Talk: The Biology of Virtual Creatures

The Biology of Virtual Creatures: Unconventional Applications of a Science Education in Hollywood Special Effects

Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 8:00 p.m.

Science Center 199, Swarthmore Campus

From Chester the Cheetah to swarming Dementors to the Iron Man Mark-I suit, Bradley Gabe’s (’94) computer graphics skills have been honed by experiences working on high-end digital effects in commercial and feature film productions at Quiet Man, Industrial Light & Magic, Stan Winston Studio, and Janimation.

As an active member of the CG community, Bradley has advanced technical approaches to CG production through consulting, teaching courses, leading seminars, and conducting Master Classes at Siggraph and other venues. In 2009 he was honored by his industry peers with an Autodesk Masters award.

Remembering Ralph McQuarrie

The death of Ralph McQuarrie on March 3 marked the loss of one of the key founders of the Star Wars franchise. McQuarrie’s authorial status within that vast transmedia network had for decades been subsumed under the cannibalizing sign of George Lucas’s “vision,” and just as the aging and death of the movies’ original actors has cleared the stage for such synthetic, endlessly replenishable replacements as the animated Clone Wars series and the Lego-ification of the saga, so McQuarrie’s demise signals the continued waning of a certain authentic (and temporally specific) artistry tied to, but distinct from, Lucas’s techno-auteurism. Below is an excerpt of my book manuscript on special effects and transmedia franchises, focusing on McQuarrie’s role in the previsualization of Star Wars.

By summer 1974, the rough draft of what was then called The Star Wars ran 132 baffling pages. According to fellow director Michael Ritchie, to whom George Lucas showed the draft, “It was very difficult to tell what the man was talking about.”[i] Another friend, Hal Barwood, said the script “started off in horrible shape. … It was hard to discern there was a movie there. It was both kind of futuristic and funny and endearing and exciting all at once, but that combination of possibilities just didn’t dawn on us reading these words on the page.”[ii] Perhaps thinking back to his use of comic-book frames to sell the story treatment to Twentieth-Century Fox, Lucas acknowledged that “the concepts and characters he was devising were so bizarre that it was very difficult for anyone else to visualize them.” So he turned to a professional artist, Ralph McQuarrie, to portray The Star Wars in concrete visuals.[iii] McQuarrie was an industrial artist for Boeing Aircraft who came to prominence in Hollywood circles when he created illustrations of space flight for CBS’s coverage of the moon landings. Lucas hired him to paint “concept artwork” based on a handful of key images, including the ones below.[iv]

It is fair to say that without McQuarrie’s paintings, Star Wars would not have been made – or would at least have been a very different film. “George spent his money wisely on Star Wars by developing the art,” according to Lucasfilm production assistant Miki Herman. “Ralph McQuarrie’s paintings sold the movie to Fox.”[v] The paintings’ primary value was in leapfrogging past the limitations of time and budget to bring back images from Star Wars’ own future – its spectacular “money shots.” Done in opaque gouache and acrylic in widescreen aspect ratio, the art envisioned in arresting ways the central settings, character looks, and action beats of Lucas’s screenplay. Studio backers were all too pleased to find order amid the chaos; they were particularly reassured by the guarantee that the planned effects would be both technically achievable and splendidly unlike anything that had come before. Lucas “wanted the pictures to be idealist,” according to McQuarrie. “In other words, don’t worry about how things are going to get done or how difficult it might be to produce them – just do them how you’d like them to be.”[vi] Compared to the likely expense of producing the special effects they called for, the paintings cost nothing; yet that very lack of expense suggested that the images could be delivered on time and on budget. With the paintings, Lucas “wanted people to look and say, ‘Gee, that looks great, just like something on the screen.’”[vii]

