A compelling creature like the towering T-rex in “Jurassic Park” is as much the star of the blockbuster film as Sam Neill. It also represents monumental artistic achievements of multiple teams of talented FX artists at Stan Winston Studio.
The T-rex, in fact, made history as being the largest creature SWS ever built and Stan Winston captured one of his three Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects for the film. (He also received a Best Visual Effects Oscar for "Aliens and a Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup Oscar for "Terminator 2: Judgment Day").
There are all kinds of artists in the collaborative mix that work painstakingly around the clock to bring this kind of legendary creature to life on the screen. From sketch artists to sculptors and mold makers to painters a legion of people use their individual and collective skills and talents to realize a director’s creative vision that starts with a writer’s words on a page.
A critical part of a fabricator's job is to make sure all the parts of an animatronic creature fit together properly, look as realistic as possible and work and move as organically (and naturally) as possible to ensure the highest degree of realism on screen. Skins must look real and fit properly and motion has to be fluid and natural. Anything less than perfection translates to potentially poor film quality and a negative viewing experience.
Fabrication specialist Beth Hathaway is recognized as a leader in her field after more than 27 years of working on more than 100 feature films and 30 TV shows including box office giants like “Edward Scissorhands,” “Jurassic Park,” “Terminator 2,” “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” “Transformers 2 and 3,” “Hangover 3,” “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” and “The Amazing Spiderman 2.”
Beth has also worked on critically-acclaimed TV shows like “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and AMC’s Emmy winning and Golden Globe nominated series “The Walking Dead” and is currently a judge on Syfy’s hit reality competition series “Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge.”
Though artistically inclined, Beth wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted to do when she finished high school. She shared her mother’s avid love of films and her stepfather, Steve Neill, had a small garage FX shop while she was in school. He is known for his work on “Ghostbusters” (1984) and “Fright Night” (1985). Beth got her FX basic training helping out in his shop and she remains grateful he helped her get her foot in the door in a very competitive industry.
Her first paid job was at age 21 on the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” pilot where she did finishing work which included seaming, painting, putting things together and assembling puppets. The first major film she worked on was “Edward Scissorhands” for the late, great Stan Winston with whom she worked for 10 years until her last project there, “Galaxy Quest” (1999).
She transitioned to Robert Kurtzman, Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger's KNB EFX as a fabrication department head and has effectively led fabrication teams through a long list of impressive film projects from “The Green Mile” (1999) to the upcoming 2014 crime thriller “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.”
Beth has seen the FX industry undergo many changes during nearly 30 years in the business. Groundbreaking new TV shows like "American Horror Story" (FX), "The Walking Dead" (AMC) and "Game of Thrones" (HBO) have fostered a new generation of horror and fantasy genre fans and a greater interest in makeup and behind-the-scenes efforts used to bring the bold and stunning effects found in these series to the small screen. Furthermore, in today's digital age, tech savvy audiences demand a higher level of visual detail in the characters and story world.
The introduction of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) in filmmaking has helped produce and enhance many spectacular visual effects. However, there seems to be a corresponding shrinkage in the amount of fabrication work being commissioned as a result. It can be argued, though, that practical makeup/FX still adds a level of realism that digitally rendered images will never quite deliver.
As a mentor to upcoming FX artists on “Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge,” Beth realizes up and coming artists are facing an even bigger hurdle in breaking into an industry where the ratio of applicants to jobs is steadily growing more disproportionate. Moving forward, a marriage of CGI and practical FX would help job stability in both disciplines.
At this point in her prolific career, Beth feels extremely grateful and the success she has enjoyed has definitely exceeded her expectations.
I had the recent pleasure of speaking with Beth via phone to discuss her amazing achievements in the fascinating world of film and TV fabrication in the following Examiner Exclusive Q & A as part of my Women in Makeup/FX series.
E: How did you become involved in fabrication?
