Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Dead Birds - Part 2: Shop Images

Dead Birds - 2004
In my previous post, I shared the concept work that I produced for the film, Dead Birds. This post will focus on the work done in the shop by the makeup effects team that I was a part of. I want to be crystal clear, the work presented here results from a group of skilled and talented artists and craftsmen who spent many weeks working under tight deadlines to produce this work. I played a minor role in much of this work, save for creating the concept designs. Likely, I was also involved in cleaning up the seams on the silicon and foam latex and eventually some of the paintworks. To be honest, much of this time was a blur, and I can't recall all that I was doing and what exactly I did on this particular project in the shop. I was always an extra pair of hands used where I was needed. Also, we were working on other projects simultaneously, so it was likely I was involved in that other work as well.
I was the shop's historian and archivist, which meant that I was constantly recording and documenting what was happening in the shop on our various projects. This responsibility is why I have access to all of these images, and many, many more, after all these years. Please keep in mind, the things I most definitely had no part in with this work are the sculpture, mold making, casting, and animatronic work. I have intentionally used images that contained as few people as possible and no faces. While I remember most of the team I worked with, I don't recall everyone's names. Also, at least two of the people that I worked with on this film are now dead. It is simply easier to keep everyone out of the images rather than making sure everyone gets appropriate credit. With all the caveats address, it is time for some monster-making.

 The Creature

As I shared last time, I was heavily involved with designing the Creature for Dead Birds. The Creature's design would be seen throughout most other effects in the movie, and locking it down was key. Once I had completed my contributions to the design, the shop's art director finalized it, and it went into production in the shop. It was a multiphased process with many working together to get all the work done. Since it was a fully articulated animatronic creature, it needed to perform on set as it was necessary to. This meant that the Creature's body was a hollow fiberglass shell full of control wires surrounded by a silicon skin. Starting things off, a maquette was created to get production's approval, to work it out in the round, and to have a guide as the sculptors moved forward in the full-sized Creature.

The Creature maquette was about six inches long if I remember correctly - give or take. I was involved with several camera and lighting experiments to see what effects were possible with the monster.

The full-size Creature sculpture is underway. The size was worked out, and an armature was created to support the clay sculpture. The sculpture started very rough and was refined through multiple passes on increasing detail.
Another look at the entire sculpture. It is getting close to completion at this point, or should I say the body is getting close to completion.
The head and limbs were removed so that additional refinement and detail could be added to the sculpture. While that was happening, the body was prepped for a fiberglass mold. As with painting, extra detail is usually put into the faces and hands of sculptures, even a monster sculpture.
This is one of the forelimbs getting additional attention and detail. As a general rule, much of the time, attention, detail, and work that goes into makeup effects and monsters are never seen on screen. It is lost to the process of making movies. The time and work are still put into our creations because the people who paid for it will be on set looking at our creations, and they need to be wowed.
As with the limbs, the head received more detailing. It also needed to be modified to have an open mouth that could move and display rows of needle teeth.
The body's mold had silicone injected under pressure to ensure that it was filled and there were no air pockets. Small holes were drilled in the highest points to allow air to escape, and once silicon began to ooze from the holes, they were sealed. If you look at the image's background, you can see the controlled chaos that is a makeup effects shop.
The body is fresh from the mold. Lots of flashing to clean up and some areas to address, but a successful run. I am not sure who, whom, or why, but in the decision-making process, it was determined that the Creature would have "unsettling" genitalia. It was a popular thing to do at the time, but I never understood it and the glee some took in it seemed very juvenile.
The limbs were all cast separately but didn't require the silicone to be injected. This back foot appears to have a lot of flashing to deal with.
This is the fiberglass shell of the Creature taking shape. A great deal of time and effort goes into this type of operation and it was all outside my pay grade at the time. It was all controlled with wires and was completely hand-controlled, with no servos or electronics. 
As mentioned before, a mouth full of needle teeth could be slid into position to make the monster more fierce.
The body skin was tired on the shell to see how it all fit. One of the main issues with this monster is that the silicon is heavy. The shell needs to support it, and the wires need to be strong enough to move the shell and the skin. Slashes and cuts were made on the inside of the skin to allow for more movement and flexibility.
The shell and mechanics are getting close to completion. There is no going back now.

The body, head, and limps are all attached to the shell, and the painstaking process of hiding all of the seams begins. Silicon paste is used to conceal the gaps and seams to make the skin a unified form. At this point as well, the mechanics are permanently sealed into the monster. If something goes wrong, the skin will have to be cut open to address any malfunctions. It all has to be perfect, or nothing will work.
With pain finally going onto the Creature, it is finally beginning to look like a fully-realized monster. We had to use silicon-based paint so that it would stick to the silicon skin. Not the healthiest materials to work with - much like many of the products used in the effect business of the time. Hopefully, safer and more environmentally friendly options are now available.