McQuarrie’s artwork also helped to organize the production side of Star Wars. They defined the look of different characters as well as designs for costumes, settings, props, spaceships, planetary environments, and alien beings. McQuarrie is credited with originating key aspects of the film’s iconography, including Darth Vader’s breathing mask, the Jedi light sabers, the desert planet Tatooine with its two suns, R2-D2’s “three legs, a round swivel top on his cylindrical metal body, and a squat demeanor,”[viii] and certain spaceships. His designs helped lend the film its air of being a “used universe,” Lucas’s term for the scuffed and careworn quality of his retrograde future. More important, McQuarrie’s paintings provided a concrete reference point for the growing staff of casting directors, costume and set designers, storyboard artists, and special-effects craftspeople coming on board as ILM grew. At high levels, the artwork functioned as collaborative archive, enabling design teams to view, assess, and modify plans. At lower levels, the paintings coordinated the labor of draftsmen and model makers, providing a template for maintaining consistency in their output. Joe Johnston, credited with Effects Illustration and Design, was responsible for creating the extensive storyboards for Star Wars. “A lot of people ask me if I was the creator of the Star Wars spaceships, and I really wasn’t,” he has said. “Everyone else’s imagination was kind of funneled through mine and Ralph McQuarrie’s.”[ix] Similarly, John Stears, Special Production Mechnical Effects Supervisor, stated, “We had superb production illustrations by Ralph McQuarrie, and … the film adhered closely to them. A lot of the credit is due McQuarrie, as the look of the picture was due to him.”[x]

Artwork-to-shot comparisons

McQuarrie’s paintings acted as ersatz finished frames, which the production crew then reverse-engineered, building them from the ground up. The shots above, for example, duplicate almost exactly their corresponding preproduction art. Although McQuarrie went on to provide artwork for sequels The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, he has expressed disappointment that his work for Lucas did not receive more credit in its own right. “I wonder if I haven’t been ripped off,” McQuarrie is quoted as saying. “But then, why should George pay me any more than he had to? He’s a pretty cool businessman.”[xi] Despite what these comments suggest, McQuarrie has never claimed that he alone originated the film’s visual elements, but rather developed them in consultation with Lucas. The fact remains, however, that many of the commonly cited examples of Star Wars’ incorporation of existing designs and motifs have their roots in McQuarrie’s artwork. He based the look of C-3PO, for example, on the robot Maria in Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927).

An even more significant contribution is the signature shot from near the end of the film: the rebel ceremony in which Luke Skywalker and his companions receive medals from Princess Leia. Frequently described as recycling the starkly symmetrical “mass ornament” of Nazi ranks from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), the shot in Star Wars can be traced to McQuarrie through his preproduction painting, reproduced onscreen almost identically, albeit in reverse angle.

McQuarrie also contributed several matte paintings to the Star Wars films, literally inscribing his artwork into the movie. These paintings stand somewhere between design concept and finished frame, a transitional stage between different media:

Previz abounds in such intermediate objects – sketches, blueprints, crude models and maquettes, film tests, outtakes, work prints – weird hybrids seldom discussed in studies of film production, which devote attention and analysis to more stable, neatly classifiable forms. Yet the materials of previz deserve theorization precisely because they fill in the hidden interstices of production, marking incremental transformations from paper to screen and encompassing the totality of filmic manufacture. It is as though the production of motion pictures takes place on a darkened stage with spotlights picking out a few celebrated nodes of creation: in this corner, a director; in another, a writer and screenplay; and at the center, the final print distributed to theaters and serving thereafter as the nucleus of popular, journalistic, and academic discourse about the film. Bringing up the lights reveals that the stage is in fact crowded with materials and personnel whose work, while essential to the production, is effaced in order to maintain an orderly cosmology. This industrial mythology is anchored by the unifying figure of the film director.

