Features and Columns · Movies

Blood, Sweat, and Latex: The Latex Genie in the Bottle

By  · Published on May 2nd, 2011

by Shannon Shea

For those new to the column: I’m tracing the formative events in my life that made me what I am today: A Special Effects Make Up Artist, searching for relevance in the 21st Century…At this point in my life, I am fourteen years old…

Just off the corner of Royal Street and St. Ann Street in the French Quarter, there was a white building with green shutters framing tall windows. Stacked in the windows, peering out like eyeless sentinels were rows and rows of Don Post Monster Masks. No longer just two dimensional, black and white images in the back pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine, they were there, in three-dimensions, painted in their garish colors. I was at the right place, alright: The Vieux Carre Hair Shop.

Inside, two gentlemen greeted me. The first one was roughly thirty; he had a fringe of dark hair circling his baldpate and was mustached. This was Bob Saussaye. The other was a dapper older gentleman with a kind face; this was the owner of the store and Bob’s father, Herb Saussaye. Herb was more than the owner of the best-known theatrical wig and make up store in New Orleans. He was more than a knowledgeable make up artist. He was Willy Wonka, and I had just stepped into his factory.

I introduced myself as the son of Janet and Al Shea and he smiled broadly; he knew them well. He treated me like extended family, taking the time to introduce me to every one in the shop and then he patiently took down any Don Post monster mask I wanted to wear. Fearing I was outstaying my invitation, I told him that I wanted to buy a bottle of liquid latex. He flashed his impish smile and asked me to wait for a minute while he disappeared into his shelves and came back with a 16 oz. plastic bottle and handed it to me. He told me that it was an old bottle of flesh-tinted latex that I could HAVE to experiment with, no charge. I thanked him and ran back to the theater with my new magic bottle of possibilities. I couldn’t wait to get home.

There was no owner’s manual for liquid latex and there was no detailed information in any of the books or magazines that I owned, so I began to experiment. At first, I would take some red acrylic paint, brush it on my finger and let it dry. Then I would begin dipping my finger in the latex, building up a thin, opaque skin. I’d powder it, and then seek a family member. Without calling too much attention, I’d pull out a plastic knife and scrape off the latex flesh revealing the red underneath. Crude, yes, but effective as hell! The surprised gasps and bugged eyes were enough to drive me further. Using the creepy skin and liquid latex, I’d construct all sorts of diseased flesh on my hands and arms until my family quickly became acclimated to it. I needed to go further. I returned to Herb Saussaye for information.

Herb began to tell me about cotton-latex build-up make ups, tissue paper and latex constructions and then he opened a drawer and placed a line of latex witch noses in front of me. He explained how they had been sculpted, molded in plaster and then had latex brushed in them to produce crude but effective prosthetics. My mind reeled with all of this new information. Then, Herb excused himself, went to his office, and returned with something in a plastic bag. He opened it and removed a delicate foam-latex witch’s face appliance. He handed it to me, cautioning me to be careful. It was the work of a make-up artist named Eddie (Edouard) Henriques who had left New Orleans to work professionally in Los Angeles. But there was more.

My father, Al Shea, was the local NBC affiliate entertainment critic and reporter. Unbeknownst to me, my father had interviewed John Chambers (WHAT?!) and recalling Eddie’s expert creations, urged him to gather his portfolio and come to the station and meet Mr. Chambers (Planet of the Apes, Blade Runner). That led Eddie to Los Angeles and a long career (he was nominated for an Academy Award this year with Greg Funk for their work on The Way Back).

I must have held and stared at that foam latex appliance for 10 full minutes before Herb took it, carefully bagged it, and returned it to its safe place.

When I got home, the first thing I did was ask my father about his meeting John Chambers and he acted like it wasn’t such a big thing. After all, it wasn’t John Wayne, or Audrey Hepburn; it was a make-up man, for god’s sake! Ugh. He didn’t get it. I was determined to learn everything I could about using latex, and then foam latex. My short term goal was to produce prosthetics, but my long term goal was to make my own ball-and-socket, Stop-Motion Animation model and make a film. My obsession with Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen continuously drove me.

I had been attending painting classes for years before, primarily at the insistence of my mother who recognized that her son loved to draw. I filled sketchbooks with drawings of dinosaurs and monsters trying desperately to ape (no pun intended) the styles of O’Brien, Harryhausen, Byron Crabbe, and Mario Larrinaga but my mother, in her wisdom, knew that I would need some sort of formal training. She enrolled me in painting classes being taught by a close friend of hers. At first, it was absolute torture. All we did was paint still lifes and my paintings were primarily of bowls of fruit, wine bottles, loaves of bread, etc. and every time I asked my mother if I could quit, she urged me to stick with it. After a time, I began to appreciate what I was learning because I began to see how it was translating to the work I was doing at home. Under-painting, composition, blending colors, all began to creep into my work at home and my dinosaur and monster art improved.

The paintings, the latex….all of this was well and good, but it wasn’t getting me any closer to my goal. I had plenty of plastic dinosaurs on shelves around my room, including a complete set of the over-sized Prehistoric Scenes kits from Aurora. What made it all the more frustrating was the Triceratops resembled the one from the movie One Million Years, B.C. and the Styracosaurus looked like the one that fought Gwangi in The Valley of Gwangi. Then it occurred to me that I had gotten ahead of myself. What was the good of having a Stop Motion puppet if you didn’t have any way to film it?

I needed a camera.

NEXT WEEK: An Ode to Super 8 Film

…And Last Time On Blood, Sweat and Latex: Confessions of a Career Make-Up Effects Artist

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.

Related Topics:

This designation is reserved for our special friends and neighbors who pop in to contribute to the wondrous world of FSR.