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Bruno Vincent/Getty Images
Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Movie Monster Makers

Bruno Vincent/Getty Images
Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

Almost since the beginning of movies, people have been trying to use the medium to conjure up fantastic creatures. From Godzilla to Gremlins, there’s nothing like a hideous monster or a furry freak of nature to inspire fear and glee in the audience. The artists, technicians, and designers who create these beasts are highly talented, highly specialized—and highly imaginative. Mental Floss spoke to a few for some insight into the fanciful world of monster making.

1. CREATURE EFFECTS HAVE COME A LONG WAY SINCE GUYS IN RUBBER SUITS.

A 1933 photo of a man inside the mouth of a monkey head made by a stage props company
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The earliest creature features typically involved a guy in a rubber suit terrorizing Tokyo or carrying off a damsel in distress. Today’s creatures are much more complex and believable, thanks to new varieties of silicone rubber, upgrades in animatronics, new forms of design software, and the development of CGI.

“Special Effects as an industry is always evolving, and products and materials are expanding and becoming more readily available than ever before,” says Stuart Rowsell, a creature technician and founder of Bloodhound FX in Australia who has worked on films including Star Wars: Episode II (2002) and III (2005), Superman Returns (2006), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), and Alien: Covenant (2017).

3D printing is also shaking up the industry. Lino Stavole, a creature engineer at Spectral Motion based in Los Angeles, founded 3D scanning, printing, and engineering company Behold 3D to cater to the needs of the entertainment industry. Stavole tells Mental Floss that his company used 3D printing in silicone to create an alien creature for the movie V/H/S in just two days, a process that once required several more. “That really opened my eyes to the potential of what technology can do,” he says. 3D printing is also pushing boundaries in terms of design intricacy—Stavole says a creature he helped create for Netflix’s planned reboot of Lost in Space incorporates about 400 different 3D-printed parts.

2. BUT SOMETIMES, THE CREATURE IS STILL A GUY IN A RUBBER SUIT.

Technological advances have by no means pushed the classic creature suit aside, however—particularly when enhanced with a little digital magic or combined with other techniques like puppetry. A suit offers certain advantages over digital or animatronic creations, after all: “Fluidity of movement is usually why the guy in the suit is required,” Rowsell tells Mental Floss. “They can run through corridors, crawl through water, caves, tunnels, and react in close quarter fighting with characters. Often it is a lot easier to make a creature suit than it is to make an animatronic puppet.”

3. A SINGLE CREATURE OFTEN REQUIRES MANY DR. FRANKENSTEINS.

A 3D-printed model made by Behold 3D from the film Ender's Game (2013) for Amalgamated Dynamics Inc.
A 3D-printed model made by Behold 3D from the film Ender's Game (2013) for Amalgamated Dynamics Inc.
Lino Stavole

Bringing a creature to life is a big job, one usually beyond the capacity of any single designer or artisan. The traditional skills involved include concept design, body casting, sculpting, molding, and painting, while more modern skills like computer animation, digital design, and engineering now round out the list. The broad array of skills required means that making a creature is typically a team effort—and participants tend to specialize. “A lot of people think you’re going to be building a creature from design to completion, but that’s not normally the case. It’s very faceted,” Stavole says.

Of course, some creature artists are the full package. Rowsell says he’s never specialized, and being competent in both design and the various aspects of fabrication has allowed him greater control over the final product. “My business relies on mostly myself,” he says, “so I have quality control and I only have myself to blame if it goes wrong!”

4. THE BEST CREATURE DESIGNERS HAVE TWO BRAINS.

Regardless of specialty, the best creature artists are typically those who are able to think in two different ways. Stavole compares the two mindsets to aliens living on two different planets. “You have an alien on one planet who is like a Vulcan,” he says, “and Vulcans like science, so this brain of a creature designer knows about anatomy, physiology, biology, entomology, and physics—that is the science part of creature design.” The other planet is populated by artistic types. “They communicate with pictures and sculptures, but they also have to communicate history and character with creature design,” he says. Stavole explains that, as a natural Vulcan, he works to help the artists and designers on a creature team understand which sorts of structures will help their design move more naturally.

