Mean Green Mother from Outer Space
The Little Shop of Horrors began as a low-budgeted film, directed by B-Movie veteran Roger Corman. Based on a $30.000 budget and completed in a very short time, it came to receive — to Corman himself’s surprise — a wide cult following. The story of Seymour Krelborn and the voracious man-eating plant resonated within people’s minds, to the point where a Broadway rock-and-roll musical adaptation was created in 1982. Based on this very musical was Frank Oz’s 1986 film, Little Shop of Horrors; the 26 million dollar budget — close to a thousand times the original film’s — assured a wider liberty to the filmmakers involved.
In the original film, Seymour Krelborn crossbreeds a venus flytrap with a botterwort, obtaining a hybrid plant — which he names Audrey Jr., after his secret love interest. The low budget did not allow advanced creature effects — especially for the time of production — and as such the crew had to resort to simple expedients. Audrey Jr. was brought to the screen as a series of basic puppets, with rudimentary hand-operated mechanisms animating the mouth — a scissor-type lever hidden within the table the plant was on — and tendrils. Paintings were also used to portray the victims’ faces growing inside Audrey Jr.’s buds. The character was voiced by Charles B. Griffith, one of the writers of the film.
The 1982 musical version expanded upon the original conceit, turning the plant into a devil-like corruptor entity. Now baptized Audrey II, the creature is an extraterrestrial, sentient plant sent on Earth through an eclipse, with the intent of conquering the planet. Its voice was provided by the lead vocalist of The Four Tops, Levi Stubbs. “He can sing anything,” said Miles Goodman, composer and musical director for the film, “any way you ask him. We showed him what the plant would look like and a light bulb went off his head. From then on, he was the plant.” Conway added in an interview: “[Stubbs] had to get permission from the Four Tops to do a solo project like this. He was there at Pinewood Studios recording his dialogue while we were shooting. Sometimes we’d have to wait for his recordings to come in, because they were hot off the presses. The playback would be slow and pitch-corrected so it was understandable. He was wonderful — it was perfect casting. Of course, after the first test screening in Los Angeles, all hell broke loose. Frank called me and told me the results of the preview, and that the studio wanted Rodney Dangerfield to re-record the voice! Rodney was hot at the time, and I think they were afraid of audiences being frightened.” Of course, time would prove said executives wrong.
Not only the monster needed to grow from a few inches to over 13 feet — it also needed to talk, and most importantly to sing: this meant that it should be able to perform a convincing lip synchronization. It had to act on stage along with the actors and make a wide array of movements with its jaws and tendrils. In short, Audrey II requested an unprecedented complexity in animatronic effects.
Oz brought one of his Dark Crystal collaborators, Lyle Conway, to the project. The director explained to Cinefex: “it was my responsibility as the director to talk to several people about doing the plant, but I hoped from the beginning to be working with Lyle Conway. I know Lyle very well and there isn’t anybody better. He has exquisite sensitivity and a great sense of humour. But, most importantly, he has an amazing range of knowledge — not only of characters but of effects. His kind of experience is tremendously valuable when you get out there on the floor. We didn’t have to go to an outside source for anything concerning the plant. We never had to say, ‘okay, Lyle can make this thing, but how do we get it to grow?’ He knows about lighting and lenses and all of that stuff.”
Conway himself commented in an interview with Yahoo.com: “I did question whether I wanted to work with Frank again. I love Frank, but he’s very intense. [Laughs] Anyway, I did work with him again, it was wonderful — probably the best experience I’ve had on a film set. It’s a strange job doing these things, because you tell people you can do it, and then you have not idea how to solve the problem. I mean, building a 13-foot plant that can boogie, rap and lip sync! They ask you, “Can you do it?” and you go, ‘Yeah!’ And then you go home and think, ‘What the hell have I gotten myself into?'”
