Thursday, September 15, 2011

Part 43: The Amazing Story of "Miss Stardust"

Steven Spielberg.  A name so important that it appears in "spell check."  JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, all have gone beyond being simple, fun, movies, to be accepted as institutions of contemporary film making*.  So, when Steven Spielberg announced that he would be producing a television show, it was sure to be something exceptional.  Using his influence, Spielberg attracted "A" list feature-film talent to be involved with his television series AMAZING STORIES.  Robert Zemekis, Martin Scorsese, even Burt Reynolds directed an episode of the anthology series that revolved around fantasy, horror, and science fiction themes.

I think this series was just a bit ahead of its time.
 As I mentioned last time, Stan Winston and his crew did an outstanding job for the Bob Zemekis episode "Go to the Head of the Class" creating incredible animatronic heads of actor Christopher Lloyd.  So, it came as no surprise that Stan would get the call to produce more creatures for a new episode to be directed by Tobe Hooper entitled "Miss Stardust."  In a nutshell, the plot involved a shyster (played by the legendary Dick Shawn) promoting a Miss Stardust beauty contest to chose the most beautiful woman in the universe, and, of course the crashing of that contest by aliens insisting on being represented, lest the earth be destroyed. Hey, they can't all be Shakespeare.

The alien contestant representative would be played by Weird Al Yankovic camouflaged by an elaborate prosthetic make up.  Now joined by Alec Gillis, fresh from Kevin Yagher's studio, the lifers jumped at the chance to begin designing.  Shane designed Weird Al's make up, which would be based on a huge head of lettuce - no, you read that correctly.  Tom designed "Miss Venus", a tall, slug-like creature with dangling tendrils and big bulging eyes.  "Miss Mars" was created by John, who envisioned her with a tall cranium, sharp teeth and pointed ears.  That left "Miss Jupiter", a six-legged, six-breasted, horse-faced monstrosity designed by Alec Gillis.

Other than Weird Al, the rest of the aliens would be elaborate puppets.  It was about that time, that Stan saw the necessity to expand his operation.  He had already rented a secondary unit in the industrial park that had served as a mold shop during ALIENS, but as I recall, Stan had vacated that shop once they left for England.
 However, Stan's intention was to move the mechanical department into their own space and so rented another unit that was directly opposite his bay door across the expansive parking lot.  While a moving strategy was being formulated, Tom and Alec took advantage of the empty building began sculpting Miss Venus there.

As Shane began molding lettuce leaves for the purposes of producing clay representations and John began roughing out Miss Mars another Stan Winston alumnus appeared at the studio.  Having worked with the lifers in England on ALIENS, Linsday McGowan had spoken with Stan about the possibility of coming to America and pursuing his career in Los Angeles.  Diminutive, soft-spoken, polite, funny, Lindsay found himself thrust right into a flurry of activity.  Without a car, Lindsay would rely on public transportation or the kindness of others to get him from his apartment to the studio.

He hadn't been in town for a week, when walking down Parthenia Street west toward Tampa, a black-and-white police car screeched to a stop in front of him.  Two of L.A.'s finest threw Lindsay to the ground and began questioning him.  As luck would have it, he fit the description of a suspect who had just robbed a convenience store.  Once Lindsay explained who he was, and what he was doing in Los Angeles, the police realized they had apprehended the wrong man.  "Welcome to Los Angeles." one of them said as they released him. 

Also around that time, Matt Rose rejoined the team as well.  I could be wrong about this, but I believe that he began sculpting the arms for Miss Jupiter.  My first order of business was on Miss Venus.  Tom's design featured three dangling "feelers" that ended in a tiny, bee-hived shape swelling.  Once Tom had the head roughed out, he made a quick alginate (flexible, dental, casting material) mold or "snap" which furnished an accurate base for my feeler sculptures to blend.  Nothing beats experience.  I had done something similar to this already in my blossoming career - the pineal gland for the Dr. Pretorious monster.  Yep, time to break out the ole prolapsed rectum reference.

