by Shannon Shea
For newbies to the column, I’m recalling defining moments that made me what I am: A Special Effects Make Up Artist looking for relevance in the 21st Century. The time is 1985, and I have finished a tour of duty for Stan Winston’s Studio. I am 23 years old.
Freelance. Footloose and fancy-free. Unemployed again. I had tasted of the good life and knew that, somehow, I needed to return to Stan Winston Studios. It was everything I imagined working in a Hollywood special make-up effects studio would be and more. It certainly was first class all of the way but at the moment, it was irrelevant. Alec Gillis and Rick Lazzarini had left and joined Stan and the rest of the crew in England to continue work on Aliens. I, on the other hand, needed to find work.
Toward the end of Invaders from Mars, a rumor began circulating that Rick Baker was putting together a crew to build a Sasquatch suit for a film entitled Harry and the Hendersons. Now, regardless of what others may or may not think, I knew that my work was below the established standard of excellence at Rick’s studio. This was confirmed when I interviewed with him and I wasn’t hired.
I also interviewed with one of Rick’s protégés, Greg Cannom, who had begun to take on larger, more ambitious make-up effects shows. While I was interviewing there (and by “there” I mean his house in North Hollywood, where he was working out of), I recognized a couple of people with whom I had worked from both House and Invaders, however, Greg didn’t appear to have a show big enough to warrant hiring anyone new.
As frustrating as it sounds, this is, to this day, how it “works” in make-up effects, so if you’re reading this between jobs, you are familiar with what I’m talking about. If you’re thinking about becoming a make-up effects artist, then take heed for I’m speaking the truth. The difference between what happened then and what is happening presently is that then there was no “digital solution” to creature effects and, for the most part, jobs were plentiful.
Eventually, I found myself back where I started with Mark Shostrom. Mark had moved his studio around the corner in South Pasadena and was working on the Stuart Gordon movie From Beyond. Since the success of his film, Re-animator, Stuart and producer Brian Yuzna were again loosely adapting another H. P. Lovecraft tale, but this one required so many creatures and make-up effects that the efforts were being divided amongst different shops including John Beuchler’s MMI (who had done most of the work on Re-animator), Tony Doublin, and Mark Shostrom.
Most of Mark’s duties involved turning the character Dr. Pretorius, played by Ted Sorel, into a couple of incarnations of raging monsters. Mark had already hired a crew that included Bob Kurtzman, John Blake, Dave Kindlon (a mechanic from New York who had just finished with The Muppets there), Greg Nicotero, mold maker, Steve Patino, and two relative new comers, Greg Punchatz and Aaron Sims.
By the time I had arrived on the scene, most of the sculptural work had been completed, led by Mark and Bob. It appeared to me that while Bob had worked on a very large prosthetic that turned most of Mr. Sorel’s right side into an avalanche of twisted flesh and tumors, Mark had been working on the final stages of the Pretorius creature.
Mark had come a long way since The Supernaturals. Having executed some complicated make up effects for Nightmare on Elm Street II, Mark now was moving from prosthetics and gags into full-scale animatronics. The Pretorius creature was to be an enormous cable and radio controlled puppet that would move on a boom arm. At the end of a long neck was the creature’s head that would be accomplished by use of a couple of techniques. When not using the radio-controlled mechanical face, Ted Sorel would be glued into prosthetics that would give the illusion that his head was fused onto the creature (of course, with some judicious framing from cinematographer, Mac Alberg).
My first order of business was to sculpt a mutated pineal gland. In the film, a machine created by Dr. Crawford Tillinghast, played by Jeffery Combs, stimulates and ultimately mutates human pineal glands allowing humans to perceive and interact with creatures from another dimension. With prolonged exposure to the machine, called the “Resonator,” Dr. Tillinghast’s pineal gland launches out of his forehead on the end of a stalk; the Pretorius creature would require its own version of this mutation.
I had purchased a book in college entitled “The Color Atlas of Human Anatomy” and within the pages was a medical illustration of a prolapsed rectum. Yes, it was as disgusting as it sounds. I showed the illustration to Mark who agreed that it would serve as the inspiration for the rounded end of the mutated pineal gland. However, unlike Dr. Tillinghast’s stalk, this one was to be a mass of twisted, root-like growth, about 14 inches long.
In addition, the experience I had gained at Stan Winston’s studio that would apply to the “skin casting” of the giant Pretorius creature. Steve Patino had made the fiberglass mold and core, however, Mark just didn’t have the facility to run and bake out a giant foam latex skin for the creature, and so…another “Octo-injector” was born in South Pasadena.
For Invaders from Mars, mechanical designer, Rick Lazzarini designed a way to get large volumes of soft, expanding liquid urethane into big molds using a modified, plastic 5 gallon bucket, clear vinyl tubing, garden hose fittings, and pressurized air (via a compressor); because of its appearance, Rick dubbed it an “Octo-Injector.”* We were able to cast the skins for the Drones in this manner, so if it worked at Stan Winston’s the principle would work at Mark Shostrom’s.
And that’s just what we did. However, some modifications were made based on budget restrictions. I have no idea what Mark’s budget on From Beyond was. All that mattered was that I was seeing really good, ambitious work from an artist who had developed by leaps and bounds from small prosthetics to full-scale animatronics in just two years. So instead of using expensive, clear vinyl tubing, we used garden hose that worked just as well.
We ended up casting several skins; some were better than the others, but certainly Mark got what he needed to commence the cosmetic finishing work. There was one more task before the pieces could be assembled, and that was the casting of a fiberglass understructure that the flexible skin would rest on.
This shell is what enables the skin to retain its shape and serves as an anchoring point for the mechanics. I had used fiberglass/resin before, but never to this extent. A reinforced plaster bandage mold had been made of the core and now it was my job to make this fiberglass shell out of it.
My first mistake was tinting the resin gray. I believe it did so because I wanted to make sure I was getting good coverage (since generally fiberglass resin is translucent amber).
My next mistake was underestimating the strength of fiberglass as I ran 5 or 6 layers of glass cloth into the mold. What came out of the mold could have worked as a boat hull.
I can recall that when I was de-molding it, Dave was leading a guest on a studio tour – Tom Savini. I had never met “the king of splatter” and I can recall Tom coming into the side ally where I was working. He was pristinely dressed, believe it or not, wearing a long black overcoat covering a business suit! Dave introduced me and then attempted to lift the fiberglass to demonstrate his plans for the shell. I instantly could tell I had screwed up by the subtle “what the fuck?” look on Dave’s face. It was too heavy.
Dave Kindlon was patient and did what he could to work with the thick, heavy shell and unfortunately there was no time to remake it. He explained that I could have probably gotten away with three layers in most areas and a fourth layer in load-bearing areas. See? Lesson learned. I never cast overly thick fiberglass again. Seriously.
Much like Aliens it was understood that some of the crew would be traveling to the location in Italy with the puppets, but I wouldn’t be included among them. However, fate had other plans for me. While I was finishing up at Mark Shostrom’s I received a call from my friend, Brian Penikas, with whom I had worked at Stan’s. He was currently working at Doug Beswick’s shop and they needed help completing the miniature Alien Queen and Power-Loader puppets for Aliens. Was I interested?
*For more information about “Octo-injecting” see my blog.
…And Last Time on Blood, Sweat and Latex…: “Tunneling Into Tobe Hooper’s ‘Invaders From Mars’’’
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.