Inspiring the Monster Makers

by Graham Edwards

What drives people to work in the makeup and creature effects industry? The glamour? The technology? All those ravening monsters and exploding spaceships? Or is it just another job? In an ongoing series of articles, we ask a wide range of effects professionals the simple question: “Who or what inspired you to get into the effects business?”

Here are the responses from professionals working in the field of makeup and creature effects. Yes, it’s time to find out what inspires the people who make the monsters.

Frankenstein's Monster photograph by Universal Studios (Dr. Macro) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Boris Karloff as the Monster in “Bride of Frankenstein”.

A Universal Inspiration

It’s a given that, to be a successful monster maker, you have to love monsters. So it’s not surprising to learn that many of the makeup and creature effects experts working in the business today were inspired by all those classic movie monsters of old.

And what could be more classic than the iconic creatures that lumbered out of Universal Studios during the era of black-and-white?

“I used to watch the late-night double bill of Universal horror movies like Frankenstein and The Wolfman,” recalled Mark Coulier. “My dad would put me to bed at 8pm and then wake me up again later to watch with him – I was probably about ten years old, and loved it.”

Tom Woodruff Jr. also remembers relishing the antics of Dracula and his bloodthirsty buddies on the small screen, citing as one of his early inspirations “the monster movie craze of the mid ‘60s that put Universal Monsters on TV.”

Another lifelong fan is John Rosengrant: “The Universal Monsters had a huge impact on me when I was a kid, and sparked my interest in practical effects.”

Creature from the Black Lagoon photograph by Florida Memory, via Wikimedia Commons

The Creature rises out of the Black Lagoon.

For Howard Berger, there’s one Universal monster that stands head and shoulders above the rest. “What inspired me was seeing The Creature From the Black Lagoon when I was probably four years old,” Berger enthused. “The movie itself was amazing to me, but when I saw the Creature, I was blown away! My little brain could not process what I was looking at. It was truly a real monster! I still love this film, and the Creature suit is one of the best. The design, execution and performance still holds up. I love the Creature!”

As far as Mike McCarty is concerned, there’s only one person to blame for his childhood fascination with monsters. “It was all my mom’s fault. She loved classic horror, but wouldn’t watch it alone. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by monster movies, all the old classics: The Fly, The Blob, The Wolfman.”

One of the most consistently inspiring figures for many effects artists is filmmaker and animator Ray Harryhausen.

One of the most consistently inspiring figures for many effects artists is filmmaker and animator Ray Harryhausen.

Hats off to Harryhausen

If there’s one effects artist who has inspired more people in the business than any other, it’s probably Ray Harryhausen. The fantasy epics he made through the second half of the 20th century –heavily populated with fantasy landscapes and stop-motion creatures – have motivated animators, VFX artists and practical effects professionals alike.

“At about the age of five, my father awakened me to watch a scene from the network TV premiere of Jason and the Argonauts,” Alec Gillis remarked. “At 9:30 pm it was late, and my little brain squirmed and then permanently twisted as I watched a man in a mini-skirt toss monster teeth on the ground. Who knew skeletons grow from monster teeth?! Had it not been for my dad and Ray Harryhausen, I might not have gotten hooked on effects.”

Sean Sansom was also seduced by stop-motion. When asked what had inspired him to get into the effects business, he replied, “Definitely Ray Harryhausen! Seeing the Cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad on TV as a little kid made me believe that monsters were alive and well, roaming the land.”

Ray Harryhausen Cyclops

For Phil Tippett, his first experience of a Harryhausen movie not only encouraged him to pursue animation as a career, but also to seek out the very man who had inspired him. “When I was seven, my parents took me to see The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and that was the moment for me,” Tippett commented. “It was Ray Harryhausen who inspired me to become a stop-motion animator, and he was good enough and approachable enough to answer my calls all those years ago and become a mentor to me. We had a close relationship right up until his death in 2013. He was a truly wonderful guy – artist, friend, everything. Very inspiring.”