I do not mean to suggest that previsualization (or the preproduction phase that is its larger backdrop) receives no public attention. Indeed, these technical activities and their associated narratives and imagery fuel a highly visible side industry of publication pitched to audiences fascinated with the process of making movies. Making-of books and behind-the-scenes documentaries are nothing new in Hollywood, and have to some extent been the focus of academic scrutiny for their role in what Steve Neale terms cinema’s “inter-textual relay”:

The institutionalized public discourse of the press, television and radio often plays an important part in the construction of [movies’ public] images. So, too, do the “unofficial,” “word of mouth” discourses of everyday life. But a key role is also played by the discourse of the industry itself, especially in the earliest phases of a film’s public circulation, and in particular by those sectors of the industry concerned with publicity and marketing: distribution, exhibition, studio marketing departments, and so on.[xii]

The “making-of” mania was particularly intense around Star Wars, echoing in discursive form the many tie-in objects – toys, model kits, pajamas, posters – used to promote the film. In 1977, Ballantine Books released an oversized portfolio of McQuarrie’s paintings, along with “The Art of Star Wars,” a book reprinting the screenplay alongside preproduction art, storyboards, and stills from the movie.[xiii] Such publications provided snapshots of an evolving production, freezing them like prehistoric insects in amber: a glimpse of Luke Skywalker as a woman; a McQuarrie painting of Han Solo as a Chewbacca-like monster; a scene or snippet of dialogue that failed to make the final cut. The material record of previz, riddled with gaps on their way to being closed, offers not just a glimpse of possibilities that might have been, but a relatively unvarnished perspective on the logics of appropriation and suppression by which Hollywood attempts to close a circle of authorial singularity and originality around its products. Because of its very in-betweenness, previz seems to mark a moment at which forces of ideological regulation are at their most contested and unstable. The promotional use of previsualization materials might therefore be seen as a clever strategy of containment, drawing attention to an impressive apparatus of visual-effects design in order ultimately to subsume it within the techno-auteur’s all-encompassing “vision.”

[i] Marcus Hearn, The Cinema of George Lucas (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2005), 147.

[ii] Ibid, 83.

[iii] Ibid 83-84.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Quoted in Pollock, Skywalking, 149.

[vi] Hearn, The Cinema of George Lucas, 83-84.

[vii] Quoted in Dale Pollock, Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas (Hollywood, CA: Samuel French, 1990), 149.

[viii] Ibid 150.

[ix] Mandell, Paul. “Joe Johnston.” Interview. Cinefantastique 6.4/7.1 (1978), 78.

[x] Mandell, Paul. “John Stears.” Interview. Cinefantastique 6.4/7.1 (1978), 64.

[xi] Quoted in Pollock, Skywalking, 197.

[xii] Steve Neale, Genre and Hollywood (London: Routledge, 2000), 39.

[xiii] The first of these was Carol Titelman, ed., The Art of Star Wars (New York: Ballantine Books, 1979).

What All the Foss Is About

Here’s a smart writeup on a new book collecting the artwork of Chris Foss, the distinctive and influential British artist whose paintings have graced the cover of many a science-fiction novel while circulating independently as quanta of outré visualization on their own. Growing up in the 1970s, I was aware of Foss more through the latter channel: glimpses of futurism in the pages of magazines like Omni and Starlog, often accompanying features on computer games (whose simple 8-bit graphics expanded logarithmically in my imagination thanks to their association with Foss’s billowing, rainbowed vistas and sensuously rounded mechanisma) or SF films then in production: Foss was one of the many artists conscripted to visualize Ridley Scott’s 1979 landmark Alien.

Among the same cohort was Ron Cobb, who, like Foss and the great but neglected John Harris, had a knack for visualizing structures of indeterminate purpose and scale, suspended against the clouds of alien worlds, the neon gasfields of nebulae, the onyx depths of outer space. Simultaneously conveying gigantic mass — humans merely implied as unobservable specks — and toylike containment within the filmed frame or printed page, the future machines envisioned by Foss and his peers were both fanciful and functional. Or as Simon Gallagher elegantly puts it:

Foss’s work is defined by that jarring oxymoron: his iconic spaceships are almost biological, and certainly monstrous, and yet, unlike anything that came before them, they are intricate in their mechanical realism. They are the convergence of fantasy and precision, and there is a fundamental contradiction within the designs that suggests both a hopeful futurism and an ominous sense of dread in the sheer size and scale of the machine monsters he creates.