The first step in designing the creature was ensuring that its aesthetics fit the sets for the film, built in the ‘007’ stage of Pinewood Studios by Roy Walker and his team. Audrey II needed to be part of the world of the film. “I felt it was important that the plant not stand out as something too different or awkward in Roy’s settings,” Conway explained. “Initially, Frank was favoring a cartoony sort of look — a soft kind of thing like they had in the stage show — but as time went on I think he realized that kind of look would have been at odds with Roy’s designs. My preference for the plant was more horrific, tending towards a fifties or sixties horror movie-type of thing — an Invasion of the Saucer Men feeling. After a lot of discussion, Frank and I met somewhere in the middle.”
Conway established a basic design to start the building process from. He recalled: “I went to nurseries and places like Kew Gardens in London and took a lot of pictures. I also did a lot of drawings and paintings of orchid textures and cactus stems and succulents. Once I had some ideas, I made up eight-inch maquettes in clay. I’d show them to Frank, we’d talk about them and then I’d go back and make modifications based on his input. That was how I eventually got him to agree with my vision of the plant — he was able to really see what I was talking about. Drawings or paintings are open to interpretation — everyone reads them differently. But the advantage of a maquette is that it can be photographed from many different angles.” Walker also built a miniature set portraying the shop in the same scale as the maquettes, enabling a ‘pre-visualization’ of the plant in the environment.
Based on the script, several versions of the plant had to be created, spanning the creature’s constant growth throughout the film. Mechanical effects specialists Neal Scanlan and Chris Ostwald were hired to construct the mechanisms animating the plants. The smaller plants were assigned to Scanlan, with Ostwald working instead on the Mean Green Mother stage. The plants were sculpted by Stuart Smith, John Blakeley and a team of sculptors. The basic structure of the monster was then moulded in dental acrylic (for the baby stage) or Kevlar (for the ‘radio station’ plant and the following versions), and covered in foam latex skin, which was supervised by Sue Higgins. Textures were progressively added from there. “We added plant textures over the basic shape,” Conway recalled. “I had found a picture of a cross section of a plant cell, and we used that for the surface detail. The skin itself was latex foam laid over the Kevlar skull. It was very thick — a couple of inches — and that kind of foam isn’t really meant to be cast in any volume other than for prosthetic thickness. So we had to work with it for a while to get it just right.” Given the failures on the set of Dream Child — which featured a complex animatronic mad hatter — Conway preferred to “keep it simple” and use cable-controlled mechanisms for all versions of Audrey II, as opposed to electronic or hydraulic mechanizations.
Every version of the plant was equipped with mechanized appendages — leaves or tendrils — to enhance its movement and body language Various crews began producing leaves and vines even before the final design of the main plant was established. The number of leaves and vines exceeded the thousands. Conway related: “by the time we were finished with all the plants, we had made leaves out of everything — vacuform and latex and plastazote, a lightweight material that you heat and form into a mold. Some of the smaller leaves were made of silk. The Feed Me plant’s leaves were almost all latex slipcasts with wire reinforcement — though there were some small vacuformed leaves on it to help hide where the neck and head connected. Richard Hayes was in charge of casting the big leaves for Mean Green Mother, but the entire fabrication unit was responsible for the enormous volume of leaves needed. One of the most difficult aspects was keeping the crew excited about such a tedious job over such a long period of time. It was hard to envision what it was all going to become when you looked around the shop and just saw thousands of leaves, thousands of vines and various big, eyeless pod shapes. It didn’t seem like a character at all until it came together in performance.”
The performance of the bigger stages of the plant was partly conveyed through its tendrils, which enhanced its bodily language. Construction of various ‘vine units’ was started early in production, and was primarily assigned to Scanlan’s crew. The puppeteering was instead headed by Chris Leith and Don Austen. Conway recalled: “most of the vines were cable-controlled by people underneath the stage. Chris and Don did a terrific job — they got more out of those vines than I ever thought possible. I generally have a sort of love-hate relationship with puppeteers — in this case, I was afraid they would be the ‘aphids’ on my plant. But I have a terrific amount of respect for all these guys and they added a lot to the plant. Most people just look at the lips, but the vine movement is very interesting. In fact, I think the vines were really the biggest breakthrough in bringing the plant to life. At one point, a vine feels its muscle and another vine makes a fist. Mechanically, they were very controllable. This kind of thing is often done either pneumatically or with marionetting techniques, but these things could stop on a dime.” Marionetting was in fact limited to background vines moving on the walls.
