Specially Affected

I was going to go to the cinema tonight but it seems like there is absolutely nothing I want to see on. Had you told teenage me that, when faced with the chance to go to a huge cinema and see either (or both of) Transformers 3 or The Green Lantern – both in 3D, I had merely sighed and decided to stay in and watch a Molly Dineen DVD, he would have choked on his bucket of popcorn.

But I reckon once I’d explained to him, as I shall for you, he’d have understood. He was very clever, you see. And handsome, erudite, charismatic…. I’ll stop now.

I think I always understood what films were. I grew up with my father’s super 8 cine camera always present and I think always got that they were works of artifice. I certainly remember being 5 years old and knowing for a fact that Chewbacca was a man called peter Mayhew in a costume, I’d seen a photo of him in the costume sans head with big black make-up panda eyes. But rather than spoiling the magic, that to me WAS the magic. Although I could suspend disbelief and enjoy a film quite happily, I was engaged with it in the same way I was engaged with be-wigged magic midget Paul Daniels – the fun wasn’t believing it was real so much as working out how they’d managed to fool me.

There was a wonderful library book which I borrowed over and over again which explained how forced perspective sets could change a landscape, make a man a giant or be used to make it look like a woman was being burned at the stake. How naval battles could be recreated with model boats if you slowed the camera to the correct speed and how with a bit of latex and make up, you could turn John Hurt into the Elephant Man.

From five years old, up to about 13, Special effects were absolutely all I cared about in films. The idea that you could just make anything you could imagine. It just blew my mind. It also looked like such fun. I wanted to be a creature operator as much as anything. I wanted to play with that stuff. I mean, that’s what it was, those guys were doing exactly the same as I was at home – they were making toys and playing with them. I didn’t understand why my dad would put on a suit and trudge off to sell linen everyday when he could have been playing with creatures and spaceships like those other grown-ups.

My hero became a guy called Rick Baker. All of the books and magazines I read on the subject singled him out as the king. And he was cool, he had a beard and long hair and he built the best of the best. He did the incredible make-up effects for An American Werewolf in London – they were so good, the academy CREATED an Oscar for him. Years later, he’d slam the academy for snubbing his work on Bigfoot and the Hendersons, which they claimed wasn’t technically make-up. They were wrong. He was right. And Righteous. I read that Baker got his start as a teenager, he’d been doing make-up as a hobby and had been roped into creating aliens for the cantina scene in Star Wars. I was a teenager! I had to get on this thing if I was ever going to be his peer.

The only animatronics company I was aware of in the UK was Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in London. So I wrote to them and told them I wanted to work with them, they didn’t have to pay me yet, but I would work hard. I had a fantasy of, at 13, packing my bags, saying goodbye to my parents and moving to London to make monsters. It should also be pointed out that at that exact time, Henson made a TV film called Monster Maker in which a 13 year old kid got to join an FX company and help build creatures. It seemed like my destiny. Then sent me back a very nice letter on Henson headed paper thanking me for my interest but politely asking me to go away. I wrote back, explaining they had made a mistake, they didn’t reply again. It gave me such a thrill 20-odd years later, when I was one day accompanying my girlfriend to her GP and she casually mentioned the health centre had been Henson’s creature shop! I finally got through the doors.

Anyway, my parents bought me a subscription for my birthday each year to a magazine called Cinefex, which is the FX industry publication. It’s still going strong. Each issue takes two or three major new films and, thanks to Cinefex’s total on-set access, took you through the entire film explaining (and illustrating with incredible photos that you never saw crop up anywhere else) how every single effect was conceived and executed. it was like having the keys to the sweet shop. I learned about the incredible artistry of matte paintings and optical compositing. About miniatures and the painstaking detail of stop-motion (Phil Tippett, my almost-Baker grade hero, went on to invent go-motion). My favourites were always Animatronics and Prosthetics, though. turning people into monsters and operating their faces with radio controls. Amazing.

I’d try to recreate Hollywood effects with my camcorder at home. The first time I was left at home completely alone for a couple of days, I damned near burned down the garage trying to film a matchbox car exploding (I filled it with match heads, doused it in white spirit and blasted it with the lit spray of a can of Denim deodorant.

At 15, everyone in my school year had to do work experience for a week. I assumed there were no special effects companies in Oxford so sat flicking idly through the Yellow Pages to see if any businesses at all seemed to be worth approaching and bearable for a week.On a whim, I decided to look up ‘animatronics’ and, to my utter amazement, there was a section and a company under it in Oxfordshire. I phoned them up and they said I was welcome to spend a week with them. It was one of the most exciting, magical and illuminating weeks of my life and in some ways I’m forever in their debt. The company was called Crawley Creatures.

Although it was in Oxfordshire, it was a really long way away. I had to take a couple of buses and then someone from the workshop would pick me up and drive me all the way out to their little industrial estate by the river. The place was run by a couple of guys – Nigel Trevessey and Jez Harris – who to this dazed 15 year old – were basically the coolest guys on the planet. Nigel had worked on Willow and The Never-Ending Story. Jez had worked on Return of the Jedi!!!! I don’t think he thought I believed him when he told me that, so the next day he brought in his Revenge of The Jedi sweatshirt to prove it. When I checked my ‘making of’ video – there he was – he built an operated Jabba The Hutt’s eyes! If all of this weren’t cool enough, they had both worked with Rick Baker, building the apes in Greystoke. They even had a couple of the Ape heads kicking around.

