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An Interview with Patrick Tatopoulos

  'Underworld' is an upcoming movie about werewolves and vampires and the forbidden love between them (is there ever unforbidden love between them).  Patrick Tatopoulos was in charge of the creatures and he promises you won't be disappointed.  Patrick has quite a resume creating creatures for big movies like 'Independence Day', 'Godzilla', 'Pitch Black' to name a few.  Patrick was very gracious to take some time out of his schedule to chat with LMC and give us the low down on 'Underworld' and his past and future work.



LMC: What did you do on Underworld

PT:  I was in charge of creature design, the werewolves, vampires and mummies.  We designed and built the FX.


LMC: Did you opt for primarily physical FX or CGI.

PT:  We stepped onto this project with a director, Len Wiseman who didnít want to use too much CGI.  That doesnít mean we didnít use it for some scenes that required it, but primarily we did as much physical stunts and suits as we could.  A lot of rigs were built for werewolf type stunts that could have been done in CGI, but we went with a physical design.  We built 2 hero werewolves and sometimes you might need to see a few more background wolves, so those were done in CGI.

LMC: So suits were built for the wolves, was anything done to them.

PT: Well, we wanted to do something new and unique.  We didnít want to do a type of wolf you see in every movie.  The wolf suits had mechanical leg extensions and animatronic extensions for snarls and whatnot.  I wanted to go something more catlike for the wolf.  Obviously, werewolves are doglike, but I was going for something in between.  Adding catlike qualities to a wolf for a more sleek look and a more agile animal.  Iíll tell you my inspiration.  When I saw Rick Bakerís American Werewolf in London, I felt the best look to the werewolf was during the transformation stage.  Not the beginning or end, but the wolf somewhere in the middle.  There was the wolf, somewhat scary and grotesque and thatís what inspired me.

LMC: So your team had creative freedom to design the look?

PT: Yes, early on in the process it was me and Len and a few producers and I was sketching designs.  This is the first stage before you bring in a full team to create the FX.  Just fleshing out the design.

After this phase I brought on the team.  The team joins when the work is there, you canít afford to keep a full team when you arenít working.  The first one is my supervisor Guy Himber and then Steve Wang.  Steve is my hero.  I should probably stop saying that, but itís true.  Steve has a great, great sense of this work and suit building and heís done so many suits.  Heís done it on big movies and small movies and thatís what I like, he has found ways on very small budgets to make great suits.  The budget on Underworld wasnít huge, maybe 30 million at the end.  So we had to find ways to get the most for the money.

LMC: How did you meet Steve Wang.                   

PT: I was looking at magazines back in Europe and had no clue how Hollywood really worked.  I remember seeing pictures of Steve when he was doing Predator.  Sculpting this monster and I was like this guy is amazing.  I was working on Godzilla and one of the people that came for a job was Steve.  In my mind, he had directed and worked on such big things, I didnít think I could get Steve.  But he came and his work was outstanding.  He also came back to help us with ĎTheyí which didnít do too well, but the FX were great.  I told my shop supervisor I wanted Steve on every show and if he wasnít busy everywhere, to tell you the truth, I would try and hire him every time.  I mean, his work is outstanding, heís done it many many times and heís a creative genius.

LMC: How did the suit building work out?

PT: Gabe Bartalos was in charge of casting and molding the actors and creating the core for the suits.  We body cast one actor and we were able to extend that cast to fit the other actor, so we didnít have to cast both actors for the chief wolf suits.  Steve had a great idea that we shave down the body cast so that when we sculpt the suit on top of it, it will fit the actor very tight.  Normally, you sculpt onto the lifecast and the suit fits loose, wrinkles and buckles in some places.  Steve kept saying to sculpt smaller, sculpt smaller and as small as we did the suit, it still buckled around the waist, so Steve tailored the suit to fix these problems and I donít know how he did it, but he did it very, very well.

LMC: Besides running the shop, do you take on other roles?

PT: I work as both a creature designer and a production designer.  On 'Dark City', I worked as the production designer.  Now Iím working on 'I, Robot' as both the production designer and creature designer, which I also did on 'Independence Day'.  On 'Underworld', I only worked as the creature designer. It helps to be the person designing the sets and the creatures as  you can blend them together and they fit.

