In an age of digital effects, where heroes burst through buildings, transform into giant Green Goliaths and Battle Cruisers zoom through the far reaches of space, this old movie goer is a tad spoiled for visual effects. It’s amazing to watch, don’t get me wrong, but it lacks a certain, personal touch.
Nostalgia hits, and I look to my movie collection and take note of the titles.
King Kong, Willis H O’Brien’s amazing visual effects on the misunderstood Kong, Jason and the Argonauts, some of Ray Harryhausen’s greatest effects work, whether stop motion or creature effects. John Carpenters The Thing, a film which expanded on the alien invader theme from the original 50s film, and turned into a visceral recreation, with some of the most mind blowing effects to date. Further down the list, Star Wars, where miniature models, creature costumes, animatronics and matte painting brought a Sci Fi Universe to life in the theatres.
These effects, painstakingly crafted, applied and delivered are some of the most memorable in cinema history. A lost art form, in a way… where now, computers and technology cover for hands on makeup or puppetry.
I peruse through a few more iconic selections. Gremlins, Enemy Mine, The Fly… filled with scenes and characters that either brought us joy, or scared us senseless.
A name that pops up with all these titles.. Chris Walas.
For some, when thinking of classics like the Gremlins or the Fly, we think, Jeff Goldblum and Gizmo.. But for others, we remember these as Chris’s amazing creations.
Some of Chris’ memorable works include Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Fly, The Fly 2, Gremlins…the list is extensive.
We were honored to have the chance to chat with Chris and hear some of his thoughts and stories of his great career.
Starting back at the beginning, what was it that drew you into your line of work?
Honestly, I fell in the monster making. While I was a lifelong fan, it wasn’t especially what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t really know enough in those days about movie making to know what I wanted. But I was in LA and out of money and I took a job at a mask making company. They also did some outside work for film and TV and would throw some of that work to some of the employees if it was too small or cheap. And it really took off from there. Star Wars came out at that time and I credit that film for giving practical creature films a big boost. Suddenly, every show or independent film wanted to do a rip off of Star Wars, so there was a huge surge in creature making at a time when there really wasn’t that many people doing that sort of work. So I got swept up in it all and never looked back.
What other films or Effects Artists inspired you when you were first starting out?
Ray Harryhausen was always a major inspiration. His work was astonishing to me when I was growing up. And I wanted to be a stop motion animator myself, at least until I found out I truly did not have the patience for it. There were other inspirations, but I didn’t know their names at the time. That information just wasn’t really available to kids in those days. Charlie Gemora was a real inspiration, although I had no idea who he was until later on. He was an extremely talented sculptor and creature creator. He made and performed a number of excellent gorilla suits for decades and was the creator of the Martian in the George Pal “War of the Worlds”. He was largely uncredited through his career, unfortunately. Of course, Dick Smith was a relentless inspiration in all of his work. He was always developing some new formula or technique, which he immediately shared with the make up community.
When given a project, what are your steps to make an idea a reality?
It always starts with the script and the director. The one question I always start with is “what should the audience feel when they see this?” It’s not simply a matter of designing something I think looks cool. It has to serve the needs of the story and the vision of the director. Of course, there’s also the practical aspect of having to make it work. So all of these things are in my mind as I do rough sketches to get my thinking in the ball park. Once the director agrees on a general approach, I switch to doing maquettes. There’s just something more telling and real about having a design in solid form. Once the design has been finalized, the long process of sculpting and molding all the elements starts, all the mechanics get worked out, and hopefully with a lot of care and artistry the final creature is ready to put in front of the camera.
Gremlins was a huge project with amazing results. What were some of the more challenging areas in bringing the creatures to life?
Absolutely everything about Gremlins was challenging. One of the ongoing difficulties was building the little mechanical Mogwai puppets. There really wasn’t a lot of room inside them for the mechanics of the day and so we wound up having to make a series of interchangeable faces, each with it’s own expression, that would work with the basic mechanics. So there was a continual effort switching out the faces through the show. Making the puppets appear to be capable of walking and running was always an issue and we really didn’t have the time or money to solve those concerns properly. Really, the biggest challenge was creating and maintaining the character of the Mogwai and Gremlins over the course of the production, making sure that the puppet operators were staying “in character”, as it were. When you have up to twelve operators on a single puppet, they have to learn to work as a single unit to create a believable character. These creatures weren’t simply monsters ripping things up; they had to express emotions of glee, terror,sadness, whatever. So it was an extra effort coax these feelings out of the puppets.
