Welcome to another HDN Halloween, readers… and with that, the arrival of a new ‘Ninjas Chat’ column! For this edition, I sat down to chat with a few of the forum’s regular members — Ann (aka Scary Hair), Erik (aka Hooch), Joakim (aka Paperinukke) , and G (PunkNinja) — about the industry’s great FX artists and the dying art of practical effects in today’s films. I’ve put together a series of questions to delve into the topic at hand and each forum member answered accordingly.
Which horror film with practical special effects is the first to come to your mind and why do you think it’s the first?
ANN: THE THING… those effects where ground breaking . No one had seen such extreme and prolonged sequences. The sounds of the dogs’ distress is the thing of nightmares. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON had an unbelievable transformation not enough after that. Just like THE THING, once it started, every single sequence toped the last you saw.
ERIK: I can’t say I watch every other weekend, but the image of Lon Chaney in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is the first that comes to mind. One of the earliest masters of makeup there. I also have to mention the chest defibrillation scene in THE THING. I was 10 years old back then and it scared the hell out of me. I still say that this scene (and the movie) holds its own today.
JOAKIM: It has to be ALIEN, I think. Everyone’s first answer should be ALIEN! I will always be scared of that damn Xenomorph creature. Those special effects help to create such a haunting sci-fi atmosphere that it still could be said to be very unique, even after almost 40 years. I also really appreciate NOSFERATU: A SYMPHONY OF HORROR. No vampire could be any more horrifying than Count Orlok thanks to Max Schreck’s superb performance and his makeup in the film.
G: AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, I think because of the complete transformation scene. When you’re a kid, you almost believe everything you see on TV and that scene freaked the hell out of me. And it’s such a weird horror film, especially the Nazi mutants scene. You were left thinking… that doesn’t make sense, but those are the scenes that burns into your mind.
Whether you follow FX artists or not, you can generally pinpoint which artists you appreciate the most just be putting together a list of your favourite films featuring special effects. If you were to do that, who do you think would be your favourite FX artist?
ANN: Stan Winston… he pushed the realms of fear and reality to where there was no dividing line. ALIEN, PREDATOR, THE THING dog sequence, PUMPKINHEAD, MANIMAL, THE TERMINATOR, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, JURASSIC PARK… the list goes on and on like his legacy.
ERIK: I would go with Rob Bottin — just look at his track record! Hired by Rick Baker at the age of 14! He has worked on some of my favorite films… THE FOG, THE THING, ROBOCOP, THE HOWLING. TOTAL RECALL, etc.
JOAKIM: Tom Savini is a name that I can’t ever forget. His work with Romero, the films like MANIAC, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, FRIDAY THE 13TH… he’s a legend and has been an essential part in many horror cult classics I love. Who knows how different these movies would have looked like without him? He’s my biggest “hero” as an FX artist in horror. And like Ann said, Stan Winston is a big name I’ll always keep in my mind. His work most likely is even more iconic than Savini’s — for the more mainstream audience at least.
G: I’m going for an obscure artist: Rick Baker. THE EXORCIST (1973), STAR WARS (1977), THE HOWLING (1981), VIDEODROME, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, MEN IN BLACK… just a few of his unknown works. [Laughs]
What is it about that individual’s work that draws you in?
ANN: How believable Stan’s work was. So you could almost feel any changes going on inside yourself. Feel the pressure building so it makes you tingle and gasp.
ERIK: It’s so in line with the tone of the individual films. The amount of hard work and passion for the art, you really feel it.
JOAKIM: They are often unique, disturbing, creepy. Savini’s work always leaves a very permanent first impression. Unforgettable, in other words.
G: Being eclectic. I like artists with broad range.
Horror films with practical special effects were everywhere in the 80s and 90s. Which film during that time, in your opinion, lead the pack?
ANN: NIGHTBREED… the range of different looks for the characters in that film. The studio was never comfortable with the subject matter and tried to mainstream a movie that was ALWAYS going to be a risk. From a guy with tattoos who melted to dust with sunlight to a guy with a half moon for his face. A beautiful lady so seductive with quills lethal to touch to a guy with eye-plucking tentacles emerging from his neck. Yeah, NIGHTBREED.
ERIK: Sorry to be so repetitive, but THE THING kicks ass I think. I would, however, take a moment here and pay some slasher respects to Tom Savini for his work on the zombie and slasher movies during these years.
JOAKIM: Since I feel guilty for not mentioning THE THING at all and Erik has been so enthusiastic about it, I will name that Carpenter horror classic now! You can find such an amazing talent in that film, no matter where you are looking at — just brilliant. One of those films that have a special place in my heart. Naturally, I also have very warm feelings towards Savini’s work during this period… various excellent films.
G: I agree with everyone, but I think A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (franchise) has really cool and creepy practical special effects.
Which CGI-infused film do you think would’ve been better had it used practical special effects instead?
ANN: G.I. JOE [THE RISE OF COBRA] was too stylized, too plastic and could have been so much more and better if time and thought would have been more selective in when CGI should have been used. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, too. I wanted to love it in parts for far too much emphasis on computer generated imagery. Not the characters, but the big set pieces were too plastic.