“From a mechanical point of view,” Scanlan said, “the main problem with the vines was that we were working with something that was very long and thin and which gave us very little mechanical leverage. Each vine was equipped with lots and lots of disks which gave us a certain amount of leverage and control. Then, through these disks, we ran a series of cables connected to control mechanisms that were like large gimbals — much the same as we had used for the lips. Each cable ran to the end of the vine, so by pulling on the cable — essentially shortening its length — we were able to curl back the tip of the vine. We’d rigged the cables in such a manner that the way they pulled that tip back made ‘s’ shapes with the vine. So even though all we were really doing was pulling the tip to the base, the way the cables were routed produced snakelike shapes and movement. Different cables produced different shapes, and by pulling a combination of cables we could get even more variety of movement depending on how many different cables it had in it.” The tendrils came in various sizes, all with the same mechanism design — but different number of cables (the longest vine featured thirty cables, whilst most only included four). The crew labeled ‘cheap vines’ those with a single cable and a hinge; a trigger mechanism (light enough to be handheld) was implemented to operate the cable. The ‘cheap vines’ were inexpensive and very versatile and were used in scenes where a certain amount of dexterity was needed — such as when Audrey II taps Seymour on the head.
All the vine actions were carefully coordinated, also thanks to Mike Ploog’s detailed storyboards — which helped the crew establish what type of tendril would be needed for a specific shot. Scanlan related: “the telephone sequence, for instance, required five different specific vines plus two regular vines. As the scene progressed, we’d just change from one vine to the next.” The most retaken vine shot in the film — at 83 retakes — was the sequence where Audrey II pushes the button on the cash register. “The dialing of the phone was also complicated,” Conway said. “There was a different vine for every part of it. One vine was precoiled, so that by pulling out a wire it curled around the phone. Then another vine was stuck into the dial and the dial was turned from behind. Probably the worst shot was that of the plant pulling itself across the floor — because all the vines had to be disconnected and armatured vines put in. As is often the case, the most difficult things to do were the things that look easiest on film.”
The baby plant, first seen in the Chinese merchant’s shop, was structurally the simplest version of the character, and was among the first to be actually filmed. The design was based on a rosebud; it was conceived to appear “adorable” and inspire protection. In particular, its lips were based on Ellen Greene’s: upon seeing it, Seymour would subconsciously connect them to Audrey. Conway explained: “I tried to make the baby plant as appealing as possible, something Seymour would see and want to take home with him. I finally arrived at a rosebud type of thing, using Ellen Greene’s lips as a model for the mouth area.”
The succeeding stage is a baby plant with a more articulate role. “In the beginning, it wasn’t going to do much — just open its mouth and take Seymour’s blood,” Conway related, “but when additional time was added to the production schedule, we were able to do more with it. We put in some head moves, like the plant turning away when Seymour offers it water and stuff like that. I think it benefited the film because it let the audience start seeing the plant as [something with] a personality as early as possible.” Conway also added: “I wanted it to look like a baby bonnet. The petals around it suggest a bonnet or some kind of precious Fabergé egg, something that would encourage Seymour to take it home.”
One of the scenes involving the baby Audrey II featured it wilting whilst in Seymour’s arms. This effect was simply achieved “by putting a spring cable housing up the stem and affixing it to a little hole in the head and then running that down Rick’s arm and taping it to his legs. When it came time for the plant to wilt, the housing was pulled out so it fell slowly. The leaves had heavy monofilaments on the back that went into staggered eyelets and made them collapse. The petals were just loosely tacked on so that when the head went down the petals naturally fell off.”
