by Shannon Shea
We packed the truck that would travel to location in Palenque, Mexico a few days before we traveled via airplane. The set crew: Steve Wang, Matt Rose, Shane Mahan, Brian Simpson, Richard Landon and me. Stan Winston would be with us, supervising the set work, understanding that we would only be gone for two weeks. At least that is what our work visas indicated.
Palenque, Mexico was not a location easily reached. It required one flight from Los Angeles to Mexico City, another to Villa Hermosa, and finally a long ride in a Volkswagen bus through miles of rough country until we reached our hotel that was, from what we were told, the best in the area.
It sat in a large clearing, surrounded by trees; two wings of rooms branched out from a central building that housed a restaurant/bar. Later, we discovered that Arnold Schwarzenegger had taken over the entire upper conference room and had turned it into a gymnasium that was open to anyone on the crew.
As we settled into our rooms we were told that there would be screening of the film the next day for the cast and crew. My understanding was that this was for the benefit of the new crew members to get a chance to catch up and understand the shots needed to complete the film. A screen and projectors were set up in Arnold’s gym.
We took our places in folding chairs when we heard Arnold and his new bride, Maria Shriver, come in and sit in the row behind us. On screen, the rough cut of Predator began with temporary music lifted from Aliens. For the most part, it turned out to be very close to the final movie with some judicious trimming, especially where it came to the helicopter trip to Central America and the destruction of the jungle after Blain’s (Jesse Ventura) death.
However, during the scene where Arnold and his team (“We’re a rescue team, not assassins”) infiltrate the palapa compound and kill just about everyone, we could all hear Maria Shriver’s voice saying, “Arnold, this is a stupid movie.” Arnold tried to explain to her that there was an alien hunter involved that hadn’t been filmed yet and it was going to fill in the plot holes (scenes with the Predator were represented as storyboard sequences – pre-computers and pre-pre-visualizations). It didn’t matter; she dragged him out of the screening by the arm.
Duly demoralized, we went to work the next morning.
Our first order of business would be to dress Kevin Peter Hall in the suit and show him off to producer, Joel Silver, director, John McTiernan, and the rest of the crew. Kevin hadn’t worn the suit since last time we had all gathered in Los Angeles for the fitting that had necessitated changes in the gloves and the mask. Stan, still not sure about the new mask changes, had instructed us to bring both masks again so that they could be seen with the completed suit. Kevin, in his powder blue, Lycra under suit, had K-Y jelly spread over his entire body so that he could slide into the tight suit.
Knowing the heat and humidity in the jungle would negate the use of traditional baby powder for reducing the inherent drag that latex has when pulled across skin (or fabric for that matter), the K-Y jelly ritual would be played out at least twice daily to get Kevin into the suit (once in the morning, and once after lunch). We zipped up the back of the suit and realized – there was a HUGE gap of about two inches between the shoulders where you could plainly see the zipper!
Production was gathering outside of the trailer and we began scrambling around trying to figure out how to hide the zipper. Steve Wang had made custom tubes out of flexible foam rod spiraled with black thread to dress on the chest and arm, I suggested we take some of the spare tubing and make it look like it was part of the backpack and armor. However, thinking quickly, Steve picked up one of the human spines slated to be ripped out of a body, strung the vertebrae onto a leather cord and threw it over Kevin’s shoulder pushing it into the gap.
An iconic feature of the Predator was born.
Starting at Top Left: Brian Simpson makes a last adjustment during the fight sequence; Matt blackens Kevin’s eyes with make up before putting the mask on; The Set Crew: Matt Rose, Brian Simpson, Shane Mahan, Stan Winston, Kevin Peter Hall, Steve Wang, Shannon Shea, Richard Landon;The Predator wearing Matt Rose’s original helmet; Stan directs Kevin on set; Steve, mugging for the camera, repairs one of the two suits at the end of a shooting day
To be honest, that is how much of the “texture” of the Predator was established. As the foam suit began splitting in certain areas, we hid it with black fabric strips tied in knots. This hiding in plain sight methodology was the most direct and effective way of making our lives on set easier while adding details to the suit that made it more interesting.
Kevin exited the trailer to greet a very pleased production crew. However, it was clear that even with all of the new textures on the suit, they still preferred the simple helmet mask.
As challenging as it was to make the Predator suit, there was another facet of the production that is rarely spoken about. By now, it is well known that the Predator has the ability to “cloak” or conceal himself by “bending light around him” as an advanced form of camouflage. Robert Abel and Associates was the company handling all of the visual effects. They had a history of doing high-end special effects primarily for television commercials, and Predator was offering them a unique set of challenges and headaches, especially the camouflage effect.
We, at Stan Winston’s, had been contracted to build matching “red suits” that would enable them to pull the necessary mattes in order to produce the effect. Obviously with the Predator running around the jungle, a green or blue suit would have been ineffective. So, utilizing sub-standard casts from our molds, I had contacted a friend of mine, Leslie Neumann, to cover all of the pieces with red spandex. She made two suits and multiple pieces for the feet and hands that we knew would undergo the most abuse. My only regret was that we didn’t have time to figure out how to produce multiple sets of lightweight red dreadlocks. In the film, it is very clear that what you are seeing is the outline of his head without the signature dreads. Oops.
For some dumb reason we figured that working with the red suit would be easier. After all, the final result would be invisible! Nothing could be further from the truth. The on-set Visual Effect coordinator, Joel Hynek, would call for us whenever a single spot of mud or a stain appeared on the suit. We had been asked to buy cases of matching red, floral spray paint, and during the set ups, Joel would call for us to spray the paint to cover a stain on the suit while the stuntman was wearing it. I’m not sure but I think that the vehicle for the paint was toluene and I don’t think that it was intended to be sprayed to the extent we were using it or on fabric being worn by a person.
We were shooting in a jungle. I don’t know how much more plainly we could have put it. The stuntmen, Henry Kingi and Tony Brubaker would be directed to tear off through the underbrush or crawl along moss-covered logs. The result: they would get dirty. And there would be Joel, holding paint cans out for us to run in and try to conceal the stains. It was maddening. At one point, I recall Joel, snatching a paint can away from me, obsessively spraying a little stain until Tony threatened to hit him.
The longer we stayed in Mexico, the smaller the company got. Slowly but surely more cast and crew people were wrapped and left location: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stan Winston, Joel Silver, Richard Chavez, Shane Black, Bill Duke, and even Kevin Peter Hall.
Upon leaving, Kevin was replaced by 6 foot 10 inch tall performer (it has been so many years that I’ve forgotten the poor guy’s name). He swam in the suit and, unfortunately for him, was asked to do all of the things that Kevin didn’t want to do like walking out onto dangerous log bridges and climbing trees. He lasted a week or so and then Henri Kingi (who was about 6 feet tall) and Brian Simpson (who was also about 6 feet tall) got into the suit to get more shots. By this time, the Predator looked like a bobble-head version of itself.
In the end, we had been in Mexico 5 weeks when they called wrap. With expired visas, a Mexican production representative had to bribe an airport policeman to get us out of the country.
As cliché as it sounds, working is Mexico was reminiscent of fighting in a war. The common difficulties we shared brought us closer and forged friendships that remain to this day.
We still all miss you, Kevin.
…And Last Time on Blood, Sweat and Latex…: “The Predator Experience (Part 2)”
Blood, Sweat and Latex will be taking some well-deserved time off and then return in just a few weeks to re-examine and reminisce even more.
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.