Features and Columns · Movies

Blood, Sweat and Latex: The ‘Predator’ Experience (Part I)

By  · Published on September 19th, 2011

by Shannon Shea

There are events that define one’s existence that go beyond being learning or growing experiences. They become scars. Battle scars. They may fade in time, but they don’t go away. They persist. The memories of the events may become blurry, but every now and then, you run your fingertips along the raised, healed wound and remember. It all comes back like a punch in the nose. I had been on movie sets before and believed that I had been trained. The snarky ADs , the disinterested teamsters, the hustling, the waiting, they were all nearly second-nature to me, especially with the close of my on-set involvement with Monster Squad. However, nothing could prepare me for what I was going to face. My first location experience. My first time out of the country. My first time working set on a big budget film. My first time supervising a team.

Predator would be all of those things and it would change my life forever.

Los Angeles: Late Summer of 1986. Stan Winston and the lifers were busy going back and forth between prepping last minute effects and working on set for Monster Squad. Most of my involvement on the show had been on days when the Wolfman effects shot (the transformations and, as you read last time, the explosion). I was lucky to have been involved on the day that the Dracula transformations were filmed, but most of the time, I was back at the studio, helping finish or repair pieces for the shoot.

It was during that time, that I can recall seeing them talking with Stan – producer Joel Silver and director John McTiernan. Of course, I wouldn’t recognize or get to know these gentlemen until later, but I can still see them looking through a stack of color-copied artwork discussing the revised aesthetic of their new alien menace, the Predator.

The make-up effects community, although appearing large, was actually quite small and news traveled quickly. I knew of the movie Predator when it was a script called Hunter sitting on Mark Shostrom’s desk. This modest budgeted project would grow into a tent-pole for 20th Century Fox when action icon Arnold Schwarzenegger took interest in the project and agreed to play “Dutch” Schultz, the film’s protagonist.

Production had turned to Steve Johnson at Boss Films to build the alien who had come to earth to hunt human prey. Most of us had heard the stories and seen the photos. Artists like Steve Wang and Eric Fiedler had contributed to the creature effects at Boss, but something had happened. When they got the suit to the location in Puerto Vallarta, it became evident that the design was impractical.

Before the days of Todd Masters and Tony Gardner’s practical, working leg extensions, Boss Films’ dog-legged, insectoid, creature took too long to set up on location because it would require over-head assistance to connect a wire that would hoist the creature up to its full height. This would prove difficult in a jungle canopy. Eventually, the creature was scrapped, Boss Films was retired, and production turned to Stan Winston, fresh off of his success on Aliens to jump in and help them fix their creature and complete their movie.

Here is where we begin to get into murky waters. It has long been the question: “Who designed the Predator?” And now, I will answer that question – Everyone designed the Predator. Too many people contributed to the design for any one person to claim it.

Many have heard the story that Stan tells of being on an airplane flying back from the London premiere of Aliens sitting next to Jim Cameron, trying to come up with a unique concept for the Predator. According to Stan’s story, Jim suggested that he had always wanted to see an alien with facial mandibles…so the story goes.

I’ll tell you that after John McTiernan and Joel Silver left the studio, at least one color-copied piece of production art remained. It showed an anthropomorphic alien, standing on a rise holding a spear. A mask covered its face and dreadlocks fell around its shoulders. This piece of art was credited to an artist name Mitch Suskind, but years later, I was told that was a mistake. The bottom line is that whoever had created that artwork, contributed one of the most distinctive features – the “Pred-dreds.”

Stan had been asked, by production, to create the face beneath the mask.

Three years later, I would work with Alan Munro on A Nightmare on Elm Street 5 and hear the real story as it happened to him. During that shoot, Alan told me the tale of being hired by Joel Silver after the canceled Puerto Vallarta shoot to do some new concept art for the Predator. In his art, he had rendered one design that had twelve mandibles on its mouth. And then he told me that he had produced that piece of art that was left at Stan’s credited to Mitch Suskind. Dreadlocks, mandibles – sounds like Alan Munro had some influence on the design of the Predator. (You can see his concept work below.)

Back at the studio, Stan began producing drawings of the Predator’s head, working in the mandibles and dreadlocks, while attempting to flesh out the remaining head and facial features. Concurrently, seven-foot-two-inch tall actor, Kevin Peter Hall (straight from his rewarding experience on Harry and the Hendersons) was hired to portray the alien hunter.

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I could take an entire article to sing his praises, but instead, I’ll just take this moment to say what a delight and honor it was to meet and work with Kevin. He was so funny, and sweet, and patient, and gentle. This might sound nutty, but he was possessed of such humanity that it was difficult to believe that one of the roles he would be remembered for, would be as a creature that hunts humans. (Kevin, I miss you buddy…)

Kevin came into the studio and we took reference photos for design purposes (see above). He struck a bunch of different poses holding different representations of weapons, etc. Stan went through the photos and picked the one pose that he wanted for a sculptural maquette.

Enter Wayne Strong.

Wayne Strong was an unusual and talented sculptor. In his portfolio, he had produced beautiful, small likenesses of celebrities like Bo Derek and Johnny Carson out of styrene plastic. I’m not sure if he was pulling my leg, but he claimed that he had figured out a method to melt down fast food beverage lids and use them as a sculpting medium. (As I’m typing this, I’m wondering if the whole thing was a ruse.) The bottom line was that styrene or not, Wayne had an excellent eye for miniature, full-body portraiture and was asked to produce a Kevin Peter Hall likeness.

Stan was a stickler for this kind of planning. He always wanted to see how the performer would be incorporated before the studio would commit to a finalized design. Whether it would be a full-scale mock up made from plastic bags, cardboard, and foam like the Queen Alien, or a maquette sculpted on top of a wooden, drawing-reference figure, it was imperative that Stan “see” how it was going to work before it went into full production.

Wayne’s sculpture of Kevin would be the “armature” for the full-body Predator maquette. For those of you who are aficionados of the work of Matt Rose and Steve Wang, you should know that while Wayne was sculpting at the studio, they were on set with Tom Woodruff, Jr. and the Gillman suit.

When the Kevin figure was completed, Stan felt that there wasn’t enough time to mold the figure and produce a rigid form on which to sculpt the Predator. It was decided that the figure would be covered with 5 minute epoxy to help maintain its integrity while the Predator was sculpted around it. Wayne added silver powder to the epoxy as a visual aid to let him know when his sculpture was getting too thin.

Working from Stan’s drawings, Wayne sculpted a full, nude figure of the Predator. No armor or accouterments were included in his depiction, however, there, pushed into the clay were tiny spines along the center of the chest, on top of the thighs and around the shoulders. Since Wayne was the first to translate the Predator design into three dimensions, you could say that he had a significant hand in the design of the Predator.

By the time Steve Wang and Matt Rose had finished on Monster Squad, there was a finished maquette for them to use as reference. Stan asked Steve to work on some armor designs while we prepared Kevin Peter Hall’s life casts for sculpting. Steve drew three renderings of the Predator that I can recall: One of him running at the viewer with an indication of the laser-sight on the helmet and wrist blades extended, one full-body standing figure in a neutral position sporting the armor, and finally, a head portrait that would be used to design paint schemes.

However, this would not be the end of the design process. It would continued from the construction in the shop, right up until we were revealing the suit to production for the first time on location. But that was still weeks away.

…And Last Time on Blood, Sweat and Latex…: “Lending a (Motorized) Hand to The Monster Squad

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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