Given these differing approaches, communication is key. Stavole says he has a deep respect for specialists, but adds “the people who have a more complete overview of things tend to be the best communicators and have the best results.”

5. ONE CREATURE MIGHT ACTUALLY BE MANY CREATURES.

A "wheelbarrow" version of one of the giant lizards made by John Cox Creature Workshop for the 1999 film Komodo
A "wheelbarrow" version of one of the giant lizards made by John Cox Creature Workshop for the 1999 film Komodo
Stuart Rowsell

It’s a fact of movie magic that a creature presented as a single entity on screen may actually consist of several different versions used in tandem to create the illusion of life. Rowsell explains that while working on the 1999 movie Komodo with John Cox Creature Workshop, the creature crew made several versions of the giant lizards that appear in the film, including full-size animatronic- and puppeteer-driven komodos, as well as both full-length and wheelbarrow-style (i.e. just the front half on a wheelbarrow rig) creatures. A fully CGI lizard was also created “for the wide shots of the komodo’s faster and deadlier action," Roswell adds.

The luxury of having many creatures to work with, however, is very dependent on budget. Stavole points out that some productions will try to make one version of a creature work throughout a film, because it’s more cost-effective.

6. EVEN KING KONG HAS TO STICK TO A BUDGET.

And yes, even fantastical creatures have money problems. “The creature effect on any feature film or commercial depends on the budget. Usually the production company wants 10 thousand dollars to look like one million dollars,” Rowsell says. Budget is often the determining factor in whether a creature is rendered entirely practically (i.e. in physical materials), entirely digitally, or a combination of the two. It also influences details like whether a production can afford to pay a day rate for a puppeteer to manipulate elements like tails or wings—which often gives a more natural feel than rendering those elements digitally. “It is essentially our job to make as convincing as possible an original-looking creature within the deadlines and budget that performs on-set without falling to pieces,” Rowsell explains.

7. THEIR CREATIONS ARE INSPIRED BY REAL LIFE.

A prop for the 2003 movie Peter Pan, made by John Cox Creature Workshop
A prop for the 2003 movie Peter Pan, made by John Cox Creature Workshop (Foam Latex Supervisor Stuart Rowsell)
Stuart Rowsell

When it comes to the design process that precedes any crafting or building, creature artists draw inspiration from the natural world. They study animal and plant life, and borrow elements of bone structure, skin texture, and physical movement. (Interestingly, Rowsell worked in an abattoir before becoming a full-time artist, where he got a crash course in anatomy and internal organs. He says he recalled the horrible things he saw there when designing the innards of the lizards on Komodo).

They must also take into account another earthly presence: the director. “The director’s vision is paramount to any film,” Rowsell explains. And while the designers may draw on a broad array of sources and render hundreds of drawings of a creature, it is the director who makes the final call when it comes to design.

8. … AND SOMETIMES BY VISITS TO THE MORGUE.

Creature design does involve anatomy, but the morgues designers rely on don't house bodies. In this case, “morgue” refers to a collection of images and ephemera, long a mainstay of artist repertoires and newspaper industry archives.

Stavole, who considers himself to be more of a creature engineer or artisan than a designer, says that when he does take on design, he likes to work with a morgue. For him, this means doing a search of libraries and the internet for images, consulting with various people for ideas, and throwing everything he finds into a sort of creative stew. From that stew, surprises can emerge. “Happy accidents can happen and ideas from one project can get incorporated into another project,” he says.

9. MANY OF THE BEST CREATURES ARE PART PRACTICAL AND PART DIGITAL.

While advances in digital technology have changed the movie creature landscape, they’re unlikely to eliminate the need for practical effects and many traditional techniques any time soon. “Many SPFX artists were worried in the early '90s that CGI would end the industry,” Rowsell says, “but CGI has been very good to the special effects industry. It has enhanced it.”

