In mid to late 2003, I worked on the movie, Dead Birds. This was a fairly big deal for the makeup effects shop I worked for, and we were fully staffed to meet the shoot's needs. We had to create a wide range of effects, from simple bullet wound makeups to replica heads to a full-size animatronic creature. The cast has some known actors in it (Henry Thomas, Mark Boone Junior, and Michael Shannon), and I believe it was well-received and, at least at the time, had a noticed release. At that time, it was nearly impossible to know how well the projects we worked on were ever received. By the time movies or shows were released, we had long since forgotten about them and had worked on half a dozen other projects. That was the nature of the industry when I was a part of it.
I will be sharing two posts about Dead Birds this week. This one, the first, will focus on the concept design work that I created for the film, and the second post that will come in a few days will focus on the work done in the shop. These are posts that I planned to do for a long time, but since I recently found all my original drawings, I took it as an omen to finally share them. Also, the man I used to work for during my time in LA passed away a couple of weeks ago. Any hesitation about sharing my work in the film industry is now gone, and I feel I can speak more frankly about the work and my time there.
While there were many effects needed for Dead Birds, the main focus of everyone's efforts centered around creating the Creature. The Creature was a prominent feature of the movie, and the design of it would carry through other effects we would be making. Since the Creature would need to be a fully animatronic practical effect, a great deal of time, energy, and money would be going into it to bring it to life. But before anything could happen in the shop, the concept design team would need to figure out what precisely the Creature looked like. When I say the concept design team, I refer to myself and the shop's art director. I will only be sharing my work on the film.
The Creature wasn't well described, but we were told to think of it as a deformed, messed-up human monstrosity. Maybe it was once human, perhaps it was once several humans, maybe a bunch of humans got eaten by something and vomited up, and that mass is now running around. It was up to us to figure out the direction this monster would be going. We generated a lot of drawings on this production, much more than we usually did for projects. It was a nice change of pace, and looking back now, I believe some of the best design work that I did in LA was on this project. There are plenty of designs and drawings that I am still happy with, and I can not say that about other work done at this time. I am not sharing all of the work that I did on the film, only the work done traditionally or was essential to the production.
The art director and I were sent to the design room to get to work. After a bit of scribbling, some talking, a lot of panic, I came up with a selection of thumbnails that worked out some ideas and got the ball rolling. These are the best and the ones that have survived.
There are a few of these that I feel have a lot of potential. I don't think they were ever seen by anyone outside the shop until now, so they are still mine to play around with. Of course, they will look very different once I get around to doing something with them.
There was a bit of internal conversation after the first wave of thumbnails were completed - what was working and wasn't. By this time, the film's producers, writers, and decision-makers were finally sending us their thoughts on what this monster should look like. We took it all into consideration and got to work on some more finished designs. For mine, I drew them traditionally and finished them digitally. These two designs are still some of my favorite work done on this movie. While the final monster ended up being very different, there is something about these I really liked. They were nicely mutated, raw, and both dangerous and vulnerable.
Before these went out, I was asked by the boss to do a modified version of one of the designs. It was to incorporate some of the thoughts and notes coming in from the filmmakers. Already they were thinking of something more intact, something more fleshy and put together. They were also starting to lean into the idea of hollow eyes and a gaping mouth. Looking at what they eventually went with, this was the point it began to head in that direction.
Getting clear feedback from the filmmakers was never a feature of those days in the shop. I found it like playing a game of telephone. The notes and feedback were always passed through several people, and I never knew what was coming from the writers and producers or what was coming from the boss. The only exception was when the showrunners or filmmakers hated something or were gleefully berating my designs. Then I would receive a real-time play-by-play of just how bad my work was and how badly I was making the shop look due to my subpar abilities.
While I thought we were moving in the right direction, which in hindsight, we were, the art director and I were told to go in a totally new direction. We were asked to start working on a more humanoid version that was bipedal and was described as a walking skin bag. I did as I was told and turned out a collection of new thumbnails. These are the best and the ones that have survived.
I was not a fan of this new direction, but I did my best. There are some interesting forms in these, but I felt, and still do feel, that the messed-up quadrupedal route was better for this movie. With concept design work, you need to explore as much as possible to make sure you haven't missed anything. Even so, I feel we wasted some time exploring this direction. The art director and I eventually created some more finalized concepts.
Of the three, I still really like the first. I can see the early spark of forms I have revisited in my work in that first drawing. The rest are interesting explorations, but they would have never worked out as the movie's monster.
This is where there is a little bit of a gap, but there was a lot of talking and work being done, just not on paper. I was doing some digital mockups, the art director was exploring some additional directions that led nowhere, and we were finally getting a lot of feedback from the filmmakers. We were back on track with a monster on four legs, a human-like face with sunken eyes and gaping mouth, pale flesh, and functional but abnormal anatomy. With all that in mind, I made this.
This is as far as I went with the design work on the Creature. The art director did a couple more iterations as we locked in on the final design, but my design for this monster carries through to the end. Of all the things I designed in LA, the arm and hand rib cage is one of the things I am proudest of. I remember it being my creation, but I had to go back through my archives and look at the timestamps on all of the designs to make sure this piece had it first. Not that it mattered then or matters now, but with all the artistic ups and mostly downs that I had in LA, it is nice to have proof that I created something that I am still proud of that made it into a finished production. As a side note, the tail never made it into the final design. Oh well...
Fun Fact: If you watch the extras on the DVD of Dead Birds there is a segment of the producers looking at a table full of our designs for the Creature. At one point they pick up one of the drawings and mock and ridicule it. Thankfully, it was not one of my designs.
Clyde, played by Michael Shannon, becomes a scarecrow in the film. I was asked to design the makeup, chest appliance and depict how he might look tied up in all his scarecrow goodness. Not my best work, but it got the job done. This was a fast turnaround for a straightforward concept. There was not much heavy lifting to be done, and much of the finer points would be worked out in the sculpture of the makeup and chest appliance. We had Michael Shannon in the shop for a life cast before creating these designs, which allowed me to have reference for the makeup so that the design had a passing resemblance. There were no thumbnails, iterations, or roughs, I sat down and made these, and they were approved and went into production.
Fun Fact: Having met and worked on the life cast of Michael Shannon and having Mark Boone Junior in the movie it has really upped my six degrees of Kevin Bacon game with a lot of shows and movies I have enjoyed. Thanks to Mark Boone Junior I am one degree away of everyone from the Mandalorian. That and Dave Filoni was sitting behind us at the stage show for the very last Star Wars weekend at Hollywood Studios.
Two ghost children needed to be designed for the movie, one male and one female. I was tasked with the male child and the art director working on the female child. I was forced to create my designs digitally, as I was on a lot of the design work I produced during my time in LA. It was a luxury to have been able to draw my designs for the Creature with a pencil and pen. I made two versions of the male child ghost. The first was early in our work on the film, and the second, which was approved and used, was created later after the Creature design was finalized. You might notice a similarity between my final Creature design and that of the second ghost child.
Fun Fact: The top design is built off one of the guys in the shop who I still keep up with, and the bottom design is built off photos of the child actor from the film.
In my next post, I will have many photos from the shop as the team worked on creating animatronic monsters, dead birds, makeups, and more!
That is all of another exciting Monday on the blog. See you back here on Wednesday! Until then...
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