15 Secrets of the Hollywood Creature Feature

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.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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. 

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
10 Fun Facts About Spice World
Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In 1996, the Spice Girls took the world by storm when they released the song “Wannabe” from their debut album, Spice. Their mantra of “Girl Power” inspired a generation of young women to “Spice Up Your Life.” After Spice sold 31 million copies worldwide, the inevitable next step was the Girls starring on the big screen. So 20 years ago, on January 23, 1998, Columbia Pictures unleashed Spice World on American moviegoers.

In their film debut, the Girls—Melanie Brown (Scary Spice), Melanie Chisholm (Sporty Spice), Emma Bunton (Baby Spice), Geri Halliwell (Ginger Spice), and Victoria Beckham (Posh Spice)—played comical versions of themselves. The plot revolved around them trying to perform their biggest show yet, at London's Royal Albert Hall, while a tabloid newspaper reporter spied on them. And their best friend went into labor. And Ginger Spice kissed an alien.

Director Bob Spiers recruited several British luminaries to cameo, with Roger Moore, Bob Hoskins, Elvis Costello, Jennifer Saunders, and Elton John among those who appeared in the film. The Spice Girls were so popular that Prince Charles and his sons, Princes William and Harry, attended the Spice World premiere.

The movie, budgeted at $25 million, grossed a robust $100 million worldwide, despite Roger Ebert giving it a half-star rating and writing that the Girls were “so detached they can’t even successfully lip-synch their own songs.”

Spice World was nominated for seven Razzies, and won one: Worst Actress, an honor shared by all five Girls. In a 2007 UK poll, it was voted the worst film ever made. But over the years the film has endured. Esquire suggested it was better than The Beatles’s A Hard’s Day Night, and the podcast How Did This Get Made? spent more than an hour debating the film’s ridiculous plot.

Though the best-selling girl group of all time disbanded in 2000, Spice World remains a relic of Spice Mania. On its 20th anniversary, here are 10 fun facts about the film.


Prince Charles and Prince Harry pose with Spice Girls Victoria Beckham Mel C

Barnaby Thompson, one of the film’s producers, started a production company with Annie Lennox’s husband at the time, Uri Fruchtmann. Lennox and the Girls shared the same manager, Simon Fuller. Over lunch, Fuller, Fruchtmann, Thompson, and Fuller’s brother Kim decided they’d make the movie. "We finished it within a year of that lunch," Thompson told The Telegraph. "That lunch was on November 1, 1996 and we delivered the film exactly a year later, November 1, 1997."


By May 1997, the Girls had four number-one singles in the UK, and were one of the most popular music groups in the world. To create anticipation for Spice World, the producers took the women to the Cannes Film Festival, even though the film hadn’t been shot yet. "We put out a photo call notice," publicist Dennis Davidson said. "The traffic on the Croisette came to a standstill, there was a screaming crowd, people hanging out of the windows, it was totally insane." An estimated 5000 to 10,000 people showed up to see the pop stars. The film shot around London between June and August of 1997.


Richard E. Grant attends 'Their Finest' after party during the 60th BFI London Film Festival at on October 13, 2016.
John Phillips, Getty Images for BFI

Richard E. Grant’s 9-year-old daughter was a fan of the Spice Girls and when he was offered the part of the Girls’ manager, Clifford, she told him he had to do it, despite his concerns about “my acting credibility.” “And she’d say, ‘No, no, you have to. You have to because I want to meet them,’” Grant told Vulture in 2014. “So I did, and she was so thrilled. I had school playground credibility for about two semesters and then of course you dip into the other side when they go, ‘No, I was never a Spice Girls fan!’ Now that generation has all come back around again going, ‘Yeah, we love the Spice Girls!’”


Alan Cumming played a less-than-Shakespearean role in the movie as a paparazzo-like guy named Piers Cuthbertson-Smyth. Ginger Spice was the one who suggested him to the casting department. “I remember seeing Alan Cumming performing as Hamlet [at the Donmar Warehouse],” she told The Telegraph. “When it came to Spice World, however many years later, it came to casting and we were going through pictures and I was like, ‘Let’s pick him, I saw him in Hamlet.’ It was brilliant to have that caliber of actors to be in our funny movie.”


