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Women in Makeup/FX: Val Crawford makes film magic with creatures great and small

Cabin in the Woods
Cabin in the Woods
Photo Courtesy of Val Crawford Used with Permission

Whether its legions of horses for battle in epic films like “The Last Samurai” or a cute gang of adventure-seeking golden retrievers in “Space Buddies,” animals play important but often understated roles in film and television. They can be the star of films as in “Cats and Dogs” or “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” or enhance the humor, drama or suspense in any given scene.

Special FX artist Val Crawford is pictured with a stray dog she rescued while working on a film in China.
Photo Courtesy of Val Crawford Used with Permission

It may be a little known fact that some of the furry and feathered friends we see on the big and small screens are not real, but instead, sophisticated special FX fabrications to replicate a living creature. Among the bevy of talented people it takes to bring one of these animals to film, are fur technicians that work fervently to make sure every aspect of an animal’s fur, feathers and body covering match a real, living animal as precisely as possible.

Special FX artist Val Crawford is one of these fascinating fur magicians who pours her time and talent into making the creatures she works with as realistic as possible. Her spectacular work has been featured in films all over the globe and her inspirational story gives a prime example of how some of us don’t have to “search out” our calling, our calling will simply find us when we least expect it.

The charismatic Idaho native didn’t move to Southern California with the intention of becoming involved in the film industry. Instead, Val ran a fishing bait business with her brother and later took her love for kids to the YMCA where she served as a child care supervisor for several years.

She loved planning all sorts of activities for the children, but felt unfulfilled in a way she couldn’t even describe until she fell into her first film FX project by helping her roommate who worked at a small FX studio help make an eagle’s nest for “Ace Ventura 2.”

She helped with some other small projects but when she delivered them to the shop, “I knew when I walked in there,” said Val. “I was so enamored, so amazed by all these wonderful, incredible things I was visually seeing that weren’t real. They made these things for the movie, TV and commercial industry and it didn’t even dawn on me things like this were on TV.”

The artistic multi-tasker worked at YMCA for seven years while on the side she did projects for Animal Makers. The studio owner eventually took Val on as a paid intern and she worked from the bottom up as a runner, then as fabrication assistant, then as lead fabricator in just about a year’s and a half’s time.

“Even though I didn’t really know what I was doing [at first],” said Val, “I tried really hard and tried to learn and I brought in a lot of people who knew what they were doing. I felt really fortunate to have those people in my life that I could really learn from.”

Since then, Val has built an extensive and impressive filmography specializing as a fur technician on films and TV shows such as “The Last Samurai,” “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” “Beverly Hills Chiuahua,” “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” "American Horror Story," “Where the Wild Things Are: Jim Henson’s Creature Shop,” “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore,” Chinese film “The Monkey King,” and the upcoming “Dolphin Tale 2” to name a few.

One of her professional highlights also brought her great personal joy as she traveled to China three times where she worked on the upcoming U.S. release “The Monkey King” for nine months. She rescued two dogs there during her first trip and later another two puppies on her third trip to China and brought them back with her to the States.

Val has been an animal lover since childhood, when she rescued her first dog that a neighbor was planning on throwing away. “I think I was about eight and my neighbor was going to take her little Cockapoo and dump it along the side of the road because she didn’t want it anymore,” Val said, “I told my mom of the dog’s fate with tears running down my face asking if we could please keep it. She said yes. Troubles was the dog’s name. She was such a good dog!”

She went on to detail the crisis she encountered with stray dogs while working in China saying, “In China it was hard because there were so many stray dogs. I would go to the local cafe/market in the art district where we worked and feed them on my lunch break. Some of them had owners others didn't. They ran around in little packs.”

Rescuing dogs is one of Val’s personal passions and a cause which remains close to her heart. Her love for animals and her keen dedication to perfection is infused in every finished project she delivers.

I was honored to speak with Val recently via phone to discuss her fascinating foray into the world of film and fur in the following Examiner exclusive Q & A for my Women in Makeup/FX series.

E: Was the studio owner at Animal Makers your first mentor in the field?

VC: No he was mostly in sales, but I will be forever grateful that I got a break into this profession and that Animal Makers was that company that gave me exposure into this field. I was kind of an intern, but I was a paid intern many interns may not get paid in the beginning or work for free for a while. Fortunately, I did get paid and I was learning as I was going. I stayed there for about five years and went out looking for work at other shops, but nobody knew me. So, it was hard to get a job. It was six months before I was able to get another job. But, that was 1995 and now it’s 2014.

E: Your field of expertise is unique. What exactly do you do as a fur technician?

VC: I specialize in putting hair, fur and feathers on animals and birds.

E: Is it an intricate process? How do you do it?