Miss Venus, as she used to sit above the Foam Room at Stan's studio.
Yep, prolapsed rectums at the ends of her feelers, poor girl!
 Based on my sculptural performance, Tom then assigned me the task of roughing out Miss Venus' pudgy, three fingered hands.  This is where I stumbled.  Miss Venus, although a creature from another planet, was still "a lady."  The hands I roughed out were...well, rough.  Wrinkly and gnarled, they didn't match what Tom and Alec had sculpted on the body.  Eventually, I was relieved of my hand sculpting duties and they were finished by Tom.  I don't blame him.  When I saw the finished hands they were smooth and feminine - worthy of an intergalactic beauty contest.

Meanwhile, the mechanical duties had been split as well.  Richard Landon and Dave Kindlon would be building the exhaustive mechanisms for Miss Mars.  She would have a full radio controlled face, a neck that could stretch upward, mechanical arms and hands, as well as legs and feet.  The entire puppet would be able to be mounted onto a rod that would go through the floor for gross body movement.  Miss Venus seemed to be primarily Steve James' task with the help of his mentor, Dave Nelson, who was supervising the mechanics of Miss Jupiter.  I suppose it wouldn't be fair to not mention Lance Anderson here.

Lance, a long-time friend and collaborator with Stan, had built a tail mechanism for Stan's pet project entitled MORGULUM.  It was an impressive five or six foot-long mechanism about 30 or so inches in diameter at the base, terminating in about a six-inch diameter tip.It sat on display in a corner of the shop covered in soft, charcoal-colored upholstery foam. Stan suggested that Tom use the mechanism as a base to build Miss Venus' slug-like tail, so the foam was stripped, the mechanism covered with plastic wrap, and a mold was made to generate a sculpting positive.

As soon as sculpting armatures were built, Alec Gillis began roughing out the Miss Jupiter head while Tom Woodruff sculpted the body.  Lindsay and I sculpted the left and right legs as she would need six of them (3 on each side).  The large size of Miss Jupiter's head pushed the limits of Stan's small foam-latex oven and it was clear that the studio's needs would exceed the modest piece of equipment.  Soon, we would a bigger oven.

Miss Jupiter, striking an angry pose!
I don't understand how she didn't win the contest?

It was clear that for the larger bodies of Miss Venus and Miss Jupiter, running foam latex was out of the question so they were run in soft, urethane foam.  Miss Venus had a latex skin where Miss Jupiter's mold was just released and run repeatedly until we were able to pull a soft polyfoam casting out, with the least damaged surface (Polytek's 1014 is a soft urethane foam that is not advertised as self-skinning.  We were out to prove them wrong-ish).  We managed to get one casting that needed extensive patching, but it worked...well...sort of...

Meanwhile, on the Miss Mars front, there was a physics problem.  It seems that the mechanical arms were constructed with differentials in the shoulders that were engineered to disengage, rather than strip the gears inside, under a specified amount of torque.  In theory, the differentials seemed ideal for the task, but father physics stepped in with his concept of leverage.  The weight of the spindly arms matched with their length was too much for the gear box, which prevented the cable controlled arms from functioning.  This meant that the arms would have to be counter-balanced at the wrists with wires leading up to pulleys with weights attached at the ends.

Miss Mars is pissed because she needed to be supported by wires...Not really, she always looks pissed.
 In the art department, Matt, Lindsay and I were assigned to paint Miss Jupiter's body, arms and legs, based on Alec Gillis' paint job on the head.  I only bring this up because Matt Rose taught me something at that time which stuck with me to this day.  He asked if I had ever seen the skin on the inside of a baby's hand, or a baby's thigh.  He indicated that they were covered in a translucent network of veins in varying shades of red and purple.  Then, he demonstrated how to achieve such a look with an airbrush; this technique has remained one of the foundations of my painting.

When the puppets were completed, they were trucked to Universal Studios where we set up on one of the stages.  I say that with such aplomb, but at the time I was freaking out!  Universal Studios was one of the most famous studios on the planet and to be there as an employee was mind-blowing!  I really felt that I had landed in the big time when production told us that we would have a few days of (paid) rehearsals!  Then, Stan Winston informed us that we would be "Screen Actor's Guild, Taft-Harley'd"; I didn't know what that meant. 