In his turn, Tippett has passed the baton down the line to people like David Duke, who said, “It was a combination of two elements for me. The first was seeing Phil Tippett’s stop-motion tests for Jurassic Park.” Duke then added, “The other was seeing all of the behind the scenes footage from Stan Winston Studio in creating the animatronic dinosaurs. Suddenly I became aware of this whole world of practical effects. Before, I had known that what I was seeing in films was an illusion, but it wasn’t until this moment that exactly how the illusion was created came into sharp focus.”

Too Many Movies to Mention

Ask anyone in the movie industry to list their favourite films, and you might as well pull up a chair and settle in for the night. Monster makers are no exception.

Steve Newburn reeled out a list including “Forbidden Planet, The Time Machine … all those great ‘50s and ‘60s genre films that got me wanting to do nothing more than figure out how they created those images and hopefully work on them myself some day. Throw in some Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, and Universal Monsters …”

Mark Coulier remarked, “As a teenager, I had so many influences: Jason and the Argonauts, The Elephant Man, The Godfather. I think the moment that I really decided was when I saw a trailer for The Howling, where they had this man turn into a werewolf before your eyes. I’d never seen anything like that before. It had always been done with lap dissolves, which even to a ten year old are pretty obvious. Now it was like, ‘Wow, how the hell did they do that? I want to make rubber monsters for a job. That seems like a good way to spend your working life!’ I never looked back.”

John Rosengrant noted, “Alien made me decide that this was going to be my career,” while Shaun Smith agreed that favourite films are indeed a major motivating factor: “Movies played a big factor, particularly John Carpenter’s The Thing – that blew me away.”

For this full-body transformation shot from "An American Werewolf in London", actor David Naughton was positioned beneath the set with only his head and arms protruding up through a hole in the floor. The rest of his body was fabricated by Rick Baker's EFX crew and articulated from below via concealed rods.

For this full-body transformation shot from “An American Werewolf in London”, actor David Naughton was positioned beneath the set with only his head and arms protruding up through a hole in the floor. The rest of his body was fabricated by Rick Baker’s EFX crew and articulated from below via concealed rods.

A shuddering Sean Sansom added to the list by commenting, “After being traumatised at my friend’s eighth birthday party by the recently released An American Werewolf in London, I was never the same!”

Rob Gillies completed the picture, remarking, “Growing up in the ‘80s on films like Star Wars, Robocop, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Labyrinth was hugely inspiring to me wanting to make practical effects. Getting into the business of effects – having the opportunity to be a part of making a plasma rifle, or a ten-foot-tall assault robot for a film – was a dream come true.”

Famous Monsters of FilmlandLearning from the Experts

Seeing inspirational images on the silver screen is all very well, but how do you learn about how they were made? For the inquisitive monster maker, there have always been books, magazines and videos ready to reveal the secrets of the masters.

Tom Woodruff Jr. identified one revered source: ”Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, which showed behind-the-scenes makeup and creature pictures.”

And there was no better place than Famous Monsters of Filmland in which to find adverts for another of Woodruff Jr.’s youthful inspirations: “Aurora monster models, which put monsters in my hands.”

Aurora Models advertisement from the 1965 Famous Monsters of Filmland Yearbook.

Aurora Models advertisement from the 1965 Famous Monsters of Filmland Yearbook.

"Three-Dimensional Makup" by Lee BayganFor Mark Coulier, it was a chance discovery at a market stall that helped set him on his path: “Big thanks to Lee Baygan and his book on prosthetics, Techniques of Three-Dimensional Makeup, that I found on Cambridge market. That book showed me how to get started.”

Seeking similar kinds of source material was Mike McCarty. “Magazines like Starlog and Fangoria introduced me to a whole new group of names like John Chambers (Planet of the Apes), Tom Burman (Food of the Gods, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and Rob Bottin (The Thing). I stumbled across two books: Making a Monster by Al Taylor and Sue Roy and Tom Savini’s Grande Illusions. These books gave me step-by-step instructions on how to ruin carpets and wreck my mom’s mixing bowls!”