ERIK: I like I AM LEGEND, but I think it would have worked a lot better if they would have skipped some CGI when it comes to the mutants… don’t you agree?
JOAKIM: There’s one obvious answer for this and it’s THE HOBBIT trilogy. Many times when I was watching those movies, I only found myself wistfully remembering the masterfully crafted orcs in THE LORD OF THE RINGS. One of the [HOBBIT] trilogy’s mistakes was the heavy use of CGI; I was very disappointed. I felt nothing towards the orcs in any HOBBIT film as they seemed so completely unconvincing and fake. In THE LORD OF THE RINGS, they were actually alive — you need to feel their presence. The magic worked with Gollum, hugely thanks to Andy Serkis.
G: 2004’s VAN HELSING. I was pretty excited when they announced the film and was pretty disappointed when I saw the special effects. I just wish they made it like Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA. I know Helsing is a guilty pleasure film, but it would be more haunting and creepier with practical effects.
Looking at recent horror films (or any genre, for that matter), which FX artist do you think could possibly be one of the future’s best?
ANN: Two I think, in no particular order. Justin Raleigh for his work on the INSIDIOUS film series and AMERICAN HORROR STORY, and Arjen Tuiten who worked on PAN’S LABYRINTH, IRON MAN and MALEFICENT. Yeah, maybe hope is not lost.
ERIK: That’s hard to say. I guess whether you like it or not, I think the key is to incorporate the art of FX with some CGI. I would like to give respects to Greg Nicotero that keeps the old handy work up, but still can add CGI. His work on THE WALKING DEAD is superb!
JOAKIM: These days, there a lot less now because some films mainly use CGI, which is a huge shame. Greg Nicotero’s name has been mentioned and even though he is already a veteran, his recent work shows a direction the film industry should be following, too: a symbiosis of CGI and practical effects.
G: Robert Kurtzman and Mark Coulier are on their way to be mentioned in the same breath as Stan Winston and Rick Baker.
I believe that special effects are nearly everything in a film. If the effects look cheap, I’m taken out of the film. This is partially why I’d take a film with practical special effects over CGI effects any day of the week. With less and less films using practical effects, do you think it’s an art that’ll eventually die out?
ANN: It’s a fear. The studios pay a guy with a computer to create magic. Cheeper than a team of humans slaving to achieve the same. CGI has a place, but it can be overused and look too far to be believable. I think sometimes that is why the small movies break free at the box office. Sometimes simple tricks of lighting, music and a palette of face paint is worth more to the viewer.
ERIK: Like my previous answer I hope and pray that the FX art doesn’t die out and I don’t think it will. You can produce scary movies without a CGI mega-budget. Like John Carpenter says, “I don’t think CGI in it of itself is very scary. Creatures don’t look too scary. Look fake. Things don’t move. They move too fast. There’s no inertia… I shudder to think what The Thing would look like if we had to do it with computers. Honestly… It wouldn’t work.”
JOAKIM: Definitely. That’s life. The way we do things change… they evolve. Many are forgotten. The dying of traditional handcraft is an important topic to me because the same way you can notice practical effects disappearing, also hand-drawn animation is nowadays a rare thing to be seen, Studio Ghibli as one of the biggest last “strongholds” of that style. I sincerely hope that CGI effects won’t become the only solution any time soon. If I ever see that time come, it just has to be accepted. I will still have many, many old films I love and I can make sure that I won’t forget them.
G: It’s inevitable. As computers get more advanced and cheaper, studios will spend less money on practical effects or entirely skip it. Just like what happened to film photography. Most filmmakers are using digital ‘cause it’s cheaper. Film photography now is a luxury for high profile directors.
Lastly, if you could have any FX artist work on you, who would you chose and what would you want them to transform you into?
ANN: Nasty, nasty. There’s so many artists and so many creatures. A collaboration between Rob Bottin and Bob Keen. I’d like them to turn me into a super gnarly, super ugly, super mean realistic werewolf.
ERIK: I would like to be a zombie in THE WALKING DEAD, so Greg Nicotero and gang… just give me a shout. I’m ready when you are!
JOAKIM: Can I be that lady with three breasts in TOTAL RECALL? If not, as a zombie fan, I’d like to be turned into a good old brainless killer by Tom Savini or Greg Nicotero. I also have one even more obscure choice in my mind, but I really love how they did Anthony Hopkins’ makeup and costume in HITCHCOCK. I’m still bitter that the movie didn’t win an Oscar at least from that after they robbed Hopkins’ nomination! So I would absolutely want to let Howard Berger and his crew transform me into Alfred Hitchcock.
G: I’ll choose Rick Baker. I’ll ask him to make me Ed Wood in the morning, Hellboy at noon and Batman Knight. [Winks]
Thank you to Ann, Joakim, G, and Erik for participating in this month’s ‘Ninjas Chat… Monsters, Creatures and FX Artists!’
If you’re a member and you’d like to take part in a future edition of this column, please keep your eyes on the forum. An announcement for the fifth edition will be coming soon!