When Seymour accidentally stings himself with a rose’s thorns, he begins sucking on his wounded finger; unexpectedly, the plant mimics the sounds he makes — making kissing shapes with its mouth. The effect was achieved with simple cable mechanisms and dacron line. “Dacron line is like fishing line,” Conway explained, “and it goes around tight curves more readily than cables. We don’t like to use it too much because it tends to unravel, but it worked out fine for this. We did a mockup of the table so that the cables coming out of the bottom of the can had the softest curve possible. We took armature wire and drew the shape of the table and then the plasterers sculpted a little table and had it cast in aluminium with shelves on the legs so we could run cables down and cover them. It had quite a bit of capability for such a small thing — and all those cables had to fit into the stem, which was also articulated. it just pivoted at its base and went up and down — it didn’t bend.”
Mak Wilson controlled the head and lips of the plant (both maneuvered with a hand control), as well as the kissing motion and jaw opening mechanisms; Robert Tygner puppeteered the neck. “Basically, it didn’t have that much movement,” Wilson said, “but in the right combinations, it was quite lively and it still took a lot of rehearsals to get to our final result.” The plant was originally supposed to smile when it notices the blood on Seymour’s finger. During the shooting itself, Oz decided against it; this called for a quick “cosmetic surgery.” The head was simply turned upside down. The sucking noises were dubbed towards the end of production by Wilson himself. The simplicity of the plant allowed the crew wider liberty compared to the other versions, also due to the lack of lip-syncing.
Right after the end of Grow for me, Audrey II does so — growing twice its original size. The effect was filmed entirely on set without the need for opticals — and was actually a forced perspective shot. This ‘growing coffee plant’ was inspired by George Méliès’s short film The Man with the India Rubber Head. Conway explained: “We put the larger plant on a seven-and-a-half-foot track and slit it forward from the back of the set up to the can to make it appear as though the plant were growing. The coffee can label was reproduced with silk-screened rubber, and behind that were hidden little pneumatic rams that pushed outwards and made dents as if the roots were getting too big for the can. Also there were cable moves on the leaves, pushing them out and unrolling them as the plant advanced. Finally, we had to do an in-camera split-screen to get rid of some shadows running over the table as the plant moved forward on the track.”
The next stage is the short-lived Some Fun Now plant, built with a sucking motion and animated with particular greed for more blood. It is followed by the radio station stage, now one and a half feet tall, is first seen during the eponymous sequence of the film. It was the first to be filmed, whilst the other plants were either being built or rehearsing the lip synchronization. Oz initially wanted a hand puppet as opposed to an animatronic (being still unsure about the mechanical approach), as recalled by Conway: “Frank wanted to operate the radio station plant with a person’s hand, using somebody with a really thin wrist. But I felt that no matter how thin the wrist was, once we put the plant on top of it, it would bulk up and defeat the purpose. So Frank reluctantly let us try a mechanical one, and that was the plant that won him over to our approach. He likes performance and generally has a mistrust of mechanical things, but the radio station plant made a believer out of him.”
Being the first to be actually filmed, the radio station Audrey II was used as the archetype for the paint scheme and textures of all of its successors. Built by David White, it was the only plant to implement radio control in its mechanisms along with the cable controls, in order to decrease the number of cables and thus hide them more successfully. “It had radio-controlled lips and tongue mechanisms,” Neal Scanlan said. “So not only did it have lots of cables running up the stem to control the head movement, it also had radio-controlled servos inside its head operating the lips and tongue. The radio control was necessary — we felt — because we had to cut down on the number of cables that ran down through the bottom of the plant and behind Rick’s arms and legs. It had to sit there on his lap, and too many cables would have been difficult to hide.” The radio station sequence needed several retakes, but once it started working properly, the actors “began to worry that it wasn’t their movie anymore — they were concerned about being upstaged by the plant. For our part, we began to worry about being outdone by the actors.”
Audrey II grows to four and a half feet tall. Although it is first seen halfway through the film, the Feed me stage plant was the first one to be built — as a prototype: it needed several revisions to be perfected, as it was the first stage that would be shown to talk and sing. “On past projects,” Conway said, “I have found that after you get something built and you work with it and discover its problems, you would just love to be able to go back and build it again — but there’s never time. So I tried to develop a schedule with enough time built in to do a complete prototype and then start all over again. That worked out perfectly, not only time-wise but also in providing a puppet for the puppeteers to rehearse with as early as possible. By doing that, we were able to use input from the performers as to how the puppet could be made better or lighter or whatever.”
