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Page 3

 

LMC: Where do you get your ideas?

JS:  This is most likely the hardest question to answer, because the answer is: everywhere! Other artists, an abandoned old building, a weird looking person at the airport…inspiration is everywhere.

LMC: Do you simply make mental notes or are you creating creatures in your mind when you see these things? 

JS:   A little of both, I guess. I can draw on things I’ve seen in nature and replicate them in sculptures sometimes. Other times, I see something or someone, and a full blown concept pops into my head. It’s weird, like being on a permanent acid trip, but it makes life less dull, I suppose.

LMC: What types of creatures do you enjoy creating the most?

JS: I was long regarded as ‘the alien guy’ by most folks in the business, and I do love aliens---but I kinda got pigeonholed with that. I’m finding myself increasingly drawn to what my friend Bill Basso and I refer to as ‘Meat-n-Potatoes’ monsters-- those that fall into the category of classic creatures such as demons, werewolves, boogeyman-type things—the Gothic sort of monsters. It seems a real challenge to come up with interesting new ways of interpreting these types of characters. I also love to create bizarre creatures that don’t necessarily fit into any category. Is it an alien? A demon? A genetic mutation? There is a nice feeling of ‘anything goes’ with these types of designs.

 

LMC: Ah great, the creature world will be the better for it.

LMC: How have you incorporated the computer into your work?                       

JS: I use Photoshop all the time now for design and to clean up illustrations. I don’t know how I survived without it for so long!

LMC: Talk about CGI and the future of FX work.

JS: It is hard to say what will happen in the years to come as far as what happens to traditional real-time effects vs. computer generated effects. Certainly, it is all too clear that CGI is swiftly  becoming the premiere special effects technique in films today, and that does not bode well for the real-time makeup and creature effects facilities. Do I think that real-time effects will die out completely? No. That’s like the worry in the 40’s that television would completely replace radio. When you look at what has been done with a marriage of the two effects techniques, then you start to see just how valuable they both are. Look how good that stuff in Blade II was!

 

LMC: What’s your opinion of CGI in movies?


JS: This is something of a loaded question. It seems to me that, since Jurassic Park, CG has taken over to a large extent. Of course, the digital animals in that film were far better, at least in terms of  full-motion actuation, than anything traditional effects could have achieved. However, there seems to be a growing trend in thought among filmmakers that CGI is the  be-all end-all of film effects, that it is the best way to achieve any effects shot, and this just is not true. I don’t get anywhere near the thrill watching the new Star Wars films as I did with the first three, and one of the reasons is that the effects are so homogenized looking. The first three benefited greatly from the use of a wide variety of effects techniques; bluescreen, stop-motion, miniatures, mechanical creatures. For me, this lent the films a ‘what will we see next’ feel that is totally absent from this new series of movies. Oh yeah, the films are horribly made, written and directed too.

LMC: Talk about some of the work you’ve done for various movies.

