Science Fiction Filme) First of all, I would like to thank you for your time doing this Interview. I think your work has a huge fan base here in Germany. Especially because for films like DEADLY SPAWN, NIGHTBEAST and SPOOKIES of course. A lot of movie maniacs know the films you´re involved. Could you please tell us what you did before you come into film business. Why have you choosen special/make-up effects?
JD) Long before I started working professionally in film or theatre I was making sculpture out of candle wax, making masks, and filming stop motion animation shorts. As a child, I put on shows in my parent’s basement - The Wizard of Oz was a highlight. I was always creating something horror or fantasy related. By the time I was in my 20’s, I had some decent drawing, sculpting, mold making, and fabrication skills. Thanks to my parents, I was able to go to art school, but the school wasn’t teaching me what I needed to know, so I didn’t continue with formal education. I’m mostly self taught. I worked in department stores, sold subscriptions for the New York Times newspaper, and worked as a photographer for a portrait studio - and many other jobs to pay the bills - while I continued to develop my artistic abilities.
Don Dohler was starting Cinemagic Magazine in the early 70’s - a unique “how to” magazine which showed young filmmakers how to create special effects and makeups. Don had seen an article I had written about my stop motion films for Bolex Reporter Magazine, and asked me to write for Cinemagic. I worked with Don on Cinemagic, as a frequent contributor, for many years. In the late 70’s, Don began producing very low budget feature films - starting with The Alien Factor in 1978 - and asked me to make the monster for his third production, Nightbeast (1982). That was my first paid film job. There were long periods of unemployment, but, increasing, I worked professionally in film throughout the 80’s, often making stop motion models or special props for TV commercials in New York City. After I took DIck Smith’s Professional Makeup course, the work became nonstop for the next 25 years.
SFF.) I love movies a lot. One of my very first experiences was ALIEN and THE THING by John Carpenter. Is there any special event or movie which made you think: “Alright, I want to do the same thing.” Do you have any personal idols or favorite movies in your business?
JD) We all seem to be most affected by movies we saw at a young age. For me, those films are King Kong and the Universal monster series - films that were shown on tv in the 1950’s when I was a child. I loved the fact that the artists on King Kong created an entire world - and populated it with cool creatures - using simple materials like plaster, clay, and rubber. I wanted to do that too and spent many years creating a series of stop motion animated shorts set in a fantasy forest filled with Grog characters which I invented.
My alternate passion, for makeup effects, especially the collaborations of Jack Pierce and Boris Karloff - was not fulfilled until I was nearly 40 years old - when I took Dick Smith’s Professional Makeup course. After that, I worked nonstop for over 20 years doing makeup for film, TV, and theatre. I never lost my interest in stop motion filmmaking and that my work in that area continues today as a hobby. Everything I do is still informed and inspired by King Kong and the Universal films that enriched my life as a child.
SFF) You were working for the half-an-hour-tv-show MONSTERS with some other make-up artists. For the episode THE LEGACY you were recreating the famous vampire from AFTER MIDNIGHT made by Lon Chaney. An actor and also a self-made make-up artists. What heritage has Lon Chaney left for the make-up-world?
JD) Lon Chaney’s great legacy, to me, is that you can get great results with the most simple, low-tech materials (Jack Pierce is another great example of this). The concept, the shape, the form, the colors, are always the most important parts of a makeup design. In Chaney’s era, he had only nose putty, wax, spirit gum, cotton, other simple materials, and color to create his characters, some of which remain famous to this day. Chaney’s designs, and imaginative use of materials - together with his intense, often hypnotic, performance style, often made his creations unforgettable. Today, there are wonderful new materials that can help talented modern makeup artists withstand the close scrutiny of today’s high resolution cameras. But concept and design still matters most and we makeup artists all struggle with that. There have been many wonderful makeup artists, but it’s hard to achieve as much effectiveness as Lon Chaney.
SFF.) One of my favorite monsters in tv-history are the worms from the episode THE MOTHER INSTINCT. In some way the scene in Peter Jackson´s remake of KING KONG, were the cast falls into the pit and were eaten alive by CGI-worms, reminds me of your creation. How long does it takes to build these worms and how did you do that?
