behind the scenes at StrangewerksFilms

She’s Got Legs…?

When we began planning the effects for our new film, Lifeform, we decided we’d try to do as many practical effects as possible–meaning makeup effects, as opposed to computer graphics. There are two reasons for this. First, CG is prohibitively expensive if you can’t do it yourself. Second, computer effects don’t always look as convincing as actually having a creature on set. The problem is, where do you find a creature? Short of journeying to Oz, Ringworld, Narnia, or your nearest recombinant geneticist’s lab, you have to make it. And, because low budget filmmaking means by definition you only have enough money to make your film with a Fisher Price camera and some stick figures, you have to figure out how to make said creature….you guessed it…yourself.

Well, we pretty much knew from the start that we couldn’t afford a full creature suit and quite frankly, such suits can sometimes look pretty “Octaman”-like (look it up, though Rick Baker doesn’t want you to). So the decision was made to show parts of the creature instead. We’d show the legs, some claws, maybe the eyes, but not the whole thing in one shot if we could avoid it. Hey it’s Hitchcockian, keep the mystery, keep people guessing. I think one of the problems with films today is that because they can show anything–say fifty thousand glowing, multi-headed pygmies performing a synchronized swimming routine–they should show it. This is probably why we have the bad films we have today.

When we went to design our creature’s legs, we started out with a few sketches. Here’s one of them. Now, we already knew we couldn’t afford to animate these legs on one of the Victoria Secret’s model, but we could make prop creature legs, ala the ol’ fake Bigfoot footprints gag, have a PA walk them across the screen and walla, instant creature.

From there, we began the build. First, we created a wire armature that we fastened to a board by means of screws and an upright PVC pole and began to sculpt on the armature in wet clay. This is the stuff that you always have to keep moist or it cracks and falls apart. But if it’s too moist, the clay won’t hold the details. Also, your rags start smelling like mold after awhile and you begin to hallucinate. I remember visiting the Temple of Mu with Bob Marley and JFK,  but that’s another story….

After we’d sculpted the leg, we had Anthony Jones, an excellent moldmaker and makeup guy, cast the sucker. Anthony has a lot of experience in this kind of mold-making so we knew he’d be the guy to tackle the leg. He did an excellent job. It’s a huge two piece mold made of Ultracal and it’s taking up half of the bedroom at the moment, serving as an obstacle to both human and cat traffic alike. (Cat inserted for scale.)

Following that, Anthony cast two legs himself. The final creation has a latex skin and foam interior and also takes up a heck of a lotta room in your typical square footage-challenged NYC apartment. (But hey, what about all the museums and shows one can take in anytime one wants? That makes it all worth it! Oh wait, we’re making a movie, those $200 tickets for Spiderman will have to wait!)

We ran into a major problem because we only cast one leg, I think it was the right one. There’s an inner toe, like a dinosaur’s, in the design, which meant we ended up with two right legs. I wanted a left leg, so I had to sculpt, cast and pour an opposing left toe. Then I had to cut off the right toe and patch that, as well as graft the left toe to the proper spot. It actually turned out very well. You really can’t tell it’s a patch job. (Note to self: next time design a leg with no inner toe.)

Following this, we painted both legs with PAX paint, which is acrylic paint mixed with prosaide. They look great and should prove to be very spooky in the right light. When we go to use them in the film, we’ll stick PVC pipes in the offscreen ends and have a PA walk them past the lens.

Great, we’re done, instant monster!

If only. Things got much more complicated later….

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