VC: We try to find something that’s going to match what we’re doing. We try to make it look as realistic as possible, however sometimes they may want the character more cartoony like the Foster Farms Chickens. Many times we use synthetic fur, and may have to die it and sometimes I use real pelts. I use a lot of calf and goat. And there’s a technique we call flocking. It’s using hair fibers, synthetic or natural, and I cut it to the desired length you want, put the fibers into a bucket at the end of the wand that is the flocking gun. It’s connected to a small electrical box and one gives off a positive and the other a negative. You connect one clip to whatever you want to put the hair on, and apply glue. Once the glue is almost dry you move this wand and hair flies out and sticks to the glue. It sticks standing up so you can comb it in the direction you want. We did this method on the horses in “Last Samurai.”

E: How neat! Do they use the sculptures in a CGI capacity? Or, when would they use this kind of a horse?

VC: It’s possible they could do both. If you’ve seen “The Last Samurai,” – I worked for a company that made hydraulic horses -- this horse was amazing. It could rear and move its legs like it was rearing in front of somebody. In the scene it’s rearing and it gets hit from the broad side by another horse and it falls over. I don’t remember how many servos the head had in it but there were a lot. It was amazing to watch this horse lip movement. Because Tom Cruise was going to be on the horse, they wanted to have a really controlled environment. It saves production money the more the character can do then the less they have to pay for CGI.

E: Like for battles?

VC: Correct. They may do CGI if a horse can’t move his lips or they want say ear or eye movement for example.

E: Did you work on the animals in “Cats and Dogs?”

VC: I worked on the German shepherd. It’s probably my favorite out of all the things I’ve done. It looks the most realistic. Anyone I’ve shown the photo to can’t believe it’s not a real dog. It really starts from the sculpture. If you don’t have a great sculpture, then sometimes the lips might be too big or the nose. But, the sculpting was great. The painting was great. It just was one of those “perfect storms” where it came out to a really nice end product.

E: How about “Where the Wild Things Are?” What did you work on for that?

VC: On that particular show, they had multiples of each character. So, they had maybe three heads of each particular character and they needed extra help. So I came in and helped out on the additional heads. It was great. I had a great time with Deborah Galvez. She’s incredible, she’s a great teacher and Rick Lalonde, they were incredible artists in their own right and I learned a lot from them. Another great mentor and teacher who wasn’t on this show, is Desiree Soto-Vaughn. I worked with her in China and we did a project there called “The Monkey King” in 2010, we were there for nine months.

E: Wow. How was it acclimating to living in China?

VC: I love to travel and try new things. It was great. I enjoyed myself. It was hard being away from home, I have a lot of dogs of my own. So, it was hard being away from my family and friends. But, the experience alone was really amazing and I’ve gone back two times since then. I loved the experience and I have rescued four dogs so far and found homes for them.

E: What kind of work did you do for the film?

VC: I did three walk around suit hooties. One was an owl. There was a lot of feather work, a lot of dying. I did a bear head, and the other was a Polar bear head. They had four or five different walk around suits of animals. The owl, the bear, the mouse, the rat and a polar bear.

E: How do you develop an eye for bringing the realism to animals?

VC: It’s a lot of studying, looking at photos, trying to pick the best hair for a character. Great sculptors and great painters really enhance your work and enough time to do it.

E: How do you source materials?

VC: I just got done doing some work for KNB and we did some elk, one was a hero elk and I was able to buy a pelt online from a company in Montana and the other three I found fabric that we were able to die and paint to come realistically close to the real pelt.

E: Who do you get your direction for the characters from?

VC: If I was to go to Tinsley Studio, Robin or Christien would give me a call and say, “This is what we’re making, for example, a steer head. Here are the photos; we want you to follow these parameters. We’re just doing the head to the shoulders.” I usually look for the fur and they tell me how long I have and I work. Sometimes the hardest thing is to get done in the allotted amount of time. It seems I hear so often production offers less time and less money for the same amount of work.

E: The pressure of deadlines has got to be one of the most challenging parts of the job.

VC: It’s such a huge collaboration of departments. We are all under the gun to get it done in a timely manner.

E: You’ve also worked on TV on “American Horror Story.” What did you do?

VC: I did a cow head for them. It’s black, you may have seen it. I also did this suit character where he’s kind of half-goat, half-human. He’s kind of reddish in color. I did the heads and feet on that.

E: What did you do for the upcoming “Dolphin Tale 2” film?

VC: When we did dolphins for Dolphin tale 1 the animatronic dolphins were in salt water and the flocking would just fall off when it’s exposed to water. At that time we use prosaide as the glue. This time around, when we flocked the dolphins we used silicone as the gluing agent. I used really short fibers on the dolphin and it held up fantastic and we got the desired result we were looking for. It’s a really slippery surface. But, we were able to use enough kicker that the hair was fine enough and managed to stay on the dolphin and break up the water. It’s hard to understand without seeing it. The technique was unique in that it was the first time the dolphins were flocked.

