Features and Columns · Movies

Blood, Sweat, and Latex: Getting a Foot (And Shaft) in the Door

By  · Published on June 27th, 2011

by Shannon Shea

For those of you new to the column, I’m revisiting formative events in my life that have made me what I am today: A Special Effects Make Up Artist looking for relevance in the 21st Century. I have completed one year at the California Institute of the Arts Film Graphics program, and I have returned for my second year, I have moved off campus and have a small garage shop to make monsters. I am nineteen years old…

My second year at CalArts, I ended up on Academic Probation. That was no easy task since students were not graded on an A, B, C, etc. scale. Instead, it was High Pass, Pass, or Incomplete. There was no “fail” but every two years (sophomore & senior) all students were “reviewed” by a board made up of a few faculty members.

It probably had something to do with my cessation of attending classes primarily because they truly weren’t much more than glorified “wrap sessions.” It would be unfair to mention faculty names, but I will mention some of the classes to illustrate what I mean.

I took a class called “Direct Animation” which the course description promised the manipulation of three-dimensional objects in front of a camera. To me, that is a description of Stop Motion Animation, right? It was finally something in which I had a passionate interest.

My first class, the instructor showed up late looking like he had just rolled out of bed – hair disheveled, red eyes. He gazed at us painfully and asked right out of the gate if we had had our morning coffee. When a majority of us had said yes, he then suggested moving the class to the cafeteria so he could get a cup of coffee and something to eat.

By the time he had his caffeine and a breakfast burrito steaming in front of him, he asked what we hoped to get out of his class. A couple of us spoke up and said we wanted to at least wanted to attempt some sort of Harryhausen-esque Stop Motion project. He just looked at us like we told him we hope to build a fusion reactor using an old milk carton and a tampon. The only real animation we accomplished (or I should say THEY accomplished) was manipulating small wooden blocks in front of a 16mm camera, while painting the surfaces different colors. I had been consistently absent for a long time prior.

I had a vision of my future and it was clear to me. I was going to make monsters goddammit, and I didn’t have time to fuck around with little wooden blocks. To me, it was just a waste of time. And believe it or not, that was one of the better classes! At least they did SOMETHING.

I spent my second year doing two things: working in the Life Support Office (Student Services – Work/Study job) and sculpting and casting monsters at home in my garage shop. It seems fairly arrogant at first reading, but I have a feeling that if I were to attend those same classes now, I’d still be frustrated. I suppose a tiger really never changes its stripes.

While attending school, I had the opportunity to meet a few individuals who would contribute to my professional career in some capacity or another. I’ve already mentioned James Cummins, but I also met Make Up Effects legend Tom Burman, fellow CalArts student Jim Beinke, and a then up and coming Make Up Effects artist, Mark Shostrom.

If there was one positive thing I could say about CalArts is that I met so many talented artists and good people that I’ve been fortunate enough to retain my friendship and communicate with over the years. This I wouldn’t change for the world. However, I still had my sophomore review to get through.

I packed my masks, drawings, storyboards, etc. and set them up on a table in the review room. I recall looking at all of my work and thinking: “Wow, it doesn’t seem like two years’ worth.” It should have been more, I guess? Or better? Or relevant? I don’t know but I was nervous. My review turned out to be with the Assistant Dean of the Film Department Myron Emery.

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Myron looked like he could have stepped out of ILM when it was in Van Nuys, California. He had a thick head of red-brown hair, wire-frame glasses, and a big beard. His vocal timbre was reminiscent of Frank Oz, but that’s where the similarity ended. I had the pleasure of sitting through some of his experimental movies such as Decadence (which was footage of a Balinese dancer run through an Optical Printer 10 times….see? Decca Dance!) or L.A. Extremes (which was Optically treated footage of old, dried up, Los Angeles river beds…Get it? L.A. ex-streams!). I’m not kidding.

Myron looked at my work and frowned. He asked what I was hoping to accomplish with it. I told him I wanted to have a career making monsters. He made some “artistic” suggestions where I could reinterpret my work and put it into a conceptual context, but I just wasn’t having it. I didn’t need a shove in the Avant-garde direction. Finally, Myron said to me, that I was wasting my time in school. If all I wanted to do was to make monsters for movies, I should ditch school and start working. It was the first and only good advice any faculty member at CalArts had offered.

