Creature maker (The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition), Digital Model Development and Construction Artist (The Phantom Menace), Digital Modeler (Revenge of the Sith)
Interview: May 2010
How did you get started in the movie business? I read that Steven Spielberg once brought you on board for one of your first movies: Gremlins?
My first professional gig was indeed on the first Gremlins movie back in 1983. I had been working on a low budget horror movie in San Francisco called Dracula’s Disciple, and through the connections I made there mixing gallons of fake blood, I was hired at creature effects studio Chris Walas (CWI). When I joined Gremlins I was 19 and still in college, so I decided to take a semester off and see how things went. I came on the Gremlins project just as there was a big push to build the dozens of background puppets for the movie theater scene. I had a great time learning how to make proper molds and cast foam rubber Gremlin body parts. While Mr. Spielberg himself didn’t actually hire me, it sure was a stroke of luck to be on that project, learn the trade, and then have the resulting film become such a landmark in the creature effects industry.
What got you interested into models and creatures in the first place?
As a kid I always built stuff at home in the garage. I remember seeing Goldfinger on TV and then building a prop jet pack out of cardboard and tape. Around the same time I was tinkering with my Super-8 movie camera, trying to recreate special effects from Space 1999 or Land of the Lost.
My major movie monster influences were from master animator Ray Harryhausen. Movies like Jason and the Argonauts and Mysterious Island really fascinated me. Those films had an elegance of design and creatures that could be shown full view, interacting with actors. Star Wars‘ influence actually came much later, but was significant.
Right around the time I starting working professionally other Sci-fi / horror landmark films came out; The Thing, Blade Runner, and American Werewolf in London. It was a great time to be making monsters in the film business. We were a young, fun and eager group of artists trying to raise the bar with each movie we worked on.
How did you join ILM?
I had just returned from working in Toronto on The Fly for CWI. The shop had some down time so I gathered my meager portfolio and cold-called the ILM Model Shop for an interview. As it turned out, the timing was perfect. They had just completed Howard the Duck and were about to mount a major organic effects film called Inner Space. I was interviewed by ILM model shop supervisors Charlie Baily and Jeff Mann for the job of building half scale puppets of Kevin McCarthy and Fiona Lewis. That interview went pretty well and I started the next week. Really, I couldn’t believe my good timing.
In the mid eighties you worked on The Ewok Adventure and the legendary 3D movie Captain EO. I’d like to hear your stories regarding working on these two movies.
Working on the first Ewok Adventure was a fun experience. I was hired directly by Jon Berg and Phil Tippett. They had a small shop set up in Hercules, about an hour from ILM. Jon and Phil had taken on the project as independent contractors and needed a crew. So myself and co-monster maker buddy Jonathan Horton assisted in molding and casting creature parts. I was a huge fan of both Jon and Phil’s stop motion work for the Star Wars films, so just helping out was a thrill. Both my bosses were great to work for and very generous with both sharing the craft of monster building and making it a fun experience.
My time working on Captain EO was spent at FX makeup master Rick Baker’s shop in Los Angeles. I had just completed work on the horror/comedy movie House and was looking for the next job. I interviewed with Steve Johnson at BOSS Films and with Rick Baker at Boris. I was called in to work with Rick on a little film called Rat Boy, and then transitioned over to Captain EO. Mostly I worked on the little red fuzzball that was Michael Jackson’s mascot. Working on the little hands and feet. The film just reopened at Disneyland, believe it or not.
For the Star Wars special editions you were the chief creature maker. I’d like to know which creatures you were responsible for and how your workdays looked back then.
When the special edition work for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back came along, the first creature to be approved was the Ketwol. That’s the gray tusked creature with the small elephant’s trunk. I received artwork from Skywalker Ranch and started sculpting the head and shoulders out of water based clay the same day. It was a very fast project, with the final rubber and foam puppet being complete in just over a week. At the time, I was pretty much on my own doing this project. The full force of the special editions hadn’t started yet and the prequels were a year off or so from starting.