The head of the plant was operated by hand — but featured over twelve distinct armatures for the main articulations of mouth and lips. Despite their simplicity, the animatronics still needed considerable experimentation. Scanlan explained: “we did all our experimenting on Feed Me. The lip mechanisms were controlled by cables that ran up from underneath the stage, through the stem and into the head while the jaw and head itself were actually operated by the arms and body of a puppeteer. We had that whole thing on a rig which was concealed within the stem. That rig held the cables and took the weight of the plant so that the puppeteer didn’t have to bear all the weight of it. It was very heavy — we had twenty to thirty bales just going up to the head alone, not to mention all the cables which were needed to control the vine movements.” The number of cables was kept to a minimum, in order to obtain a lighter puppet that could be more easily maneuverable by the crewmembers.
A total of three Feed me plant prototypes were built and completed before one was selected as satisfactory. The lip-syncing team, supervised by Conway himself, included Mak Wilson, Robert Tygner and Sue Dacre. The crew spent a long time experimenting and rehearsing with the prototypes. Conway recalled: “we had made some attempt at lip-syncing it ourselves, sitting around the shop with the first prototype just trying to get it make a few vowel and consonant shapes. And it was an absolute nightmare. I didn’t see how we were ever going to get that thing to talk. But we called in Mak and the others, and within a week they were getting it to say, ‘feed me, Seymour,’ — probably because no one had told them how hard it was going to be.”
The most complex part of the process was actually dealing with the changes applied to each new prototype, as Wilson recalled: “when we first started, Robert Tygner and I were just working on a mockup of the plant, trying to get it to say, ‘feed me, Seymour, feed me now.’ There was going to be a film test in two weeks, and at this point we were just seeing if the lips were going to work at all. We worked with that first prototype for about a month. But by the time the rehearsal period was over, we had to deal with three different prototypes; and everytime the prototype changed, there would be changes in the shape of the lips or the way the cables worked. So it was a bit like starting all over again with each new refinement. The songs kept changing, too, which was very frustrating. And new people were being added all the time. After Robert and I had been working for a few days, Sue Dacre came in to work the little extra jaw — which was just a small flap that gave that plant some additional movement. I was on the bottom lip and Robert was on the top lip and Brian Henson then joined us to manipulate the jaws themselves. That was another big adjustment because up until then we had been working on the lip movements without the added complication of a jaw actually opening and closing. By the time we got to the last prototype, we had pretty well worked it out, although it was still very difficult. One of the recurring problems was with the ‘f’ shape — we couldn’t get the lips pulled back far enough to make that sound. It was rather important, of course, because this was the plant that was always saying, ‘feed me!’ We never really got it. If you look at the film closely you can see that he is actually saying, ‘peed me!'”
The reason for the change of prototypes was due to the continuous attempts to solve issues with the foam latex skin. “We had to find a way for the skull to support the foam,” Scanlan said, “so that it would form natural looking creases when it spoke, rather than creases that looked grotesque. When an actual person speaks, his facial skin creases and folds in ways we consider acceptable; and we had to find a way to match that with the plant. We wound up almost ‘floating’ the foam on the skull. It wasn’t anchored down, so it was able to shift back and forth as the plant spoke without bunching up or creasing in the wrong place. Once we got that problem worked out, we had a satisfactory prototype.”
The main issue met by the crew with the final prototype was not forming the specific shapes with the lips, but rather the speed at which those shapes had to be performed in. Scanlan explained: “you can get the speed when you’re dealing with most puppet movements because you don’t have to be absolutely precise. But the lip-sync had to be fast and precise, and we had to come up with mechanics that would make that possible. We used a much heavier cable than we normally do, for instance. In some cases, we ran a solid wire rather than a normal cable to give us a very direct control.” The controls for the animatronic underneath the stage were built in large dimensions, in order to obtain quick motion of the puppet with small movements of the levers with which the cable controls were coordinated.
