Revisiting Cinefex (36): Dead Ringers, Alien Nation, Die Hard, The Blob

Cinefex 36Jeremy Irons playing dead might seem an odd choice of picture for the front cover of a visual effects journal. All becomes clear when you realise this is a still from David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, a film that both advanced the craft of split-screen ‘twinning’ and allowed its director to indulge his fascination with ‘body-horror’ makeup effects. The back cover features one of the ‘Newcomer’ aliens from Graham Baker’s 1988 sci-fi/cop/buddy mashup Alien Nation. That’s both covers used up and still we’ve got two movies to go: John McTiernan’s classic action hit Die Hard and Chuck Russell’s forgotten B-movie reboot The Blob. That’s a lot to get through in just 68 pages. We’d better get started.

  • A Planetful of Aliens (article by Ron Magid)
  • Exaggerated Reality (article by Adam Eisenberg)
  • Double Vision (article by Don Shay)
  • The Right Blob for the Right Job (article by Robert G Pielke)

Alien Nation

‘Be careful what you wish for.’ So the saying goes, and it pretty much sums up the trials of the prosthetics crew on mammoth makeup movie Alien Nation. The task of creating not just one or two alien creatures but an entire race fell on Alec Gillis, Shane Mahan, John Rosengrant and Tom Woodruff, working as a team under the Stan Winston Studios banner.

rc36anMagid’s article tracks the development of the alien designs from day one to final wrap. ‘The earlier designs tended to be more outrageous,’ says Gillis, with Mahan explaining that in the end director Graham Baker opted for a more subtle approach ‘in order to allow the character of the actor to be read through the rubber pieces.’

This decision caused headaches for Zoltan Elek, the man responsible for applying the makeups to the actors. Originally a champion of the ‘less is more’ approach, Elek found it hard to apply prosthetics so thin and smooth that ‘I could not afford to make any mistakes along the blending edge … It was a tough job.’

Makeup fans will rejoice as Gillis and the Winston team bring us step-by-step descriptions of their various life-casting and mould-making techniques. As well as revealing the magic ingredient they used to create a stubble effect on the aliens’ heads, they also bewail the difficulty of designing a body suit for an alien striptease scene and the challenge of securing the cooperation of an actor who ‘almost broke his contract because he insisted no on had informed him that his entire head would be covered by the makeup.’

But what comes through time and again is the sheer volume of work demanded by the show: some ninety sets of appliances were required for lead actor Mandy Patinkin alone, with each appliance requiring ‘at least seventy individual molds.’ Add to that the hundreds of background masks created for the film’s crowd scenes and you start to appreciate the slightly stunned tone of the team’s closing comments.

‘We figured that going from … the alien queen in Aliens to these straight prosthetic makeups would be simple,’ says Mahan, ‘but it was really a lot of work.’ And while the crew clearly got great satisfaction from working on a show comparable – in makeup terms at least – with the groundbreaking Planet of the Apes, Gillis has to admit it ‘was a huge logistical challenge.’

Die Hard

In Adam Eisenberg’s short-but-sweet article on Die Hard, visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund describes the ways in which he and his team at Boss Film Corporation helped achieve director John McTiernan’s vision of ‘exaggerated reality’, which dictated that in this film ‘the effects could not look like effects at all.’

rc36dhMany of Edlund’s challenges involved blowing things up. For an iconic fireball-in-a-lift-shaft shot, that meant a forced-perspective miniature packed with pyrotechnic charges so toxic the cameras had to be operated remotely. ‘We did not know what we had for sure until we saw dailies the following morning,’ says Boss director of photography Bill Neil. Even more seat-of-the-pants was a night shoot of a miniature helicopter exploding on a small-scale replica of the Nakatomi building.

It wasn’t all black powder and brute force. In order to control the apparent speed of the elevator fireball rising towards the camera, Neil and his crew developed a nifty rheostat device to alter the speed of the camera dynamically through the shot. And Richard Vye contributed a clever computerised system that followed focus on actor Alan Rickman as he fell away from the camera during his death plunge. ‘If we had not had that computer focus system,’ says Neil, ‘we would probably still be doing [the shot].’

There are plenty more goodies, including a breakdown of the flawless match-moved tilt-down that blends from a miniature of the Nakatomi building to the live-action street, and the revelation that for most of the movie Bruce Willis used ‘latex “barefoot” boots that he could wear over his real feet.’ Best of all is Richard Edlund’s obvious pride in his achievements on the movie. I’ve noted before how critical Edlund can be of his own work, so it’s nice to hear him respond to producer Joel Silver’s mandate that ‘[the effects have] got to look great’ by concluding, ‘I think we did a pretty good job of fulfilling that demand.’