Their workshop was full of the most exotic bunch of people I’d ever seen, all working at their own schedules (I thought work was regimented like school, these people just swanned in when they felt like it, picked up tools and made cool things!) They all had stories too. One guy had just come off Alien 3 and he told me all the juicy gossip that only ever came out when the Quadrilogy DVD box set was released two decades later. He’d worked on the scene where the alien burst out of the ox but the whole scene had been scrapped while production was still ongoing. There was a girl who’d just come off Nightbreed, she had made Cabal’s teeth. I had a horrible crush on her. A frizzy haired guy called Mike, who really took me under his wing, made a point of explaining everything he was doing as he went along. These people were lovely and generous and funny and that was the first time in my life that I was ever treated like an adult. They never talked down to me or exerted authority, they were really inclusive and encouraging.

My first day there was horrible, they were building some enormous phone costumes for an advert. The way they did this was to initially sculpt them out of polystyrene. The way you do this is with firm brushes, you just take a huge block of polystyrene and brush it down until it’s the right shape. This means you create millions of static-energy charged little poly balls. My job was to bag those up. They didn’t have a hoover. I had to dump handfuls of those damn balls into black sacks, the second i’d let go, they’d all statically cling to my jumper or hair. It was horrible, but I worked hard and, I think, earned their respect and they never asked me to do it again. Mike taught me how to cast a mould. Starting by painting the inside of the mould with layers of ammonium-stinking liquid latex, setting each layer by blasting it with a hairdryer, then combining two liquid chemicals which, when poured together into the mould would quickly set into a firm spongey texture which could be pulled from the moulds complete with latex skin and then painted.

The main project they were working on at that time was a TV movie of The Lost World, so the place was filled with dinosaurs – some finished and playable with, others still being sculpted from clay, ready to be cast in moulds. They taught me how to build a wire armature, how to build up the clay and how to sculpt it. What they really taught me that week was that, as wonderful experience as it had been and as fantastic an environment as that workshop was, it wasn’t the job for me. I didn’t have the artistic skill to create and sculpt, I didn’t have the technical skill to build, wire and operate and i didn’t have the lung capacity for working with chemicals. Rather than disappointed, I came away from the experience super-charged and with steely resolve to write and direct films instead. I still want to make a monster movie one day.

Fast forward a few years and I cancelled my subscription to Cinefex. Why? Because it had ceased to be interesting. The photos of strange, exotic creatures had been replaced with photos of anemic-looking men sat at computer monitors. The rise of CGI had begun and I had no interest in it.

There’s no magic to cinema now, you see. Because the answer to every question is ‘they did it on a computer’. It’s impressive what can be done on computers, but then… it isn’t magic anymore. They haven’t fooled us, they haven’t created something. There’s no smoke or mirrors, no mystery, I’d even go so far as to say… no craft.

I rewatched Greystoke last week for the first time in ages. The apes in it are wonderful. Sure, it’s obvious they are actors in special suits but that means there is a real performance to it. Real pathos. Real magic. In the same week, I saw the new Planet of the Apes trailer – with all CGI apes. It looked like a cartoon.

I saw a clip from the new Transformers film a couple of days ago. A robot flies through the air, runs up a building with everything exploding around him and a skyscraper fell in half. It looked like I was expected to be impressed. But it was just a cartoon to me. There was no magic. Then I watched a film I had never seen before – Gorgo. A monster film from the 60’s in which a huge Godzilla rip-off stomps all over London. Go on – guess which impressed me more. Gorgo was a 60’s cheapo but there were moments which genuinely blew me away. Although I knew it was a man in a suit stomping over a model city, it was incredibly well done. The model effects were wonderful and epic. At one point, I let out a ‘WOW’ when they tranquilize the monster and drive him across Picadilly Circus on a huge flatbed truck – they had built a full-size monster and actually gone out there and filmed it. That was cool! and impressive! The sheer number of extras they had running around the streets int error amazed me. Cinema has been using CGI crowds since Forrest Gump but to see that many real people running screaming about the streets of London was genuinely impressive. As was a sequence where the hero escapes into the underground, only for Gorgo to smash through the tunnel after him. I still don’t know how they did some of those shots. That, to me, is magic.

And I miss it.

Published in: on July 1, 2011 at 9:25 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Interesting little audio interview with Vic Armstrong talking about how CG has almost but not entirely buggered up the career of the stuntman and how folks like him still insist on doing it right: http://www.hitfix.com/blogs/motion-captured/posts/the-motion-captured-podcast-with-guest-vic-armstrong-stunt-double-to-indy-bond-and-superman

    You’ll need to download the podcast and skip through a bit of McWeeny blethering about DVD releases but the interview is good. I want his book.

  2. Oh, and Gorgo is awesome. A big deal for me as a kid.

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