Specific sections of the mouth were controlled by single puppeteers — and they all had to move with precision and consonance to form the necessary words. The puppeteers used two controls each; every control featured four cables that produced a wide array of movements when maneuvered in different combinations. “By pushing them both forward, for instance,” Wilson explained, “the lips would form an ‘oo’ shape. By pulling them both back, the lips would pull back towards the teeth. By pushing them together as close as we could towards our bodies, the lips formed a ‘m’. The controls were quite difficult to work — and trying to get speed out of them, just because of their size, took a lot of effort.” Brian Henson puppeteered the jaws with his own hands and arms. Wilson continues: “Brian would actually stand behind the plant with his right arm in the top jaw and his left arm in the lower jaw. He was hidden by the lower half of the back leaf, while the upper half of the back leaf was behind him. So it had to be shot to make it look like the back leaf was all in one piece. For side shots, there were handles going into the plant that he could work from the side. A pole came up through the neck which was on a bungee so that most of the weight was supported — you had to actually push against it to lower it. The main problem was that the weight of the head made it tilt backwards and forwards and they were constantly fighting against that. Just the size of it alone made any quick moves very difficult.”
Movements of the puppet’s lips were obviously based on how the puppeteers themselves formed words; however, “sometimes it was a matter of what looked best for the puppet,” Wilson said. “We could do things with our lips that didn’t transfer very well to the puppet, and vice-versa. It was a trial and error and it was a painstaking process. We went line by line, sometimes spending eight hours a day staring at monitors that were set up so we could see how we were doing. It was literally a matter of taking a word at a time and talking through it over and over again. We’d do it at half-speed, gradually building up speed as we went along. Even by the time we got to shooting, though, we rarely did more than two lines at a time. it was just physically too demanding to do more than that because it was very hard work.”
It is at this point that Conway suggested the use of “undercranking the camera” — a cinematographer term for filming in fast motion (the word itself deriving from the fact it was originally achieved by cranking a hand-cranked camera slower than usual). The special effects artist had experimented with the technique whilst working on The Dark Crystal, to give an “extra ‘snap'” to the creatures of the film when the footage was projected at normal speed. Using fast-motion filming for Audrey II allowed considerably greater precision whilst performing the lip synchronization: it eased both the physical demands for the crew and the mechanical demands for the plant itself.
The fundamental disadvantage of the technique was the necessity for the actors — mainly Rick Moranis, who not only frequently speaks with Audrey II throughout the film, but performs a duet with the plant during Feed Me — to perform in slow-motion themselves. Oz was initially against using it due to this very reason; ultimately, it was agreed that the plant should be able to do as much as possible in full speed. “There are some shots where it was done full-speed,” Conway said. “Shots with the plant in the background were done that way — partly because it would have been just too hard on Rick to do everything slow-motion. We could have done the entire thing in real time, but shooting it this way added an element of life to it and made it more believable. We experimented with the technique on video. Using the Feed Me Plant, we shot at the highest frame rate we could get by with and still get the action we wanted. We shot at 12 frames per second, 16 frames per second and at something between 16 and 24 — whatever worked. We played it back on video to get an idea of what was working best for a particular segment. Rick was absolutely great about it. Acting with the rubber stuff is difficult to begin with — adding this element to it made it even worse.”
In giving the plant ‘life’, the crew attempted to channel the Broadway performer’s movements. “Marty Robinson performed the plant in the Off-Broadway show,” said Conway, “and he really inspired me. The energy level he had was great; I sat there riveted. So I hoped to capture in our plant the energy that he had in his.” After a total of three months of rehearsals, the Feed Me plant began filming its two-week shoot session. The extensive rehearsals and the detailed storyboards provided by Mike Ploog were fundamental factors in the final result. The set out left “really no room for improvisation,” according to Wilson. “Every once in a while we would throw in a grimace or an expression — and if Frank liked it, we would keep it. Feed Me had a bit more mobility than the others, so we’d occasionally throw in a word out of the side of his mouth. But for the most part, we had precise movements to stick to. We were so concerned with just getting it right, we couldn’t be too concerned with being clever.” No particular issues rose during the shooting — the plant was reliable and did not suffer from considerable breakdowns. The process was aided by Oz’s own past experience with animatronics, and his knowledge about general limits of the technique, as well as the presence of the maintenance team during rehearsals; the crew could perform quick repairs whenever needed.