The new Foss book joins a growing section of my shelf devoted to SF illustration as a form of production technology, assisting the transmedial flow of content, bridging the gaps between screenplays and feature films, design docs and finished video games, word and image and object.

Ron Cobb: Initial Thoughts

A spontaneous enthusiasm, eruption of unvoiced nerd-love that has been simmering in my soul since I was twelve or thirteen, prompts this quick reflection on Ron Cobb. As an artist, Cobb contributed plentifully to how I understood and visualized the science fiction with which I grew up; as a concept artist specifically his drawings and paintings played a generative role in films like Star Wars (1977) and Alien (1979) — movies we now recognize as classics in part because of their rich, world-creating visual design.

To judge from the catalog of his work featured in Colorvision (1981), Cobb’s influence on the production of these films appears to have been both piecemeal and foundational: a handful of his bizarre creatures populate the Mos Eisley cantina, and his designs for Alien were limited to the interior and exterior of the Nostromo, with H. R. Giger’s biomechanics providing the movie’s black and glistening core. But in another way, Cobb’s work reflects an animating spirit of cinematic science fiction in the 1970s, which increasingly in the wake of Star Trek (1966-1969) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) demanded an engineer’s and architect’s eye to lend their futuristic worlds the fascination of function.

I’ve been studying concept artists like Cobb — Brian Froud is a cognate, as are Syd Mead and in a previous age Chesley Bonestell — as part of a broader research project on illustration. I hope to have more to say about this shortly, but for now I will simply note the archeological pleasure of paging through Cobb’s designs (like the one above, “Tug,” an early version of Alien‘s Nostromo) to find, not the final object as recorded on film, but — like the panda’s thumb — an evolutionary step toward it. The special property of cinematic concept art is not just that it exists prior to the film we later come to know, but that it serves as a “draft,” freezing for our later study a dialogue among director, crew, consultants as they move toward consensus. Cobb’s visualization does not just visualize an artifact of production; it is such an artifact, and as such it offers us, alongside the creation of a beloved film, the genesis of our own imaginary.

More on Cobb and the Nostromo here.


I look at Blade Runner as the last analog science-fiction movie made, because we didn’t have all the advantages that people have now. And I’m glad we didn’t, because there’s nothing artificial about it. There’s no computer-generated images in the film.

— David L. Snyder, Art Director

Any movie that gets a “Five-Disc Ultimate Collectors Edition” deserves serious attention, even in the midst of a busy semester, and there are few films more integral to the genre of science fiction or the craft of visual effects than Blade Runner. (Ordinarily I’d follow the stylistic rules about which I browbeat my Intro to Film students and follow this title with the year of release, 1982. But one of the many confounding and wonderful things about Blade Runner is the way in which it resists confinement to any one historical moment. By this I refer not only to its carefully designed and brilliantly realized vision of Los Angeles in 2019 [now a mere 11 years away!] but the many-versioned indeterminacy of its status as an industrial artifact, one that has been revamped, recut, and released many times throughout the two and a half decades of its cultural existence. Blade Runner in its revisions has almost dissolved the boundaries separating preproduction, production, and postproduction — the three stages of the traditional cinematic lifecycle — to become that rarest of filmic objects, the always-being-made. The only thing, in fact, that keeps Blade Runner from sliding into the same sad abyss as the first Star Wars [an object so scribbled-over with tweaks and touch-ups that it has almost unraveled the alchemy by which it initially transmuted an archive of tin-plated pop-culture precursors into a golden original] is the auteur-god at the center of its cosmology of texts: unlike George Lucas, Ridley Scott seems willing to use words like “final” and “definitive” — charged terms in their implicit contract to stop futzing around with a collectively cherished memory.)