According to Rowsell, working with practical creature effects comes with a host of considerations: foam rubber creatures or suits can tear or break down under wear; they can lack realism; and unlike a purely digital creation, they cannot be completely changed in post-production. But CGI can seem fake or end up looking like a video game. “I can still see (CGI) as a flat animation from a mile away,” he says, “whereas practical effects have substance.” The ideal situation, then, is a bit of both worlds: practical elements to add substance and weight, and CGI elements to augment the effect. “Today’s creature effects, when they work best,” Rowsell adds, “are 50% practical and 50% CGI-enhanced.”

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11 Behind-the-Counter Secrets of Baristas
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Being a barista is no easy task, and it’s not just the early hours and the don’t-talk-to-me-unless-I’ve-had-my-coffee customers. While people often think working at a cafe is a part-time, temporary gig, it takes extensive training to learn your way around an espresso machine, and most baristas are in it for the love of coffee, not just to pay the bills. Mental Floss spoke to a few baristas working at the New York Coffee Festival to learn what exactly goes on behind the counter, and why you should never, ever dump your extra coffee in the trash.

1. THEY REALLY LOVE COFFEE.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the profession, says New York City-based barista Kayla Bird, is “that it's not a real job.” But especially in specialty cafes, many baristas are in it for the long haul. Coffee is their career.

“It's a chosen field,” as barista Virgil San Miguel puts it. “It's not like you work in a coffee shop because it's a glamorous job,” he explains. “It's more like a passion.”

2. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF TRAINING.

“Being a really good barista takes a lot of studying,” explains Jake Griffin, a wholesale representative for Irving Farm Coffee Roasters who has worked in the coffee industry for almost a decade. “It can take a few years. You have to start to understand origins, production methods, where your coffee came from.” You have to go through an intensive education before you start pulling espresso shots for customers, so it's possible that the person taking your order and fetching your pastry isn't even allowed to make you a drink yet. “They have to be what we call 'bar certified' before they're even allowed on the machine,” he says. “Usually people start off in our cafes in various support roles, then start to go to classes and go through the training program.”

3. THEY’RE PROBABLY PRETTY WIRED.

Sure, baristas take full advantage of all that free coffee. And if they work in their company’s training programs, their whole job is to drink coffee. But it has its downsides. “I taste—at minimum—ten shots of espresso a day,” John Hrabe, who trains baristas at Birch Coffee in New York City, says. On his busier days, it might be as many as 20. You get used to all the caffeine, he claims—at least until you take a few days off. “Then when you go on vacation and you're not working ... everyone's like, 'Why's John so tired?’”

Other baristas who have worked in the field for a long time say the same. “I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I used to have five or six coffees a day,” Michael Sadler, who helped develop the barista education program at Toby’s Coffee, says. “Now I do two,” he says, both because of the caffeine-induced anxiety and the withdrawal headaches he would get on his days off.

4. OR THEY’RE DRINKING … SOMETHING ELSE.

Like any job, there are things that go on in coffee shops that the boss would definitely not approve of. According to one barista who has worked at both a corporate coffee chain and specialty cafes in Delaware and New York, coffee shops can get pretty rowdy behind-the-scenes. “If you see a barista with a lidded cup behind the bar, there's probably a 50/50 chance: It's either coffee or beer,” he says. “You never know.” And it’s not just the booze, either. “I’ve been a part of secret menus that have cannabis-infused coconut milk,” he explains. “I had a pretty good cappuccino.”

5. THEY GET ANNOYED WHEN YOU SKIP THE PLEASANTRIES.

You don’t want to hold up the line telling a barista your life story at 7 a.m., but even if you’re in a hurry, don’t forget to say hi before you jump into demanding that large coffee. “Walking up to somebody and saying 'Almond latte,' when they just said 'How are you today?' is probably the biggest thing you can do to get on a barista's bad side,” Toby's Coffee's Sadler says. “It's like, exchange pleasantries, then get to business.”

