Date:30 November 2009
Horrible monsters to order, prosthetics so real that you’ll shudder, animal make-up that’s the stuff of nightmares… all this (and more) is part of an ordinary working day at The Creature Shop. Meet a creative team with a unique perspective on ‘getting real’ in movies…
If you find yourself teetering on the edge of your cinema seat, heart pounding and muscles tense with anticipation, or laughing so hard that it hurts, then Graham Press, Jaco Snyman and the dynamic crew of creatives at The Creature Shop have achieved what they set out to do.
Blue screens and 3D animation have become an integral part of the modern movie experience, and that’s fine. After all, how else would we get to experience weird alien cultures, explore fantasy worlds and witness disturbingly realistic scenes of global devastation from the comfort of our movie theatres or homes?
But digitised special effects aren’t everything. Often, for a storyline to be truly believable, actors need to interact with something real – or at the very least, apparently real. If you’re a director in need of a ferocious lion to go on the rampage, a credible green unicorn from a folk-tale world, or a convincingly gruesome war wound, it makes sense to call the can-do guys at The Creature Shop.
Given their successful track record, it’s amazing that the company hasn’t grown too big for its boots, especially when one considers its willingness to take on just about any project –the more outlandish and challenging, the better. Says Snyman: “Some filmmakers don’t realise that these skills are available in South Africa, so they go for animation instead. With us, you get a real model that works on set in real time, every time.” It’s about attitude: from their perspective, anything is possible.
They specialise in animatronics (the construction of robots or robotic components that look and act like living creatures), the creation of prosthetics – in every shape or form that you could possibly imagine – as well as the application of animal make-up. For example, they can transform even the friendliest pooch into a frenzied killer.
The devil is in the detail, and The Creature Shop’s creative types are obsessed with detail. Says Press: “If you stand in front of a mirror and carefully study the subtle movements of the skin and muscles of your face as you change expression, you’ll develop a new perspective of what’s required to replicate them. We are able to accurately mimic them all.”
When dividing up their workload, Snyman prefers tackling the arty stuff – such as sculpting, mould-making and painting – while Press, perhaps the more mechanically and electronically minded of the two, prefers to make their models move. Says Press: “Jaco will use an expensive precision screwdriver to open a mould, ruining it in the process. He’s also incredibly messy, and whatever area he’s working in gets so cluttered that we always call it the ‘twilight zone’.” Snyman isn’t about to take this quietly: “Hey, at least I always know where to find everything!”
Specialist tools are constantly being invented or adapted to suit the guys’ unconventional requirements. Says Snyman: “One tool I’m particularly proud of is a scalpel attached to an electric toothbrush. It’s great for delicate cuts through latex or foam. I experimented with a bigger version, using a sex toy to produce useful vibrations, but it didn’t work very well, and anyway, I felt really silly while using it!”
When an animatronic model stands in for a real animal on screen, it obviously has to be a perfect replica. This requires the team to measure the living animal very carefully, concentrating on areas such as the length of the nose, the width between the eyes and the size and position of the ears. Obviously, they can do this only if it’s a friendly animal; otherwise, they rely on the animal’s trainer.
It’s a complicated business. First, a tape measure gets draped over the animal and hundreds of photographs are taken from all angles, including close-ups of the claws, eyes and teeth. The animal is then videotaped so they can see how it blinks, moves its eyebrows and snarls, etc. Once this is done, Snyman draws a diagram on his computer and projects it on to a wall, enabling them to visualise the animal’s skeleton.
While Snyman is sculpting the animal’s features, starting with its muscle structure and working outwards, Press builds its inner skeleton from aluminium. Once a mould has been made of the sculpture, it is taken apart and the skeleton is inserted. The void is then infused with whatever material they’re going to use – be it polyurethane, silicon, glass fibre or various polymers. If necessary, a bladder can be inserted into the body to simulate breathing.
The animal’s skull accommodates all the mechanics, remote controls and whatever else they’ll need to make it move – components such as hydraulics, pneumatics, micro-servos, servos and cables. “An eye mechanism is basically a gimbal that moves in four directions, with the eyelids attached to the mechanism. We have to machine every tiny component.”
While all this is happening, a hair sample from the animal is sent to National Fibre Technologies in Boston, USA, a company renowned for its ability to make up any synthetic fur you desire, then place it on a backing of your choice. “No animalcoat has just one uniform colour. For example, a lion can have five different colours in its coat, so we grab a clump of fur and cut it off to use as a reference. We also use a backing with a four-way stretch so that when the animal moves its limbs, it appears natural.”
The skin is pulled over the muscle structure and attached to all the moving tabs. Because a lion opens its mouth really wide when it roars, care must be taken to ensure no mechanisms get in the way, so the tooth, inner mouth and tongue have to be sculpted separately. “The teeth are like a set of dentures. If they don’t line up when the mouth closes, they’ll break.” Because fur always stands upright on an animal’s head, they cannot use the same application method that worked for its body. Instead, they transfer loose hair on to bare skin, using an electromagnetic process called “flocking”. A copper plate with a negative wire attached is placed under the skin, hair strands are inserted into a flocking gun, and the static between the two turns the hairs into mini-magnets. Adhesive is then spread on the skin and the hairs are shaken over it, causing them to stand upright. “Because animal hair points in different directions, depending on its location, we work on very small areas at a time.
Once the head has been attached to the body, it’s time to concentrate on the finer details such as the ears, lips and mouth. Eyelashes and whiskers are attached individually, getting “punched in” one by one, says Press: “For whiskers, we use the spines of feathers. We can go through hundreds just to find 10 of the right length and width, and attaching them to the head can take half a day.” Finally, distinguishing marks such as teeth stains, scars, eyelashes and whiskers are airbrushed to make their model a perfect match with the living animal.
When it comes to making prosthetics, these guys are masters: give them a challenge and they’ll create anything from a magnificent superhero to truly scary monster, from a beetle-browed caveman to a landmine injury so real that it will make you gag. Professional satisfaction aside, they have a ball. As Snyman tells it: “Many of the jobs we do are a lot of fun. Actors wearingtheir masks or strange appendages can be hilarious.”
The team start by making a life cast of the actor’s relevant body part. A positive mould is made using Ultracal – a hard, fine, cement-like substance that can faithfully reproduce fine skin texture – to exactly duplicate the part. Then, using oil-based clay, they sculpt the part to create the required effect – be it a bloody wound, an outlandishly deformed head or a Quasimodo lookalike.
Another Ultracal mould is made from their artwork. Once dry, it is opened up to remove the clay, leaving a void between the two moulds where the prosthetic, fashioned from silicon or foam latex, can be inserted. Says Snyman: “Latex foam is incredibly temperamental stuff. It’s a four-part mix, and needs to be weighed to the gram. It must cook in an oven for about six hours and the temperature has to be just right or it collapses. But it’s perfect for big applications because it’s lightweight and can move with the actor’s skin.”
Next, the prosthetic is airbrushed before the addition of any necessary hair plus whatever else needs to be done. Says Snyman: “When making prosthetics, it’s important to have as much reference material as possible – the more information the better the end result.”
The recent TV series Jozi H, focusing on a busy casualty ward in a Johannesburg hospital, showcased some of The Creature Shop’s best prosthetic work, and was a project that made them especially proud. Says Press: “I spent two years in the army as a theatre medic and saw pretty much everything you can think of, from pulling toenails to shrapnel wounds, so I have a good idea of what our bodies look like inside, and how surgical procedures go.” In fact, Press’s experience came in handy when scenes dictated that a wound needed closing, he’d don surgical gloves and do all the suturing himself.
Attaching the prosthetics can be a laborious process, especially for the actors. Says Snyman: “While assisting on the hit movie District 9, the prosthetics took about four hours to attach – and that was before any shooting could begin. Then, once shooting had finished for the day, it took about 90 minutes to remove the prosthetic. We’d start our day at about 3 am and finish at 10 pm, grab a few hours’ sleep, then start all over again.”
While working on District 9, Snyman was introduced to a new prosthetic technique by the Weta Workshop prosthetics crew. It’s called a prosthetic transfer, and it’s used when an actor needs a scar or wound in the same place day after day. It can be applied in just a few minutes and requires hardly any blending to match the actor’s skin. “It took me almost a year to get it right, and I cracked it only a few months ago, says Snyman. “Now we’re the only guys in the country who can do it, and the orders are starting to come in.”
For painting animals, they developed a range of non-toxic animal friendly paints and cosmetics approved by Animal Welfare. Says Snyman: “Airbrushing animals is always the quickest way, but we have to use a silent compressor to avoid scaring them.” For the movie Racing Stripes, they had to paint seven ponies to look like zebras. Converting each pony into a zebra took about two days. They dyed the ponies’ coats so their handiwork would last a few weeks, and each pony was touched up daily, using an airbrush. Getting their manes to stand up like those of genuine zebras proved to be easy – they simply used hair extensions. The Creature Shop’s animal make-up work includes a twotone elephant paint job (for the record, it was half brown and half white), tinting two pelicans to look like identical twins, and giving hundreds of mice a makeover in a bold shade of yellow. Recalls Snyman: “On one occasion, we painted zebra stripes on a friend’s bull terrier, just for a laugh. Before long, our friend had people knocking on his door, wanting to know where they could buy one of these dogs!”
Although Press and Snyman enjoy their work immensely, what they really want to do is build monsters and make horror movies. In fact, Snyman has gone so far as to write a script, coming up with his own interpretation of one of our homegown little horrors – the fabled tokoloshe. “There are simply not enough horror movies being made, and it’s a pity, because there are so many cool stories to be told.”