Those of us who were not in Screen Actor's Guild, would be permitted to operate (or "perform") in front of a movie camera without being in the union....once.  We would receive our pay and residuals (what?!) based on a standard S.A.G. contract!  All I know is that it was more money than I had ever earned up to that point!

Production furnished us with musical playback for Miss Mars' Dance and Miss Jupiter's operatic performance.  We puppeteers slowly began to develop a routine based on the capabilities of the puppets.  For Miss Mars, Matt Winston and I would get on a platform above the stage where we would assist with the gross arm movements moving a horizontal pole back and forth with the counter-balancing pulleys on either end of it.  During a lighting test, one of the weights came loose, fell, and struck the stage mere feet from where a technician stood.  I shudder to think what would have happened had it struck him in the head!

During our rehearsal, a member of the Art Department stopped by to see our puppeteering set up and was impressed.  Apparently Rob Bottin and his crew had been on set a few weeks earlier with his creature ("The Greibble") and, according to this crew person,  it took a bunch of people with enormous controllers to make it work  They had had a hell of a time framing them out of shots. 

When shooting commenced we finally got to see Weird Al in his make up.  Kevin Yagher, who, unlike the rest of us, was in the make up union, applied Shane's make up which turned out looking fantastic.  Kevin was (is) an amazing artist.  During the day when he was on set, keeping an eye on Mr. Yankovic's make up, he clipped a teddy bear out of a foam sponge using a pair of cuticle scissors!  It was perfect and demonstrated how incredible his eye truly was!  I've never seen anyone do anything like that since!  Remarkable.

"You are one, humorless vegetable, you know that?!" Actual dialogue delivered to Weird Al from Dick Shawn.
 Shooting the puppets went smoothly.  The only hiccup was that Miss Jupiter's  operatic playback was "enhanced" and no longer had the same tempo as the routine we had worked out.  But we rallied and managed to get an impressive performance on camera.  To get a look at our puppets in action, check out this link: Miss Stardust on Youtube

Miss Jupiter, lit garishly, on set.  Nice teeth, though.
 It was also an honor to work on set with Dick Shawn.  Even though we really didn't have much interaction with him on camera, watching him work was a treat.  It is one of the many regrets of my career that I didn't ask him for an autograph at the end of the shoot; he would die, on stage doing his one-man show a year later!

While we were at Universal, between takes, walking amongst the classic soundstages, Stan told us what our next job would be - a cross between GHOSTBUSTERS and the GOONIES entitled THE MONSTER SQUAD.  And, it would feature the classics - Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, The Wolfman, The Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon!

I was just happy that there was more work on the horizon.

*I would have added later efforts such as SCHINDLER'S LIST and JURASSIC PARK, but at this time, those films had not been produced yet.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Part 42: Back at Stan Winston's Studios

During my first tour of duty at Stan Winston's back in 1985, things were a bit unusual.  Stan's "lifers" as they had been called, had left for England within a few weeks of my employment with the exception of Alec Gillis.  Although I had been introduced to and worked a bit with the others, Shane Mahan, John Rosengrant, Tom Woodruff, Jr., and Richard Landon, I honestly didn't know that much about them or their working habits.  But now, I had found myself back at Stan Winston's studio, invited by Stan himself, to join the team in their latest effort which was building a mechanical boar for the film BLACK WIDOW.


Upon my re-introduction to the lifers and after working with them for a few days this is how I would classify them:

Shane Mahan was an artist.  A dreamer.  He had such a charming and deep sense of self-deception that it was difficult to not like him instantly.  He loved art, especially traditional fine art as well as the trappings of what I would call "the good life."  I still like Shane very much but have a difficult time resisting the temptation to knock his rose-colored glasses off.  Shame on me.  Years after I left Stan's, my wife would tell me that Shane actually had the right idea about how to live life.