After consuming Orin’s chopped-up corpse, Audrey II again almost grows to twice its size — becoming the 8 feet tall Suppertime (again nicknamed after the song it sings) plant. Neal Scanlan and Tim Wheeler’s crew built the full-size model. Scanlan said: “basically, it was just a big egg with a couple of hinges and we had to shift it for every shot. All of its mechanisms were in the foundation of the pot, with cables coming up through the stem. There was a hinge for its jaw and a hinge for its neck; but because it didn’t do any lip-sync, it had no mechanical lip movement at all. All it could do was tilt back and forth in its base — although it did have a couple of other interesting mechanisms, like a little machine that pumped foam bubbles out the corner of its mouth.” The plant was also equipped with a device to insert Mushnik’s mechanical legs to simulate the scene where the character is devoured alive. The legs were bolted inside the mouth and operated from behind the plant through cables.
Due to the fact the Suppertime plant sang alone, without having to interact with any actors, the crew decided to build a half-scale miniature animatronic — about the size of the previous stage — to perform the lip synchronization, in order to ease the process. The understructure was actually from one of the Feed me prototypes. Conway recalled: “I knew we were going to have a hard time with the lip-sync on Mean Green Mother, so I felt it was really important that we keep the lip-sync as good as possible on all the plants leading up to that one, and then just hope the size of the big one carried it.”
“I felt that Feed me was the largest size we could really get away with the lip-sync on — and ideally, it should have been even smaller than that. I just didn’t feel we could try to get by with it on Suppertime, which was almost twice as big. So we took the Feed me prototype, made a new skin to match the eight-foot plant and shot it on a miniature set built by the art department that was about six-and-a-half feet tall. It had miniature wrought-iron furniture and miniature vases and mirrors and doors. They even drilled thousands of little holes in the walls because the real shop was covered with pegboard and they couldn’t find it at that scale.”
Scanlan additionally commented on the miniature Suppertime plant’s success: “by the time we got to building Suppertime, we had discovered the importance of establishing the right lip shape in the sculpting stage. With Feed Me, we had still been playing around with different lip shapes to help the mechanics do their job. But we learned that if the sculpture could help form the shape of the lips to begin with, then that would help considerably when it came time to actually move them by mechanical means. We had to find a neutral ground which was equally good for making a ‘m’ shape or an ‘oo’ shape or an ‘ah’ shape. We found it by the time we got to making Suppertime, and that proved to be a real advantage over the Feed Me plant.”
After devouring Mushnik alive, Audrey II assumes its monstrous, final appearance: the 13 feet tall Mean Green Mother plant, labeled after the song it performs — the main musical piece of the film. Conway’s idea for this growth stage of the character “was to make it totally overgrown and wild, with vines going everywhere — like the island in King Kong when you first see it. I did a maquette that started off looking very much like a malevolent watermelon. It had a purple interior and then — after it ate Audrey — it went to a red interior. So it was just a giant melon in a giant melon patch. Once it was built, I’d work from about five in the evening until three or four in the morning painting one side of the pod. David White would come in in the morning and copy what I had done on the other side. Then I’d come in again and start on David’s side and do the detail painting — and he would later detail my side. There was constant overlapping.”
The Mean Green Mother plant featured obviously larger versions of the cable controls featured in the other plants. Its enormous jaws were operated by Antony Asbury, who was actually located inside the main pod area, “riding” the plant. The weight of the plant itself, combined with the puppeteer’s, made supporting the animatronic a major concern. Unlike the previous stages, Audrey II now needed to be externally supported by a ‘pole arm’ that went out the back of its head and through the wall of the set. The pole arm needed four weeks to build; it was 5 meters long and “was made out of two three-inch aluminium box sections welded on top of each other,” Ostwald said. “Then we put a steel bolt from one end to the other to sort of ‘pre-stress’ it so that it wouldn’t bend too much. There was going to be a lot of weight on the end of it — the head itself ended up weighing about 175 pounds and the puppeteer inside it added another hundred and eighty pounds. So all together, we had to use about three hundred and fifty pounds of counterweight.”