From the Ketwol creature I was also able to create another Cantina creature called Melas. Effects supervisor John Knoll noticed that the back of our Ketwol puppet’s head looked like a completely different creature, so we turned it around, redressed it with new clothing, and shot it as a separate character. Two monsters for the price of one!
The legendary Rick Baker and Stuart Freeborn were in some way your predecessors as they created various creatures for the original trilogy. Has their work influenced you in any way?
Rick Baker’s career had always been fascinating to me. Seeing his work was always inspiring. He has a great love for creatures, and a very naturalistic inspired design sense. His work is always derived from the aesthetics of real nature. That’s what sets his work apart from the pack. There’s a lot of discipline in his designs. An amazing sculptor, and a great guy too.
I would read about Mr. Freeborn’s work in magazines when I was a kid trying to find out more about the making of Star Wars. The sheer breadth of work he had to materialize for Star Wars was amazing. I have a great deal of respect for him and his work. In fact, I was part of the Yoda refurbishment team that helped make castings from the original Yoda molds made at his shop for The Empire Strikes Back. It was really something pulling the first casting out of those molds. As soon as I got the foam rubber head out of the original plaster mold, it was like looking at Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, but in real life. This was “it”. The real deal.
In these Special Editions George Lucas wanted to add a new scene with the Wampa. You got to wear the suit for that scene. How did you get the Wampa-part?
At the time, I was working in the ILM Creature shop. I had just finished the Ketwol shoot when Wampa project came up. Sculpting and foam construction that creature suit took about six weeks and kept myself and three other ILM artists busy full time. I was heading up the team, building proof of concept studies and attending production meetings. A few weeks into the project, Dennis Muren and I talked about casting an actor to be inside the suit. Having worked with Dennis as a creature performer on Ghostbusters II we decided that I could perform in the suit. This made the whole construction process much easier and expedited the whole construction process. Anytime we needed a suit fitting I was right there, ready to try monster parts on. Plus, I have to admit, I really wanted to perform the character.
Can you share some memories regarding the shooting of your Wampa scenes?
I recall when we were shooting the Wampa on our ILM sound stages, George asked if I could open the mouth wider. In the shot my arm had just been chopped off, so George really wanted to see an extreme scream. The mask’s mouth was opening as wide as my jaw could manage, so just before we rolled the camera I moved my free hand up the neck of the Wampa suit and into the mask’s mouth. On action I pulled down the jaw as wide as I could, which broke dozens of little elastic bands inside the mask. I could hear them popping as I tugged the mouth open. That got the result George was looking for and he called a wrap. The Wampa mask was broken for good, but we got the last shot.
I bet you saw The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 when it was released. It must have felt surrealistic, to play a part in a movie you had known for years?
I did see The Empire Strikes Back when it first came out. In fact, I slept on the sidewalk all night to get a good place in line, and nearly didn’t get into the first screening the next morning!
The whole experience of working on The Empire Strikes Back Special Edition was indeed a bit surreal. At one point we had the half scale Wampa head puppet that Phil Tippett built for the original movie in our shop, to help us match the proportions of our costume. Seeing that head, which pops up in front of the Tauntaun on Hoth, reduced us all to kids again. It’s looking right into motion picture history.
That said, that feeling vanishes pretty quickly when it’s time to “suit up” and perform on stage. Suddenly it’s all about blocking for the camera and finding the right speed for the Wampa’s movement (the camera was shooting at high speed to give scale to the moment). Just staying cool in the suit was a major concern. It must have reached well over 100 degrees at times.
So there was a lot to keep me from getting too lost in the bigger picture.
For Episode I and III you were in charge of digital model development and were a construction artist. Can you tell in your own words what you exactly had to do?
After The Empire Strike Back Special Edition, I did one more show in the ILM model shop; Men In Black. After that I made the transition to working on the computer for the CG department. That’s were I have been for the past 15 years.
