A Magician in the World of Creature F/X
When I was fourteen years old, far too young to be officially allowed to watch that sort of stuff, I watched Friday the 13th on a home copied VHS tape. When I watched the scene where Kevin Bacon is murdered by having an arrow stabbed through his neck, instead of being freaked out like other fourteen-year-olds might have been, I was captivated. I reckoned I could figure out how the effect was done – it was like a magic trick, and I was already developing a magic obsession, although apparently my parents got a very different impression. "We always thought you hated magic," my mum said, years later when I told her I was applying to join The Magic Circle, "Paul Daniels would come on the telly and you'd disappear off to your room." Little did she and my dad know I was sneaking off to watch it in my bedroom, where I wouldn't be distracted.
People are often fascinated when I tell them what I do for a living. "You're so lucky!" is a common reaction, and they're right – I have an incredible job, and I couldn't be more grateful for all the experiences and adventures it has brought me – but perhaps not exactly in the way they might think. I did have several pieces of luck starting out – I was very lucky to know with absolute conviction, at the age of 14, what I wanted to do with my life. I was also lucky to have supportive parents who, whilst they might have been a bit baffled by my obsession, didn't try to talk me out of it or dismiss it as teenage silliness. After that it was hard work and dedication all the way.
Aged fifteen – before the internet, if anyone can remember that far back – I started sending handwritten letters out to any F/X company I could get hold of. With no such thing as DVD extras either in those days, I would watch and rewatch the few 'making of' videos that were available. I can still recite parts of Making of: A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 – The Dream Master word for word, and my precious VHS copies had worn out sections where I had rewound and replayed all the best bits. I would look up the companies that featured in these videos and write to them asking for advice on how to get started in the business. I got replies to nearly all of my letters, and every single one was helpful and encouraging. In between writing letters and watching videos I spent hours at home and at school creating fake wounds, scars and slit wrists on my friends, much to my teachers' horror.
After I left school at 18, I started working as a runner for various F/X departments and soon found myself at Jim Henson's Creature Shop, where I first met quite a few people I still work with today. Henson's was based in Camden Town, and I'd be sent out on the most random of errands to get whatever supplies the Creature Shop needed. I vividly remember standing outside the pharmacy on Camden High Street with a huge multipack of novelty condoms I'd just bought, rifling through the contents to make sure there were enough green ones before I took them back to the workshop. Just so you don't start wondering what Kermit was getting up to, I should probably explain that they needed the green latex to make a flexible neck piece for a grasshopper puppet.
After a few years learning the ropes, I began to specialise in hair work and art finishing, which has taken me all over the world, working on movie sets and in production workshops. A few years ago Neal Scanlan, a former boss from the Henson's days, asked me to take charge of all things hairy for the Creature F/X department on the new Star Wars franchise. This meant a lot of time spent on set with the exceptionally hairy wookiee. Not long into shooting Solo: A Star Wars Story, I was on set with Chewbacca shooting the scene where he and Han Solo first meet. The scene happens to be a fistfight set in a mud pit and took two weeks to shoot. That's two solid weeks of wading through a dark pit of knee-deep movie mud (only slightly cleaner than the real thing) all day long, which was tough on the performers and their costumes – particularly the hair-covered wookiee suit which had to be cleaned, and repaired at the end of each day, then dried overnight ready for the next day's shoot. I'd arrive home exhausted and encrusted, my partner would shepherd me straight into a hot bath (I'd like to think he was pampering me, but he was probably also protecting the furniture) and then try and get me to eat something before I zonked out, only to get up before the crack of dawn to do it all again the next day. It can be hard to feel lucky when your job turns you into a sleep-deprived, shuffling golem, but the cast and crew pulled together as a team and the whole thing was an intense bonding experience. Some scenes from Solo were reshot later on, and I think we all breathed a little sigh of relief when we found out the mud fight wasn't on the list.
I am writing this in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic which has pretty much shut down the film industry worldwide. To keep up morale, someone recently created a film industry memories Facebook group, and it has been a real pleasure to look through everyone's photos and stories going right back to the early days of Pinewood and Shepperton Studios. A recent post asked people to recount their favourite "only in this industry' moments, and I found myself thinking of another Star Wars memory, shooting on a glacier in Iceland at the top of an active volcano – the same one that erupted, bringing the world to a mini standstill, back in 2010. We would be taken to the summit by helicopter each day, once there we were a very long way from anyone else. The location was remote, the work was hard – shooting a scene in very cold and exposed conditions, taking care of actors whose costumes weren't exactly weather appropriate, to say nothing of learning to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull. On the other hand, we got a helicopter ride to work every morning, piping hot lunch delivered to us – yes, by helicopter – and how many people get to call the summit of a volcano their office? You might say it's lucky, and I wouldn't exactly disagree with you, but I do think luck is often about being able to recognise opportunities that pass in front of you. Either way, it takes a lot of work to make the best of the opportunities you get, and I do know that the more difficult a thing is to do, the more satisfaction you can get from doing it – even if it doesn't always feel that way at the time.
photo: David James/Lucasfilm (c) 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved