Cinefex Vault #9 – Tremors 4

by Joe Fordham

Tremors 4 - from the Cinefex Vault

Not too long ago, the supermarket tabloid People magazine published an article celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Tremors, the modestly-budgeted 1990 monster movie starring Kevin Bacon, Michael Gross, Fred Ward and a cadre of carnivorous subterranean worms. And if People was reporting on it, you can bet that was a sign your underdog cult film had transcended its humble origins.

In Cinefex 42, Jody Duncan reported on the meaty little monster flick, including commentary from director Ron Underwood, writer S.S. Wilson, monster-makers Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis, and visual effects supervisors Robert and Dennis Skotak. We’ve since had five more sequels and a 13-episode TV series based on the film. In 2004, Janine Pourroy caught up with S.S. Wilson to discuss the fourth in the series, a Wild West origin tale, dragged here, kicking and screaming, out of the Cinefex Vault.


Sweet Revenge – article by Janine Pourroy

Director S.S. Wilson poses with a Graboid on location in Acton, California during filming of Tremors 4.

Director S.S. Wilson poses with a Graboid on location in Acton, California during filming of Tremors 4.

When writers S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock came up with the original concept for Tremors they never dreamed they’d still be talking about Graboids fifteen years later. “Universal said that we’d never do another Tremors after the first one,” recalled Wilson. “Then the video division pushed for Tremors 2. After that, we said, ‘Okay, so now we’re done.'”

But fans couldn’t get enough of Perfection, Nevada, and the tale of a small group of citizens banding together to fight an uncommon foe. Tremors 3 followed, and a successful television franchise emerged as well. Each time, Stampede Entertainment – with Wilson, Maddock and producer Nancy Roberts at the creative helm – rose to the challenge of reinventing the Graboid, the underground creature that was the story’s reason for being. When talk of Tremors 4 began to surface, Wilson met with Universal executive Patti Jackson to discuss the project. “I told Patti that we were really in a corner,” Wilson recalled. “The fans were going to want a new creature, but we had no idea where to go. We couldn’t just keep doing the same movie over and over.” Off-handedly, Wilson added, “We’d have to do something wacky this time, like set it in the Old West.” To his surprise, Jackson’s response was, “That’s fine.”

Full-size mechanical puppet Graboids were built by KNB EFX Group for above-ground scenes, while shots of the creatures bursting from the earth were built and photographed in quarter scale by 4-Ward Productions.

Full-size mechanical puppet Graboids were built by KNB EFX Group for above-ground scenes, while shots of the creatures bursting from the earth were built and photographed in quarter scale by 4-Ward Productions.

Tremors 4: The Legend Begins, directed by Wilson from a script by Scott Buck, was released early in 2004 as part of a direct-to-DVD package with the original Tremors. Set in 1889, the story follows Hiram Gummer (Michael Gross), the great-grandfather of survivalist Burt Gummer and owner of a silver mine that has been faced with a series of mysterious deaths among the miners. Joining forces with other townsfolk – ancestors of characters who populate 1989 Perfection – Hiram sets out to determine what is killing the miners, and faces the underground enemy for the first time.

KNB also built Baby Graboids for the latest film.

KNB also built Baby Graboids for the latest film.

KNB mounted the full-size puppet on a special movement rig designed for maximum maneuverability.

KNB mounted the full-size puppet on a special movement rig designed for maximum maneuverability.

Puppetry had provided the means for creating Tremors‘ original Graboid – a legless, 30-foot creature with a mouthful of powerful tentacles – and Tremors 2‘s flying Shrieker. Tremors 3 spawned the Ass Blasters, a self-evident variation on the same theme, and introduced the first computer animated Graboids. For Tremors 4, which would feature five-foot-long Baby Graboids that eventually grow to full-sized monsters, Wilson and his team opted to return to the original puppet approach. “We really listened to the fans,” Wilson commented. “The only negative comments we’d ever heard about our special effects – as low-budget as they’d been – concerned the CG Graboids we did for Tremors 3. They were faster and much livelier than the big, heavy puppets we’d used in the earlier versions; but, although the effects were first-rate, fans said that they didn’t ‘look right.’ And, of course, they were also more expensive.”