BH: When I first started doing what I do, I wasn’t doing fabrication. I was working in the lab making molds and that sort of thing. It was a good way to get started, so I knew the ground rules. I wanted to go on set and only certain people that work in special FX shops get to go on set. Some of those people are fabricators because if you make a suit for someone then you go on set with them and you put it on that person. Or if you make a puppet then you take that puppet on set. So that’s why I transferred into doing fabrication work.
E: As a fabrication supervisor, are you responsible for a team of fabricators and the creative vision that goes into a character or creature for a film?
BH: It’s my job to take a design that’s been approved by either the director or the producer and realize it in its true form. I will get for instance, a sculpture of a character that, if it’s supposed to go on a person, I will take that and I will make sure it’s actually something that can be worn by a person, or determine if organically it’s not going to move right. You have figure out how to make it fit onto a person so they can actually walk around and move and talk.
E: Like a suit?
BH: It could be a creature or a dinosaur and you have to make sure it moves realistically or a suit that an actor or suit performer would wear. I would have to make sure they could wear it and not pass out from heat or that sort of thing. As a supervisor, lots of times I don’t get to actually make anything. I just have to make sure everyone else is doing their job properly. Each person under me will have a character and I’ll oversee that character and make sure that it comes out right in the end.
E: You were in the art department for “Edward Scissorhands.” What did you do on the film?
BH: I was low man on the totem pole on that show. It was the first job I ever did for Stan Winston and I made gloves that Johnny Depp would wear and pre made pieces to fit the different appendages he had and we would attach them to gloves and make it something he could wear. I had a supervisor on that show, her name was Karen Mason, and she’s also a fabricator. She was my supervisor the whole time I worked at Stan’s.
E: What did you do for “Jurassic Park?”
BH: You have latex skins and you have to fit them over the mechanism that mechanics have designed and you have to make sure all of the under structure, the muscles, and the fiber glass shells and everything comes together and moves realistically and organically. Lots of times you can sculpt something and the minute you put it over something it starts to move, it could look really bad and it could buckle. That was pretty much my job on that show, making sure that everything came together and moved properly and putting on the skins and painting them as well as doing repairs.
E: The T-rex was amazing in the film! Did you work on it directly?
BH: Yes. It was my job to apply the foam rubber skins to the mechanism underneath. There was lots of sewing and slicing and dicing involved. I was part of a big crew. Some of the smaller dinosaurs had one fabricator like myself on each one of them but the T-rex had many art department people working on him. We were all involved from the very beginning, even getting to do some sculpting on the smaller dinos.
E: How many Steven Spielberg films have you worked on? What is he like to work with?
BH: I worked with Steven Spielberg on three different films; “Jurassic Park” 1 and 2 and “Galaxy Quest.” He liked working hand in hand with the puppeteers on set. He was always very specific about what he wanted. I found him to be a very nice man that knew exactly what he wanted.
E: How about “Interview with a Vampire?” What did you do?
BH: When I worked for Stan Winston, who was my boss then, one of the great things about that shop is if they were doing a film that didn’t require what your main specialty was, (it was back when I was a fabricator and there was no fabrication on that movie) he switched me back out to the mold department so I could continue working for him. So, I ran foam for the appliances and I painted and did facial work on the puppets and there were quite a few puppets in that movie.
E: What sorts of puppets were on the film?
BH: Duplicate puppets of the actors. For example, there’s a puppet for Tom Cruise when he dies and there’s four different stages of it. That was back before the days of CGI. So there was a lot more finishing work involved in that. We made puppets of several characters in the film.
E: What is a puppet like?
BH: It’s a duplicate of the actor and entails doing a live cast and then recreating the skin in silicone and then painting it and putting hair on it. There are many departments at Stan’s. There’s the hair department, paint department and seaming department and all of those elements come together to complete a duplicate puppet of an actor. It has to be as realistic as we can make it.
E: What about “This is the End?” Did you work with James Franco or Seth Rogen?
BH: I was in charge of three different creature suits in the movie. One of them was replaced by CGI but the other two made it into the film. I didn't actually go on set with any of the suits so I didn't meet James Franco. I did, however, get to meet Seth Rogen when he came to the studio to see the creature suits and give his approval. He was extremely nice and loved everything.
