Recently I got a call from Drew Bellware at Pandora Machine. For his latest film–starrring one of my favorite actresses–Kate Britton— he wanted some type of consciousness transference device, that would enable a person to download themselves into an android body. Not having one on hand, I was forced to construct said device from scratch–with no time or no real budget–as usual! Fortunately, I had a bunch of vacuum tubes laying around that I’d bought on ebay years ago and never had the chance to use. I love vacuum tubes, they add an arcane tech feel, especially when used in conjunction with new sci fi tech. Just feels French for some reason–there’s a certain “je ne se quois” about it, which means “I would like my croissant toasted and dipped in curdled goat’s milk.” So after a trip to the Depo for parts, I came up with this. Hope you like it:
I had to make two of them, one for the user and another for the android to wear….
We also had to have some kind of control base–which I had no idea for. No clue. As I was wracking my brain and walking down Third Ave, I looked down and saw a big, disgustingly dirty fan someone had unceremoniously dumped in the street–lighting struck. That was what I’d build the thing around! I carted it home, threw it in a plastic bag for fear of BEDBUGS and eventually got around to taking it apart. Threw some parts on it including popsicle molds, a spark plug cleaner, a base from a Babylon 5 doll, some volume control knobs, etc., along with some lights I rigged on the inside and –voila! A conscious transferral device. Looks great in moody lighting, don’t you think?
Hazzah! Here’s a first-ever attempt at Blender animation on my part. It’s a tentacle that’s going to be used in our feature film Lifeform. (Still in Post!) It’s not perfect, you can see a light panel in back and the thing goes out of sight at the end, but I think it looks pretty cool. I have to thank a number of people for helping me get to this point, including Nathan Taylor, who rigged it, Kevin Hays, who was the modeler and Drew Bellware, who actually told me I had to skin the darn thing with the texture files and showed me how to do it. Couldn’t do it without them and their impressive talents!
Various animations of the tentacle will the composited into scenes with Virginia Logan as she “monsters out” and attacks people with tentacles coming out of her…back–just her back, I swear. What do you think this is? Species?
I wish we had their budget, or Natasha Henstridge. Heck, I’d settle for a 8 1/2 by 11 glossy of H.R. Giger at this point. Probably give me nightmares though.
One neat tutorial I looked at, regarding working with the Cycles render engine is located at Blender Guru. Andrew’s site has many great tutorials wherein he takes his time to actually show you how to do things and he’s a really nice guy as well. One of the neat things about Cycles is that you can use a mesh plane as a light. He says it works better than a regular lamp object, as a light source. So, I used a few planes to light it.
Nate is rigging a few more models for us and I can’t wait to see how great these things animate! Thanks guys!
Here’s my test animation:
We’re well into post on Lifeform, halfway through the second edit and just beginning the CG effects work. The first step of course, is getting the actual models. (We’ve decided to work in Blender because it’s a free, open-sourced 3-D animation program.) Below you can see a picture of the silicone stunt tentacle that we actually used on set when strangling any and all recalcitrant actors, God love ’em!
However, we still need shots of the tentacle doing things we couldn’t get an actual physical prop to do, like emerge from a mutant woman’s back, flail about in midair, pour a cocktail, do transwarp drive computations, all kinds of stuff like that, so that’s where a computerized version comes in. Below is a picture of our brand new CG tentacle model, which was created by Kevin Hays, a very talented young blender modeler, who hails from Colorado. Don’t know how he had the time to do this between all the wildfires and shootings, but he did and he did a magnificent job! Once it’s rigged, animated and lit, it will be composited into footage so it can properly terrorize our ensemble.
Not. Safe. For Work–I warned you.
Okay, so in-between actually editing our film “Lifeform,” we’ve been putting together two shoots, for additional scenes. Now, the reason for this, I could say, is to add an additional layer of narrative in order to make the film more complex and add more dramatic depth, but the truth is, I just wanted to add more crazy, blood-curdling monster-lovin’ mayhem! Also more beautiful women. Hey, Shakespeare wrote for the groundlings folks, don’t kid yourselves. There’s more stabbings in his work than the average episode of CSI. You know you love it…I just deliver the goods, okay? So, no mea culpas coming from this part of the neighborhood. But I digress…
Yes, in order to add a denser layer of narrative complexity, we went ahead and sculpted a scalping wound for our aforementioned beautiful actresses’ to wear. You can see a few shots of the piece after it was created and we were in the process of adding hair to the gelatin piece–oh yeah, I cast it out of gelatin, the same stuff Bill Cosby used to sell on TV. The great thing about this stuff is that it’s cheap, it looks good on camera and you can re-melt it in your microwave to use it again. We all had Jello Puddin’ Pops after the shoot!
Here’s the effect on the very talented Tatyana Kot–she’s the new screen queen on the block. Our shadowy beast tracks her down and for some reason feels the need to rip her dress off and then pull her scalp off. Hey, it happened in Macbeth didn’t it? Or was it The Merchant of Venice, I can’t remember… All kidding aside, the scene worked like a charm. Tatyana was a consummate professional and Miranda Kahn, who played the creature did a great job. Both are wonderful actresses! The end effect is absolutely chilling.
The next weekend, we shot more mayhem, this time with Tatyana and Jacklyn Sokol in an earlier portion of the scene, as drunken debutantes on their way home, before the assault. Both women were great and…Jackie got to wear a similar headpiece as well–the beast apparently hates blondes. Who can blame it? Thanks to makeup artist Meraly Lopez and Christine Russo for painting and applying the pieces. Also, thanks to Josh Barbour, for helping me crew the shoot!
We also shot scream queen Christina Wood and Tom Rowen’s sequence. They play a pair of lovers caught in the beast’s crosshairs–just like in Hamlet when…aw forget it…
One of the problems with having downtime between shoots is that your mind has time to wander down crazy little alleyways and come up with incredible special effects you’re going to actually find a way to implement somehow. For instance, when we decided we had throw in another monster effect because, gee, the film only has about five hundred-or-so scenes of monster disembowlment, we thought: “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if our mutating heroine grows a giant bug arm and kills a hooker with it?” Of course it would be cool!
But…how to create said bug arm for our actress–the talented Virginia Logan–to go haywire with? Why the Old School Way, of course! The following shots give you an idea of the process….
Next, I cast the sculpt in a two-piece ultracal plaster mold….
The key to a successful casting is keeping the first coat of Ultracal thin enough to get all the crazy detail sculpted into the piece–after that you can go crazy with the burlap and Ultracal…
The next step involved slip casting the mold, once it was strapped together tightly. We used rubber mask molding latex–I think it’s #8–which is readily available at The Complete Sculptor here in NYC.
We ultimately did three layers of latex in the mold and used a blow dryer to dry each coat. The picture shows the piece after it was removed from the mold.
Finally, it was painted black, with bug green highlights. For the actual shoot we slathered onplenty of KY jelly, which brought out some nice highlights once it was lit properly. You can see the arm below, on-set, ready for crazy, bugf*ck action…
In the final shot, Virginia is bringing her chitin insectoid arm to vibrant “life!”
Interestingly, we found an actual praying mantis on set late in the summer and I took a bunch of snapshots of the creature. The actors gave it a pet name at the time, but I can’t remember what it was. It wasn’t too happy to have me pointing the camera lens at it, I remember. I wonder how much this influenced our thinking processes?
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….