The 2005 Man-Thing film was part of an arrangement Marvel Comics made with Artisan to develop lesser-known characters into motion pictures of their own. Originally intended for a 2004 video release, it was ‘upgraded’ for a theatrical release — only to be put back on the straight to video format by Marvel. Still, the film was theatrically released in a limited number of countries, among which Russia and Spain.
The film featured a mixture of practical and digital effects — with the former parts created by Make-Up Effects Group of Australia. Monster Legacy had the great chance — and honour — to interview Nick Nicolaou, co-founder of the special effects company, who brought the swamp Monster to life.
Before the interview itself, a necessary introduction to Man-Thing. The origins of the character date back to 1970-early 1971 — when Stan Lee and writer Roy Thomas began to discuss the idea. Stan Lee, who conceived the basic story idea, is also credited for the actual name of the being, and for the concept of the man losing his sentience.
Roy Thomas recalled in 2008, in an interview to Alter-Ego: “Stan Lee called me in; it would’ve been late ’70 or early ’71. […] He had a couple of sentences or so for the concept — I think it was mainly the notion of a guy working on some experimental drug or something for the government, his being accosted by spies, and getting fused with the swamp so that he becomes this creature. The creature itself sounds a lot like the Heap [Hillman periodicals character], but neither of us mentioned that character at the time… I didn’t care much for the name ‘Man-Thing’, because we already had the Thing [of the Fantastic Four], and I thought it would be confusing to also have another one called Man-Thing.”
Though Lee remained as who originally had the idea, the first story (appearing in Savage Tales #1, dated May 1971) was eventually co-written by Thomas and Gerry Conway. Gray Morrow first designed and drew the comic panels. The character eventually got its own headline, from January 1974 to October 1975. Several other series and appearances followed, currently ending in the crossover Fear Itself storyline.
In its comic book origins, Man-Thing’s real name is Theodore Sallis. The scientist was part of a team trying to recreate the super-soldier serum that had given origin to Captain America. Curiously enough, Sallis also collaborated with Curt Connors in the research that would eventually create the Lizard.
Attacked by terrorists and betrayed by his wife (Ellen Brandt), he flees and injects himself with the only sample of his new serum formula. He then has an accident, falling with his car in a swamp — later revealed to be the Nexus of all Realities. It is here that the serum, combined with magical forces of the swamp, transforms Theodore Sallis into the Man-Thing — a colossal Monster composed of swamp matter. Its signature attack is a burning touch triggered by opponents’ fear. As often repeated, “whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch.”
When writing the script for the film adaptation, writer Hans Rodionoff decided to take considerable creative liberties with the character. Theodore Sallis is now a shaman, who is murdered to obtain the tribal lands he owned, including a swamp. Buried in the swamp, by supernatural means he is fused with the guardian spirit of the place and swamp matter — becoming the Man-Thing. The Monster also has new abilities, such as making plants grow from inside humans — with gruesome results.
An enthusiast of the comic book character, Rodionoff wanted to infuse a Lovecraftian element into the character. He told Fangoria: “because I grew up reading Man-thing comics, I approached the character with nothing but admiration and respect. Even with that approach, it was necessary to have the Man-Thing’s new incarnation deviate slightly from the established mythology. I would describe the Man-Thing as an ancient entity, a malignant force of nature. It’s Lovecraftian, it’s alien, it’s something that we will never be able to fully comprehend. And if could see into its mind, even just for a brief moment, we would instantly go insane.”
The extensive gore and special effects of the film were brought to the screen by the Make-Up Effects Group of Australia. The Man-Thing was built as a full-size creature suit, performed by Mark ‘Conan’ Stevens, a 7’1″ Australian actor and ex-wrestler. Although no full-digital Man-Thing model was made due to budgetary constraints, the suit was combined with digital moving branches and tendrils for certain sequences, as well as digital augmentation for the eyes.
Here follows the interview with Nick Nicolaou, co-founder of the Make-Up Effects Group. As you will discover, the final film does not reflect what was originally intended to be shown to audiences.
Monster Legacy: A more personal question first. What inspired you to take on the career of a practical effects artist? What effects works would you name as the most inspirational for you?
Nick Nicolaou: The thing that inspired me most to take on a career in make-up effects was the magic of ‘movies’. Specifically, The Valley of Gwangi and the Harryhausen effects films. The Hammer films and Universal Monsters were also huge influences. I can still vividly remember watching Gwangi as a kid… I remember what was happening around me and I was glued to the TV. Then came the 80’s revival of effects films (by then I was focused and knew this is what I wanted to do), Rick Baker, Tom Savini, Stan Winston, and of course, Rob Bottin and his seminal work on The Thing.
Monster Legacy: How did you become involved in the project, and what was your impression on the script?
Nick Nicolaou: We were approached by Brett Leonard and the production and were successful with our bid for the project. The script was cool — but so many things started to be cut and changed due to budgetary issues. I feel the final film lost so much by the time it got to the screen. There were more interesting character building ideas surrounding the Man-Thing creature, that showed his connection to the swamp and the environment. Many were heavily FX related, so they were the first to go.
We had a great collaboration with Brett Leonard and went on to do his next film, Feed.
Monster Legacy: What was your approach to the Monster design, also considering the original Man-Thing’s appearance?
Nick Nicolaou: There is a lot of history behind the original design and I am a huge fan of the comic and the creature. However, practical suit considerations have to be taken into account when translating any design, especially from a comic book drawing.
The Director & Production Designer wanted to “tweak” the design a little and Marvel were supportive of the changes (I have a FAX from Marvel saying the suit looked amazing). The main difference in the design is the three huge tendrils/tentacles that were central to the face of the Man-Thing comic design. With VFX and Practical MUFX budget constraints – we did not want to have these three huge tendrils in the center of the face and be static – so we just went with hundreds of smaller tendrils that were not as “in your face”.