E: Are you involved with “The Walking Dead?”
BH: I am, but it’s not really a fabrication heavy show. It’s more about the makeup. At the beginning of the season they’ll usually do a lot more FX than they do throughout the whole season. They start off with a bang. We just finished shooting the first three episodes and we built a lot of zombie puppets for that.
E: What is your most complex project?
BH: “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” It was the most difficult because of the vastness of it. We made over 200 characters for it and getting them finished in the time we were allowed was a challenge itself. Then taking all of these characters over to New Zealand and shooting them and keeping them from falling apart was another massive challenge. That was the most difficult show I’ve ever done and the sequel, “Prince Caspian,” was every bit as difficult.
E: How did you become involved with “Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge?”
BH: It was a true Hollywood story. I just got a phone call one day at work. They were looking for a person like myself, a fabricator that had experience in the business for a long time that had decent credits. It had to be someone that had never worked for the Jim Henson Company before which I had never done, because they didn’t want me to be biased in any way.
Luckily for me, one of the producers on the show knew a producer from “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” who I had worked with before. When they told him they were looking for a female fabricator, he gave them my name. That’s how that happened. I just got the call from out of the blue.
E: Do you like being a judge on the show?
BH: I love it. It was such a great opportunity. It’s a lot of fun. The only difficult part is making a decision as to who is the best, because there are so many talented kids on the show. It’s hard to weed them out; you want to award all of them. As far as being on camera and all that sort of thing, you don’t really realize you’re on camera because you’re just sitting on a big stage at a desk. If I had a big camera right in my face it probably would have been a lot more difficult because I’m actually pretty shy. But, they made it easy for me.
E: How do you feel about this kind of show potentially giving an unknown artist a break into the business?
BH: I have mixed feelings about that because I had a couple producers on the show ask me the very same question. How do you feel about encouraging people to get into this field? Part of me is glad I can be there to help people because it’s an extremely difficult field to get into. But on the other hand, it’s also a dying industry. What I do is something that’s been shrinking for years now and I would say over the last two years I feel it, more than I ever have before.
With CGI coming in, I would say 60 or 70 percent of the jobs I used to do have been committed to CGI now. I feel like I’m saying to these kids come and do this job and on the other hand, you’re going to have a heckuva a time getting a job. Having said that, there is still work out there and if you’re super talented and you’re in the right place at the right time, you can still get your foot in the door.
E: Artists arguably bring something to the table that CGI and a computer rendering can’t bring and hopefully Hollywood still sees a value in that.
BH: Film directors still enjoy working with the practical. The last time I went on set with a lot of puppets was for this film I did for Joe Carnahan called “The Grey” with Liam Neeson. We made a bunch of wolf puppets and it was very old school, no CGI in the film. He just liked to work that way. There are some film directors that still enjoy doing things practically.
The invention of CGI doesn’t mean the complete elimination of practical. The perfect scenario would be like on "Jurassic Park,” a perfect marriage of the two together. You don’t have to eliminate one to have the other. They can work very well together. For me, it doesn’t work when you see things happen that are just completely beyond the realms of reality or gravity and you’re like, “Come on, that’s ridiculous that could never work. “ I think if we could just continue to marry those two together, it would be a good thing. Unfortunately, that seems to happen less and less.
E: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
BH: The most rewarding part of my job has been the fact that I’ve traveled to so many amazing countries and worked with so many different nationalities and so many talented people all over the world. I’ve gone to Australia, New Zealand; I’ve worked in the Czech Republic. I worked in Poland. Everyone gets upset about runaway productions. But, I have to say on the other hand, if it wasn’t for runaway productions I wouldn’t have gone to any of these amazing places.
E: What is your favorite place you’ve traveled to for a job?
BH: New Zealand.
E: What do you love over there?
