Revisiting Cinefex (30): Little Shop of Horrors, The Gate, The Golden Child

Cinefex 30Ellen Greene’s looking worried on the front cover of Cinefex #30, and why wouldn’t she? She’s face to face (or is that lips?) with carnivorous space-plant Audrey II in a scene from Frank Oz’s 1986 musical Little Shop of Horrors. The voracious vegetable was created live 0n-set by Lyle Conway in a tour-de-force of puppetry. The back cover showcases ILM’s go-motion demon from Michael Ritchie’s The Golden Child, also from 1986. Filling out this issue’s 68 pages is The Gate, directed by Tibor Takács in 1987 and featuring a number of effective forced-perspective tricks plus a good old stop-motion monster.

  • The Care and Feeding of Audrey II (article by Jody Duncan)
  • A Question of Perspective (article by Adam Eisenberg)
  • Of Daggers and Demons (article by Paul Mandell)

Little Shop of Horrors

The earliest narrative films were little more than stage plays acted out in front of a static camera. Likewise the craft of visual effects also has its roots in theatre – specifically in the kind of ‘smoke-and-mirrors’ illusions perfected by Victorian conjurors. It’s no coincidence that the original logo of ILM, one of the world leaders in its field, featured a magician.

Over time, cinema developed a language all its own: cutting between close and long shots, moving the camera and so on. But at its heart narrative film is still play-acting.

rc30lshLittle Shop of Horrors is one of those movies that isn’t afraid to acknowledge cinema’s theatrical heritage, not merely because it’s an adaptation of a stage musical, but because of the conscious creative decisions made by director Frank Oz when he took on the project.

Oz’s theatrical approach is evident throughout Cinefex‘s article on the film’s visual effects. According to author Jody Duncan, ‘Oz had decided from the beginning that he wanted to do the entire film as an interior stage piece.’ As for the film’s showcase effect – the man-eating plant Audrey II – Oz expresses his pride that ‘we worked very hard to make the plant a real, mechanical on-the-stage effect. There is no visual wizardry in the plant at all – no bluescreen, no animation, no stop-motion.’

Some Cinefex articles are just tasty. This one’s a feast. Using ingredients including interviews with Oz, animatronics maestro Lyle Conway, puppeteer Mak Wilson and others, Duncan cooks up in-depth analysis of Audrey II’s creation and operation that’s enough to satisfy even the healthiest appetite. Make no mistake: we’re talking puppets on a mind-boggling scale:

  • The various puppet versions of the plant ranged from four-and-a-half inches to twelve-and-a-half feet
  • The ‘Feed Me’ version had ‘twenty to thirty cables just going up to the head alone’, with each cable operated by ‘five-foot-tall, half-inch square aluminium tubes’
  • The most complex ‘Mean Green Mother’ scene had ‘as many as seventy puppeteers working at once’

Little Shop of Horrors was in no way a regular puppeteering gig. More like an army assault course. Wilson describes three months of lip-sync rehearsals as ‘a painstaking process … spending eight hours a day staring at monitors … so we could see how we were doing,’ and likens working with the truly gargantuan ‘Mean Green Mother’ to ‘lifting a piano and doing multiplication tables at the same time.’

Duncan serves up more than just her main course of plant puppetry. There are other dishes on the table containing the answers to many more questions: How did they get Audrey II to grow to twice its original size as an on-stage, in-camera effect? How did they achieve that iconic shot looking out at Steve Martin from inside the dental patient’s mouth? How did they make those vines dial a telephone and open a cash register? It’s all on the menu here – just tuck in and eat your fill.

There’s even dessert, namely an extensive look at the film’s alternative ending in which Audrey and Seymour are consumed by the terrible triffid, which subsequently goes on a rampage across New York. Not for the first time, we’re reminded how, back in the 1980s, the only way we got to hear about such deleted scenes was by reading magazines like Cinefex.

After wolfing down all that behind-the-scenes material, if you’re still saying ‘Feed Me’ you must have worms.

Looking back at the film now (and yes, it’s a favourite of mine), I’m still astonished at what Conway and his team managed to achieve live in front of the cameras. Not only are the results technically excellent, but Audrey II’s performance is full of unforgettable character moments. Little Shop of Horrors is one of those films where, even if you half-know how they did it, you still end up with a mind that’s well and truly blown, just like mine was when I first saw it in the theatre in 1986. Even now, after enjoying it many times over, after reading (and now rereading) Cinefex #30, I still find myself asking the question that every visual effects artist wants the audience to ask:

‘How the heck did they do that?’

