Creature special effects for films have been around almost as long as films themselves and have evolved constantly with new technology and materials. Believable special effects pull the audience into the story by making the impossible seem possible in the mind of the audience. We have all become very aware of the use of computer generated animation in recent years and many of you may be of the opinion that much if not all of what you see on screen today is the product of a computer workstation. That is far from the case. Computer graphics like other forms of special effects lack a key element which many directors require to tell their story properly, the ability to interact on set with live actors. Most directors use computer generated special effects for wide shots but often opt to use some type of physical on set effects for close-up shots, shots that convey subtle character expressions and shots which require live interaction with actors. Stampede Entertainment’s own S.S. Wilson opted for computer generated wide shots of the Shriekers in Tremors 2: Aftershocks but used complex cable operated puppets when filming with the actors on set. It is that blend of different techniques that brings believability to the character. This web site is dedicated to introducing you to the world of on-set special effects. The various effects techniques for creating movie monsters: cartoon (cel) animation, dimensional (stop motion) animation, and computer animation, all have the same drawback when the script calls for live human interaction with the animated character: The character cannot physically be on set during filming. The actor must “react” to nothing and it’s a challenge for both actor and director to achieve the illusion of interaction between the two elements.
Furthermore, many directors want something on the set they can relate to, something they can see. When director Matthew Robbins spoke with S. S. Wilson about his work on Dragonslayer, (where the dragon was largely created via a motion controlled miniature puppet) he explained that he insisted on constructing a full scale dragon head and other parts to use on the set. As much as possible, he wanted a dragon he could walk over to and say, “No, do it this way.”
So, many modern films still use some form of human-controlled creation for close-ups or for shots requiring interaction with live characters. ADI is a pre-eminent force in this special area.
The Monster Makers takes you behind the scenes into the world of on-set creature effects. We venture inside Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. Our hosts are ADI founders Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis. Together they take you on a tour through their (until now secret) workshop and onto the sets of some of several recent Hollywood films showing you their latest high (and low) tech solutions to creating monsters for the movies.
The process of creating a special effects character for film starts with a meeting with the film’s director, who presents his vision of what the character should be. Based on that information the creative team will sketch out some basic ideas and then turn those into a small scale clay sculpture called a maquette. Often times several maquettes are created until the director’s vision is realized.
Using the approved maquette as a reference, sculptors then create a life size clay sculpture of the character. If the design calls for an actor to wear the character as a costume the life size clay sculpture will be made over a life cast of the actor. From this full size clay sculpture molds are made and the exterior skin is cast in latex rubber, fiberglass or other materials.
While sculptors work on the external appearance of the creature, the mechanical design team sets about the business of building the required internal mechanisms that allow the creature to operate. The mechanical design team might opt for the use of traditional cable operated control or they might choose electronically controlled servo motors or even hydraulics for larger more powerful creatures. They may even combine techniques to meet the needs of more complex designs.
Finally, the internal mechanisms are combined with the external skin. The creature is then painted and taken to the filming location. After the character gets any required last minute touch ups (just like the actors) the puppeteers perform their character’s actions on set, interacting with the other actors as directed.
Take The Tour:
My Favorite Martian
Tremors 2: Aftershocks
The creature special effects film industry uses some unique terminology. To get the most out of your tour thorough this site you may want to familiarize yourself with the following terms you will encounter on the tour.
A small scale clay sculpture representing the design team’s proposed “look” for a creature. The maquette is presented to the director for approval before time and money are invested in the development of full scale puppets. Puppet
A prop used on set which is controlled by one puppeteers located outside of the camera’s field of view.
A puppet built to perform a full range of motions and/or expressions. Designed for use in close-up scenes where detailed performance is required.
Cable Articulated Puppet
A puppet which is controlled through the use of one or more cables operated by levers. The fully articulated Shriekers for Tremors 2: Aftershocks for example were controlled by 13 different cables which required 13 puppeteers to operate, far more than the film’s budget would support. The solution was to have other crew members working the handles when complex creature movements were required.
A puppet which is operated though the use of electronic servos and/or hydraulic pistons, often controlled though a computerized interface.
Simple puppet directly controlled by the hand of the puppeteer. No cables, electronics or hydraulics are required. Most often used when complex movements are not required. Several scenes of the graboid from Tremors were effectively accomplished on a miniature set with a simple hand puppet to represent the head of the worm coming out of the ground.
A puppet which is controlled by hydraulic pistons. Hydraulics are most often used to move large or heavy puppets. Because of the great power of hydraulic systems, they can be somewhat dangerous. Often times puppeteers control hydraulic puppets through complex computer interfaces which help protect cast, crew and even the puppet itself from an accidental dangerous moves or a malfunction of the system itself.
Motion Controlled Puppet
A puppet for which all, or almost all, movement is controlled via computer, so that moves are precisely repeatable. The head of the Goro puppet from Mortal Kombat, for example, was programmed with a specific series of lip movements which were timed to lip-sync to the character’s voice track. The puppet’s head performed the lip movements correctly on every take, allowing the puppeteers to focus on other aspects of the performance.
A fully functional (fully articulated) puppet designed for use in close-up scenes where detailed performance is required.
A puppet lacking full functionally (not fully articulated) designed for use in wide shots or quick scenes were a fully articulated is not required. The stunt Shriekers in Tremors 2: Aftershocks for example were only capable of movement via crew pulling on fishing line and were used primarily for quick death shots. Their bodies were filled with bags of innards and small explosive charges were used to simulate bullet strikes. When the explosive charges fired, the crew let go of the supporting lines letting the creatures fall limply to the ground.
Crew member specially trained in performing some or all movements of a puppet. Often, many puppeteers are required to create all the required movements
A sculpture or puppet created in the actual size in which it will be represented on screen.
A sculpture or puppet built smaller than the size it appear on screen. Miniature sculptures are used in design and testing and miniature puppets are used for photography on miniature sets when creation of a full scale puppet is not feasible
A mechanism worn by the puppeteer which, through a series of strategically mounted potentiometers, reads the puppeteer’s body movements and translates them to a computer system. The computer system interprets the movements and sends corresponding movements to a puppet. The advantage is that this device one puppeteer to control far more movements at once, such as raising a multi-jointed arm, or closing all five fingers. This technique cuts down on the number of puppeteers required. It also cuts down rehearsal and shooting time because the puppeteer’s movements are intuitive, allowing for acting based performance than more traditional means of control like radio controlled airplane transmitters or pulling on cable articulated levers.
An accurate, life-size “copy” of the face and/or body of an actor. It is created from impressions taken of the actor in plaster or other materials. Clay is sculpted over the resulting life cast to create the desired creature parts or make-up effects appliances.
Small electric motor used to remotely control puppet movement. Often used for the small detailed movements required for facial expressions.