LMC: What is your opinion of CGI

PT:  In the beginning we put together a few packages of wolves that were CGI and physical FX so we could look at the two.  Iím not hardcore either way really.  I look to use what works, so if CGI is the answer then thatís what I go with.  I donít consider myself a creature guy as much as I do a designer, so whatever tool looks the best.  In 'I, Robot' a lot of the robots are going to be CG.  If you were to put a man in a suit, you would never be able to get the proper proportions.  I think CG is great and it will only improve.  When we looked at the differences, we realized the best werewolf look was going to be a physical wolf, one you could see and touch and believe moreso than something fantastic like CG  could give you.

LMC: What about 5 Ė 10 years down the road.  How do you see CG advancing?

PT: Well, you can see the trend now.  Less and less work for the physical FX.  Some of the bigger names are seeing less work.  I came to the states like 12-15 years ago and it was a dream place.  So much work, and now a lot have disappeared.  One positive thing Iím seeing is all the young directors.  You would think they would be into CGI moreso coming from a video world, but thatís not the trend.  A lot of them are going back to physical FX to achieve the realism you get from it.  Itís encouraging to me to see them not just choose CG because itís neat, but looking at the best option.  I think there will be less work, but there will still be work.


LMC: How did you come to Hollywood from Europe?

PT: Itís a funky story.  About 15 years ago  I was in Greece just being goofy, surfing, painting and just having a great time.  A friend of mine came to me and showed me an FX magazine.  It hit me that people were doing all this cool stuff for the movies and I was like, man I have to do that.  I went out and bought ceramic clay, which is totally inappropriate.  I did like 10 creatures and after a few weeks they all cracked and broke.  But I did get pictures and put it in a portfolio and went to L.A. to find Rick Baker and Stan Winston and all those guys.  I didnít have any appointments, so I was taking a big chance.  I landed in LA and my portfolio was stuck in Amsterdam.  I was in the states for 4 weeks, but I had no book, spoke little English.  I called and visited and most everyone was like call us back when you get your book.  I got my book the day before I was supposed to leave, but I had no appointments and no one could see me.  The only people that opened their door to me was MakeupFX Labs.  I was blown away by their stuff.  They said my stuff looked good, but I needed to work on my sculpting.  I went back to Greece thinking that was it.  A month later they called me back and said they had a small gig.  I went back and they helped me get my green card.  I tip my hat to those guys for giving me a chance and helping me get started.  I stayed with them 2-3 years and they allowed me to go off on my own and start learning Production Design. 

LMC: Have you had any big breakout movies?

PT: I think 'Stargate' was my big movie at the time.   It wasnít huge, but it really got me going.  It was funny, people were like who is this guy that got 'Stargate' and now he is doing 'Independence Day'.  I was unknown for the most part at that time.  I think itís a bit of luck.  You meet someone and they like your work and give you a chance.  Winston and Cameron for example.  Then you do a few movies with a director and after that you think you are established, but nope.  They just say, you must be this directors protťgť or something like that, so you have to go out and keep proving yourself.  I think I got a few movies after that ĎPitch Blackí, ĎSuperNovaí because of my past shows, but after that I was a little slow and just got some TV work.  I fell short and had the great idea to work on ĎBattleField Earthí which killed me completely.  I realized I should not have done that, what am I stupid?  After that I had nothing, finally a TV show 'Special Unit' came to me and without that I probably would have collapsed.  Those guys were fantastic.  I had that for a year or so and it helped me get back into it.  I think thatís the way it is, right?  You get somewhere, think you are grown up and just like that you are back to square one.  Now we are back on track and 'I, Robot' is a huge deal for me, the biggest movie Iíve done with a huge budget, so Iím excited about that.  Same director that did ĎDark Cityí.  Iím really excited about this.  I also think 'Underworld' is going to be really great.  Len is a very talented director.

LMC: I'd like to thank Patrick for taking time out of his very busy schedule to talk Hollywood with us.  Now enjoy the rest of his pictures.




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