He wore leopard print slip-on shoes in the kidding...
 Tom Woodruff, Jr. was the perfectionist.  Highly talented and detail oriented.  Of all of the TERMINATOR heads that were on display, Tom's was the one that was the cleanest.  I recall being at Tom's house and seeing one that he had made for his home display that was more perfect than the one in the studio!  Possessed of a wicked sense of humor, Tom's true passion was writing.  He had dreams of writing screenplays and one day moving his family back to his native Pennsylvania.

I like this frame grab of Tom because you know he just did something he's embarrassed about...
 John Rosengrant was the ramrod.  It is difficult to see what a necessary and thankless position that is for anyone, and there were many times, in my immaturity, that I would see John as a frustrating figure at the studio.  A bit hot-headed and deed-oriented, John made goddamn sure that the work was moving forward in the shop!  Having had that position myself, since, at other shops, I recognize what a difficult position it is.  I'll take this opportunity to apologize to John for my youthful lack of vision.  He was doing what was best for the studio, which is what made him invaluable to Stan.

I forgot to mention that John, too, was a good sculptor.
 Richard Landon was the head of the mechanical department.  Educated and intelligent, Richard attempted to bring logic and dispassionate thinking into the studio which was a difficult notion.  Ironically, Richard was also very sensitive and polite which meant that he wasn't always heard above the rabble.  I admire Richard for his stalwart service to Stan Winston and his bottomless patience.  I never possessed those admirable qualities.

Richard looks like he's thinking about something.  He was always thinking about something, bless him.
 Other familiar faces had returned to Stan's as well, such as Dave Nelson, and Steve James, who were designing and assembling the chain link running mechanism for the boar (truly amazing).  And it was during this time that I met someone who would become a life long friend, Stan's son, Matt. 

Matt was just instantly likeable.  He was such a fan of his father and the studio's work that it was disarming!  He had boundless energy and enthusiasm and would be working at the studio that summer between school years.

At the time of my return, Alec Gillis had taken a sabbatical and was helping his friend Kevin Yagher with a demon puppet for a film entitled TRICK OR TREAT.  But he was due to return sometime in the future.  Of course, at the helm, was the man himself....Stan Winston.

There he sat in his office, no multiple Oscars nor high-tech furniture yet.  A star on the rise.
 As I put my tool box down on a workbench, I was greeted by a large, red fiberglass mold; its silhouette was immediately recognizable as some sort of pig.  Also, in the mechanical area of the shop was a chain-link mechanism.  These were the parts of the boar puppet that were under construction for BLACK WIDOW.  The idea was that the antagonist, played by Theresa Russell's, would trick the protagonist, Debra Winger into the forest where she would be threatened by a wild boar.

For shots of the wild boar chasing at Ms. Winger's feet, this puppet would be utilized.  Built like a wheel-barrow, it was only the front 2/3rds of the body.  Where the rear legs would have been, instead was a beefy frame with wheels that a puppeteer could motivate, coordinating with the movements of the front legs to give the illusion of running.

Here is the mechanism balanced across the foam room counters.

For those of you who are mechanically inclined, here's a close up of the shoulder array. Very impressive stuff.
I was told that it would be my responsibility to cast the skins for the puppet.  The head would be run out of foam latex, and the body would be a thin skin of regular latex over a soft urethane filler.  The mold was cored to create a thickness of about a half an inch, so that was going to be a challenge.

Stan Winston's foam room was just a bit bigger than a utility closet in those days (see the photo above).  He had several Sunbeam Mixmasters and two injectors that were acrylic-bodied with machined aluminum tips and plungers.  The injectors were not something you could just stroll down the street and pick up, they had been custom built per specifications; one held about two large Mixmaster bowls, the other about four bowls of foam.  The acrylic had been machined on the ends, threaded like a big screw so that the cap and tip as well as the plunger guide could be attached to withstand the immense amount of pressure exerted on the injector while filling molds.  To make matters worse, the threads were relatively thin, meaning that it would take a fair amount of revolutions to completely seat the cap on the acrylic tube.