A young Will Furneaux of Weta Workshop performs one of his first makeup tests in 1988.

A young Will Furneaux of Weta Workshop performs one of his first makeup tests in 1988.

Will Furneaux also found inspiration in the work of a legendary monster maker. “When I was about twelve, I got a video out from the local video rental store called Scream Greats, Vol. 1: Tom Savini, Master of Horror Effects,” Furneaux recalled. “It introduced me to Tom Savini, makeup effects and Fangoria magazine, and got me hooked on horror makeup effects. I got some latex and clay and started making my own effects.”

Gruesome Games

There’s a certain playful quality to the whole business of makeup and prosthetics, as noted by Barney Burman: “I believe that what really inspired me – and still does – is my continuous need to play ‘dress up’. I love being part of a team that comes together to build an alternate world, put characters in it, and watch it all come to life. That’s the fun in making movies! And that’s where I feel at home.”

Hide-and-seek fantasies filled with secret disguises inspired Mark Coulier, who commented, “I read some Enid Blyton books where this kid solved mysteries by going round in disguise, making fake noses and moustaches and such. I loved that idea as a kid – that you could alter your face like that.”

Game-playing in its most literal form had a huge influence on Shaun Smith. “Like most young boys, I was fascinated by robots, aliens, ninjas and monsters,” Smith explained. “My path was really set in middle school, when I started playing the Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson Dungeons & Dragons game with my pals. Little did I know it would be a catalyst that would set me on the path to a dream job: breathing life into these fantastical images. I was often sidetracked from my scholastic obligations, instead spending time painting lead figures and studying game manuals.”

In the Blood

From what we’ve heard so far, it’s clear that there are many parents keen to share their love of monsters with their kids … however young they may be. The role of family in encouraging a monster-making career is just further proof of the importance of blood ties.

“My father, who worked for JPL/NASA, was my most direct influence,” stated Steve Newburn. “A huge fan of sci-fi, he exposed me to effects-based films from as early as I can recall.”

Barney Burman, as the son of award-winning special makeup effects artist Thomas R. Burman, and the grandson of makeup pioneer Ellis Burman Sr., puts family influences front and centre. “My father hired me and taught me some,” he remembered. “My mother added urgency when she told me to go out and make my own way and pay my own bills (for which I’ll always be grateful). My brother allowed me to set my inner artist free. And my son, simply by being born, helped to solidify my need for serious commitment to making a career of it.”

Tom Savini's Scream GreatsA Monstrous Meeting

Few things can compete with the thrill of discovering the true north of your own personal compass. But what happens when you finally get to meet one of the idols who inspired you to follow your chosen path? Will Furneaux found out, when the makeup effects hero of his youth visited his workplace.

“One day, Richard Taylor was giving Tom Savini a tour of Weta Workshop, and he brought him into the 3D department,” Furneaux related. “I was nervous. I stood up, shook his hand, and not being the most articulate person in the world said, ‘Hi! I was a big fan of yours!’

“Tom said, ‘Oh … what happened?’ Before I could explain, Richard hurried him off to see the milling machines, which are a lot more interesting to look at than nerds working on computers! I was so embarrassed! Of course what I’d meant to say was that when I was young I was a massive fan, but had since moved into a different area. Tom had a huge influence on me when I was young, and he’s part of the reason why I’m now at Weta Workshop.”

Read more articles in our Inspiring FX series:

Special thanks to Ri Streeter and Niketa Roman.

One thought on “Inspiring the Monster Makers

  1. Incredibly inspiring article. As a child, I too was huge into trying to sort out how they made those intriguing monsters. I was lucky enough (on my first film working in the VFX department) to see Rick Baker and his team in action working on creating a large group of zombies. I was obsessed and at that point wished I could quit was I was doing and follow them. Incredible work! Love hearing how successful adults were inspired as kids to do what they do.

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