Your work on the Fly and its sequel showed the slow mutation of Seth and Martin Brundle. From minor skin irritations, to stringy residue to the “all-out final terrifying forms”… Looking back at the 1958 original by Kurt Neumann, with its Large Insect head and hands, it was terrifying for its time, and worked well within the limitations of the era. What were your ideas on how you wanted to represent the new era of The Fly, particularly in the sequel?
There was a huge difference between the approaches of the creature for The Fly and the Fly II. In the Fly, the design was the culmination of a corrupting, horrific disease, causing a tragic, horribly formed mutation. It was a non-viable life form that had to evoke both pity and revulsion at the same time. The audience had to sense that it was wrong and painful, so the asymmetrical design reflected that biological imbalance. In the sequel, the creature was a product of a different process, a more natural and balanced process that created a healthy, strong and viable life-form. But it had to be somewhat anthropomorphic to retain a certain relatability while giving free reign to the insect influence. The Fly II creature had much more physical activity to perform in the story, so the creature really needed to be genuinely capable and strong. The final creature in The Fly is a mismatched combination of flesh tones marked by sores and eruptions of metallic fly “skin” while the creature in Fly II is a balanced blend. No sores or irregularities. It’s its own perfect species.
Did you research insects to help the creative process?
Yes, for some aspects of the project, we looked at documentary fly footage, especially for a deleted scene where Brundlefly extends a fly-like tongue to lap up the goo of Stathis’ foot. But past a certain point, we knew we were in uncharted territory as we weren’t doing a direct man-to-fly exchange as the original film did. Our version of the Fly was more about the developing disease aspect and not really about the biological accuracy, so insect research really only got us in the front door as far as the design aspects.
Transforming an actor into on onscreen monster is a long and strenuous process, how long would it take to transform an actor to the “final product”? Were there any amusing tales from these long hours?
The final full-suit Brundlefly make-up and costume could take three to five hours to apply. Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum were a couple at the time and Geena was very supportive and would sit with Jeff while the make-up was being applied and read to him or play games to keep him occupied. Jeff is an astonishingly patient actor and was a dream to work with. He really put in the extra effort to work with the make-up for maximum effect.
Looking at the late 90s and 2000s cinema switched to an era of being overly reliant on the use of CGI to tell a tale. In a way, to me, certain effects have lost their charm and I prefer the warmth of practical effects. Recently there’s been a slight resurgence with creature effects (ie The Force Awakens) and it’s a welcome return. How do you feel about the “Digital era” and do you think practical effects are becoming a lost art form?
I think practical effects are better than they have ever been before. There’s more talent, better materials, more refined techniques than there has ever been. The love and artistry for practical effects will likely always be around. How large a part they play in movies may fluctuate wildly, but there is a wider market for practical effects work in TV, commercials, the internet, live shows, etc., that will hopefully allow the Practical Effects artists to keep the practice alive and thriving.
To finish, I wanted to ask what your proudest industry moment was. Was there a creation, a sequence or a film that you are most proud of during your incredible journey so far?
I still look back to the moment I watched Gremlins with an audience for the first time. I was absolutely terrified that they would take one look at that little mechanical puppet of Gizmo and simply laugh at it or yell “Fake!” or something. It was a real nail-biting moment for me. But when Gizmo came out of his box and the audience audibly sighed, “Aaawwww..” I knew we had pulled it off; that somehow all our cables and rubber had in some small way created the same kind of movie magic that Ray Harryhausen had created for me as a kid. It was a very rewarding moment for me.
Chris, Thanks so much for your time. It’s been an honor and a pleasure, and I thank you for your amazing contributions/ creations over the years. It’s provided a world of wonder and excitement not only for myself, but an entire legion of film fans.
A huge thank you to our friends at Via Vision Entertainment for giving us this amazing opportunity.