I've spoken about running foam latex in many of the past blogs, but running foam at Stan's and using those injectors was a new experience.  Prior to running the foam, it became a responsibility to clean out the injector, castor oil all of the rubber O ring seals, and make sure that everything would be ready to go, quickly, in order to get the foam latex into the injector, cap sealed, and then material injected into the mold. It sounds easier than it was, especially doing the lion's share of the work by myself.

The initial run of any mold for a mechanical character, would be a test skin.  The overall quality of the foam and the run was less important than providing the mechanical department with something that they could begin working with to strategically plan how they were going to assemble the animatronics. The skin served as a departure point for the engineers to request a softer foam while indicating stress areas to be reinforced. It also gives the foam runner the opportunity of working out any bugs in the casting of the skin, so that subsequent runs only get better.

So there I was in this tiny foam room, with a red, fiberglass, boar head mold.  I had delicately attached a nylon stocking over the core positive (the piece inside of the mold that displaces the foam to a specified thickness) and had cut out the areas where the core contacted the inner surface of the mold.  I had drilled tiny "bleeder" holes throughout the core to allow air to escape while injecting that would cause air bubbles or voids in the skin.  Everything was ready.  Injection gun was clean and I was ready to run foam.

Chemicals weighed carefully, Mixmaster speeds and running times executed and recorded with precision, it became time to add the final chemical that would "gel" the foam to prevent the air cells from collapsing as the material baked out in the oven.  At this point, I leaned out of the foam room and asked someone to help me.
Sometimes it was Matt, or Shane, or Tom...whomever was free to throw on a smock and lend a hand.

Dispersing the gelling agent into the foam was putting the operation against a unreliable stop watch.  As I've said before, there were so many conditions that could make foam latex gel too fast, or not at all, so what any foam runner had when they were performing their task, was an idea of how much time they have to effectively get the material into the mold.

The foam was front-loaded into the injector (the cap end) as the plunger sat at the very bottom of the tube.  Once filled, the cap was screwed on (All those threads!  It felt like an eternity!) and then the plunger was carefully pushed upward allowing the large air voids and bubbles in the mix to escape until the foam latex hit the cap.  A bit of material was allowed to escape from the tip and then into the mold the injector went!  Slow, steady pressure was exerted on the plunger as spirals of foam began appearing at the bleeder holes.  When finally, all of the holes bled and there was enough back pressure on the injector, a ball of water-based clay was pushed into the injector hole as the injector was removed to maintain the pressure and prevent the latex from spewing out.  WHEW!  Done!  Now all that had to be done was let the foam gel and then into the oven.

Within a few minutes, the foam had gelled completely. Ah, success!  I carefully moved the mold into the oven, set the temperature and timer, and then returned to the foam room to clean up (another thankless task for foam runners!).  I went to open the injector cap to clean it out and it is stuck.  Solid.  Like through some alchemy the acrylic had permanently bonded with the aluminum.  The cap, which was about three inches in diameter, was larger than any channel-lock pliers in the shop and the acrylic was too fragile for me to put it into a table vise.  I held the injector between my knees and tried to twist the cap off.  It wasn't moving.  I unscrewed the bottom, pulled the plunger, and the excess foam out of the tube and tried to clean as much as I could from the reverse.  I tried to twist again...nothing.  Ugh...

I opened the foam room door and asked John Rosengrant for a hand.  He came in, saw what I had done and slapped me upside the head, like a father from the '60's would do after his kid  had just wiped his ketchup stained lips with  his shirt.  It was more shocking than painful, but...he had just hit me...right?  "Don't let the foam gel in the closed injector!" he snapped.  All I could do was hang onto the acrylic tube while John wrenched it off.  "After you finish injecting the mold, unscrew the cap immediately next time!" he added, and then left.

What could I do?  Go tell Stan?  Confront John and get my ass handed to me?  I was too shocked and stunned to know what to do.  I had just arrived back at one of THE best creature effects studios in the world.  Was it worth risking dismissal?  At the time, I thought not.  My ears and cheeks burning red, I continued cleaning the foam room.

It was a sad and defining moment at Stan Winston's studio for me.  I had returned, but not in the way I had hoped.