Did I mention we made a full-sized dead Creature?
This dead version has a silicon skin, but is filled with foam over a wire armature so that it could be posistioned into a suitable pose.
Slathered with blood and kept almost entirely off-screen, this dead Creature was more for the actors to respond to than to show to the audience. That said, as much time and effort was given to it as was given to all of the rest of the effects created for the movie.
A closeup of the mouth and needle teeth. RAWR! It is a scary Creature!
The results of everyone's labors. One fully animatronic monster ready for filming.
A side view of the monster and that hand rib action that I was so proud of in the design phase.
A look at the cart the monster was attached to for filming. Kept off-camera, the card allows the Creature a great deal of mobility.
This is a look at the Creature's back and all the hairs ( that are TOTALLY not fishing line) that cover its body.
One final shot of the Creature head-on.

Dead Birds

The movie's namesake does make an appearance. We were tasked to design and create several mutated dead birds. I was not involved with any of this particular effect. The shop's art director designed it, and others did the sculpting, paintwork, and finish. Well, I may have seamed one or two and may have painted the background birds; I really don't remember. There were several of these made, but there were one or two hero pieces that were made of silicon and were used for close-up shots. I really like these pieces, and I thought they turned out really well.

The sculpture of the dead bird. Only one was made, and the cast birds were modified and changed to appear like there were many different birds.
The finished dead bird in all its squishy goodness. If I remember correctly, there were some issues with getting the feathers to stick and to look good. There was some back and forth about how much skin should be showing and how much the feathers covered. This hero bird rides the line well.

Ghost Children

There were two ghost children created for Dead Birds. I was responsible for designing the male child, and the art director designed the female child. Both went through minimal design phases and were quick turnaround effects. The male ghost ended up being a mask, and the female ghost was a multipiece makeup. Working with kids can sometimes be difficult, and getting life casts of children can be a terrifying ordeal for both child and adult. But to make film quality masks and makeups there weren't alternatives at the time. You might notice some similarities of these masks and makeup to the look of the Creature.

The sculpture of the male ghost mask. It is very true to the design and very creepy.
The mask was cast in silicon and was painted in the same fashion as the Creature.
The finished male ghost mask.
The female ghost was similar but a little different, almost like an earlier form. This is the sculpture of the facepiece for the makeup.
There was also a next appliance that was sculpted and used. 
This is the foam latex face appliance for the female ghost. I know this is definitely not my work. I never went in and used white paint in my work as it is used here.

Clyde Scarecrow

Clyde, played by Michael Shannon, needed to have a multipiece makeup created and a replica head. This meant a lifecast was required. I designed all of the aspects of this effect, but a lot of the finer details were worked out in clay. I was uncertain of my efforts for this piece at the time. Looking back at the end results now I think it was a successful finished effect.

Michael Shannon going under the blue goo.
The sculpture for the facepiece of the makeup. The thread was added so that when the sculpture was review it was clear what it would look like. The thread was not part of the sculpture and was added to the finished painted makeup.
If I remember correctly, the chest piece was sculpted off a generic form we had available.
The raw foam latex cast of the chest piece.
The foam latex face appliance after it was painted and the thread was added.
The fully-painted chest piece.
Finally, the replica head of Clyde ready for use on set. We took a cast from his lifecast, modified the head position, added a cast of the face appliance, and painted and finished it so that it would match the makeup on the actor.

There are so many more images that I have in my archive. So many more memories and stories. I will end here, though. If you have questions, I am happy to answer them. This was but one of the many projects I worked on in my time in LA and if the mood strikes me I will bring more to the blog in the future.

That's all for another exciting Wednesday on the blog. See you back here on Friday! Until then...

For more samples of my work or to contact me regarding my availability, head over to my website:


  1. Thanks for posting this. There's been nothing recently in film that has spooked me as much as these "ghosts". Even looking at stills of these outside the context of jump-scares, they are deeply unsettling!

    1. You are very welcome! Glad to hear the work we did on this film had suck an impact and stick is powerful even today.

  2. That's some gorgeous effect work, i wish there was more to see of the masks in the finished movie. I like these a lot

    1. Thank you so much! That is the curse of the FX industry, we spend days, weeks, months on something and most of it ends up on the editing room floor, or in this case, likely left on a hard drive. That is why we take lots of photos :)