By the end of the spring semester, my Work-Study was coming to an end; I had no plans to return to Louisiana for the summer. I had already moved all of my furniture and belongings to my off-campus housing and I needed to continue my work somehow and that meant getting some sort of a job. Seek and ye shall find. I ended up at a Carvel Ice Cream parlor. Seriously.

My summer job began with a training program, learning how to scoop/weigh the ice cream, learning the construction of different sundaes, selling ice cream cakes, etc. AND I had to wear all white. It wasn’t a BAD job, and it was keeping me in plaster and latex, but all of this changed one evening when Jim Beinke and some friends came in for a scoop of Carvel’s famous kosher ice cream.

Jim said that he had landed a gig called “Celestial Lords” which was going to be a stage show that needed all sorts of fantasy costumes, helmets, etc. and he asked if I was interested in helping him build all of it. It would be all cash, under the table. Hmmmm. Scoop ice cream or make specialty costume pieces? I quit Carvel that day.

What Jim hadn’t told me was that “Celestial Lords” was the official entertainment of the Gay Olympics that was being held in San Francisco later that summer. Not that I cared. Money was money. What it meant was that I was sculpting things like distended scrotums with balls that looked like two hand grenades and gas masks with long, phallic hoses that hung off of the front of them. Again, whatever. I was sculpting, molding, running, and painting things for PAY!

One late night, a producer showed up to check out our progress and convinced that we were on drugs left two lines of cocaine on a table for us. No, I didn’t touch it then and have never felt the need to try the stuff. Earlier that year, I had tried “magic mushrooms” with James Cummins and Steve Burg and found myself, stoned, driving around the then undeveloped Santa Clarita Valley, but that was the extent of my drug use.

By the time we had finished building everything, I had been speaking to Mark Shostrom who said he was looking for a roommate. I packed up everything in my car, leaving about 10 or so plaster molds in my friend, James Fuji’s garage (for what turned out to be a few decades) and moved to Pasadena.

The apartment was almost “shot gun” style with a series of rooms that sort of stacked up from the front to the back. The front room was Mark’s studio that resembled (what I imagined) Dick Smith’s basement shop must have looked like. Mark was a regular correspondent with Dick and had received stacks of notes explaining and suggesting techniques to accomplish specific Make Up Effects and Mark had been practicing.

I recall that Mark’s portfolio contained many effects that Dick had executed that Mark had done his best to emulate such as air bladders, age make ups etc. For a young apprentice, which I guess I was technically, it was right where I thought I was supposed to be. Mark had plenty of sculptures around and encouraged me to refine my sculpting and mold making techniques.

But it wasn’t all work. Mark used me as a practical guinea pig from time to time, once subtly aging me to mid-thirty to see if I could fool a convenience store owner into selling me beer.

It worked.

I was finally on the path but didn’t realize I was about to get knocked off of it, and I was going to get knocked off of it very, very hard.

NEXT WEEK: “Does wearing a witch make-up constitute cross-dressing?”

…And last time on Blood, Sweat and Latex: Howling American Werewolves and a Make Up Effects Explosion

Shannon Shea, a native New Orleanian educated at The California Institute of the Arts, has enjoyed a 27-year tenure designing, constructing, and performing animatronic creatures and characters for Motion Pictures and Television. He has had the pleasure of contributing to such diverse films as Predator, Dances With Wolves, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Spy Kids, The Chronicles of Narnia, Drag Me To Hell and 2012’s Men In Black 3.

Not limited to the confines of Motion Pictures, he paints (having been shown in New York, North Carolina, and Los Angeles), sculpts, writes and authors a new blog about his motion picture experiences called Monster History 101. Recently, he was tapped by the Stan Winston School of Character Design to be one of their instructors for a lecture series entitled Garage Monsters. When not participating on Hollywood projects, he enjoys producing, writing, and directing his own short films including Hotel Superman, Blind Passion, and his current Internet project Phantom Harbor. Shannon lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tracy, an Operatic Soprano and their daughter, Molly, who attends the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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