For Episode I I modeled a good number of creatures and vehicles, including the STAP, Ben Quadinaros’ Pod, and the Colos Sea Killer. It was a great show, not just because it was the Star Wars universe coming back with a new story, but also because there was SO much to build for us digital modelers It seemed to be a never ending list of monsters and space ships.
On Episode III I worked on building Anakin’s robotic arm and vehicles that would attack the Wookiee planet. Also, I added some of the CGI architecture to Mustafar, the volcanic planet on the end. Again, a real satisfying show. So many planets, so little time!
You didn’t get to work on Episode II. Why was that?
Just when Episode II was about to begin, the chance to work on AI: Artificial Intelligence came around. I am a huge fan of the films of Stanley Kubrick, who was the original writer/director for that film, so I wanted to be part of that project. Taking that road allowed me to work on AI: Artificial Intelligence and then also Minority Report directed by Spielberg. Both projects were pushing the envelope of Science Fiction, plus interesting to me artistically. Of course I did have to quietly watch EP II happen without me. It’s always hard to make those kind of choices.
I’m sure there have been fun or remarkable things while working on the Star Wars movies. Can you share some previously unknown stories?
While we were still in post production on The Phantom Menace, the Lucasfilm PR department gave an ILM tour to Ahmed Best and Ray Park. A group of digital artists were at our desks when suddenly in they walked. It was a real shock as we jumped up to shake their hands and then show them what we were building for the movie. Generally speaking we never ask for autographs from visiting actors, but we had all just been given teaser posters for the film, so we broke out the Sharpies and they were more than happy to sign for us. A real treat.
Over the last two decades CGI is taking over more and more. This could eventually lead to the point where ‘the old crafts’ of model making and creature making are over. What do you think about this? Do you think that’s a shame?
This is an interesting question. Every time I think we’ve reached a happy balance between CG and Practical VFX, someone innovates software or pushes the envelope in terms of CGI and we have a new game changer. In my view I don’t think “hand crafted” effects will ever disappear, but I do think they will be marginalized further and further as computer effects evolve and become cheaper. That said, blowing up a car or making great creature makeup will no doubt be around as long as we are still making movies with cameras.
You are listed as a character performer for Ghostbusters II. Since that is one of my personal favorite movies I have to ask: which character did you perform and can you tell something about working on that movie?
Appearing as an actor in Ghostbusters II was a call in the eleventh hour of production. I was working in the ILM model shop, helping to make green slime that would cover a library building, when we suddenly needed an actor to stand-in for Dan Aykroyd. These were for VFX shots when his character is transformed into Vigo the Carpathian. Aykroyd was not available and the stand-in actor would be deep under makeup. I had actually been helping to design that character, so when the need came up, I volunteered right away. By that afternoon I was in the makeup chair being given a full life-cast.
The makeup took about seven hours to apply, covered my whole head and even my ears, so I couldn’t hear very well. Monster dentures went over my teeth, with a concoction of purple Kool-Aid on my tongue. Then, glass contact lenses went into my eyes, covering even the whites of the eye. So I was pretty much deaf and blind by the time I was in full makeup. Someone had to hold my arm while I walked to help find the shooting stages. My legs had fallen asleep in the makeup chair, so that was pretty funny to watch.
When I got to the stage I was lead up to a platform covered in black plastic. I didn’t understand why I was on plastic until I saw the slime gun that was pointed at my face. On action, a solid column of thick slime was shot into my face as I recited the lines for the character. Those lines also needed to be recited at double speed, by the way, since the camera was shooting at double speed to give the character some scale.
Pretty much a dream job for me. It was a really fun experience. In the final film my head explodes like the Death Star, so that was kind of the cherry on top.
What are your current and future projects? Maybe the Star Wars live action TV series?
Ah, if only I could say. I’m working fast and furious on a new project, but right now I’m not at liberty to say exactly what. It’s that ILM security force field at work. Sorry!
No problem! I understand it completely.
Thanks for the questions. It’s been my pleasure.
And thank you for the great stories! I enjoyed them.