BH: I loved everything about it. The people are amazing. They are wonderful people and it’s a beautiful country. It’s a strange country because it feels like it’s tropical because everything is so green. But it never gets hot there and you have all these amazing volcanic rock formations, which is why they shot “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” there--all the beautiful locations. The water is beautiful and blue and clear and you can get beaches there. You can get mountain landscapes. It’s amazing. It makes me sad that the last “Hobbit” film was shot there and yet, they did it all on a sound stage. They never went out on location.
E: Do you have a favorite project?
BH: I have two favorites. The first one would have to be a film I did called “Instinct,” which had Anthony Hopkins in it and Cuba Gooding, Jr. It was about this scientist who lives in the rainforest with gorillas. We made about 12 or 13 gorilla suits and it was all shot in the rainforest in Jamaica and it was not easy.
E: Was the climate extreme?
BH: Very extreme. I would say it was 95 to 100 degrees. Imagine wearing a 13 pound animatronic head. These acting suit performers were just put through the moves and they were all amazing. I was the most proud of the silverback gorilla suit I made for that show. It was one of my favorite things I have ever built. After that would be “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which was just a major undertaking in every different way. It was a beautiful film and it was great seeing it come to completion and then my boss ended up winning an Oscar which was also great.
E: Are there any actors or actresses you’ve worked with through the years that you’ve been particularly impressed with?
BH: Anthony Hopkins is my favorite actor I’ve ever worked with.
E: How would you describe him?
BH: He’s a gentleman through and through and a very real person. At one point in “Instinct,” we had to puppeteer a baby gorilla, a mountain gorilla that he was holding. There were 10 of us puppeteers and he was holding it and we literally sat at his feet twisted up all around him. A lot of actors would not like that. Sometimes you get actors who don’t want to deal with that sort of thing. They just want to do their craft. They don’t want to have to deal with the cables and all the puppeteers getting in the way. But, he was so nice. He came and introduced himself to all of us. He came and shook your hand and that’s a rare thing. If I had to pick one, I would say he would be my favorite.
E: He’s a phenomenal actor.
BH: I actually did get to work with him one more time on “Hitchcock” which was great because I always hoped I would get to see him one more time.
E: What did the puppeteers do during the filming process?
BH: In that case, there were 10 of us and each one controlled a particular function. It’s a matter of rehearsing over and over again to make sure we all worked in sync with the actor so that what we had to do didn’t inhibit his performance.
E: Were you moving its fingers and eyes and things?
BH: Every function on the baby’s face. The upper lip, the lower lip, the ears, the brows, the eyes the hands, even the feet. That scenario isn’t something that happens that much anymore. Look at “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” that just came out. Why would you have 10 puppeteers when all you have to do is just recreate it on screen? You can’t knock them, because it’s beautiful. It’s just everything changes and you’ve just got to roll with it.
E: Are there other female makeup/FX artists whose work you admire?
BH: I admire Ve Neill very much. I’ve known her since I was a little girl.
E: Have you worked on any projects with her?
BH: I’ve only worked on two projects with her, which is funny because when I first started doing this kind of work, it was like, “Oh, we’re going to be doing movies together." But it ended up not happening that many times and what was funny, was the first project I worked on with her was the first project I did for Stan Winston, which was “Edward Scissorhands.” Then I didn’t work with her again until we did “Galaxy Quest” and that is the last time I worked with her.
E: Do you think a female makeup/FX artist brings a different perspective to a character, creature or show than a male artist?
BH: I don’t know it would be fair to say it’s different. I do think it’s definitely harder for a female to break into the business. It’s definitely a predominantly male industry. It always has been. When I started at Stan Winston’s in 1990 I was one of only three women in the entire shop and there was about 40 people working there. That’s changed a lot over the years. There are a lot more female makeup artists and fabricators in the business.
E: If you were hiring someone for a job, what kinds of traits and qualities would you look for that would help someone stand out to you?
BH: I would look for someone that works well with other people, someone that has a good eye, someone that is artistically inclined and someone that has a good work ethic. All these things are really important.
E: What advice would you offer aspiring artists who are looking to break into makeup/FX?
BH: I would tell them to toughen their skin, to be tenacious and to practice their craft as much as they can.