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15 Secrets of the Hollywood Creature Feature

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A tentacled monster breaks through the walls of an armed fortress; a head explodes; a T. rex eats a man whole in one bite. Everyone loves a good (or even a bad) monster movie. But how do industry experts manage to bring monsters that originate in the darkest depths of the human imagination to life on the silver screen? Today’s cinema creatures are generally made with a hybrid approach that employs both practical and computer effects which have been fine-tuned through trial and error since the beginnings of motion pictures themselves. We sat down with three industry leaders—Todd Masters of MastersFX and Michael Spatola and Lee Joyner of the Cinema Makeup School—to get the inside scoop on some little-known facts behind the craft and some intriguing details on the makings of some of our favorite bits of monster magic.

1. The Rise of CGI Means Production Crews Are Thin on Time and Patience.

Gone are the days when a single gunshot wound took all day and 20 pre-packed blood balloons to film. Now, wounds that appear in-scene are generally done practically with actual makeup effects, then obscured digitally until they are ready to be revealed on film. Blood is also usually added to small wounds like gunshots or puncture points in post-production. Pre-production time for most big effects films has, in effect, been seriously trimmed down. Joyner says he was part of a team of 70 that had almost a year to prepare for the 1998 iteration of Godzilla, though most modern films only allot a couple of months working with 10 to 40 people before filming begins.

2. Not All Effects Are as Complicated as They Seem.

Michael Spatola says in his book The Monstrous Make-Up Manual that zombie skin can be created simply by painting flesh-colored latex onto glass. He also points out that the best way to impale an actor with a spike or an arrow is still rigging the weapon on the torso and then “whip-panning” the camera to the injured character. Not only does it hold up, it’s also much less expensive than any CG version of the same effect. According to Joyner, a great way to bite off a character’s nose is to have an actor wear a prosthetic during all of filming until it’s time for chomp down, like in the 1977 version of Sorcerer.

3. Fans and Professionals Agree: Practical Effects Still Rule.


Following the 2011 release of The Thing—a remake of the 1982 special effects classic—many fans were outraged to see Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc.’s practical effects covered up digitally in post-production. The result was ADI’s Alec Gillis turning to Kickstarter for $350k to make Harbinger Down (now in production with Spatola heading the Effects Department) without any CGI monsters whatsoever. Even CG-heavy films can benefit from old-school tricks: the tiny robot known as Wheelie in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen had a practical puppet counterpart that was used extensively in the film, though initially director Michael Bay hadn’t called for one.

4. MastersFX Bought the Entire World’s Supply of Sex Toy Vinyl for one horror flick.

Effects artists are always looking for new ways to make their manufactured creatures seem life-like, so when Todd Masters and crew discovered how well a material used in the sex novelty industry worked for making things like guts and body parts, they decided it would be perfect for the thousands of parasitic worms needed for the 2006 horror film Slither. When the production of the movie drained the global supply of this particular material, someone had crates of sex toys shipped in to be melted down. Masters says he was walking through his shop one day when he saw “a couple of the tables were just filled with sex toys and people were cutting them into chunks we could melt down.” Call it up-cycled cinema.

5. Special Effects Departments Often Contribute More to a Finished Film Than You Notice.

Keeping movie-goers in a state of suspended disbelief usually goes much further than just making rubber monster suits or realistic blood gags. The effects team for the original Predator film, for instance, also had to make all of the large fallen trees for each shot; the real trees in the jungle where filming took place were not big enough for Ah-nold and his entourage to hide behind.

6. Even if you haven't seen Doug Jones, you've seen Doug Jones.

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Though you may not be familiar with this icon of character acting, Doug Jones has played almost as many roles in full monster make-up as he has without. Jones was the Silver Surfer in the Fantastic Four sequel, Abe Sapien in the Hellboy franchise, both the faun and the freaky “Pale Male” creature (the one with the eyes in his hands) in Pan’s Labyrinth, one of The Gentlemen in the season four Buffy the Vampire Slayer "Hush," and Cochise in the TBS sci-fi series Falling Skies. Actors have always been an important part of bringing creatures to life, though—the six-foot-nine Kevin Peter Hall played both Harry in Harry and the Hendersons and the original Predator (Hall also appears as a helicopter pilot in the 1987 Predator and as a mutant bear in the 1979 B-horror flick, Prophesy).

7. Blood Can Now Be Bought in Bulk.

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Todd Masters, who is responsible for the effects in HBO’s True Blood, says his company used to make all of their own blood in-house. “Finally, after going through about 55 gallons of blood every so many weeks,” it stopped being practical, he says. Fake blood has been made of everything from chocolate syrup (as in the 1960 Hitchcock classic, Psycho) to corn syrup and food coloring (The Godfather). Bruce Campbell of the Evil Dead franchise has a recipe that uses non-dairy creamer as a base. But today Masters says he orders most of his blood from a company called My Blood that specializes in liquid gore for cinema—available in a variety of colors and thicknesses.