JD) Thanks for liking the monsters! I created effects for 18 episodes of Monsters. The episodes were shot very fast - usually in 4-5 days - and there was never much time or money to make the monsters or shoot them. The large “Mother Worm” was made by gluing sheet foam onto 10’ of air conditioning duct. A skin was created by covering the sheet foam with paper towels dipped in liquid latex rubber. The mouth area was sculpted in clay, molded and cast in polyfoam. I detailed the monster with turkey feathers after removing the soft part of the feathers. The smaller worms were sculpted, molded, and cast in foam latex rubber. Each of the smaller worms had a mechanical internal system which made them move in a variety of ways.
SFF) I have got a guilty pleasure movie called SPOOKIES. I really love the monsters. Unfortunately there is no publication in Germany. Could you please tell us anything about your work on that movie.
JD) Early in my career, I was hired to create the monsters for 2 sequences in Spookies: The Snake Demon and the Spider Woman. In the Spider Woman transformation, a beautiful Asian woman changes into an eight-eyed fanged drooling creature. This was done in 4 stages and required both prosthetic and mechanical constructions. An additional final stage was planned as a stop motion animation effect, but time and money ran out. The Snake Demon monster was a large hand puppet which had some facial and hand movements which were controlled by cables. Although there appeared to be 2 snake demons in the sequence, only one had to be built. The illusion of multiple demons was created in the editing process. Spookies was disappointing because the effect photography was very rushed. Practical effects are often done on a very high ratio. Sometimes only 1% of the footage shot is actually used. You must often shoot a lot of crap to get a few great seconds of footage. Stop motion animation is an exception to this, but with live action practical effects you have less control of the movement that you do with stop motion or with Computer graphics. So, you really need a lot of time to get the very best results with practical monsters. Spookies was over budget by the time I arrived on the set and everything had to be very rushed out of economic necessity. I’m happy today whenever I hear that people enjoy the monsters in Spookies because I only see what’s wrong with my work in that film.
SFF.) You are a creator of wonderful prosthetic make-up. Some are based on reality and some are pure fantasy. Which themes do you prefer from an artistic point of view?
JD) I much prefer fantasy, but I like the fantasy mixed together with realism. Realistic details, wrinkles, textures and anatomy can galvanize a fantastic design and make its seem possible that it could really exist. I prefer fantasy because it requires more invention from the artist. I like to design things that I’ve never seen before. I prefer what I call “fantastic-realism”.
SFF.) The movie DEADLY SPAWN was one of your first films. Years later you were working on films like GHOSTBUSTERS II or ALIEN RESURRECTION. Three different movies with three different budgets. What do you prefer: big or not so big budget movies in order of creative working (I don´t want to say low, because I believe there is no low, just economical budget)?
JD) Both big budget and low budget projects can be exciting or very horrible to work on. I find no consistent pattern. On a low budget picture I’m often considered more important since I am the person providing the monsters - they are the main selling point of a project low budget film - which typically has no stars or big production values. On a big budget project, I may be less important, but I will be paid better and have more money to hire help and spend on creating the monsters.
SFF) CGI nowadays could be a curse or a blessing. What do you think about it comparing to “old school”- films back in the days?
JD) CGI is a gigantic innovation in special effects production. I don’t see it as a curse. CGI can be great or terrible - just as old school practical effects can be great or terrible. Monsters created using practical effects have the great advantage of always looking real. If you’re trying to scare the audience, that’s very important! I’ve seen a lot of CGI monsters which looked much like a cartoon like or too synthetic to be threatening. But, in recent years, a lot of CGI looks fantastic - the most recent Planet of the Apes films are particularly amazing. If the audience jumps or looks on in awe when the monster appears, it doesn’t matter how it was created. There is no special effects technique which guarantees a good monster. The conceptual design, lighting, editing, and skill of the director in staging a sequence are just as important and whatever the monster maker can create. Film is a collaboration.Rubber monsters shot live on the set remain an excellent production technique, if they are well done - especially when the budget is limited. And rubber monsters always look like something real is there next to the actors - which is a gigantic plus.
SFF.) We all have our favorite movies. Mine is PHASE IV for example. But which movies do you really not like and why?
JD) I only dislike movies which are boring. But that is a very personal reaction. Film’s that I enjoy, others may find very boring. Certain famous “bad” movies seem very entertaining to me. Ed Wood’s “Plan Nine From Outer Space” and Don Dohler’s “Alien Factor” come to mind. Yet I find some very expensive productions hard to sit through.
“Aquaman” comes to mind, because I just watched it. Horrible! But it made over a billion dollars, so many people must be enjoying it. I don’t hate Aquaman, it is just not for me - in spite of all the great design work. I’d contrast that with another action film, released in 2018, “Fallout” - a fantastic action picture that is full of both practical and CGI effects work.
