After the foundation of Stan Winston Productions in 1997, the company’s first project was a group of straight-to-video films for HBO, which developed completely original concepts based on the titles of certain films directed by Samuel Arkoff in the 50s. Among those was War of the Colossal Beast, whose title was changed, only after filming, to Mermaid Chronicles Part I: She Creature (initially implying the beginning of a trilogy), and later to simply She Creature — a title deemed “more appropriate.” Scattered references to War of the Colossal Beast, however, can still be spotted in the final film.
Stan Winston Studio was the special effects company of the film. Setting themselves apart from precedent examples of Mermaids in the history of motion pictures (such as the 1984 film Splash), Winston Studio tried to envision a unique creature. “The Mermaid that we were going to end up creating for this film had to be much more organic,” Stan Winston said in the commentary of the film, “and not feel in any way like a woman wearing a mermaid costume.” With a budget limited to 3,5 million dollars and a pre-production schedule of only three weeks, such task was quite complex.
The main concept behind the Mermaid was its ability to transform its initial appearance into that of a far more monstrous and abyssal creature. It is a Queen of its kind, a mysterious species living in remote island chains in the world’s oceans. It is able to psychically influence human beings and induce nightmares. The first stage was played by actress Rya Kihlstedt; the make-up process lasted 3 hours a day. Prosthetic webbed hands were sculpted, cast in latex and worn as gloves by the actress. Hair designs went from wigs with widely different configurations. Early designs featured algae-like protrusions, and cephalopod-like tentacles. Deemed as “not attractive enough,” they were discarded in favor of the final design — long hair with algae-like reflective colors. Prosthetic teeth, whose design was based on Piranhas, were built by David Beneke.
The Mermaid spends most of its time in a “fish tank”, a set specifically designed to hide certain parts of equipment and mechanisms. When the Mermaid was played by the actress, the shots used a combination of her and a full-sized mechanical tail, moved by Richard Landon from below the fish tank set. The Mermaid’s tail had to be recognizable, and yet innovative. Shane Mahan said: “we were looking for something that was obviously a Mermaid, and when you look at it, you go, ‘that’s a real Mermaid!’ But at the same time beyond what we’ve seen before as far as Mermaid designs [go]. And [we had] this beautiful split tail design no one had ever seen before. It adds to that really special look to her.” It was imperative that the tail would not conceal leg-like structures within it; research of Mermaid mythology was also an important part of the process. Mahan added: “we referenced a lot of incisions and paintings — there’s a lot of artwork done because of the mythology of the Mermaids. Looking at films that had been done before, I wasn’t really that convinced from previous works — you know — because you could detect that there were knees inside the tail, and the girl bending her knees. So our approach was to build the puppet so we could get this marvelous arch that has no bone structure of legs there.” A specific sequence showed the Mermaid in full view; the actress was digitally combined with the animatronic tail. In a number of scenes, a full-size rod puppet silicone double of the Mermaid was also used, weighing about 200 pounds.
It is in the climax of the film, when the ship is reaching the Mermaid’s home (an island chain not recorded in any map), that the creature finally reveals its real, monstrous appearance. A mid-transformation puppet head was built, and the transformation itself was achieved with a “simplistic” morphing from the actress, to the puppet head, to the final creature, designed by Mark ‘Crash’ McCreery. She was designed to reflect her status of Queen, with a long, crown-like crest adorning her head, sculpted by Shane Mahan. The body was sculpted separately from the head by John Cherevka and Hiroshi Katagiri. Hand extensions with a metallic understructure were used to create the Mermaid’s long-clawed hands. Six thorned barbs adorn the caudal fin and serve as perforating weapons. The design also had to partially adhere to the 1900s motif of the film; Mahan explained: “I thought it was important that the design of the creature reflect[ed] the 1900s sort of motif of the film. I think [that] if the design was more modern looking, it might not have worked as well. I think it has an illustrative quality to it.”
This stage of the creature was played by dancer and actress Hannah Sim. A suit was used for the upper part of the Mermaid, combined with a puppet rig of the lower portion of the body — which could be raised and lowered. The creature was painted by Andy Schoneberg and John Cherevka. The actress’ legs were locked into the puppet part with a harness engineered by Kevin Mohlman. A lot of strength on the back was needed to maintain specific body angles whilst inside the suit-harness. The Mermaid had to move with “slithering eel-like” movements. The special effects crew also noted an “evil elegance to them.”
For more images of the She Creature, visit the Monster Gallery.