6. IF YOU’RE NOT NICE TO THEM, THEY WON’T BE NICE TO YOU.

Not everyone is super perky in the morning, but if you can’t be civil, you’re better off making your own coffee at home. At some places, if you get snippy with the employees, you’re going to get worse than furtive eye rolls between baristas (though you’ll get that, too).

“Be nice to your baristas, or you get decaf,” warns one barista. While it varies from cafe to cafe, multiple baristas told Mental Floss that it happens. Rude customers might get three letters written on their cup: “They call it DTB—‘decaf that bitch.’”

There’s a less potent way a barista can get back at you, too. If the hole in your coffee lid lines up with the seam of your paper cup, you’re going to get dripped on. And sometimes, it’s not an accident. “When a barista puts the mouth on the seam, they want it to leak on you,” a New York City-based barista explains.

Others are a little more forgiving of rude patrons. “I like making them the best drink that they've ever had, just to kill them with kindness,” one coffee shop employee says. “I don't want them to be like, ‘She’s a bad barista.’” Just to be safe, though, it's better to be nice.

7. THEY PROBABLY KNOW WHAT YOU WANT BEFORE YOU DO.

“The longer you work in coffee, the more when someone walks in the door you read their personality type and say, I know exactly what you're going to drink,” Jared Hamilton, a self-described “espresso wizard” at the Brooklyn-based chain Cafe Grumpy, says. When I ask him to predict my drink, he proves his skills. “What you're going to drink is like, an alternative milk, flat white or cappuccino. So maybe soy, probably almond. Nonstandard. You don't want a lot of milk, just enough.” He’s not too far off—my go-to is, in fact, a non-standard, some-milk-but-not-too-much drink, a decaf cappuccino, though I drink regular milk in it. He points to another festival visitor who is dressed in business attire. "That guy right there, he drinks espresso all day," he guesses.

Depending on the coffee shop, the barista might know what customers want more than they do. Dominique Richards, who started her first barista job in Brooklyn three months ago, says she has to order for her customers around a third of the time. “Usually if someone's looking at the menu for more than 30 seconds, I jump in and say, ‘Hey, what would you like?’” She then asks them a few questions, like whether they want hot or cold coffee, and goes from there, often recommending lattes for people who are just getting into specialty coffee. “It's kind of a learning experience for the majority” of her customers, she says.

8. CUSTOMERS CAN BE REALLY PARTICULAR.

“People treat cafes like they're [their own] kitchen,” according to Cafe Grumpy’s Hamilton. “My favorite thing people do is when they walk in and they rearrange the condiment bar. Then they order, then they go use the condiments.” Apparently, some people are really particular about the location of their sugar packets. And if you throw off their routine, watch out. One of his colleagues describes a customer who threw a fit because the shop didn’t have a cinnamon shaker, demanding a refund for both her coffee and her pastry. (They eventually found some cinnamon for her.)

9. YOU SHOULD NEVER, EVER DUMP EXTRA COFFEE STRAIGHT INTO THE TRASH.

Even if you ask for room for milk in your drip coffee, the cup is still sometimes just a bit too full. It’s tempting to just pour a little into the trash can, but whoever has to take out that garbage is going to pay for it. “Please don't pour it in the garbage,” Bluestone Lane barista Marina Velazquez pleads. “Because at the end of the night, it ends up on our feet.” If the shop doesn’t have a dedicated container for you to pour out your excess coffee, take it back to the counter and ask them to dump a bit in the sink. Your baristas will thank you.

10. MAKING ESPRESSO DRINKS ISN’T A ROTE SKILL.

When you’re waiting in line, it may look like baristas are doing the same thing over and over for dozens of drinks. But in fact, every order presents its own challenges.