JS:  This is a massive question. Primarily, I have been hired to design on the bulk of pictures I’ve worked on. As I mentioned elsewhere in the interview, my first Hollywood picture was “The Bride of Re-Animator”. I sculpted and designed everything from suits to masks to appliances on that show, and in one bizarre case, a hand puppet of a rabbit. Not long after this wrapped, I was hired at Stan Winston’s to sculpt on “Predator II”, and while there, I assisted a great guy named Dave Anderson on molds for “Edward Scissorhands”, and even helped take lifecasts of Johnny Depp’s hands. I remember making Johnny laugh while we took the casts. He was really cool. I co-sculpted on the skinned bodies for Predator II, and sculpted the feet of the Predator. Later, I spent most of my time painting on that show (there was a lot of stuff), and even got a chance to paint a casting of the original suit to match the one in the first movie. That was a lot of fun. Following my 8 month stint at Stan’s, I was hired by Steve Wang and Screaming Mad to work on a live-action film that they would be directing based on the popular Japanese superhero, “The Guyver”. They wanted to put several guys in charge of designing, sculpting, and fabricating their own creature suits. Of course, George was already familiar with my work—but how Steve came to know my name is a very interesting story. Now, obviously I had not only heard Steve Wang’s name while still back East, he was one of my true idols. I was in a shopping mall one weekend( this was during my time at Stan’s), and I saw Steve. I had never met him, and he didn’t know me from Adam, but I went up to him and said, “ Steve, I’m a huge fan and admirer. May I show you my work someday?” Well, Steve was very nice, and as we got to talking, it turned out that he lived literally across the street from me! This was right around Christmas, and Steve was just starting a family, so he was rather pressed for time. But he said to call him after the Holidays, and he would come over and take a look at my stuff. He gave me his number, and I walked away floating on a cloud. Well, I can’t remember ever wanting the holidays to be over so badly, but when they finally were, I called him and he was as good as his word. He came over to my crappy little apartment, looked at my stuff, sat on the floor (I had almost NO furniture), and told me that he thought my work was very good. I’m sitting there thinking: Steve Fucking Wang is sitting in my apartment!!!!! He was so humble and kind---I will never forget his generosity. Well, this is how he came to think of me for “Guyver”. I was actually quite nervous about being put in charge of completely handling my own suit, but I was also very excited. I learned an enormous amount from Steve on that show about constructing a suit, painting, fabrication…it was a terrific experience in terms of gaining knowledge. Even now that I’ve known Steve for more than 13 years, when I’m talking to him at some shop or other where I run into him, I still have a bit of wonderment that I am now friends with this guy who I admired so much all those years ago. He even gave a great impromptu talk at my class once, and showed my students photos of his most recent stuff. It was great. Anyway, the creature I did for the Guyver project was a big fat elephant monster with a trunk which, looking back, sucked. But it was my first major suit creation, so it was a lot of fun. There is a very common tendency in folks out here who get a first chance to make a suit to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their design (perhaps fearing that this is their one and only chance to do one). My suit was no exception. Well, after ‘Guyver’, I worked on a whole slew of projects that are, for the most part, fairly forgettable; “Class Act”, a Kidd-n-Play rap movie for which I created some monsters seen in a wax museum; One of the “Star Trek” movies for which I created alien masks and a pair of goofy alien feet; I did some puppet-teering on “Batman Returns” with some penguin puppets that Stan Winston’s had made; I did some work for the Chiodo Brothers on a silly T.V. show called “The Amazing Live Sea Monkeys” based, incredibly, on the popular brine shrimp novelty item sold through Spencer gifts and comic books since time immemorium; Somewhere in there I did some masks for Don Post Studios, some toy sculpting for a company called ‘Cat Planet’, and some creature stuff for my friend Dave Barton’s shop. At the tail end of this period, I got a call from Optic Nerve Studios, which was gearing up for the first season of a television show called “Babylon 5”. I was called in to design and sculpt appliances, alien masks, suits---you name it. There was an awful lot of work to do on this show weekly, and I had a lot of freedom in design. About 2 weeks or so after I got there, my bosses mentioned that they were going to be hiring a fellow that I had met at Don Post named John Wheaton. I had seen his work at Post’s, and I felt really threatened---I was afraid that this tremendous opportunity I had was going to go down the drain if this guy was as good as I feared he might be. He was, and I was really threatened. He could draw, and draw well. He was an excellent sculptor, too.  