Dead Ringers

Dead Ringers is another movie that’s light on visual effects. This plays to Don Shay’s advantage, as it gives him time to dig deep into the challenging process of turning one actor into two.

rc36drShay describes Dead Ringers as ‘a dark and disturbing account of twin gynecologists bedeviled by drugs and shackled by a lifelong psychic bond.’ Director David Cronenberg and actor Jeremy Irons – playing the twin parts of Elliot and Beverly Mantle – offer insights into the thought processes behind both storytelling and performance. Meanwhile, optical effects supervisor Lee Wilson outlines the revolutionary ways in which motion control and moving split-screens allowed Irons to appear as two characters in the same frame, without limiting Cronenberg to using a locked-off camera.

The specialised motion control camera dolly (operated by ‘your basic IBM-AT clone – a Compaq 286 – and some Tondreau software’) enabled Cronenberg to shoot Irons performing one character while using a camera move, then to repeat that move perfectly when Irons switched roles. Crucial to the whole process was a video playback system that provided instant replay along with a quick-and-dirty approximation of the split-screen effect. The playback also enabled Irons to hear the first half of his performance via a concealed earpiece, and react accordingly.

Shay deconstructs this process in considerable detail, making it clear that the quality of the work was as much down to the care and craft of the operators as it was to the equipment. The devil really was in the detail, and detail is what we get, from discussions of the noise issue raised by the servos on the camera to the excitement felt by the crew as they succeeded in their ambitious attempts to rack focus across the split line.

Most impressive is Cronenberg’s refusal to get carried away: ‘If a twinning shot should suggest itself,’ he says, ‘then I would take advantage of it – but I would not force it.’ Cronenberg’s admirable restraint prompts Wilson to remark, ‘I would have loved to have seen a lot more twinning shots in the film – but that was not what this story was about.’

Dead Ringers also features a few of the icky makeup effects many people associate with Cronenberg. Here they’re confined to a dream sequence that shows the twins joined by fleshy connective tissue. It’s a juicy account of methylcellulose slime and condoms filled with liquid urethane, not to mention seven puppeteers working nearly one hundred cables to animate a withered parasitic twin emerging from Beverly’s stomach, in a second dream sequence that was ultimately deleted because Cronenberg judged it ‘too far removed from the rest of the movie.’

There’s also a sting to the tail. The Dead Ringers crew had hoped theirs would be the first film to feature motion-controlled twinning effects, but they were beaten to the box office by the comedy Big Business. Moreover, as Shay points out, while Dead Ringers was received well by critics, they took ‘little or no notice of its flawless optical effects.’ For Lee Wilson, however, that counts as a triumph. ‘In essence, Jeremy [Irons] provided the effects,’ he says, ‘all we did was connect them.’

The Blob

If the first three articles in Cinefex #36 are examples of restraint, Robert G Pielke’s closing piece on the 1988 remake of The Blob is all-out mayhem. It’s also a good example of something we’ve seen time and again during this journey through the Cinefex archives: however skilled the team, if they don’t get the development time they need the visual effects are going to suffer.

rc36tbIn this case, the creature effects crew was led by Lyle Conway, creator of the stunning puppetry seen in The Dark Crystal and Little Shop of Horrors. The puppets they manufactured for The Blob were essentially gigantic silk mattresses filled with methocel. Pielke’s article outlines the many different techniques used to inject some semblance of life into these impossibly unwieldy creations, but nothing can hide the truth that, in order to create the Blob, Conway’s crew effectively had to create, uh, the Blob:

‘Once methocel was mixed with water,’ explains visual effects production supervisor Michael Fink, ‘and made to kick into a gel with a small amount of ammonia, it was nearly impervious to cleanup … It ate away at the asphalt parking lot, stripped paint from miniatures, gagged puppeteers … If anything was close to [director] Chuck Russell’s intent for the Blob, it was the material from which it was made.’

When it came to miniatures and opticals, Dream Quest Images fared rather better. Hoyt Yeatman’s breakdown of a wide range of miniature environments – augmented by the occasional matte painting – gives good insight into the kind of solid, reliable effects work that was Dream Quest’s bread-and-butter through the 1980s. Meanwhile, Tony Gardner’s gruesome makeup effects – including collapsing heads, snapping spines and general bodily meltdown – demonstrate both imagination and stoic resolve in the face of tight budgets and breakneck schedules. Overall this is a cheerful article about a joyfully goofy film.

The pictures

Phew! I reckon there’s just enough time for a whistlestop tour of my favourite pictures from this bumper issue of Cinefex. From Alien Nation, there’s a fine multi-photo set showing the step-by-step transformation of actor Kevyn Major Howard into alien drug czar William Harcourt. From Die Hard, there’s a behind-the-scenes shot of the truly enormous ‘miniature’ Nakatomi building standing tall in what looks like the Boss parking lot. The Dead Ringers article features another step-by-step breakdown, this one showing the various split-screen elements used to construct the shot of the twins lying draped together in death, alongside the final composite.

And The Blob? It’s just packed with gore from start to finish. What else did you expect?

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

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