I grabbed the DVDs from Swarthmore’s library last week to prep a guest lecture for a seminar a friend of mine is teaching in the English Department, and in the course of plowing through the three-and-a-half-hour production documentary “Dangerous Days” came across the quote from David L. Snyder that opens this post. What a remarkable statement — all the more amazing for how quickly and easily it goes by. If there is a conceptual digestive system for ideas as they circulate through time and our ideological networks, surely this is evidence of a successfully broken-down and assimilated “truth,” one which we’ve masticated and incorporated into our perception of film without ever realizing what an odd mouthful it makes. There’s nothing artificial about it, says David Snyder. Is he referring to the live-action performances of Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, and Sean Young? The “retrofitted” backlot of LA 2019, packed with costumed extras and drenched in practical environmental effects from smoke machines and water sprinklers? The cars futurized according to the extrapolative artwork of Syd Mead?

No: Snyder is talking about visual effects — the virtuoso work of a small army headed by Douglas Trumbull and Richard Yuricich — a suite of shots peppered throughout the film that map the hellish, vertiginous altitudes above the drippy neon streets of Lawrence G. Paull’s production design. Snyder refers, in other words, to shots produced exclusively through falsification: miniature vehicles, kitbashed cityscapes, and painted mattes, each piece captured in multiple “passes” and composited into frames that present themselves to the eye as unified gestalts but are in fact flattened collages, mosaics of elements captured in radically different scales, spaces, and times but made to coexist through the layerings of the optical printer: an elaborate decoupage deceptively passing itself off as immediate, indexical reality.

I get what Snyder is saying. There is something natural and real about the visual effects in Blade Runner; watching them, you feel the weight and substance of the models and lighting rigs, can almost smell the smoky haze being pumped around the light sources to create those gorgeous haloes, a signature of Trumbull’s FX work matched only by his extravagant ballet of ice-cream-cone UFOs amid boiling cloudscapes and miniature mountains in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But what no one points out is that all of these visual effects — predigital visual effects — were once considered artificial. We used to think of them as tricks, hoodwinks, illusions. Only now that the digital revolution has come and gone, turning everything into weightless, effortless CG, do we retroactively assign the fakery of the past a glorious authenticity.

Or so the story goes. As I suggest above, and have argued elsewhere, the difference between “artificial” and “actual” in filmmaking is as much a matter of ideology as industrial method; perceptions of the medium are slippery and always open to contestation. Special and visual effects have always functioned as a kind of reality pump, investing the “nonspecial” scenes and sequences around them with an air of indexical reliability which is, itself, perhaps the most profound “effect.” With vanishingly few exceptions, actors speak lines written for them; stories are stitched into seamless continuity from fragments of film shot out of order; and, inescapably, a camera is there to record what’s happening, yet never reveals its own existence. Cinema is, prior to everything else, an artifact, and special effects function discursively to misdirect our attention onto more obvious classes of manipulation.

Now the computer has arrived as the new trick in town, enabling us to rebrand everything that came before as “real.” It’s an understandable turn of mind, but one that scholars and critics ought to navigate carefully. (Case in point: Snyder speaks as though computers didn’t exist at the time of Blade Runner. Yet it is only through the airtight registration made possible by motion-control cinematography, dependent on microprocessors for precision and memory storage for repeatability, that the film’s beautiful miniatures blend so smoothly with their surroundings.) It is possible, and worthwhile, to immerse ourselves in the virtual facade of ideology’s trompe-l’oeil — a higher order of special effect — while occasionally stepping back to acknowledge the brush strokes, the slightly imperfect matte lines that seam the composited elements of our thought.

The Voice of God

The news of Don LaFontaine’s death triggers the same phenomenon that marked his strange career: the bulk of it, spent intoning over movie trailers, bypassed our conscious notice, and it is only with his passing that the man and his peculiar, familiar, theatrical magic swims into full presence. We had to lose him to appreciate him.