In the story, the swampland is a sacred Indian burial site. The branches on the back of the Man-Thing’s head were designed to replicate an American Indian feathered headdress, to link this theme and to physically add more height to the creature suit. The creature had to look huge and we were physically fighting the logistics of doing this, making sure the actor could perform inside the suit and keeping it safe for him to move around in.
The added height of the skull (sitting on top of actor’s head), raised shoulders and branch extensions, helped us keep a nice balance in the design of the suit. It helped stretch out the overall bulk and added a natural dynamic symmetry.
We added a lot of vine and branch style sculptural detail to the body form, so it felt like the Man-Thing creature was made from the environment surrounding him.
Monster Legacy: Who designed the final appearance of Man-Thing?
Nick Nicolaou: Production Designer Peter Pound did all the initial concepts of the Man-Thing. I visited his home before pre-production kicked off and we discussed some of the ideas he had been playing with. I gave a lot of input regarding the technical aspects of what we could achieve with the suit, and how we could extend parts of the suit, while still having a performer inside. It was a creature suit… plain and simple… we had to work within these parameters. By the time pre-production had come around, Peter had an extensive set of drawings for us to work off. As the Man-Thing evolved in three dimensions, we were given a lot of latitude to evolve the design.
Monster Legacy: Writer Hans Rodionoff is a Lovecraft enthusiast — and wanted the creature to be a sort of Lovecraftian entity. The Man-Thing from the film has a snout with dangling tentacle-like branches and tendrils. Did the design reference Lovecraftian Monsters?
Nick Nicolaou: That is a nice connection but was not something that influenced our design. Artistically, the Director and Production Designer wanted something a little different. Logistically, I feel it came from budgetary constraints and having to animate the 3 main tentacle-like branches from the original design. We suggested the smaller vines to keep the same feel and this allowed them to be static. They did sway around with the head and body movements and that was all that was needed to give it some life.
Monster Legacy: Who worked on the sculpting and painting processes alongside you?
Nick Nicolaou: We had a great team of artists working on the project. Paul [Katte] and I headed the creature and make-up effects and were involved at every level. I ended up painting most of the suit – though you can’t see much of the detail in the film. Damian Martin, Sam Jinks, Marcel Tobar working on sculpture and suit design, Matt Ward animatronics, Marea Fowler brought all the under body suit together on the Man-Thing.
Monster Legacy: Man-Thing was built as a full-size Monster suit. What were the materials and features of the suit?
Nick Nicolaou: We started off by life-casting the actor, who was over 7ft tall. Once we assembled the fibreglass form generated from the life-cast we started sculpting the creature. In the sculpture, we worked out where all the components of the creature suit would be delineated and used the sculptural forms to help hide these joining points – wrists, ankles, waist and neck.
Fibreglass moulds were made of the sculpture. The suit was mostly foam latex (tinted green). There were a jointed fibreglass shoulder and torso understructure made to support the dense foam latex on the upper body and to help the upper body move more freely. The fibreglass under skull on the actor’s head gave us an anchor point to secure all the hard polyfoam branches extending from the back of the head. There were radio-controlled animatronic hand extensions that the actor held on to around the wrist area of the creature suit. These were puppeteered off-camera. Plus eight-inch platform boots.
Monster Legacy: Did you build other puppets or animatronics of the creature, or was the suit the only version of Man-Thing?
Nick Nicolaou: The suit was the only version of the Man-Thing. It was all self-contained.
Monster Legacy: Once on set, did shooting scenes with the Monster prove to be difficult?
Nick Nicolaou: Shooting the scenes with the Man-Thing monster was difficult. Again, I think it came down to budget and then reducing the schedule. The production never had enough time to shoot the creature properly. It was nearly always brought in at the end of each of the filming days and rushed through the shoot.
They were running out of time and it was logistically difficult to get the Man-Thing onset, into the man-made swamp built on the stage, up on the platform risers running just under the water-line and then block in all the action. Our team did a great job and I am proud of the results.
Monster Legacy: You said that many sequences featuring the Monster were cut from the film due to budgetary reasons. Can you recall any of them, and did you have a favourite scene?
Nick Nicolaou: I can’t really recall any of them in detail without looking through an early draft of the script. I just remember they revolved around the Man-Thing creature transforming in and out of the swamp environment – giant beetles covering the terrain when the Man-Thing was in the area – nature at his command.
Monster Legacy: In the final film, digital tendrils and branches were combined with the creature. Were there planned shots of an entirely digital Man-Thing?
Nick Nicolaou: They were going to use our suit as just a stand-in for a CGI creature. Every meeting we went in to they said, “we just need the shape and size, as the suit will be replaced”. We had a bad feeling about this, as they were cutting the budget left, right and centre. In the end, no 3D creature was made due to diminishing budget. Our physical creature suit is in every shot.
Monster Legacy: Looking back at it, what do you think of the film and of your special effects work on it?
Nick Nicolaou: Looking back, I feel the film suffered greatly by all the changes and budgetary cuts (continued all through shooting). Our creature work and special make-up effects still hold up for me. I think we did some great work on the project.
Monster Legacy: Would you bring life to the character again, if given the chance?
Nick Nicolaou: Absolutely. I love the character and the comic. The suit was pretty impressive in the end. It could have been developed a lot further if the production had focused its resources and thinking that the practical suit would be the main focus of the film and not go in with the idea that it would just be a stand in suit and be replaced by VFX (which never happened and was evident very early in the shooting that this was not going to happen). The priorities were all wrong… it was always going to be a physical creature suit that would be ‘front and center’ of the film.
For more pictures of the Man-Thing, visit the Monster Gallery.