Concluding our tour through the Cinefex Vault of long-lost online articles, we’re going out with a bang. Associate editor Estelle Shay took the plunge, in 2004, interviewing miniature effects supervisor Lou Zutavern about his adventures – with the late, great special effects supervisor Joe Viskocil and friends – producing Gerry-Anderson-styled marionette mayhem for Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s R-rated satire, Team America: World Police.
Team Spirit – article by Estelle Shay
Where would James Bond be without his Aston Martin? The same might be asked of the superheroes in Team America: World Police, a raunchy spy spoof by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Relying on an all-puppet cast to poke fun at everything from politics to Hollywood’s fondness for over-the-top action films, Parker and Stone called upon miniature effects artisan Lou Zutavern to oversee design and construction of a slew of tricked-out vehicles for the marionetted superheroes, armed to the teeth with terrorist-defying weapons and missiles.
Zutavern – a veteran of such iconic films as Titanic, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Starship Troopers, and a longtime fan of Thunderbirds, the sixties-era Gerry Anderson puppet show that inspired Parker and Stone – jumped at the chance to work on the project. “I’d spent a lot of time studying the work that Derek Meddings and his crew did back in the sixties for Thunderbirds,” said Zutavern. “I’d also worked on Super Adventure Team for MTV, which was a marionette show; so I understood the limitations of the puppets.” He was equally well-equipped to handle the directing duo’s ‘on-the-fly’ approach to filmmaking. “I originally came out of the Roger Corman school of filmmaking, where you learn how to do things very cheaply and in-camera. I loved the old Republic Picture serials, and researched how the Lydecker Brothers did all that stuff. They had no budgets back then, and, as it turned out, neither did we.”
Operating out of stages in Culver City, Zutavern and a skeleton crew of ten that eventually grew to 20 began fleshing out designs for Team America‘s miniature vehicles and assorted aircraft. The script called for a Lamborghini limo that transforms into a flying craft, and a boxy, Hummer-like utility vehicle equipped with hidden missiles that serves as the team’s main means of transport. Additional vehicles included a motorcycle ridden by Gary, the team’s newest undercover recruit, military-style Osprey and Black Hawk helicopters, a sixties-style jet, and a submarine – all of them featured prominently throughout the film. “There were jet-to-jet air battles,” noted Zutavern, “terrorist jets trying to shoot down the Team America vehicles, submarines underwater, shooting ballistic missiles and torpedoes, and vehicles on land chasing each other and exploding. Pretty much, if you’ve seen it in a Michael Bay film, you’re going to see it here.”
The vehicles were built in sizes ranging from 1/3 scale to accommodate the 22-inch puppets, to 1/35th scale, making it easier to use off-the-shelf model kit parts. From the start, Zutavern found himself relying heavily on his Roger Corman roots. “Roger used to walk in and go: ‘Here’s $2,000. Make it last,” recalled Zutavern. “And that would be my budget. I remember having to do a tabletop model one time, and we had enough lumber to build the tabletop, and that was it. But I needed trees. So I went down to Pier One Imports one night and trimmed their hedges for them. They just assumed the gardeners did it. That’s kind of what we were doing here. I brought in boxes of old model parts, and asked my distributors for all the kits with parts that were missing. For the jet, I literally went down to one of the local hobby distributors and bought a bunch of kits, and started chopping them up until we got something we liked the look of.”
Zutavern and his crew also created interiors for scenes shot inside the various Team America transports, all designed to reflect the personas of the protagonists. “Their whole thing is once they blow up a country, it’s time for a libation,” observed Zutavern. “So everything was done as if it’s basically a lounge.” Though modelmakers often used chopped-up model molds, discarded parts and prop bin rejects to detail the interiors, one exception was the tricked-out limo interior. “It was very slick, completely upholstered, with carpeting, neon lights, two videoscreen feeds and a bar built into the door. There was a back seat and a front seat that fit together, and the front seat and the dash came off so you could stick a camera in and get a view of two puppets sitting back there having a conversation.”
At Zutavern’s urging the production hired special effects and pyro expert Joe Viskocil to handle the mechanics of motivating the vehicles and rigging explosions for the various action sequences. “With few exceptions, everything was pulled on cables,” noted Zutavern. “We couldn’t use radio control all that much because there was a lot of wireless communication from the marionettes and static from our lighting rigs, which would have interfered.”
Shooting the miniatures proved challenging, as constant script changes came down the pike from Parker and Stone, who kept devising more and more outrageous scenarios. “We’d have five different sets, and three guys running between them,” said Zutavern, “with three setups going, and two getting ready to shoot. I remember one instance where we had a bunch of taxicabs, and we realized we had no people in the cabs. So one of our modelmakers raced over to the craft services table and got a bag of cashews and raisins, and glued them together with the raisin as the head, and the cashew as the body. We stuck those in as drivers, and nobody could tell the difference.”
Though the vehicles were built with steel chassis to better withstand abuse, Zutavern was hard-pressed to keep them in play during the no-holds-barred action scenes. “We’d have a bag of parts,” recalled Zutavern, “and just glue them together; and then the painters would spend all night doing these dazzling paint jobs. They’d be just barely dry, but they would go straight to the stage in the morning.” Once on stage, Viskocil and his crew would crash the cable-driven cars at speeds approaching 30 miles per hour, model pieces flying upon impact. “It got to the point where we kluged the models together so many times, the only thing keeping them together was the paint. People would look at them and go, ‘That looks horrible!’ And we were like, ‘Well it didn’t used to.'”
Despite such challenges, there was no shortage of modelmakers willing to work on Team America. “When they saw what we were doing and how much fun it was, even though it was really hard work,” Zutavern remarked, “everyone wanted to work on this show. Any big effects film from the last 30 years — somebody in my crew was on it. But this was more fun for them because they could get back to their roots. Modelmakers don’t usually get a chance to design things. Usually, they’re given a set of drawings and told to make it just like that. Here, they could jump in and really be creative. Of course, sometimes I’d say: ‘Yes, you can design this whole interior. But you’ve got to deliver it right after lunch!'”
Photos © 2004 Paramount Pictures; behind the scenes images courtesy of Lou Zutavern.