SFF.) I´m a teacher for children with special needs. I have had done this for nearly 20 years right now. I know my job because I want to do it, I’m enthusiastic and I have several educations to work with kids. What is your opinion about education to become an expert in make-up effects? Is there any requirement or talent you need to have next to enthusiasm?
JD) Knowledge is essential, but no one I know in the film makeup business will care about your academic credentials. You need a good portfolio. The portfolio is your resume. You probably won’t be hired unless you have a portfolio of good works to show prospective employers. A portfolio reveals more about your education than any resume.
Some people have natural talent, but most people I know in the make-up effects business are relatively average - except in the intensity of their desire to enter the field. I would say that enthusiasm, hard work, and ability to work well with others are more important than “natural gifts”. Some students only do well in an environment where they can interact with a teacher and other students; they need that stimulation. There are other people who do very well learning alone through experimentation, books, and online tutorials. However you learn, that knowledge needs to be documented in a portfolio of good quality photos of your work. A portfolio is usually the best way to show what you can do with makeup effects. It is often difficult to get into the profession of film makeup. Persistance and determination can be vital to success.
SFF.) What are the biggest differences between working for movies, tv-shows and stage production like BEAUTY AND THE BEAST? What do you prefer?
JD) They are completely opposite in some ways. In motion pictures and TV, makeups must look good up close. In theatre, makeups must look good from far away. The distance of the actors in live theatre requires that a makeup be amplified through the use of shape, form, light, shade, and color. The larger that the theatre is, the more the makeup must be exaggerated. The style of theatre makeup tends to be more impressionistic than realistic. In a film closeup - especially in this new age of high definition - the style, usually, must be photo realistic.
I prefer theatre because I used to put on shows in my parent’s basement when I was 8 years old, and believed, even then, that I would end up in working on Broadway shows. It is very satisfying to be able to say that is exactly what did happen. After 3 years of the Monster’s TV Series, I was offered Disney’s first Broadway show, Beauty and the Beast. I did very little film work after that and have been happily making makeups for theatre ever since Beauty and the Beast opened in 1993.
SFF.) I believe movies doesn't belong to awards. They´re for the audience not for prices. But what do you think of your kind of work in film? Is it just a technical one or is it art? Do make-up get enough recognition?
JD) Well, better late than never, as they say. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created the, then, new category of Oscar in 1981 and awarded it to Rick Baker for American Werewolf in London. Dick Smith and Rick Baker had been doing so much work that was extraordinary that it became impossible to ignore the creative and technical leaps that were ongoing at that time. In theatre, there has never been a Tony Award for Makeup or Hair work. In certain years, that has seemed like a serious omission. I won a Theatre Crafts International award in 1994 for my work on Beauty and the Beast. My work has appeared on Magazine covers 23 times, so I have no complaints about recognition. I believe that anyone working in a major position in film or theatre is lucky to be having such a wonderful life.
SFF) Do you have a project you always wanted to do or are there something in progress we can enjoy in the future?
JD) I’ve long wanted to develop my graphics arts skills I’m working on that. I’ve been designing several Illustration projects - all of them having Lovecraft like horror elements and monsters. The most finished of these is a children’s book “Redmond’s Late Breakfast” which has the hero encountering all sorts of fantastic characters and child-friendly monstrosities. I draw the illustrations in pencil and then color, refine, and detail them in a computer using Photoshop and other graphic arts software.
SFF.) I held up with the most important question to the end: What were the most difficult mask/ effect you were working on and why?
JD) That would probably be the 1,000 year Old Gnome character, hair, and prosthetics, created for the Monsters TV Series episode Household Gods. Actor “Little Mike” Anderson had to become an ancient old Gnome via foam rubber prosthetics, Yak hair, body paint, and old age stipple (on his hands). As always with the Monsters series, there was little time to do the work. I had less than 2 weeks to sculpt the face prosthetics and polyfoam headpiece, do the mold work, fabricate the pieces, and make the wig and beard. I had recently completed the Dick Smith Makeup course, and was anxious to do an old age makeup - which also had a strong dose of fantasy in the design. Somehow, it all came together well. Certainly, working with a skilled actor who can perform enthusiastically through all that rubber greatly enhanced the result. Actors often do as much to make the makeup believable as the makeup artist does.
SFF.) Dear Mr. Dods. I thank you immensely for taking time doing this interview and wish you all the best for your future movie making.
JD) Thanks for asking Till!