LaFontaine’s voiceovers typically began with the phrase “In a world …”

In a world … where criminals run the streets and cops have lost all hope —

In a world … of wealth, power, and seduction —

In a world … where major corporations are run by fluffy kittens —

(OK, I made that last one up.) The very definition of portentous, In a world‘s ritual followup was always some variant of But then … or But now … or Until one day …, signaling a disequilibrium that launches the plot. But with LaFontaine’s work, whatever movie the trailer pointed to was not really the point. The pleasure of previews is of a qualitatively different order; a brilliant shorthand or hieroglyph, an elegantly spun abstraction, the planting of anticipation without the need for actual payoff (how many movies do we actually watch, compared to the number of previews we’re exposed to?). LaFontaine’s gift was precisely that of jouissance, endlessly deferred desire. And his particular way of narrating that unfulfillable promise — almost comical in its gravitas and urgency, utterly sincere yet somehow tongue-in-cheek — was what made the man a genre unto himself.

This might be true of other voice artists — Mel Blanc, Maurice LaMarche, and Harry Shearer come to mind. What Roland Barthes called the grain of the voice acts, for these talents, as a unifying field of identity stretched across a dozen or a hundred bodies and faces, or in LaFontaine’s case, a thousand acts of promotional montage. If, as so many psychoanalytic theorizations of the medium suppose, moves are indeed like dreams, then LaFontaine was the voice that read us our bedtime story, easing us through those liminal minutes of prefatory errata before we surrendered completely to a collective hallucinatory slumber. He was there and not-there in much the same way as the invisible stylings of Classical Hollywood: continuity editing, “inaudible” sound. Yet periodically, we were jolted back into awareness of his existence, through parodies on Family Guy and cameos in Geico ads. These moments of delicious rupture also functioned as a kind of righteous suture, reuniting a voice and body that had been sundered, bringing the man out from behind the curtain to take a much-deserved bow. Self-mocking he might have been, but I always greeted LaFontaine’s appearance with the affectionate recognition of a long-lost uncle.

The IMDb page devoted to LaFontaine reflects his weirdly inside-out career, listing his gag appearances and TV gigs while omitting the massive archive of VO work that led to those other jobs. The much-consulted database’s taxonomic structure does not track movie trailers, and so an entire field of cinematic labor is allowed to vanish from our cybernetically-arrayed knowledge of the medium. The people who cut together and score previews, who write the boiled-down narration and engineer the vertiginous genre-pivots that mark the best of the bunch (I thought it was a Civil War melodrama — but it turns out to be a screwball comedy about vampires!), toil away at a level once removed from the credited army at the end of the major motion pictures they advertise, and twice removed from the big-name stars, producers, directors, and writers who precede the titles. A shame: what we might call the submedium of the movie preview is probably more integral to maintaining our generalized perceptions of cinema than any single instance of the feature film.

Trying to mount a project for the next Media in Transition conference, I’ve been thinking about modern ephemera: emergent categories of the forgotten in new media. It’s an environment whose database narratives, paratextual proliferation, and reliance on ever-expanding memory and storage media and constantly-evolving archive and retrieval tools promise an end to the kinds of historical losses that cripple our understanding of, say, the dawn of cinema. LaFontaine’s paradoxical legacy, both glorious and pitiable, reminds me that there are still many gaps in the network — many lacunae in our vision, and much to explore and remedy.

Practical Magician

Stan Winston has died, and it’s cause for sadness on multiple levels. First there’s the loss of the man himself, gone too young at 62 after a seven-year battle with multiple myeloma. Then there’s the knowledge that we’ll never see more of his masterful effects work onscreen; Winston, whose studio website can be found here, was responsible for some of the most iconic and exciting creatures in science-fiction and horror films of the last three decades.