(If you want to check out the fabled alternative ending of Little Shop of Horrors – including Ellen Greene’s heartbreaking death scene – you’ll have to buy the Blu-ray. Or you could click here to view the black and white work print online.)

The Gate

Take half a dozen fantasy or horror films of the ’80s, pulp them all up in a blender, pour out the results and you’ve got The Gate. Despite its derivative B-movie sensibilities, this largely forgotten movie benefits from some decent visual effects, courtesy of VFX supervisor Randy Cook.

rc30gRight from the outset, author Adam Eisenberg lowers our expectations by flagging up The Gate‘s low budget: ‘[it] required a vast number of effects … for a budget on the short side of $1 million.’ Craig Reardon, in charge of special makeup, points out that time as well as money was in short supply. ‘On The Gate,’ he says, ‘everything had to come right off the griddle and onto the plate.’

Cook cites the time constraint as the main reason he opted to use forced perspective techniques to combine regular-sized humans with tiny demons in-camera. But there’s more to it than that: ‘I also had always wanted to do it,’ he confesses.

As described by Cook, forced perspective is ‘the process of the hanging miniature, only in reverse … you build a huge set and “mini-fy” it by placing it farther away from the camera.’ Aided by some revealing photographs, Eisenberg and Cook do a good job of demystifying the technique, supplying measurements of both the full-scale and over-sized portions of the sets and describing how the two were made to look as one.

There are echoes of Little Shop of Horrors as Cook describes the use of slow frame rates to punch up the performances of the man-in-a-suit demons (requiring the ‘regular’ actors to move in slow-motion). The same technique was used by Lyle Conway both to make Audrey II’s movements more snappy and to give the puppeteers a better chance of achieving that all-important lip-sync.

The Gate‘s bad guy is a gigantic Demon Lord realised by Cook through traditional stop-motion animation. Cook explains how he built the two-foot tall puppet, talks about the best lenses to use when shooting miniatures and ultimately betrays his love of stop-motion when he breaks down a shot in which the demon gets skewered by a fireworks rocket. ‘That shot was a conscious lift from Harryhausen’s It Came from Beneath the Sea,’ he reveals, ‘in which a torpedo was fired into the giant octopus.’

The Gate is hardly a memorable movie, but the work of Cook and his team makes it worth a look. Just put the hokey shots down to the low budget and admire the good stuff – there’s more of it than you might think. Together with Little Shop of Horrors, it’s also proof that, however old-school they might have been, in-camera effects were still alive and kicking in the mid-80s (and have remained so since, with Peter Jackson pulling off some remarkable shots in his The Lord of the Rings trilogy just by playing with scale).

The Golden Child

If you’d asked me to compile a list of ‘1980s effects films of interest’ I don’t think The Golden Child would even have been on my radar. However, revisiting Cinefex #30 has proved to me it’s an interesting notch on ILM’s bedpost – a kind of transitional project that not only demonstrated the maturing of the go-motion process but also anticipated the milestone movie that was Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

rc30gcPaul Mandell’s article delivers plenty of bang for bucks, with the (relatively) low shot count allowing him to concentrate on the details rather than trying to cover too much ground. Fans of matte painting will enjoy his interviews with Chris Evans and Craig Barron, who were looking forward to a location shoot in the Himalayas only to be instructed to ‘go to the Sierras and concoct something using your magic tricks.’ And stop-motion’s back again, with Tom St Amand discussing his animation of a dancing Pepsi can. Despite suffering cuts to his fingers manipulating the torn-metal armature, St Amand says, ‘It was nice … good old “stop-mo” on a tabletop.’

There’s a lengthy account of the film’s most spectacular shot: a 1,512-frame pull-back through the fires of hell combining sixty-five separate elements including ‘a bluescreen stage shot, a miniature set, rear-projected inserts, an ingenious switcheroo of the actor’s image and a multitude of matte and camera passes, all done with motion control.’ According to Mandell, the shot at the time was ‘the longest and most complicated non-outer space shot ever produced by ILM.’

For me, however, the real treasure in Mandell’s article is the comprehensive analysis of the go-motion process used to create the demon character that features during the film’s climactic scenes. We’ve read about go-motion in Cinefex before (check out the Dragonslayer article in issue #6 if you need to get up to speed), but by the time The Golden Child came around the ILM artists had refined the technology enough to grow comfortable with it – and to talk articulately about its pros and cons.