8. Creature Designers May Decide the Look of a Monster, but Are Hands-Off When It Comes to the Way It Sounds.

Visual effects, special effects, and sound effects are all separate departments. Masters says the special effects team basically has to cross their fingers that whatever the audio engineers come up with as a voice will work for their monsters. Probably the most famous example of creature sounds in film comes from Jurassic Park (1993), for which sound designer Gary Rydstrom won an Oscar by incorporating the calls of various animals—the velociraptor chirp, for instance, was actually the sound of a tortoise having sex, and the famous T. rex roar was made by slowing down the trumpet of a baby elephant.

9. Makeup Effects Artists Like to Appear in Front of the Camera, Too.

Many iconic effects artists love to make cameos: Greg Nicotero can be seen as a zombie chowing down on a deer carcass in the 2010 episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead titled “Tell It to the Frogs”; Tom Savini sports a sweet revolver codpiece in From Dusk ‘Til Dawn (1996); Academy Award winner Rick Baker appears in makeup in many of his films, including showing up as an alien in Men In Black II and III and also as a bearded zombie in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Todd Masters appears as a male nurse in the 1991 film Shatterbrain and Lee Joyner played a crime scene tech in 1992’s Innocent Blood.

10. Special Effects Artists Don’t Mind Telling You How It’s Done

Keeping true to the tradition of the “Godfather of Makeup,” Dick Smith (who actually did Marlon Brando’s makeup for The Godfather), special effects artists function in a professional community without any secrets. Smith was the guy that figured out how to make facial prosthetics in multiple pieces instead of as a singular latex mask, paving the way for all of the modern-day masters. He also kept up correspondence with the likes of Tom Savini and J.J. Abrams long before they had the resumes we know them for today. This is perhaps why, as Masters put it, “very few (special effects) shops have an exclusive staff nowadays” and artists work primarily as freelancers for a number of different studios.

11. The Original Monster From Aliens (1986) Was First Tested as a Garbage-Bag Beast.

John Rosengrant, who worked for Stan Winston Studios for a number of years before starting his own effects company in 2008 called Legacy Effects, said that his first full-sized test of the creature for the monster sequel was made of foam and garbage bags. Thus, the term “garbage bag test” was coined for a very rough test of a practical effect in pre-production, though the approach (and the term) is used much less now that digital tests are more commonplace.

12. Many Special Effects Artists Are Multi-Talented

“Rick Baker,” says Masters, “is an amazing painter.” He also points out that artists Chet Zar, Jamie Salmon, and Ron Mueck were all monster-makers at one point before they started “pursuing the ‘finer’ things.” John Criswell (Where the Wild Things Are, Predators) makes his own clothes, and Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger are known to shred on the electric guitar. Masters, too, is into fine art (primarily life-sketching), but he, Joyner, and Spatola all proudly point out that their hobby became their career.

13. Occasionally a Happy Accident Will Make It on Screen.

Though many of the industry kinks were worked out during the heyday of the monster movie in the 1980s, sometimes a whoopsy can make for an awesome effect. In the 2008 documentary Fantastic Flesh, Eli Roth says that the leg-shaving scene in Cabin Fever (2002) was supposed to use an effect in which “the skin was supposed to peel off like a banana,” but many of the pre-fab materials were frozen by accident during shipping. The effect that appears on screen in the finished version of the film uses a simple makeup application that is revealed as the actress removes a layer of shaving cream with a blade-less razor. “It wound up being so much more effective,” said Roth.

14. Special Effects Studios Have More Body Parts Than They Know What to Do With.

What does a studio do with all of that stuff lying around? Rent it out, of course! Masters says that his effects studio has made a pretty healthy business out of renting prosthetic children to studios for filming. “Having real babies on set can be kind of a nuisance,” he explains, but now, “you actually don’t need to have a kid on the set anymore.” Masters says that pseudo-children from his shop can even be made into performers through the process of performance transfer, but that’s another story altogether.

15. With Regard to Pre-Production, CG Effects and Practical Effects Cost About the Same.

Sony Pictures

Masters says that the modeling and testing phases of both the classic and modern digital approaches to effects-rendering require about the same amount of work, but it’s the touch-ups in post-production (“making it look real,” he says) that drive up the cost of computer generated graphics. Spatola uses the example of the first Spiderman film (2002), in which a number of practical pieces were made for production then cast aside in favor of digital models. He says that it cost an extra $9 million just to get the digital suits to look right for that film on top of the initial production budget. “I could’ve made them some suits that would’ve looked great for less than a million,” he says. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Smart Shopping
This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
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As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!


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