His death also leaves unanswered the ongoing question of what is happening to visual effects in this era of digital colonization — what they are on the way to becoming, what they should be doing — for Winston occupied a unique industrial niche at the current renegotiation of practical and optical magic. Winston’s monsters, animals, and robots were, for the most part, built of solid matter and filmed live before the camera (rather than layered in later through CG manipulation). Yet he never confined himself to a single effects “channel”; a renaissance talent, his craft extended from makeup to stop-motion animation and full-sized animatronics. Even in something like The Terminator (1982), whose low-budget production technology seems rudimentary in comparison to contemporary franchise blockbusters, Winston’s creations carried us smoothly over the rickety joins from shot to shot, giving the T-800 a terrifying coherence — indeed, a living personality — whether that mechanical assassin was played by a miniature stop-motion model, a full-sized torso and head manipulated atop the shoulders of an off-camera operator, or Arnold Schwarzenegger himself, his glowering face punctuated by prosthetically torn skin revealing a silver cranium. By the same token, his suite of bodysuits, marionettes, and makeup gave life to a swarm of snaky xenomorphs in Aliens (1986), culminating in what was perhaps his predigital masterpiece, the Alien Queen.

But Winston’s artistry should not be considered simply in dialectical terms, as an alternative to or rejection of CG. Beginning with the landmark Jurassic Park in 1992, Winston’s creatures shared the workload with their digital doubles. CG velociraptors and T-Rex were responsible for action stunts (when it was necessary to see their whole bodies, from snout to claw), but Winston’s animatronic performers handled the beauty-spot closeups, providing long stretches of undeniable physical proximity which arguably sold the illusion to audiences, propping up the digital shots whose comparative scarcity was inversely proportional to the press and fan hype they received.

Winston’s ability to move fluidly between effects modalities, combined with his gift for designing entities that were simultaneously bizarre and scientifically plausible, kept him at the forefront of fantastic filmmaking right up to the end, with recent projects including Artificial Intelligence (2001), Constantine (2005), this year’s Iron Man, and the upcoming fourth Terminator sequel. In each of these, Winston’s work belied the “digital divide,” demonstrating a sensibility that superceded technological differences and gave our eyes and minds something to believe in. But it’s Winston’s earlier work that I’ll remember most fondly: the shapeshifting arctic invader in The Thing (1982), the scorpion-faced hunter in Predator (1987), Johnny Depp’s plaintive cyborg in Edward Scissorhands (1990). My most prized memory, in fact, is of Winston’s first credited makeup job, 1972’s Gargoyles, which I caught on TV as a little kid staying up much too late one night. That film was crude and potent, its grip due entirely to gargoyle designs whose expressive faces and gravelly voices made them perfect movie monsters: scary yet somehow sentimental, pulsing with an inner life both recognizably human and fascinatingly alien.

A final note of sadness: Stan Winston was slated to be the keynote speaker at a conference I’ll be attending this fall, Film & Science: Fictions, Documentaries, and Beyond. It will be a very different affair now, but still, I hope, a valuable one — an opportunity to consider and celebrate a remarkable man and his life’s work.

Man in the Suit


Sad news: Ben Chapman, who played the Creature from the Black Lagoon in the 1954 film of the same name, is dead.

Chapman’s death, while no less tragic, hits me a little differently than the passing of William Tuttle, whom I wrote about last August. While Tuttle contributed to hundreds of films, Chapman played just one role in one movie — and that uncredited at the time. While Tuttle worked behind the scenes, Chapman performed in front of the camera. And while Tuttle designed and applied makeup and prosthetics that others wore, Chapman was literally the man in the suit: a full-body sheath made of foam rubber, a headpiece fringed with pulsating gills, and two webbed gloves tipped with fearsome claws.

In this sense, we might think of Chapman as occupying a nodal point in the circuit of special effects manufacture precisely opposite that of the costume’s “creator.” Somebody else designed the thing; all Chapman did was inhabit it. Indeed, Chapman’s contribution subdivides and apparently dissipates the more closely we examine it, scattering into a shadowy network of elided labor and thwarted fame. He was not, for example, the only person to play the Creature. Ricou Browning wore the suit for underwater sequences, while Chapman did the bits on land. (Browning returned for the water scenes in sequels Revenge of the Creature [1955] and The Creature Walks Among Us [1956]; in these films the Creature-on-land was played by Tom Hennesy and Don Megowan respectively.) Even the suit’s original designer is in question, credited for many years to veteran makeup artist Bud Westmore, but recently recuperated as the work of Milicent Patrick.