Wilson and director of photography Virgil Harper line up a shot in which a Graboid chomps down on the barrel of a gun held by Hiram Gummer (Michael Gross).

Wilson and director of photography Virgil Harper line up a shot in which a Graboid chomps down on the barrel of a gun held by Hiram Gummer (Michael Gross).

With that in mind, the producers discussed ideas for the T-4 Graboids with Greg Nicotero of KNB EFX Group, which immediately began building new mechanical puppets. “KNB had already created a new Graboid, El Blanco, for the TV series,” said Wilson, “and we were able to borrow that technology for the film.” KNB’s full-sized Graboid puppet for Tremors 4 was mounted on a four-wheeled dolly, which gave it greater overall maneuverability, and also featured an additional neck joint to create more lifelike flexibility in the head.

The Graboid attacks.

The Graboid attacks!

Production built the mining town of Rejection – renamed Perfection as a plot point later in the film – in Acton, California. As with earlier Tremors films, the intention was to dig large holes in which to conceal the full-scale Graboid puppets, mechanical rigs and crew. Construction was well underway when they ran into a serious setback. “The town was half-built,” Wilson recalled, “and I went out and selected where I was going to plant our eight-foot puppet. But then, production designer Simon Dobbin came to us and said: ‘Guess what? To dig holes out here we’re going to have to blast.’ The area was solid rock underneath. It caused our visual effects producer, Linda Drake, to go back to the drawing board very quickly and come up with an entirely different approach.”

Gaffer Keith Morrison takes a light reading on the full-scale Graboid puppet.

Gaffer Keith Morrison takes a light reading on the full-scale Graboid puppet.

The new approach was to shoot the full-size mechanical puppets only for scenes above ground. For shots of the creatures bursting out of the earth, Robert and Dennis Skotak of 4-Ward Productions – veterans of previous Tremors movies – built and puppeteered quarter-scale Graboids within miniature sets. “Because the Skotaks shot the footage of a Graboid blasting out of the ground with a puppet in a miniature set,” said Wilson, “all of the dust and interaction was there, already in the shot.”

Black Hand Kelly is swallowed by the Graboid.

Black Hand Kelly is swallowed by the Graboid.

For some shots, the quarter-scale puppets were filmed against greenscreen and composited into live-action footage by Kevin Kutchaver and his HimAnI team, which digitally tracked the greenscreen elements to the live-action. “Compositing in the computer allowed us to do very complex composites,” said Wilson.” We could take advantage of image steadying and tracking, and we could do camera moves. It really gave us the best of both worlds to shoot miniatures and then composite them digitally.” In one scene, miniature tentacles were manipulated against greenscreen, then tracked into the mouth of a full-scale Graboid head-and-shoulders puppet that had been shot on location. “It worked marvelously well. We had these tentacles coming in and out of the Graboid’s mouth – yet we never shot the full-size tentacles on the set.” Other CG enhancements included gun muzzle flashes, dust and ‘monster gut’ debris. “We also used CG to distort areas of the frame to create dirt humps as the Graboid moves underground.”

August Schellenberg, as Tecopa, takes aim at one of the attacking Graboids.

August Schellenberg, as Tecopa, takes aim at one of the attacking Graboids.

Despite these computer generated enhancements, Tremors 4 represented a throwback to old-style effects techniques – a style mandated by the budget, but also preferred by the filmmakers. To satisfy Tremors fans and their own sensibilities, the producers will no doubt take the same approach to Tremors 5 – providing there is going to be a Tremors 5. “A script has been written,” said Wilson, “but whether or not it gets made will depend on how well Tremors 4 does and the response to it when it airs this summer on USA.”

If past response is any indicator, Tremors will go on, and on, and on…

Photos copyright © 2004 Universal Pictures; creature shop shots courtesy of S.S. Wilson and KNB EFX Group.