James Cummins

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 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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