Features and Columns · Movies

Blood, Sweat and Latex: Wasting Money and Working in Stan Winston’s Mold Shop on ‘Aliens’

By  · Published on August 1st, 2011

by Shannon Shea

I was fortunate to meet and work with artists who, unlike me, had already began their nomadic careers moving from shop to shop like a herd of dinosaurs in search of water. I would either call or get a call from a fellow make-up artist and the gossip and rumors would begin. There was no Internet and no cell phones so the only way to hear about upcoming work was through word of mouth. In 1985, make-up effects was still on the rise, so there appeared to be a lot of projects happening around town. Of all of the opportunities, however, the best one was presented to me by Bill Sturgeon.

For those unfamiliar with Bill, not only did he do incredible mechanisms on House and Strange Invaders for James Cummins, but he was also one of Rick Baker’s original six staff artists who had created the effects for An American Werewolf in London. Bill called me from Stan Winston Studios. In the wake of the success of The Teminator, Stan was re-teamed with director James Cameron on Aliens. However, a few months prior to this announcement, Stan had committed the studio to work on Tobe Hooper’s remake of Invaders From Mars, so now his team was taxed with two films that both required a large amount of work.

Stan’s facility was in an industrial park in Northridge, CA and because the increased workload, he began renting another unit in the park that was dedicated to molding and casting work. The artists who populated the studio were not just the best of the best at the time, but an unusually large number of them would leave Stan to establish their own studios taking with them, the dedication to create quality make up effects work.

At Stan’s, they were honing their skills and learning from the man who elevated make up effects from a garage venture into a viable, legitimate business. With the exception of Rick Baker, most effects make-up artists who were acquiring smaller shows would set up shops in more modest facilities. This was not to say that the work was of any less quality. Greg Cannom, Mark Shostrom, The Chiodo Brothers, and David Miller were just a few who had branched out on their own and were doing excellent work.

Stan’s facility was slick and professional because at his heart, Stan was a showman. He loved showing off the excellent work that was produced at his studio and he understood how important those first impressions were to directors and producers. He was on the brink of a very rare level of success for someone in the make-up effects industry, and I was fortunate enough to be there as it was happening.

Walking into the studio and seeing the work that was being done for Aliens was humbling. Learning about the existence of a “Queen Alien” and seeing the artists working on the maquette (that would eventually be molded and used for the miniature puppet) was thrilling. Alternatively, there was another perk: Swiss artist, H.R. Giger’s original suits were at the shop and sections of them were to be molded for the construction of the aliens that were now being referred to as “warriors.”

As the wooden crate was opened, I learned a VERY important lesson about practical creature effects.

My understanding is that when H.R. Giger was tapped to create the alien for the first film, he was a fine artist and not a practical creature suit fabricator. Please understand what I’m attempting to explain. The original suit is fantastic, primarily because it was not made by a traditional make-up effects company. Giger, obviously, used what little knowledge he had about creature suit building and a lot of imagination because what I saw was very…rough. True, it had been abused by the stress of suiting up the actor, and the gooey methocel that it had been coated with and also, by time itself. Latex, unfortunately, does not stand up well to time. It oxidizes and becomes brittle, literally turning to dust. What’s worse is that the introduction of air into the mixture as foam latex makes it deteriorate that much faster.

The lesson I learned was this: It is all in the way that something is shot that makes it effective or not. H.R. Giger’s alien was the cooperation of a strong, individual design, matched with a director’s vision, and a cinematographer’s eye.

My first day of work was on Friday in the satellite mold shop. The mold shop supervisor was effects veteran, Tim Lawrence and he announced that someone would have to come to work on Saturday to mold a section of the Alien’s back. Since it was my first day and I hadn’t put in a full week, I was selected. I would be joined by a younger, but more experienced Robert Kurtzman (the “K” of KNB EFX Group).

Unfortunately, for the following story to have any gravity, I need to explain some mold making fundamentals. Here’s the dry science part.

In order to mold of something rigid, a soft mold is generally made. Most studios turn to silicone or urethane to make it. This soft mold-making material needs to be encased in a rigid mother mold or “matrix” as it is sometimes called, otherwise you have a worthless, shapeless mess.

I had only made a silicone mold at Mark Shostrom’s by brushing the silicone over the rigid piece, then, once set, we made a two-piece plaster mold on top of the silicone to preserve the shape.

The alternative way calls for the rigid piece to be completely covered by a specified thickness of clay. Then a plaster or fiberglass mold is made on top of this. The matrix mold is opened, the clay removed, and then the matrix is reassembled on top of the piece to be molded and then the silicone is poured into the cavity formed by the removed clay. Get it?

So, under Tim’s supervision, Bob and I began to “clay up” the alien warrior back in order to make a silicone mold. We finished the plaster work just before lunch. Reassembling the mold over the back, we began the time-consuming process of weighing and pouring silicone into the matrix mold.

In order to prevent air from being trapped as the silicone was being poured, small holes were drilled and plugged with clay as the silicone bled from them. So Bob was pouring, and I was plugging the holes when it happened.

Without warning, a deluge of silicone began pouring out around the base of the plaster matrix mold. The hydraulic pressure of the silicone had lifted the plaster mold off of the Alien’s back and now, the silicone was pouring out of the bottom of it.

I tried rolling a rope of clay and pressing it into the seam, but the silicone just pushed it out as more of the material seeped out. It would be a good time to tell you that around this time, silicone mold making material ran about $200 a gallon, and it was pouring all over Stan’s mold shop floor.

Tim jumped into action and mixed up a fresh bowl of plaster. Using sisal fiber (or “hemp” as it’s referred to) he made plaster ropes and attempted to stop the flood. By this time, Bob had created a retaining wall of clay to contain the flood of silicone. With silicone still probing its way through the new plaster and Bob and I furiously trying to contain the spill, Stan walked in.

Bob recently reminded me that Stan’s comment was, “That’s okay, I LIKE wasting money!”

He looked at the situation like he had hired the Three Stooges to make a mold. Only, he wasn’t laughing. I felt bad for Tim, because being the eldest and most experienced, Stan pulled him aside while Bob and I struggled to keep things in control. Eventually, the silicone thickened as the catalyst began to take effect, and Bob and I were able to fill the mold without further incident.

I was the new guy, so with the exception of the incredible shame, I was absolved from any responsibility, and Bob and Tim both started at David Miller’s the following Monday.

I was left to open “our” mold. I couldn’t. It was stuck. Whether it was suction or the amount of undercuts in the Alien back, it just wasn’t going to open. I had begun the opening process with a couple of flat-head screwdrivers but was about to use a large crowbar when Stan appeared.

“Is that the mold you guys made on Saturday?” he asked. Covered in sweat and plaster all I could do was nod. “Just tear the mold off of the piece, and then throw the mold in the trash.” All I could do was muster a “Yes, sir” and set about fulfilling that task.

…And Last Time on Blood, Sweat and Latex…: “Brother, Would You Haunt This ‘House?’”

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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