The Spice Girls arrive atop a double decker bus for a screening of their new movie 'Spice World' in New York.

The 1978 British Leyland Bristol VRTSL3 double decker bus, covered with the Union Jack on the outside and a swing on the inside, made its debut in the movie. Though a bomb destroyed it at the end of the movie, in real life it was saved. However, after filming ended the bus fell into disrepair, until the Island Harbour Marina, located on the Isle of Wight, purchased the beauty and restored it to its original state. They put it on permanent display in July 2014. The only thing the bus is missing is Meat Loaf driving it.


In an interview with The A.V. Club, Elvis Costello said he loved Richard E. Grant’s film Withnail and I. “You know, I thought, ‘If I go to IMDb, I’m only a couple of clicks away from Withnail!,’” he said. Costello, who plays a barman in the movie, said he found his role to be “ironic.” “I’d only quit drinking a couple of years before, so I think the idea of being a barman was sort of ironic in my mind.”


Kim Fuller wrote the script (with additional writing from Jamie Curtis), which was originally titled Five. He knew the Girls might not like the script, or even read it. He gathered the ladies in a hotel in London. “I went in and said, ‘Look, turn your phones off, this is serious. I’m going to read you the story,’” he said.

They liked the story, and Ginger Spice contributed script ideas, even when she was in Bali. “I was spending hours on the phone trying to get it all sorted out and make sure that it was right,” she said. “By the time that we started, it was almost perfect.”


Fuller said he gave them daily script pages and then they rehearsed it. “You needed to catch them at the right moment, when the energy is there,” Fuller said. “They’re not going to do 20 takes of one line, you know, so you had to think quickly on your feet.” In the Spice World documentary, Mel B confessed that she and the Girls interpreted the script. “We contributed our own little sparkle on top of it,” she said. “There were some times when we’d say the lines wrong just to make us laugh,” Baby Spice added. But those improvisations caused the script supervisor to almost quit.

"The script lady went beserk and nearly resigned because we kept changing everything," Fuller told The Telegraph. "There were a lot of flowers and we consoled her for a while and everything was fine after that."


Their first album was such a massive hit that they needed to record their sophomore album to keep up the momentum. In order to fit in filming the movie and recording Spiceworld (one word), they had a mobile studio on set. They ended up writing some of the album’s—and movie’s—songs during production.

“It was quite good doing the album at the same time as the film because we were always hyperactive after a day on set and that meant we could go in the mobile studio and vibe off each other,” Posh told The Telegraph. They managed to film during the day and record at night. Virgin Records released the album on November 3, 1997, and most of Spiceworld’s songs made it into the movie, which meant there was an unofficial soundtrack.


Melanie Chisholm (Sporty Spice) at the premiere of 'Spice World'
Brenda Chase, Getty Images

Mel C told The Telegraph that the film was difficult for her to watch, but when her daughter and friends wanted to watch it at a birthday party, Mel changed her mind. “I sat down with them and I actually really enjoyed it,” she said. “I laughed out loud. It brought back so many memories, and I think enough time has passed for me to be able to watch myself. You know in a way, it is brilliant. It’s very tongue-in-cheek, very silly. And the thing that I really realized was there was so much of us in it. It was very, very real.”

Universal Pictures
Here's The Full List of 2018 Oscar Nominations
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

There are only two things that can get Hollywood’s biggest stars out of bed at 5 a.m.: an early call time or Academy Award nominations. The nominees for the 90th annual Oscars were announced on Tuesday morning, and represented a great year in movies.

Guillermo del Toro’s merman-meets-woman love story The Shape of Water leads this year’s nominees with a total of 13 nominations, followed by Martin McDonagh’s divisive Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which received nine nominations.

Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig both made some Oscar history with their nominations for Best Director: Peele is the fifth black director to compete for the statuette (joining John Singleton, Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen, and Barry Jenkins—none of whom have won the award) while Gerwig is the fifth woman to be nominated for the prize (in 2010, Kathryn Bigelow became the first female Best Director winner with The Hurt Locker).