E: You also worked on a really big giraffe for “Hangover 3.” Can you tell us about working on that?

VC: The giraffe was a fun one, one of the largest of the animals I have ever done. I think he was about 12-14 feet tall, with the head. We ordered the form from a taxidermy place and just married the pieces together. In this scene, the giraffe is riding in the back of an uncovered truck. The neck had to be soft foam, as in the movie the giraffe gets decapitated going under an overpass and his neck just drops when that happens. I think we bought about five pounds of hair of six different colors, blended it to get the closest color of the giraffe we were matching. We cut the hair down to 3/8 inch lengths so it would easily go out of the flocking gun. We based out the body in white then put in the pattern of spots we wanted and flocked the dark spots first then the white, from beginning to end. I think we did the giraffe in about a month. We were up and down on scaffolding so that made it interesting. I was really happy how it turned out.

E: What’s the most challenging or complex project you’ve worked on?

VC: A project I did in China. I was there for four months and there was such an abundance of characters they wanted me to do and be part of. It would be a two-three year project in America what we did in the four months that I was there. And I was the only American there. It was like 80 gazelles, 30 wolves, 10 baby wolves, four sheep, 10 dead sheep. It was just astronomical. I told them I didn’t want to come because I was afraid of what they wanted me to accomplish. But, he assured me I would not be alone. When I got there, the people worked so hard and tried their best. I showed two people looking over my back for a week and they were trying to teach the other Chinese people how I was doing everything and by the end of the four months they did a really, pretty good job. I was so amazed that everything got done. It’s coming out 2015. It’s called “Wolf Totem.”

E: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

VC: When I first puppeteered something that I made, I got emotional, It was so rewarding. I was happier than I could ever imagine; being able to do something like this and be so creative and so inspired and to be on screen, to be on TV. It’s hard to express the joy that I have. I love this job because it’s so rewarding and inspiring. I’m so appreciative I was to able encounter and get into this field, not really knowing this type of work existed.

E: Is there an actor or actress you were impressed with on a project?

VC: Chow Yun Fat who played in “Monkey King” while we were there in China. He came to the Christmas party the production had for the crew. There were probably 20 some crew members from America there. He took pictures with everyone and he was so open and nice, very approachable. I love his acting and he’s very talented. I’m really inspired by him.

E: Do you have any favorite TV shows or films?

VC: I like “Orange is the New Black,” “Game of Thrones,” of course. I know when I was a kid, “Where the Red Fern Grows” and “Old Yeller” was my genre and Shirley Temple and once I got into this I’ve expanded my horizons. I would’ve never watched “The Walking Dead” and I love “The Walking Dead.”

E: What do you think of reality TV like “Face Off” and people getting a break through these types of shows?

VC: I’ve only watched one or two “Face Offs” but I watched “Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.” My friend Beth Hathaway is one of the judges on that show. She works at KNB and she did an awesome job and the contestants did a great job. I’m so inspired by what these people can do in a short amount of time. It’s phenomenal. They’re well-rounded. They sculpt, they mold, they paint, they fabricate, and they put hair on. I was really in awe. They did a tremendous job. I think it’s a great show.

E: I’ve been so inspired, in doing this series, by all of the amazing things ladies like you are doing. Do you think there are more women in the field?

VC: It was more male-dominated in the beginning, but now, there are more and more women looking at this as their careers. There are still shops that are male dominated but I see a lot of shops now that are maybe 60 percent men to 40 percent women and it’s really great to see that happening.

E: Is there a fellow female makeup/FX artist whose work you admire?

VC: There are a few, but not a whole lot of people that do exactly what I do. A few are: Deborah, Rick, Jeff Cruts and Desiree. For me, those people were in my circle and those were the people who influenced me and I was very fortunate to be in that.

E: What do you think a female artist could bring to the table that’s unique from what a male artist could bring?

VC: I think it’s not so much female, but just every individual and their experience. Maybe some people have more experience in maybe sculpting, makeup or fabricating. It depends on their experience and what they enjoy, not necessarily whether they are male or female. I do think that the female energy does add a lot of positivity to any shop.

E: Do you have any advice for someone who is aspiring to get into the film or makeup/FX industry?

VC: I think if you want something bad enough, definitely, try your best. Work hard. Do whatever it takes to try and get into the shops. I feel so fortunate to get in when I did. I was able to get nurtured young at a small shop. The industry is changing so fast, I hope what I am doing doesn’t become obsolete. My advice is set your dreams high and don’t give up.

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