Making a 'Monster' for the U.S.P.S.
(Sci-Fi & Fantasy Models Magazine, No 28)
An Affectionate homage to the rampaging monster movies of the fifties, and to the city-stomping efforts of Toho's finest, the ad features a vast sea creature rising from the ocean depths and embarking upon a destructive walkabout through the streets of New York. The monster's presence goes all but unnoticed by the army grunts dug in around the waterfront, who are busily discussing what would make a good subject for a Millennial stamp.
"We got very excited when the script came in," recalls Hedgcock. " We all got into the business because we love monsters, that's why we do what we do, so it was a dream job in many ways, and the fact it was a kind of Japanese fish monster manga-like thing opened up all sorts of possibilities."
Wallace shared the enthusiasm. "I love fish-like things - the Creature from the Black Lagoon is one of my favourite monster suits of all time, so it was a great opportunity for us."
Designer Paul Catling produced more than thirty drawings in order to determine a look for the creature, that covered everything from fishlike to more amphibian and reptilian creatures. The final design reflected all traits and threw in a touch of King Kong for good measure.
"We all had our favourite designs," reveals Wallace, "some of the drawings were really cool, complex creatures that would have been great for a movie where there's more time for the audience to work out just what they're looking at, but advertising has to be more immediate, so your designs have to be more iconographic, archetypes almost.
"Often in the design stage we'll go in some quite wild directions in order to narrow things down, and get some initial feedback," Hedgcock explains, elaborating more on the design process. "Usually it's along the lines of take the teeth from number one and the tail from number two... so the final design does end up being a team effort, it's very rarely the result of one single vision, you're taking onboard responses from the production company, the advertising agency and the client and they all have their own vision to a certain extent."
"One thing we try not to do at the design stage is say 'no' to a concept on the grounds of cost, or how something can be done, it puts too much of a restriction on on your imagination," says Elsey, " but you do have to think about it later on, once you have a design and you know how much time you have to play with, then you have to think about how best to build it. In this case we had five weeks. There was never going to be time to sculpt the whole creature in clay, take moulds off it, core out the moulds, go through all the usual processes... so we had to think of an alternative, which in this case was to fabricate large parts of the body."
Whilst the head, arms and feet would be sculpted, moulded and cast in the usual way, the vast majority of the suit would be fabricated by Louise Elsey, Alix Harwood and Pippa Roberts using a combination of plastizote, scot and puppet foam, and lycra, using patterns scaled up from a 1:7 scale maquette of the creature.
"In order to get the proportions of the design that was finally chosen it meant us making an enormous suit," Elsey remembers. "The legs are very short and the arms are about six foot long. The tips of the fingers touch the ground when it's standing upright. That means you have to build arm extensions, and they have to be much more extreme than you'd build for something like an ape suit. Every joint on the suit was in a different place to those of the person inside it." The sheer size of the creature caused other problems. "It was probably about 15 ft long from its nose to the tip of the tail so this was all stuff we had to think about, we had to build some quite sophisticated harnessing to support the suit so the whole thing didn't collapse."
The inner core of the suit, made of lightweight carbon fibre, provided not only an anchor point for the arm and head mechanisms, but also for the cage of plastic ribbing that would support the fabricated muscle-suit. It also provided mounting points for dual fans designed to keep cool air circulating around the suit, and for the monitor of a tiny tv camera which was mounted in the creature's chest, and which would effectively become the operator's eyes.
Long suffering crew member Adrian Getley, who had already cut his teeth as a monster suit actor in Creature Effects' Nike Devil and Pirelli Goddess commercials, got to don the rubber again. "Adrian's very skinny so he's ideal for building suits around," Wallace explains. "Unfortunately, whenever we get to use him we usually end up a huge suit around him which totally negates the reason for using him in the first place - but that's the nature, and the appeal, of advertising work, you usually end up building something totally different to what we'd first envisaged." Despite this, there was another reason Creature Effects like to put Getley in their suits. "He's also pretty resilient - he won't say anything's too much until he drops down dead, which is a pretty good attribute for someone going in a suit."
Whilst Getley, who along with Liam Williams, ran the mould and foam labs, was constantly on hand for suit fittings, the smooth skinned texture of the chosen design and the decision to fabricate rather than sculpt large portions of it caused its fair share of logistical problems for the creature makers. "A lot of the challenge in making suits is how you get the actor in and out and how the suit is put together," Elsey explains. "Normally when you're designing a suit you can sculpt folds or wrinkles in all the necessary places so you can lose zippers or poppers or anything else you need to accommodate the actor. However, what we had to build was pretty much a smooth sealed unit, and there wasn't going to be any sculpture involved."
On this occasion a solution was found by going back to the original concept drawings. "Somewhere along the design process you almost inevitably seem to lose elements that are dear to you. We started looking at some of our earlier fishy designs and realised what we'd lost was a huge spiny dorsal fin that ran from the head right down the back and on to the tail," says Wallace. "We lobbied pretty hard to reinstate it, because not only was it going to help us but it also headed us back towards our original concept." Elsey agrees, "We were so glad they went for the fins in the end, and actually I have to say that the fin added a lot. It made the thing a much better creature and, of course, it also gave us a way of hiding the zipper."