The Academy Awards will be hosted by Jimmy Kimmel for a second time, and will air on March 4, 2018. Which movies will you be rooting for on Oscar night?


Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.


Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Meryl Streep, The Post


Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water


Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Jordan Peele, Get Out
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water


The Boss Baby, Tom McGrath, Ramsey Ann Naito
The Breadwinner, Nora Twomey, Anthony Leo
Coco, Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson
Ferdinand, Carlos Saldanha
Loving Vincent, Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Sean Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, Hugh Welchman


Dear Basketball, Glen Keane, Kobe Bryant
Garden Party, Victor Caire, Gabriel Grapperon
Lou, Dave Mullins, Dana Murray
Negative Space, Max Porter, Ru Kuwahata
Revolting Rhymes, Jakob Schuh, Jan Lachauer


Call Me by Your Name, James Ivory
The Disaster Artist, Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Logan, Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green
Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin
Mudbound, Virgil Williams and Dee Rees


The Big Sick, Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani
Get Out, Jordan Peele
Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig
The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh


Blade Runner 2049, Roger Deakins
Darkest Hour, Bruno Delbonnel
Dunkirk, Hoyte van Hoytema
Mudbound, Rachel Morrison
The Shape of Water, Dan Laustsen


Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Steve James, Mark Mitten, Julie Goldman
Faces Places, JR, Agnès Varda, Rosalie Varda
Icarus, Bryan Fogel, Dan Cogan
Last Men in Aleppo, Feras Fayyad, Kareem Abeed, Soren Steen Jepersen
Strong Island, Yance Ford, Joslyn Barnes


Edith+Eddie, Laura Checkoway, Thomas Lee Wright
Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405, Frank Stiefel
Heroin(e), Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Kerrin Sheldon
Knife Skills, Thomas Lennon
Traffic Stop, Kate Davis, David Heilbroner


DeKalb Elementary, Reed Van Dyk
The Eleven O’Clock, Derin Seale, Josh Lawson
My Nephew Emmett, Kevin Wilson, Jr.
The Silent Child, Chris Overton, Rachel Shenton
Watu Wote/All of Us, Katja Benrath, Tobias Rosen


A Fantastic Woman (Chile)
The Insult (Lebanon)
Loveless (Russia)
On Body and Soul (Hungary)
The Square (Sweden)


Baby Driver, Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss
Dunkirk, Lee Smith
I, Tonya, Tatiana S. Riegel
The Shape of Water, Sidney Wolinsky
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Jon Gregory


Baby Driver, Julian Slater
Blade Runner 2049, Mark Mangini, Theo Green
Dunkirk, Alex Gibson, Richard King
The Shape of Water, Nathan Robitaille, Nelson Ferreira
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Ren Klyce, Matthew Wood


Baby Driver, Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin
Blade Runner 2049, Mac Ruth, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hephill
Dunkirk, Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo
The Shape of Water, Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke, Brad Zoern
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick


Beauty and the Beast, Sarah Greenwood; Katie Spencer
Blade Runner 2049, Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola
Darkest Hour, Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
Dunkirk, Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis
The Shape of Water, Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau


Dunkirk, Hans Zimmer
Phantom Thread, Jonny Greenwood
The Shape of Water, Alexandre Desplat
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, John Williams
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Carter Burwell


"Mighty River" from Mudbound, Mary J. Blige
"Mystery of Love" from Call Me by Your Name, Sufjan Stevens
"Remember Me" from Coco, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez
"Stand Up for Something" from Marshall, Diane Warren, Common
"This Is Me" from The Greatest Showman, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul


Darkest Hour, Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick
Victoria and Abdul, Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard
Wonder, Arjen Tuiten


Beauty and the Beast, Jacqueline Durran
Darkest Hour, Jacqueline Durran
Phantom Thread, Mark Bridges
The Shape of Water, Luis Sequeira
Victoria and Abdul, Consolata Boyle


Blade Runner 2049, John Nelson, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover, Gerd Nefzer
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner, Dan Sudick
Kong: Skull Island, Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza, Mike Meinardus
Star Wars: The Last Jedi,  Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Chris Corbould, Neal Scanlon
War for the Planet of the Apes, Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, Joel Whist


More from mental floss studios