Yet amid the thicket of Hollywood’s ramified pasts, Chapman and the suit he wore are fused in my memory as well as the collective memory of horror and science fiction fans. To some extent this is due to the first Creature‘s place at the overlap of several important genre histories. It was a cornerstone of the grand 1950s wave of cinematic SF that includes The Thing from Another World (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), War of the Worlds (1953), Them (1954), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Earth Versus the Flying Saucers (1956), The Blob (1958), and — a personal favorite and source of this blog’s signature image — Forbidden Planet (1956). Moreover, Creature was directed by Jack Arnold, who also helmed the classics It Came From Outer Space (1953), This Island Earth (1955), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).

Not all of these films are of equal caliber, certainly. They run the gamut from cerebral “message” films to drive-in shockers, a continuum on which Creature probably registers toward the window-mounted-speakers end. Befitting its status as an early Jaws, Creature was released in 3D. As a kid, I was lucky enough to see one of these ghosty red-and-green prints at a screening on the University of Michigan campus; the headache induced by those plastic glasses is inseparable from the excitement of seeing claws jutting out of a petrified wall in one of the film’s opening images.


But the fascination of Creature (the movie) and Creature (the monster) outlasted their tricked-up 3D and their genre boomlet, surviving as only an icon can throughout many replayings on TV, VCR, and DVD. Ben Chapman built a career out of his few minutes on screen, appearing at conventions, giving interviews, and running a website whose very title — — insists on the singular authenticity of his performance. Like the suit he wore, a neglected piece of film flotsam rediscovered by a janitor and ultimately purchased by Forrest J. Ackerman of Famous Monsters, Chapman physically anchored a diffuse cloud of memories and fantasies, concretizing a point in time and space where Creature from the Black Lagoon “really happened.”

Not just an icon, then, but an index: evidentiary proof of a world existing simultaneously before the camera and within our imaginations, and hence a junction point between virtual and real, dream and daylight, forgotten and retrieved, submarine and dry land.


Remembered for His Monsters

William Tuttle

With sadness and a sweet sense of nostalgia I note the passing of one of the great effects technicians, William Tuttle, who died July 27. (The NY Times obituary is here; you may need to register with the site to view it.) Tuttle headed the makeup department of MGM and worked on many films I remember fondly from when I was a kid: The Fury (the 1978 Brian DePalma film that ends with the explosion of John Cassavettes); Logan’s Run (1977), in which he turned Roscoe Lee Brown into a silver-faced cyborg artist nutcase named Box; Young Frankenstein (1974), where Tuttle’s makeup for Peter Boyle both satirized and honored Jack Pierce’s artistry in the 1931 Frankenstein; and “The Night Strangler” (1973), one of the pair of telefilms that launched the TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Tuttle also did standout work in The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) and The Time Machine (1960), creating a morphing set of identities for Tony Randall in the former and the fearsome Morlocks in the latter.

Young FrankensteinThe Time Machine

If you recognize in this retrograde stroll through Tuttle’s filmography the archival trace of IMDb, you’re exactly right; I called up that website reflexively, using it, as I so often do, as a prosthetic augmentation of my mediagoing memories. What’s interesting in this case is how much of Tuttle’s work I was completely unaware of: all the non-monstrous, un-fantastic makeup jobs he did on Hollywood stars, making them look glamorous or rugged or merely screen-real instead of bizarre. Perhaps Tuttle’s best-known creation — in that it triggers for a much of a certain TV-watching generation an avalanche of networked associations to black-and-white anthology dramas, smart SF & fantasy, and twist endings — played on just that split between the “normal” and the “hideous,” in the episode of The Twilight Zone entitled “Eye of the Beholder” (1960). Almost as unmistakably recognizable as Rod Serling’s wry face and voice is the twisted visage of the medical staff unveiled in “Beholder”‘s wrenching final images. For all the faces that William Tuttle helped to look pretty or handsome, it’s the monsters we’ll remember him for.

Eye of the Beholder