“There's probably not an appreciation for how much a coffee can vary,” explains Katie Duris, a former barista of 10 years who now works as a wholesale manager at Joe Coffee. High-quality coffee is “really dynamic as an ingredient,” she says. Baristas “have to make micro adjustments all day long. You have to change the grind based on the humidity in the room or a draft or how much coffee is in your hopper—if it's an espresso machine—so they're tweaking all day long … good baristas are making adjustments all the time.”

11. IT’S PHYSICALLY TAXING.

Making espresso drinks all day long can wear you out, and not just because you’re on your feet all day. There are also repetitive stress injuries to consider. “There's physical wear and tear on your joints when you're a barista,” Birch's Hrabe says. He’s worked in coffee for 11 years, and says that tamping espresso shots (compressing the grounds before brewing) day after day has given him tennis elbow. “It's totally common for baristas,” he says.

In short, baristas are probably doing more work behind the bar than you give them credit for, whether it’s dealing with customers or actually making coffee. “Being a barista is fun, but it's hard work,” Bluestone Lane's Velazquez says. “Everybody should be a barista at least once. I think it teaches humility.”

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10 Secrets of Ski Instructors
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If you’ve spent this fall wearing shorts and sandals, you’re not alone: Temperatures have been warmer than average across the United States. But no matter how warm it is where you are, there’s still snow (and skiing) in the forecast somewhere. Before you hit the slopes this winter, check out these on-the-job secrets of ski instructors, from why they love bad weather to what they do during the summer.

1. THEY LOVE BAD WEATHER.

No one can control the weather, but ski instructors cross their fingers for frosty temperatures and heavy snowfall. “Ski instructors love cold, appalling winter weather because it so often results in big snowfalls and the skier's dream—velvety powder snow,” says Chalky White, a ski instructor and the author of The 7 Secrets of Skiing.

But big snowfalls don’t always happen, so ski instructors try to make the best of whatever weather they encounter on a given day. Tony Macri of Snow Trainers, a ski and snowboard training company based in Colorado and New Zealand, tells Mental Floss that the weather’s unpredictability makes ski instructing an adventure. “I never think that weather is disappointing,” he says. “It is what creates more challenge and mystery in every day, versus going back to your cubicle that always has the same florescent light shining down on you.”

2. SOME OF THEM HAVE A BEEF WITH SNOWBOARDERS.

Although some ski instructors also teach (and love) snowboarding, the majority of them try to stay away from snowboarders on the slopes, at least when they’re teaching. “[Snowboarders] tend to push all the fresh snow down the hill with their natural movements. Gets pretty frustrating!” justind99, a ski instructor in Quebec, writes in a Reddit AMA.

But other ski instructors have a more zen attitude when it comes to snowboarders and preach coexistence. “We are all here to have fun,” rbot1, a ski instructor in Salt Lake City, says in a Reddit AMA. “The snowboarder vs skier stigma does nothing but cause problems. Share the mountain!”

3. THEIR CERTIFICATION PROCESS IS INTENSE.

Ski instructor teaching adults

Depending on the country in which they become certified, ski instructors must take classes and pass a series of tests to prove their proficiency. In the U.S., the Professional Ski Instructors of America and American Association of Snowboard Instructors (PSIA-AASI) establishes certification requirements for instructors. Once instructors become certified, they can take additional tests of their technical skills to earn higher levels of certification.

“Level 1 is pretty easy to get. Anyone that can ski a blue square comfortably can pass a level 1 exam,” rbot1 says. But achieving certification for higher levels is more challenging, requiring ski instructors to demonstrate their mastery of various turns, bump runs, and drills. “A single mistake in any of those runs nets you a fail,” says rbot1, who spent two years preparing for his Level 2 test. “These drills might be easy to complete, but you have to do it perfectly.”

4. THEY’VE SEEN SOME GNARLY ACCIDENTS.

Although some people think of skiing as a risky activity, ski instructors insist that, statistically, skiing is no more hazardous than many other sports. That said, most ski instructors have seen at least one nasty injury on the slopes, including broken legs and noses, concussions, and shoulder dislocations. “The worst injury I ever witnessed was a spinal fracture from a kid landing on his back after attempting to do a jump in the snow park area,” justind99 says.

