Original image

15 Secrets of the Hollywood Creature Feature

Original image

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. 

Original image
9 Mysterious Facts About Murder, She Wrote
Original image

For 12 seasons and 264 episodes, the small coastal town of Cabot Cove, Maine, was the scene of a murder. And wherever there was a body, Jessica Fletcher wasn’t far behind. The fictional mystery author and amateur sleuth at the heart of the CBS drama Murder, She Wrote was given life by actress Angela Lansbury, who made a name for herself in the theater world and in movies like 1944’s Gaslight and 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate. Though the show was supposed to skew toward an older audience, the series is still very much alive and being discovered by new generations of audiences every year. Unravel the mystery with these facts about Murder, She Wrote.


After years of high-profile parts and critical acclaim in the theater, Angela Lansbury was in her late fifties and ready to tackle a steady television role. Unfortunately, instead of being flooded with interesting lead roles on big series, she said she was constantly looked at to play “the maid or the housekeeper in some ensemble piece,” leaving her to get—in the Dame’s own words—“really pissed off.”

After voicing her displeasure, she was soon approached with two potential solo series, one being Murder, She Wrote, which grabbed her attention because of its focus on a normal country woman becoming an amateur detective. After meeting with the producers and writers, it was only a matter of time before Lansbury agreed to the role and began the 12-season run.


In 1995, CBS made a bold move: After airing on Sundays since 1984, Murder, She Wrote moved to Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. for its twelfth and final season, going head-to-head against Mad About You and Friends over at NBC. On a night dominated by younger viewers, Lansbury was at a loss.

"I'm shattered," she told the Los Angeles Times. "What can I say? I really feel very emotional about it. I just felt so disappointed that after all the years we had Sunday night at 8, suddenly it didn't mean anything. It was like gone with the wind."

Maybe not so coincidentally, during that last season of the series there was an episode titled “Murder Among Friends,” where a TV producer is killed in her office after planning to get rid of a member of the cast of a fictional television show called Buds. Complete with its coffee shop setting and snarky repartee, Buds was a not-so-subtle stab at Friends, coming at a time when Murder, She Wrote was placed right against the hip ratings juggernaut.

Putting the murder mystery aside for a moment, Fletcher takes plenty of jabs at Buds throughout, literally rolling her eyes at the thought of six twentysomethings becoming a hit because they sat around talking about their sexuality in every episode. The writing was on the wall as Murder, She Wrote was being phased out by CBS by the end of 1996, but Lansbury made sure to go down swinging.


Here’s one for any self-respecting trivia junkie: Jessica Fletcher holds a Guinness World Record for Most Prolific Amateur Sleuth. Though Guinness recognizes that Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple has been on and off screen longer—since 1956—Fletcher has actually gotten to the bottom of more cases with 264 episodes and four TV movies under her belt.


Quiet, upper-class New England coastal towns aren’t usually known for their murder count, but Cabot Cove, Maine, is a grisly destination indeed. In fact, if you look at the amount of murders per the population, it would have the highest rate on the planet, according to BBC Radio 4.

With 3560 people living in the town, and 5.3 murders occurring every year, that comes out to 1490 murders per million, which is 60 percent higher than that of Honduras, which only recently lost its title as the murder capital of the world. It’s also estimated that in total, about two percent of the folks in Cabot Cove end up murdered. 


That statistic leads us right into our next thought: Isn’t it a little suspicious that Fletcher keeps stumbling upon all these murders? We know that Cabot Cove is a fairly sleepy town, but the murder rate rivals a Scorsese movie. And this one person—a suspicious novelist and amateur detective—always seems to get herself mixed up in the juiciest cases. Some people think there’s something sinister about the wealth of cases Fletcher writes about in her books: It’s because she’s the one doing the killing all along.

This theory has gained traction with fans over the years, and it helps explain the coincidental nature of the show. Murders aren’t just exclusive to Fletcher and Cabot Cove; they follow her around when she’s on book tours, on trips out of town, or while writing the script to a VR video game for a company whose owner just so happens to get killed while Fletcher is around.

Could Jessica Fletcher have such an obsession with murder mysteries that she began to create her own? Was life in Cabot Cove too boring for a violent sociopath? Did she decide to take matters into her own hands after failing to think of original book ideas? We’ll never know, but it puts the whole series into a very different light.


Despite its inimitable style, Murder, She Wrote isn’t immune to Hollywood’s insatiable reboot itch, and in 2013 plans were put in motion to modernize the show for a new generation. NBC’s idea was to cast Octavia Spencer as a hospital administrator who self-publishes her first mystery novel and starts investigating real cases. Lansbury was none too pleased by the news.

"I think it's a mistake to call it Murder, She Wrote," she told The Hollywood Reporter in November 2013, "because Murder, She Wrote will always be about Cabot Cove and this wonderful little group of people who told those lovely stories and enjoyed a piece of that place, and also enjoyed Jessica Fletcher, who is a rare and very individual kind of person ... So I'm sorry that they have to use the title Murder, She Wrote, even though they have access to it and it's their right."

When the plug was pulled on the series, Lansbury said she was "terribly pleased and relieved” by the news, adding that, "I knew it was a terrible mistake."


It’s impossible to separate Angela Lansbury from her role as Jessica Fletcher now, but she wasn’t the network’s first choice for the role. All in the Family’s Edith Bunker, actress Jean Stapleton, was originally approached about playing Fletcher, but she turned it down.

Stapleton cited a combination of wanting a break after All in the Family’s lengthy run and the fact that she wasn’t exactly thrilled with how the part was written, and the changes she wanted to make weren’t welcome. Despite not being enthralled by the original ideas for Fletcher, Stapleton agreed that Lansbury was “just right” for the part.