He was very quiet, and hard to get to know. This was tough, and the more he did, the more my bosses seemed to want to delegate equal design opportunities between us. My attitude of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ was kind of a bust, because he was so quiet, but after awhile, we started to talk more, and became friendlier. Looking back, I am embarrassed at how immature I was being, especially considering what a fantastic friend John has become to me. He is by far one of the most versatile and imaginative artists I’ve met. I learned an enormous amount from him about illustration, and I credit him with teaching me the basics of light and shade. He is extremely humble (to a fault), but his superb work at Optic Nerve over the past 9 years has earned him 2 Emmys, the respect of numerous artists in the industry and legions of fans that probably don’t even know his name. I keep telling John to get a goddamn website so people can see all his amazing unpublished work! Well, obviously, John and I became very good friends, and even though I left Optic after the first season, we have stayed in close touch ever since. After “Babylon 5”, I spent time doing a lot of personal projects, and then went to work for a company called SOTA FX, where I was the key creature designer for the television show “Weird Science”. I did a few projects while there, then did a brief stint at Rick Lazarrini’s Creature Shop on the popular ‘Budweiser Frog’ series of commercials. Not long after this, I got a call that would radically change everything—my career, my artwork, the way I was perceived by others in the industry —everything. A very talented friend  of mine named Eddie Yang (whom I had met on ‘The Guyver’) was calling from Cinovations, Rick Baker’s effects company. They were starting a major project involving aliens, and he wanted to know if I was available. Of course, I made it clear that I was indeed available---especially for Rick Baker! Well, I went in for an interview, and a very nice fellow named Bill Sturgeon (who has been with Rick since the EFX days of the early 80’s) looked through my book, and then told me the horrid news that Rick was on set for “The Nutty Professor”, and wouldn’t be able to see my work that day…. unless I was willing to come back in an hour or two. I came back in an hour or two. Rick had just showed up, and he sat down to look at my portfolio. I was shitting bricks. He spent a long time looking very, very closely at the work I had done, and when he finished, he closed the book and said “Excellent. What’s your rate?” I was ecstatic. But the weirdest was yet to come. He proceeded to tell me that he was going to a meeting in the Hamptons (in New York) to meet with producer Steven Spielberg and the director of the film, Barry Sonnenfeld. The movie was called “Men in Black”, and it was to be a sci-fi comedy with a lot of creatures. Rick told me he wanted me to come with him to this meeting (which would be held at Spielberg’s home), and design stuff while the meeting progressed. If I was shitting bricks before, I was shitting cinderblocks now. Was this really happening?! It was like something out of a bizarre dream. What if I froze up in the presence of all these legendary film folk?! Terrified as I was, I said yes without hesitation. So Rick and I got on a plane that weekend to New York, and when we arrived, were put in a limo that took us to a huge house in the middle of the woods where we would stay. It’s late at night, and I’m in this big house with one of my biggest heroes, and I don’t want to come off like an idiot, but I just had to ask him some questions about his career. He was really cool about it, though, and seemed to enjoy my flurry of questions. It was such a great time. Next day, we were taken to Spielberg’s home several miles away, and the meeting got under way. This was an especially momentus meeting for Rick, because it was the first time that he had sat down to talk with Steven since the fiasco of “Nightskies” 15 years prior. Rick made it very clear that I should keep my mouth shut during this meeting because of the delicacy of the situation, and I wasn’t about to say anything anyway. Well, I did a few drawings, answered a few questions (when asked), but mostly sat there listening to the whole idea of “Men In Black” unfold. I hadn’t realized that the film was still so unformed until this meeting.  It was a fascinating experience to hear the way films are put together, especially to hear the way they are put together by giants like these guys! They were making enormous decisions about the very type of film it would be right there, and even discussed (in a loose way) who might be cast! It was just amazing, and even though “Men In Black” wasn’t an earth-shattering revelation of modern cinema, it was a terrific education in how movies are constructed. After the meeting, Rick and I returned to this ‘house in the woods’, where we continued to discuss the project and how to approach the various effects involved. Well things were really going smoothly, and I was very excited to return to the shop and begin working. Upon our return however, things immediately turned unpleasant. (The second half of this long-winded, boring rant about my career will be concluded at a later date in part 2….)

LMC: Do you like doing movie work?

JS: Sadly, the business is rather tawdry on this side of the camera, and I have lost my enthusiasm for this work (film work) to a large extent. I will always love monsters, no doubt…but making them for crappy movies with jackass directors who don’t know anything is a major drag.

 

LMC: So, is it not important to you at this stage to see one of your creations on the big screen?

JS:  Indeed the bloom is off the rose in that respect, yes. If an opportunity came along where my creation was going to be used in a more subtle, moody way however, I’m sure I would get more satisfaction.

Page 5

 
 
 
 
 
 
   
   
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