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Blood, Sweat and Latex: Home Schooling

By  · Published on May 23rd, 2011

by Shannon Shea

For those of you who are new to the column, I’m revisiting formative events that have contributed to what I am now: A Special Make Up Effects Artist seeking relevance in the 21st Century. So, I’ve learned about liquid latex, got my camera, am hyped up on Star Wars, and ready to move up to the next level. I am sixteen –

When the box appeared at my house, I was surprised at how heavy it was for its relative size. The shipping label was yellow and red, and in the upper left hand corner it confirmed that my order had arrived. “R&D Latex Corporation, Commerce, CA” it read. Finally, after a decade I held in my hands a box that contained the mystical material, the magical substance that turned actors into apes, had aged Dustin Hoffman to over 100 years old, and was the stuff of Ray Harryhausen Stop Motion Models!

As you may remember, I read about R&D Latex Corporation in an article about building Stop Motion Models in “Super 8 Filmmaker” magazine, and I had sent in my fifty dollars (forty-five dollars for the one gallon kit plus five dollars shipping). By today’s standards that seems fairly reasonable, but in those days, when you worked at a grocery store and took home about $100 or less, $50 was quite the investment.

I dragged the box into the kitchen and carefully opened it. Inside there were three bottles/components: The Latex Base was the largest, then the foaming/curing agent, and then a small bottle with gray gelling agent. Accompanying the chemicals were instructional sheets. One, on yellow stationery, was an instruction sheet from the company describing the proper procedure to run R & D foamed latex. The other was an overview of Foam Latex written by Dick Smith. The DICK SMITH??? It was obviously typed and duplicated on a Xerox machine a thousand times judging by its appearance. Not only had I the stuff, I had advice from THE expert in producing foam latex appliances.

The first stumbling block was that I didn’t have a gram scale. In fact, I wasn’t 100% sure what a gram scale was until I saw a photo of it and realized that the only place I had seen one of those was on the television show Berretta when the cops raided a dope ring. Nope, there was no way I was going to get a gram scale out of my parents and besides, they were like $200 USED if you could find them. This rendered Dick Smith’s notes useless since everything he described was in grams. Ugh. Thankfully, the folks at R&D probably knew that a large part of their customer base were kids playing in their homes and so they included liquid measurement translations for the chemicals.

My parents weren’t cooks. My mother knew how to prepare a few things and my dad had a real Irish-peasant palette so there was no need for us to own a stand-up electric mixer. This was stumbling block number two. The procedure required running the chemicals in a stand up mixer. Well, this just wasn’t going to happen. I would have to improvise with a hand mixer.

Dick’s instruction sheet described the optimum appearance of the foam latex as “thick cream” but I was a bit unsure about what that meant. Did he mean like half & half? Whipped Cream? I wasn’t sure, but I knew that you could whip egg whites into meringue with the hand mixer so I was sure I could figure something out. Okay, I was ready to run some foam latex and do my first prosthetic make up.

The last stumbling block: I hadn’t sculpted anything. I had bought the material, but hadn’t planned on any specific project to use it on. Whoops.

My mind raced. I knew I didn’t want to do a standard Planet of the Apes make up because I had seen too many kids in the “Wanted: More Readers Like” column of “Famous Monsters” magazine with their ape faces on. No, this would take something really special and then it hit me – Gargoyles.

In 1972, I had seen the made-for-television film Gargoyles and it had scared the living hell out of me. I LOVED the Gargoyle designs and thought, heck! I’ll try my own! I sat down and drew out a full color (pencil) illustration of what I wanted my Gargoyle to look like, complete with a row of small horns protruding from his brow. The nose was admittedly ape-ish, but whatever. It was going to be cool.

I had nothing to sculpt on. Today, you can buy pre-fabbed sculpting forms, but not in 1978. I think I eventually grabbed one of my mother’s Styrofoam wig blocks (yes, it was fashionable in the late 60s and early 70s for women to wear wigs! Don’t ask me, but my mother owned quite a few of them – AND she had a full head of hair – ?).

I began to sculpt.

When I had finished, I made a plaster mold of it the same way I made molds for the crude latex noses I was fashioning after my visit to the Vieux Carre Hair Shop. R&D Latex Company did not sell any mold release, which is a separating agent to release the foam latex from the mold. Instead, they recommended brushing or sponging a thin coating of the base latex into the mold prior to putting the latex into it. Fair enough.

The plaster had set and I told my parents that I was going to be using the kitchen for a while. They were disappointed that I wouldn’t be cooking anything for the family for dinner but acquiesced. Time to graduate. Time to leave the bondage of latex to travel to the promised land of FOAM LATEX!

Like a cooking show, I arranged everything carefully then, measured out my chemicals and poured them into a mixing bowl. I stared down the mixer and watched the kitchen clock’s second hand because there were not only recommended measurements, but recommended times and mixer speeds in the pursuit of the perfect bowl of foam latex (something I would not achieve until the movie Predator).

I began mixing the foam latex and was thrilled to see the tiny bubbles forming in the latex. It was working! The kitchen clock indicated it was time to add the gelling agent (which anyone will tell you is the most difficult part of the procedure), get the foam latex into the mold, and then get the mold into the oven. And as easy as you please, my first foam latex prosthetic was baking in the kitchen…for 6 hours.

After about the third hour, the house began to take on a sulfurous smell, and my parents started to complain. I didn’t know.Was I poisoning the house? I opened windows in the kitchen but guarded that oven like the crown jewels. There was just no way I was going to ruin this over a smell. With all of the stink in the house from dirty tennis shoes to the dog farting, we were going to worry about THIS? Forget it!

Finally, FINALLY, it was time to take the mold out of the oven and wrap it in towels (yes, I was using my family’s bathroom towels for this, too) to prevent the stone from cracking due to the temperature change. The plaster made “tinking” noises as it cooled beneath the towel, but I couldn’t wait. I had to get my prosthetic out.

Now that we’re coming to the end of this article, I need to explain to you something I hadn’t figured on: the notion of a “positive” for the negative mold. In other words, I didn’t have a plaster representation of my face to displace the foam latex on the reverse of the prosthetic. Accordingly I ended up with a solid, foam latex hunk of Gargoyle face that couldn’t be worn by anyone. Initially, I was disappointed, but then as I started flexing and moving the piece around, I began to notice how it wrinkled more naturally than regular latex, which buckles.

I didn’t have my Gargoyle piece, but I had learned something that day about being prepared. I learned the first important lesson about being a Special Effects Make-Up Artist without even knowing it. I had learned that you had to plan a project from beginning to end and respect the proper procedure to execute it effectively.

In my own way, I had graduated.

EPILOGUE: R&D Latex Corporation went out of business over 20 years ago. In the late eighties, the name was changed to Mydrin (Mydren? Midryn?), however, the business soon faded away, and I don’t know the reason why. The real shame of it is that when I became a “professional,” I discovered how challenging running quality Foam Latex was. I was trained with real “Schram Foam” which was a formulation attributed to Charlie Schram. It had four components and was VERY touchy. If you weren’t thorough and accurate, you would end up with tire rubber, or worse, it would just “gel” in the bowl before you could use it.

R&D gave novices all over the United States the chance to experiment with a system that was foolproof. Yes, it wasn’t “the best” foam latex in the world, but it was reliable and easy to use. I miss it and thousands of would-be Make Up Effects Artists and Stop Motion Animators miss it.

NEXT WEEK: “Never Lay a Beard on a Drunk”

…And last time on Blood, Sweat and Latex: Discovering Star Wars in the Age of Enlightenment

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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