For anyone who didn’t get enough of Fletcher during Murder, She Wrote’s original run, there are more—plenty more—dead bodies to make your way through. Author Donald Bain has written 45 murder mystery novels starring Fletcher, all of which credit Fletcher as the "co-author." The books sport such titles as Killer in the Kitchen, Murder on Parade, and Margaritas & Murder. Not even cancellation can keep Cabot Cove safe, apparently.

On top of that, two point-and-click computer games were released based on the show in 2009 and 2012. Both games feature Fletcher solving multiple murders just like on the show, but don’t expect to hear the comforting voice of Angela Lansbury as you wade through the dead bodies. Only her likeness appears in the game; not her voice.


When recently asked about her iconic role by the Sunday Post, Lansbury admitted that she'd be into seeing Murder, She Wrote come back in some form. "I was in genuine tears doing my last scene," Lansbury said. "Jessica Fletcher has become so much a part of my life, it was difficult to come to terms with it being all over ... Having said that, there have been some two-hour specials since we stopped in 1996 and I wouldn’t be surprised if we got together just one more time."

Original image
Evening Standard/Getty Images
10 Things You Should Know About Ray Bradbury
Original image
Evening Standard/Getty Images

For such a visionary futurist whose predictions for the future often came true, Ray Bradbury was rather old-fashioned in many ways. In honor of what would be Bradbury's 97th birthday, check out a few fascinating facts about the literary genius. 


Most teenagers get a first job bagging groceries or slinging burgers. At the age of 14, Ray Bradbury landed himself a gig writing for George Burns and Gracie Allen’s radio show.

“I went down on Figueroa Street in front of the Figueroa Playhouse,” Bradbury later recalled. “I saw George Burns outside the front of the theater. I went up to him and said, ‘Mr. Burns, you got your broadcast tonight don’t you?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘You don’t have an audience in there do you?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Will you take me in and let me be your audience?’ So he took me in and put me in the front row, and the curtain went up, and I was in the audience for Burns and Allen. I went every Wednesday for the broadcast and then I wrote shows and gave them to George Burns. They only used one—but they did use it, it was for the end of the show.”


At the age of 22, Bradbury finally summoned up the courage to ask a girl out for the first time ever. She was a bookstore clerk named Maggie, who thought he was stealing from the bookstore because he had a long trench coat on. They went out for coffee, which turned into cocktails, which turned into dinner, which turned into marriage, which turned into 56 anniversaries and four children. She was the only girl Bradbury ever dated. Maggie held down a full-time job while Ray stayed at home and wrote, something that was virtually unheard of in the 1940s.


George Burns isn’t the only famous eye Bradbury caught. In 1947, an editor at Mademoiselle read Bradbury’s short story, “Homecoming,” about the only human boy in a family of supernatural beings. The editor decided to run the piece, and Bradbury won a place in the O. Henry Prize Stories for one of the best short stories of 1947. That young editor who helped Bradbury out by grabbing his story out of the unsolicited materials pile? Truman Capote.


Charley Gallay/Getty Images

Not only did Bradbury never get a driver’s license, he didn’t believe in cars for anyone. His own personal aversion came from seeing a fatal car accident when he was just 16. In 1996, he told Playboy, “I saw six people die horribly in an accident. I walked home holding on to walls and trees. It took me months to begin to function again. So I don't drive. But whether I drive or not is irrelevant. The automobile is the most dangerous weapon in our society—cars kill more than wars do.”


It took Bradbury just nine days to write Fahrenheit 451—and he did it in the basement of the UCLA library on a rented typewriter. (The title of his classic novel, by the way, comes from the temperature at which paper burns without being exposed to flame.)


Though he wrote Fahrenheit 451 at UCLA, he wasn't a student there. In fact, he didn’t believe in college. “I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money,” Bradbury told The New York Times in 2009. “When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”


Despite his writings about all things futuristic, Bradbury loathed computers. “We are being flimflammed by Bill Gates and his partners,” he told Playboy in 1996. “Look at Windows '95. That's a lot of flimflam, you know.” He also stated that computers were nothing more than typewriters to him, and he certainly didn’t need another one of those. He also called the Internet “old-fashioned": “They type a question to you. You type an answer back. That’s 30 years ago. Why not do it on the telephone, which is immediate? Why not do it on TV, which is immediate? Why are they so excited with something that is so backward?”


Not only was Bradbury good friends with Walt Disney (and even urged him to run for mayor of Los Angeles), he helped contribute to the Spaceship Earth ride at Epcot, submitting a story treatment that they built the ride around.

He was a big fan of the Disney parks, saying, “Everyone in the world will come to these gates. Why? Because they want to look at the world of the future. They want to see how to make better human beings. That’s what the whole thing is about. The cynics are already here and they’re terrifying one another. What Disney is doing is showing the world that there are alternative ways to do things that can make us all happy. If we can borrow some of the concepts of Disneyland and Disney World and Epcot, then indeed the world can be a better place.”


He once said that when he died, he planned to have his ashes placed in a Campbell’s Tomato Soup can and planted on Mars. Then he decided that he wanted to have a place his fans could visit, and thought he’d design his own gravestone that included the names of his books. As a final touch, a sign at his gravesite would say Place dandelions here, “as a tribute to Dandelion Wine, because so many people love it.” In the end, he ended up going with something a whole lot simpler—a plain headstone bearing his name and “Author of Fahrenheit 451.” Go take him some dandelions the next time you’re in L.A.—he’s buried at Westwood Memorial Park.


Perhaps a more fitting memorial is the one NASA gave him when they landed a rover on Mars a few months after Bradbury’s death in 2012: They named the site where Mars Curiosity touched down "Bradbury Landing."


More from mental floss studios