limited experience; however, as the cliché goes: what I lacked in experience, I made up for in enthusiasm. The hours were incredibly long, up to 16 hours a day, sometimes six days a week. My pay was $200 a week. No taxes taken out, just a weekly paycheck. I didn’t complain. I was working on my first motion picture.
We started pre-production in Mark’s studio, which was upstairs in an old building above a commercial retail store. Initially, I was asked to do some illustrations to go along with a test make-up, and a maquette Mark had fabricated using a commercial skeleton model kit.
I drew a few pictures, I recall one of a Ghost Soldier attack, and another of the main female character, Melanie, degenerating, becoming older, like David Bowie’s character in The Hunger.
The film was being directed by Armand Mastrionni, who had previously directed He Knows You’re Alone, and Mark would send photos of our designs to him for feedback, but I don’t ever recall him actually visiting the studio to look at the work in person.
Since we knew that the goal was to have the Ghost Soldiers appear as thin as humanly possible, the casting department began sending us very thin performers for us to life cast in order to produce the positives we would need to begin sculpting and fabricating the suits. I remember thinking how strange that they actually sent us a few performers who were very mature in age. They would be required not only to wear an over-the-head mask, but also a body suit that would go from their necks to their waists. It was going to be physically strenuous for sure.
Mark, Bart, and I began sculpting heads. The absolute truth is that Mark and Bart were much more proficient sculptors and I only ended up sculpting one of the heads, but I didn’t mind. I was learning so many techniques including the manufacturing of soft, urethane molds using a material called Ad-Rub (For any of you “veterans” who might be reading this, you remember what a pain in the butt Ad-Rub was!)
It was decided that to produce the suits, we would sculpt “rib cage forms,” cast them in latex, glue them onto spandex undersuits, run foam latex, and then spatulate it onto the fabric. Once the foam was “gelled” we would sculpt texture directly into it and then bake it and paint it. It was the fastest, most effective, and the most inexpensive way to make them and I believe we made at least 6 complete suits.
Although it may sound like it was nothing but work, nothing could be further from the truth. Being inexperienced, and a somewhat “immature” crew, there were times when we would do very irresponsible (but hilarious) things. I can recall one night, very late, a “water fight” broke out that started with spraying each other with spritz-bottles that escalated into throwing gallon buckets of water at each other until the floor in the studio and the hallways were drenched. What we didn’t realize was that the shop below us sold custom, hand-made wool sweaters and…well….you can fill in the blanks.
The landlord was concerned that there was a water leak somewhere in the building. We never let on.
A couple of folks were brought in to assist when the workload got heavy towards the height of the construction. Brian Moore, who was a make up artist that had done some work on Tales from the Darkside television show assisted us with mold making and casting, and costumer Lisa Jensen came on to design and build the rotted Confederate uniforms for the Ghost Soldiers.
Aside from casting and fabricating Ghost Soldiers, we also cast some of the military cadets including Branford Bancroft (Anne Bancroft’s son) and Bobby Di Cicco (the dancing boyfriend from 1941). We cast Branford’s chest to do an effect where one of the Ghost Soldiers after having his hand blown off by an M-16 machine gun, uses the remaining fragmented bones as a stabbing weapon.
Mark designed the effect by sculpting a Ghost Soldier hand in a fist pose, molding it in Ad-Rub, running the lower part in fiberglass, then producing multiple wax “fists” that could be filled with fuller’s earth and squibbed to blow apart to reveal the fiberglass bones. A jointed, soft foam-latex and polyfoam copy of the damaged arm was rod-puppeted to strike Branford. To show the bones actually piercing the skin and drawing a gush of blood, an arm with fiberglass bones was driven into a foam latex/soft polyfoam chest with a blood cavity just below the surface.
By the time we got onto set, we were all pretty strung out from working the incredible hours we had in the studio. My recollection now is that we must have been on set for a week to shoot all of the scenes with the Ghost Soldiers so it was a fairly brief time for us (honestly, I cannot remember…for all I know we could have been there for a month).
The shoot was primarily at night on a location in a park in Malibu Canyon. The rest of the cast included Maxwell Caufield (from Grease II), Levar Burton (Yes! In the years between Roots and Star Trek: The Next Generation), Talia Balsam (Martin Balsam’s daughter), and as the hard-as-nails army sergeant, Nichelle Nichols (THAT Nichelle Nichols!). Working so many nights in succession can have a strange affect and being new to this kind of work, I was unprepared for the resulting delusional state from the fatigue.
As for the night-to-night work, I can just recall pulling masks onto the performers we had cast at the beginning and then running after them with aerosol medical adhesive and moss to cover any damage they were doing to the suits. Mark had also read that Dick Smith had had some success putting “Pax Paint” (a term Dick coined for the mixture of prosthetic adhesive and acrylic paint) into a Preval sprayer, which consisted of a glass bottle topped with a can of compressed air effectively becoming a custom spray paint. We would spray them once, and then the paint would gum up the feed tube and the unit would become worthless. Then, we would have to open the jar and use the paints with sponges and brushes! After 28 years, I’d still like to know how Dick Smith made that work.
After principle photography wrapped in mid-November, we all sort of went our separate ways. I have no idea what happened to Ed Ferrell (to this day!). I ended up staying a few days with James Cummins before going back home for the holidays.
“Okay,” he said, “you’ve done it!” “Done what?” I asked. “You’ve become a professional! You’ve worked on a movie set!” I was a bit confused at his reaction. “Yeah?” I asked him.
“Well…now, the next time I get a show, I’ll hire you!”
And that’s all it took. I had paid my dues and had completed my first step. I was a professional make-up effects artist.
*Ghost Soldiers was released as The Supernaturals – I can’t remember if it received a theatrical release or not.
Next Time: “Brother could you haunt this HOUSE?”
…And Last Time on Blood, Sweat and Latex…: “Career Reset”
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.