While veterans Phil Tippett and Tom St Amand walk us through the go-motion process, it’s Harry Walton’s commentary that I found particularly enlightening. An added bonus is the discussion of the Tondreau system (a computer that recorded camera movement on-set and stores the data ‘on an IBM floppy disc’ for later replication on the visual effects stage) which enabled the ILM crew to match-move their motion-controlled cameras to live-action plates shot not only hand-held, but with significant camera shake.

Nowadays match-moving is bread-and-butter work for any visual effects facility. Back in 1986 it was cutting edge stuff, with Bill Tondreau’s system being the first piece of hardware that really delivered the goods. According to ILM general manager Warren Franklin, its use on The Golden Child came about because director Michael Ritchie wanted dynamic camera moves instead of ‘the standard look of locked-off effects shots.’ However, it’s clear that this was the perfect opportunity to put the system through its paces before really flexing its muscles on future shows including Willow and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, in which, Franklin asserts, ‘the camera is going to be moving all the time.’

This freeing of the camera was one of the big advances of the 1980s. Visual effects artists – not least those at ILM – were constantly seeking ways to make their shots natural and fluid, and to get away from that giveaway moment of: ‘The camera’s stopped moving – the monster must be coming!’ Field recording – in this case courtesy of Tondreau – was the state-of-the-art means to that end. It was also a Pandora’s Box that, once opened, could never be shut. As Franklin concludes, ‘What is important is the idea of camera movement in effects shots – and that idea is here to stay.’

The pictures

From the Little Shop of Horrors article, it’s tempting to choose one of the many ‘deleted finale’ images as a favourite, simply because of their rarity. But my pick has to be the photo on p16 that shows Frank Oz directing Rick Moranis in one of the film’s more gruesome scenes. The caption says it all: ‘Frank Oz demonstrates the appropriate etiquette for serving up a disembodied head.’

In the article on The Gate, there are many informative behind-the-scenes shots that break down all those forced perspective set-ups, several of which boast that always-amusing bonus of seeing the guys-in-suits standing around without their heads on.

If you’re a fan of matte paintings, The Golden Child offers a fine photo of Chris Evans working on an exterior shot of Tibet. There’s a glass painting of the foreground snowscape (with a hole scraped clear to allow for the insertion of the live-action plate), a miniature monastery several feet behind it, and behind that a painted backdrop of distant mountains and a cloudy sky. A great example of the use of multiplane techniques (further enhanced with moving cloud shadows and additional passes to add falling snow) to add depth and atmosphere to a shot that might otherwise have ended up flat and dull.

Ah, I love a good matte painting. Don’t you?

Did you enjoy this Cinefex retrospective? If so, click here to read the others in the series.

3 thoughts on “Revisiting Cinefex (30): Little Shop of Horrors, The Gate, The Golden Child

  1. Thanks for another fine “Revisiting Cinefex” essay.

    I especially enjoyed the opportunity it afforded to revisit my fond memories of “Little Shop of Horrors.” I am no fan of musicals – I can think of only three stage musicals that I truly enjoy, and of those, only one made a satisfying leap to the big screen. “Little Shop” is that one. The music, as always, was clever and witty, the performances pitch perfect, and the staging and direction spot on. Not to mention the effects.

    I remember, not long after the movie was released, it somehow came up in a conversation I was having with Jim Cameron. He observed that when he was shooting the full-size Alien Queen for “Aliens” (another highly impressive oversize puppet), they would plan out these elaborately choreographed shots, and then be able to get just a few seconds of usable footage before every went wonky – which was not to denigrate Stan Winston’s work in any way, but only to point out how truly difficult it was to get a sustained performance out of something that large. Cameron was awed that Lyle Conway and his team were able to do that in “Little Shop.” Which, considering the source, is pretty high praise.

    You mentioned the alternate ending being on the Blu-ray disk. Actually, it was on the first DVD release, too. If I recall the story correctly, Frank Oz made his work print of the deleted sequence available to the DVD producers, who included it on the disk as a supplement – without, apparently, the studio’s knowing about it. The DVD was promptly recalled and the sequence excised, but not before some copies got out. It became the first truly collectible DVD. I know, because I paid big bucks for an unopened one on eBay.

  2. Thanks, Don, especially for the Cameron anecdote. I guess we’ll have to agree to differ on the subject of musicals (I’m a big fan), although I prefer to see them as live shows. Little Shop of Horrors is that rare example of a stage musical that worked supremely well on screen.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s