“I have seen some injuries to knees, but the worst was when a friend concussed himself so bad that he was knocked out and was actually sleeping with his eyes open,” Macri says. White tells Mental Floss that a helicopter once picked him up from the slopes because medics suspected that he’d broken his neck. “Good news—I didn’t."

5. THEIR PAY ISN’T GREAT.

The income ski instructors make can vary widely, based on where they teach and their level of expertise. Some instructors earn $10 or $11 an hour for group lessons but charge more for private lessons or longer coaching sessions. While most beginning ski instructors may make just $20,000 per year, the perks of getting paid to ski outweigh the lack of cash for many instructors. “I do understand that at some point I’ll need to either start working really hard to boost my earning potential as an instructor or find another field,” rbot1 says. “For now, it’s a blast.”

6. THEY GET CREATIVE TO TEACH KIDS.

Ski instructor teaching children

A group of young kids bundled up in ski jackets while they try to balance on narrow skis might look adorable, but teaching children to ski comes with plenty of challenges. “Some kids don't have the muscles to do it at [a young] age and some do,” explains inkybus21, a ski and snowboard instructor who has taught in Canada, Australia, and Japan. To make sure his young students don’t lose interest or give up, he makes up games that require various skiing motions and uses visuals to help kids figure out how to properly use their bodies.

7. THEIR EQUIPMENT IS EXPENSIVE.

Ski equipment can be pricey, and ski instructors know the pain of an empty wallet firsthand. From skis and boots to bindings, poles, helmets, goggles, and other accessories, ski instructors can easily spend over $1000 on their equipment. And because their gear gets more use than a casual skier’s, instructors typically go through a pair of skis, boots, and liners each season. But many instructors are eligible for steep discounts on their gear, thanks to their employer or their PSIA-AASI membership. “I haven't bought anything at retail price in years,” rbot1 says. “I can’t even imagine paying full price for a pair of boots or ski/binder set up.”

8. THEY MISS SKIING DURING THE SUMMER.

In a career dependent on the winter season, what do ski instructors do during the summer? Some of them travel to the opposite hemisphere to work at a ski resort—essentially working two winters in a row. But because it can be costly to travel and live on another continent, most ski instructors work odd jobs or use their savings to rock climb and explore the outdoors in the off season. Rbot1, for example, has spent his summers working at a ski resort’s restaurant, boxing fish at an Alaskan processing plant, and living off of his savings. “Most people have a seasonal job. The most popular is raft guiding, the second most popular is working at a state park,” he says.

9. THEY GREATLY APPRECIATE TIPS.

Ski instructors don’t always receive tips from their students, and they wish more people knew that they welcome—and in some cases, expect—gratuity. Rbot1 recounts the story of how he once earned $1500, his biggest tip to date, after instructing a family of four for five days, taking them to different parts of the mountain and even eating lunch with them. “At the end of the week it was all hugs and smiles, but my hand was left dry,” he says. “Anyways, next day I got an email that said ‘you have a tip in the office’ and BOOM $1500 in an envelope.” Rbot1 made good use of the generous tip, paying two months of rent and car payments, as well as buying new ski goggles and gloves.

10. THEY LOVE HELPING PEOPLE OVERCOME THEIR FEARS.

Although skiing is good exercise and an enjoyable winter activity, learning to ski can also help people feel more confident. “It’s not always about skiing and teaching people to be the best skiers,” Macri says. “A lot of [the job] is just about showing people a good time and helping them achieve their goals or overcoming their fears.”

Macri particularly appreciates the amazing views from the top of a mountain, as well as the feeling he gets when he takes students down a great run and everyone high-fives one another in joy. “I sit back and think this is my office and I am having just as amazing [a] time as everyone else. The only difference is that I am getting paid for it,” he says.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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