Features and Columns · Movies

Blood, Sweat and Latex: Boldly Going To Work On ‘Star Trek IV’

Star Trek Iv Kirk Spock
Paramount PIctures
By  · Published on August 29th, 2011

by Shannon Shea

I realize that I am one out of millions when I say how much influence the original Star Trek series had on my life when it premiered in 1966. I was four years old then, had an older brother of seven and we were hopelessly addicted to the adventures of the USS Enterprise and her crew. When Star Trek conventions started popping up in New Orleans in the very early 1970s, I even put together a “Gorn” costume (the lizard creature from the episode “Arena”) and won an honorable mention. When Star Trek disappeared from television, it was a bit shocking for us young fans, and it would be a few years before it reappeared in syndication, at least in New Orleans.

When Star Trek: The Motion Picture opened, I was in High School. Already tainted by the adventures of Luke Skywalker and pals in Star Wars, I was a bit less enthusiastic by this big screen effort. However, when I saw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in college a few years later, I knew that Star Trek was back on track! I was a fan again.

Getting the call from make-up effects artist Richard Snell was one of the early highlights of my career. I had worked with the bay-area artist on House but our paths had diverged since. I knew that the Star Trek IV job was “floating” around Hollywood because I had done some bid sketches for James Cummins who was also pursuing the project. Leonard Nimoy’s assistant, Kirk Thatcher, had known Snell when they both lived and worked around the San Francisco area. Kirk also knew that Richard had a very strong work ethic and would deliver the absolute best product he could for the reasonable price that he quoted. So production hired Richard, and Richard hired me.

The crew was relatively small and familiar. Brian Wade, Dale Brady, Craig Caton-Largent, Richard, and myself were the main crew and it fell upon us to do just about everything. I should explain myself.

In the early days of make-up effects, most of us were “students” of make-up artists Dick Smith and Rick Baker. There was very little literature and even less access to video of these fantastic artists working in the early 1980s but it was understood that to excel at the craft you had to know how to do most everything, or at least be familiar with multiple techniques. Later, as individuals’ strengths became apparent, artists and craftspeople became compartmentalized into departments. This streamlining also made the hiring/firing and paying more economical. For example: Sculptors, many of whom tend to be expensive, would be laid off early in the construction to make way for less expensive mold makers and lab technicians. The rotation of talent in the shop is what kept costs down. But when many of us were working through the shops earlier, there were a few examples of specialization, but most of us were expected to do just about everything.

When Star Trek IV began, Richard sat down with us and reviewed a list of items we would be building. The first, most pressing item on the list would be the fabrication of the famous Spock ears for Mr. Nimoy himself. Funny. You would think that something so iconic would have been handled by one person, like the way most celebrities have their consistent personal make up and hair people. But such was not the case. Richard met Mr. Nimoy privately in the production office, cast his ears, and discussed the finer points (pardon the pun) of not only Vulcan ears, but also specifically Spock’s ears. Armed with this knowledge, Richard returned to his little shop in Van Nuys, and we began making the stone positives that would be required to produce the ears.

For those of you unfamiliar with foam-latex prosthetics, because of the adhesives, removers, and cosmetic colors required for the application, the actual pieces are rarely used more than once. I can’t recall the actual number of ears we would need but I believe it was well over 60 pairs! I recall that the plan was to have at least two pairs available every day Spock shot.

Running this many pairs of ears out of one mold was never going to happen. Especially with the materials we were familiar with back then. If we had made a rigid, stone mold, not only would it have degraded over time, but there would have been a seam running along the edge of every ear, that one of us poor saps would have to carefully melt down and patch. Richard decided to use flexible silicone and make the ear seamless. He also thought that if we made molds of the molds (“gang” molding, as it is called) then we wouldn’t have to sculpt multiple sets of identical ears in order to make the molds necessary to produce all of the prosthetics.

Well, it sounded good.

What we discovered after a few futile days of testing was that the material shrank slightly and inconsistently, making gang molding impossible. In the end, we took one of the silicone sculpted ear gang molds and ran molten clay pours into it, cleaned them up sculpturally, and then molded them all. I believe we had at least six pairs of molds in the hope that we would only have to run them all 10 times.

Meanwhile, for the Federation Council, Kirk Thatcher had informed us that designs were coming from production and that Nancy Nimoy, Leonard’s adult daughter, would be contributing some alien concepts. It became clear that the majority of these council members would have no dialogue so most of them would either be masks or simple hand puppets. The designs were distributed amongst us and we began sculpting.

One of my assignments was perplexing. The design showed what appeared to be a welder’s mask topped with a long, flowing wig. I didn’t get it. Was this supposed to be a robot of some sort trying to improve its ability to interact by appearing more human? I didn’t get it.

Toward the end of the build we received the news that Leonard Nimoy, who hadn’t visited the shop, was now coming by for a last look at the sculptures before we molded them. Ulp! Up to that point, we had just dealt with Kirk, but now, a man who had been embedded in my psyche from childhood would be coming by the shop to evaluate our work. I felt confident about the lizard-man puppet I had sculpted, but the damn welding mask. UGH! Even my conversations with Kirk were of little help. I just didn’t get it.

I asked Richard what I should do and he suggested that I sculpt lines suggesting that different pieces of metal had been assembled to create the mask and we would give Mr. Nimoy two options: on one side, there would be a collection of smaller plates and on the other side, larger plates would be defined by the sculptural planes. I did it, but we’d just wait and see.

The night before Mr. Nimoy’s arrival, sculptor, Brian Wade, pulled an all-nighter. Taking the “Cat Man” sculpture home to finish it, he had apparently worked straight through the night and was so exhausted the next morning that he sent the finished work to the studio in a taxi, hours before the entourage showed up. I have to give him one for originality and delivering on time!

When Leonard Nimoy appeared, his daughter, Nancy was with him and bless her, she looked like a kid in a candy store. Leonard, Nancy, Richard, and Kirk walked through the shop discussing sculptures, castings, and prosthetics. The rest of us continued working and were introduced to Mr. Nimoy and Nancy when they approached our tables. Meanwhile, I noticed Nancy scanning the shop looking for something.

Finally, her eyes lit on the welding mask sculpture that was sitting on a back table waiting for Richard to do his explanation. Nancy walked over to the sculpture and looked at it with a big smile on her face. Leonard joined her and leaned over and asked, “Is this what you had in mind?” She nodded.

Nimoy went on to explain the concept. These masks were worn by “energy beings” like the Organians from the Star Trek episode, “Errand of Mercy.” They put their beings into mechanical shells to facilitate their interactions with the other members of the Federation.

Richard finally asked which sculptural side they preferred, to which Mr. Nimoy answered, “Both! Mold it just like it is.”

You see them in the film for a spit second or two. Effective or not, I still have a difficult time seeing those characters on screen. Energy beings encased in anthropomorphic metal structures wearing wigs. I still don’t get it. To me, it just seems illogical.

…And Last Time on Blood, Sweat and Latex…: “’Aliens’ Pulls Me Back In”

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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