Whilst construction of the body suit continued, foams were cast of the creature's head and hands and Chris 'Flimzy' Howes begun work on the animatronics. The head, part sea cow, part shark, was heavily mechanised. "All the subtle movements, the eyebrows, the nostrils, eye movements lips and jaw were radio controlled," Getley remembers. "The neck, the looking from side to side, I hand puppeteered, and I also operated the arm extensions and did all the other gross body movement."
With fabrication of the muscle suit taking up a large part of the build schedule, attention was turned to how best to 'skin' the finished suit. "We did some early tests in Sculpting directly into gelled foam latex which looked promising, but then we started thinking about the monster-sized oven we were going to need to cook it in, and what the heat was going to do to the glues we'd used to stick the whole thing together, and it suddenly looked like it might all become a screaming nightmare," explained Wallace. "So in the end we made huge foam latex texture sheets and glued those directly over the muscle structure."
Artworking the completed suit threw up its own challenges. "Usually we paint foam with PAX ( Prosaide adhesive and liquitex acrylics)," Elsey states, "but in this case, because it was such a big suit and there were so many places where the skin rubbed together, we were worried about the prosaide paint causing problems and sticking to itself or coming off, so we used balloon paints which were actually very good. They sink into the foam and actually embed themselves in there, but they don't create a film over the foam. You can rub at it all you like but they won't come off."
As is often the case, Creature Effects found themselves using every minute of their build schedule. "Painting it was a big job, and we only had a day left to do it in the end. I began at five am and did the whole thing with stencils and a huge spray gun, we finished it about two the following morning - it was due on set at eight so we basically didn't get a lot of sleep that night."
After the artworking was complete, silicone was massaged into the whole suit. This had a dual purpose. "It not only gave the creature a constantly wet, sort of slick fish skinned-look," Hedgcock explains, "but it also waterproofed it to some degree."
Such considerations were important as the creature would spend half of its shoot days partially submerged underwater in a tank on Shepperton's C stage.
Here, too, the decision not to build the suit in the standard manner, reaped unexpected rewards. "Because the suit was fabricated using mainly open celled foam it drained a lot quicker," said Wallace. "In fact, the traditional foam latex sections acted like giant sponges, so had the whole suit been foam the weight of the water would have probably ripped the suit to shreds once we tried to get it out of the tank, and that would have been a bad thing."
Of course, it was Getley who had to deal with the problems of being partially submerged whilst wearing a huge rubber suit first-hand. "It was a weird sensation being in the tank," he remembers, "wading in the water the lower half of my body got really really cold, yet my top half was sweating because it was so, hard to move through the water... it was pretty strange."
Whilst the suit was used for shots of the creature wading towards the waterfront, and for the subsequent scenes of it wreaking havoc on the streets, it was decided that one shot of the creature would be more safely achieved with a fully mechanised puppet. "Bob Hollow built a very nice hydraulic rig to replace me," says Getley. "It could be submerged totally under the water and provided gross body and head movements as well as jaw and eye blinks. It was used for the opening shot of the monster bursting out of the water and leaping towards camera. Originally I'd been up for trying it, but when I saw the shot, and how fast the director wanted the creature to come up out of the water, I was glad I'd been talked out of it."
The USPS "Monster" commercial has been screened across the 'States during March, 1988.
© Stephen Ferber 1998
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Jason wrote:One idea for a new monster would be if Godzilla were to fight a werewolf. Werewolf stories are usually pretty awesome to read. I know that a "normal" werewolf would be too small to be a worthy opponent for Godzilla, but they could have a person that turns into a wolf monster and then grows big enough to be a worthy opponent for Godzilla. As for a name for the monster, they could use the Japanese word for werewolf. I asked a Japanese foreign exchange student what the Japanese word for werewolf was back when Dark Horse was doing their Godzilla comics; and I wrote a letter to them back then asking about doing a comic like that; but unfortunately, they never responded to my idea and never actually did a story like that. They also quit printing Godzilla comics too soon, which was very aggravating; but as long as IDW keeps putting them out every month, I don't care. Unfortunately, I don't remember what the Japanese word for werewolf is after the foreign exchange girl told me; and she wasn't a Godzilla fan even though she was from the country that puts out Godzilla movies; and her opinion was that Godzilla movies were stupid.
God bless, Jason Irelan
Jason wrote:Did Dark Horse make their spider creature a robot monster because they didn't have the rights to Kumonga and it would've resulted in a lawsuit?
Geekjunk wrote:Toho monsters aside...
I pray everyday that I will see a Godzilla vs Cloverfield battle in some shape or form.
Batagor wrote:Geekjunk wrote:Toho monsters aside...
I pray everyday that I will see a Godzilla vs Cloverfield battle in some shape or form.
That's a really interesting idea. I bet that would sell a lot of comics!
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