Special Effects Wizards: A Symposium with FX Artists – By Jeremiah Kipp

When we watch movies with special effects, we’re frequently awed, surprised or unnerved by the creatures and mayhem onscreen.  That sense of shock the viewer has is quite the antithesis of the experience on set, where these gory or surreal gags frequently resemble something out of the Muppet Show, with a technician operating a blood tube or operating some puppet with wire or string.  It’s frequently silly, which is why making genre movies is often more fun than comedies.  Comedy is a serious business (jokes are often played as if the stakes are life or death), whereas fantasy in the making is inherently ridiculous.

The men and women behind special effects, meaning practical effects done on set as opposed to the visual effects crafted in post, are often cheerfully strange individuals who march to the beat of their own drummer.  When John Carpenter was directing his landmark 1982 creature feature THE THING, the work of special effects artist Rob Bottin is still heralded as some of the finest work in practical applications to date, but Carpenter is quick to point out, “Rob works on Rob-Time, not Production Time.”  The gags even in a low budget movie are difficult to pull off, and if something goes wrong, the reset time can be considerable, and expensive.

Asking a group of talented special effects artists what they need from a director, we got a variety of intriguing responses. They also shared thoughts on the most challenging or intriguing special effect they have created to date. Here is what some of them had to say.

DANIEL J. MAZIKOWSKI (The Roost; Satan Hates You; Trigger Man): The word that comes to mind first and foremost here is openness, and any that come after can be considered as related to or outgrowths of that: communication, relationship, groundedness, responsibility.  I very much understand the feeling that a director may have that a particular project is his or her baby, and that there can be any number of conceptual or thematic elements too dear to that singular perspective to be easily retooled, much less sacrificed.  Still, what I need most from any director is openness to the broad scope of variables at play, including my personal interpretation of the effects as written, and the realities of how those will affect things as production moves along.  

MICHAEL SCARDILLO (Zombie Hunters: City of the Dead; Deliver Us From Evil): I look to make sure that we are on the same page and share the same vision. The more important the effect the more time spent on how they plan on shooting it and what they expect to see in the finished piece. There is nothing worse then to show up on set and NOT have what they want and have to rig something on location. It slows the process down big time.

BEATRICE SNIPER (Uncaged; Stash): Nothing is worse than when you’re on set and you don’t know what’s going on, what to expect, or what materials to bring.

MEG SCOTT (Isabelle; Berenice): When my husband Jeff and I started doing special effects, we were lucky enough to have worked with some really good directors. So far, they have set the standard. We want them to have a clear sense of the story and the feelings and tone they want the audience to perceive, as well as being able to convey that to us. If they work with us, willing to do last looks for a scene and allowing us to monitor our FX while filming to ensure we get the look the director is looking for.  Finally, we are looking for a director that both challenges and brings out the best in us.

JEFF SCOTT (Meg’s partner and husband): Allow room for freedom. The imagination will go wild and sometimes those ideas make the original concept better.  I enjoy working with my wife; we play off each other and come up with great ideas. We keep each other in check and give encouragement when needed. I mostly handle the mechanical side of things; she does the makeup side. Also, if one of us has a different idea on how to do an effect we test both and see what works better and also if the director likes one or the other.

ARTHUR CULLIPHER (Headless; Found): Unless they also happen to be an FX artist, I need a director to let me direct the effects scenes. Directors care about different things, but most of the time they’re concerned with the actors or the story and the effects are an afterthought. Practical Effects often have a long set-up time and it can be frustrating to wait around on. Then, depending on your budget, you may only have one shot to get it right at a time when everyone else just wants to get it done. At that point, the director needs to allow the FX artist to also control lighting and camera placement in order to give the film the best performance that effect can bring.

GUS CLARK (Baggage; Rabbit Hole): I love it when a director is dead sure of what he wants and is relying on your skill to make it real. I don’t appreciate someone who waits until you are done to say, “No this won’t work, back to square one.”

DANIEL J. MAZIKOWSKI: We’re frequently working under severe limitations in the budget of both money and time made available.  There’s also the admitted factor of what may yet lie outside my own skill set, which I don’t try to sugar-coat. Trust me, if I’m peppering you with questions it’s always for an underlying reason that may not be easy or even necessary to articulate at the moment, but will no doubt have some bearing on how the effects are to be made to happen.  

GUS CLARK: It’s the ability for the director (who is for all intents and purposes the client) to share his or her ideas, like a working partnership. And in cases where what the director may not know the best way to execute an effect, again, if the communication is there you will still end up with a result that fits the needs of the project.

BEATRICE SNIPER: Probably the most challenging special effect I had to do was for a movie about a transgender female-to-male transition.  I had to turn her female chest into a male chest. That was fun. I think I learned a lot from that one.

GUS CLARK: I don’t get many opportunities to work on such large scale creations, but one project involved making a life-sized silicone Mermaid talk. .

MICHAEL SCARDILLO: There was this cool disembowel scene in Zombie Hunters: City of the Dead. It required the effect to work in perfect sync with the actor wearing the prosthetic and the actor that was swinging the sword. It required the sword swing and miss the actor by a few feet, have the actor appear to have gotten hit by moving accordingly and also release the trigger that released his intestines to spill onto the floor. It was synchronized perfectly and worked on the first take, but realize we had tested it four times prior to the shot being filmed.

MEG SCOTT: We had a scene in Berenice, part of an anthology called Creepers, where the actress bites her partners lip during a kiss and blood comes spurting out. We decided to have a plastic tube that feeds in the blood to be spouted out, taped on the side of the actors face. It took several takes to get it right where the tube did not show. Eventually we got it right and the director liked how it turned out.

ARTHUR CULLIPHER: I enjoy finding new uses for things and combining techniques gained from past experience and from still untested waters. You’re always going to run into issues that have to be overcome. In practical effects, it’s likely to be a clogged tube or a kinked cable. Recently, we were making a body for Headless with layers of muscle and fat. My partner Chris Land and I spent 14 hours building this thing. When we were ready to de-mold, the initial layer of skin had failed to set up properly in some places. It was heartbreaking, but the important parts were there. In this case I was the director, so I re-ordered the shot to make it work.

DANIEL J. MAZIKOWSKI:  One time, I was called upon to provide a feature film with convincingly explosive head-shot effects (a la Zapruder) with neither the budget nor pyro license necessary to run squibs at my disposal. I worked it all out with bizarre Rube Goldberg contraptions involving mousetraps, blood balloons, vinyl tubing, and party poppers filled with Kool-Aid powder.  Crazy, but it worked.