An Interview with Devin McDonagh – By Kirsten Walsh

Devin McDonagh is a character beyond his initial look- a guy who could have just walked out of a street in 1960’s New York, you would see his pompadour arriving well before you would see him. His looks may grab your attention, but his talent will by far keep your eyes peeled- maybe literally! His belief in practical effects in film is a fresh approach for an industry that is more often than not going the route of digital. An 80’s film fiend, Devin has definitely brought the flair of then into the modern film scene. His first major creatures consisted of two puppeteered monsters made out of chicken wire, trash cans, cardboard, foam, and condoms. From there, he progressed to masks, and from there, full suits. With a mind to truly reckon with and a passion to create, Devin has an awesome future ahead of him in the special effects world!

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KW: How long have you been doing “special effects” and what inspired you to go in that direction?

DM: It’s been about 4 years doing makeup and special effects for films, but as a hobby it goes back to my childhood. Overall, I would say a solid 17 years. Seeing the type of monsters created for movies like Predator and The Thing really inspired me, but most importantly seeing the movie Legend. I really thought those creatures were real as a kid. When I found out they weren’t, I decided I needed to teach myself to make them.

KW: I know it is obvious for most people, but for you, what is the difference between practical effects and the digital effects, as far as it is to work with them?

DM: Practical effects are tangible makeups and fabrications, whereas the digital effects are entirely or partially generated on a computer. Currently, practical effects are used less, but when employed, they are FAR more effective than digital effects. They far exceed the ability to trick the eye and mesh with the created environments they are in because they are actually real.

KW: What sets you apart from other practical effects designers?

DM: Mostly my ability to build tools and employ techniques that allow a tiny shop like mine to get into what is done at the Hollywood level. For instance, I recently did a short film in North Florida that required a foam latex creature suit on a tiny budget. I was able to build the massive oven required for that with a shoestring budget, and it worked! I also spend a lot of time using the most cutting edge materials in the industry so that I can attempt to provide the independent filmmaker with the best looking materials to really sell the final product. Bad creature effects can ruin feature films.

KW: What is your favorite piece that you have created?

DM: Currently, my favorite piece is a skull helmet I just recently created to sell as a line, but I’m sure that will change tomorrow. One thing about practical special effects is that you are always creating, and constantly working with your hands- its like manual labor, but fun.

KW: I think all of filmmaking can be like that- it definitely can be demanding. What is your dream piece to design?

DM: A huge armored demon for some kind of fantasy project- one with an unlimited budget!

KW: What is your favorite practical effects film?

DM: It would have to be a tie between Legend and The Thing. Tim Curry’s character (“Darkness”) in Legend is easily the best practical effects character that has ever been done. Some of that could be considered makeup, but it goes much deeper than that. The Thing, on the other hand, has incredible creature effects and gags. Rob Bottin, who did the effects for both films, showed amazing versatility between the two completely different worlds.

KW: Why practical effects instead of CGI effects?

DM: The human eye can still differentiate and detect CGI. It will also elicit a far better performance out of the actors on the project. Think about “Jar Jar Binks” versus “Yoda”. Yes, maybe they had a person in a partial suit walking around saying the lines for “Jar Jar”, but there was an actual puppet form for “Yoda” that didn’t need much in post production. It made Mark Hamill’s performance far more believable than Natalie Portman’s, who could never seem to get the eyeline right- or maybe that is just me.

KW: Why won’t you bridge the gap into digital effects?

DM: I enjoy working with my hands, and the feel of the cement with the dragonskin. It is truly a masterpiece to be able to hold a creation in your hands, and even better to see it turn 360 degrees and have a tangible, textured feel to it. There’s an art of science with it- figuring out how to make it squirt, bleed, or ooze, and there’s something about the messy aspect of practical effects that you just can’t get from a computer screen. I’m not saying that people who do digital effects don’t work as much- its still a cool art form, but in film, everything should be on an even level.

KW: What do you think the future holds for the world of special effects?

DM: It is looking pretty grim due to the corporatization of the industry. Practical effects are being used less and less, except for in movies like Hatchet- where it was almost a gag that the majority of effects were practical. There is an uprising in the independent community, which is bringing filmmakers together with creative effects artists, but at slim budgets. There will be a renaissance, by god!

KW: What does the future hold for you?

DM: I am currently developing a line of helmets to sell, researching how best to shamelessly showcase my work on hot babes at horror, sci fi, and gaming conventions, and keeping an ear to the ground for film makers looking to make really cool creature features! I also have a short film for which I created a full body creature suit coming out this year, and have a short film that was travelling the festival circuit that is up on youtube- and the best part- its close to hitting 10,000 views! Solid.

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Make sure to check out Devin’s Facebook page for pictures of past and current projects as well as his updates for more spooky practical effects.