The main issue was creating a system with which the performer inside the head would not have to actually support its massive weight. Use of springs was discarded as their required size would not have allowed any place for the performer himself; instead, Ostwald used air bellows, “which are like small tires,” he said, “about six inches in diameter, that can lift really heavy loads. By using those, and connecting them up to an air supply, we were able to balance the head with air and maintain sort of an equilibrium.”
The head of the plant, with a length of seven feet, also required a vertical support — achieved with a 11 feet tall goal post arrangement; it featured holes (distant one foot from one another) in order to easily adjust the height of the actual pivot — which depended on the shot. “The pivot was a straightforward gimbal — a box within a box that was pivoted in two directions so we could get all the degrees of freedom, left and right and up and down. But also incorporated within that were aluminium rollers which enabled the pole itself to ride in and out through the pivot rather than having the whole thing mounted on a huge trolley on wheels. The effect was quite dramatic because the set wasn’t that big and the plant could pretty much reach from one end of it to the other.” A weight carriage was also mounted on rollers, on the other side of the gimbal — in order for it to move in an antiparallel manner to the head. This expedient maintained balance for the animatronic.
A stunt head was specifically built for the scene where Audrey II collapses in front of the TV news crew that has visited the Shop. This head — the first attempted by Ostwald — was not supported by the pole arm. Ostwald explained: “it had a special neck which was a box-section, cantilevered frame that bent in about four places. It was lowered by levers under the stage. Once we released it, it gained momentum and fell over. We tried initially to stop it — there were three puppeteers trying to hold it back — but the momentum was so strong that it wound up throwing people across the tank under the stage. As soon as it started to fall, there was no stopping it until it hit the deck.”
After the pole arm was completed, the crew began building the basic framework. Since the other plants had priority in the plastering and modeling shops, the artists actually had to improvise. The first prototype was built out of a foam mattress, snipped into shape with “about thirty pairs of scissors”. For the final plant, a tubular framework was built, and then covered with aluminium mesh (“something like an armature for a sculpture,” Ostwald said). Covered again in glass fiber, it was used as the base for the sculpture of the skull — moulded in kevlar sections. The aluminium mesh was removed, and the kevlar model was fixed directly onto the framework. The foam latex used for the skin was moulded in 28 separate sections for the sheer size of the structure it needed to cover.
To build a durable (yet lightweight) framework for the lips, Ostwald used a polypropylene underground water pipe about an inch in diameter — something not commonly used in the film industry. “It turned out to be ideal for our purposes,” he said. “We bent it into shape around the inside of the mouth and then connected it to levers and special frictionless cables that gave their lips their movement.” The cables that controlled the lips were usually produced for ship controls, and take “about three months to manufacture.” Their flat shape, combined with the small metal spheres enclosed in flexible cases on either side of them, enabled them not only to be pulled but also to be pushed. The first cables that were manufactured for the project were not large enough and actually had to be replaced. KY Jelly was also implemented to decrease the friction on the lips.
It was commonly assured among the crew that the final Audrey II would not perform lip synchronization as precisely as its former incarnations, with Conway comparing the process to “two mattresses slapped together.” Wilson recalled: “just the sheer size of Mean Green Mother made it incredibly difficult to control. The weight of the lips alone made it a killer. The controls were circular steel tubes over five feet tall — I had to stand on boxes to operate mine. The mechanisms were basically the same as on Feed Me except that the cables were much thicker, making them very hard to work and really hard to push. I’m not particularly strong, so to get my two main controls together I had to criss-cross bungee around my controls to give me extra leverage. Between the weight of that lower lip and the force of the guy inside the pod working the jaw, I had a tremendous amount of gravity working against me. We were all fighting that inertia all the time. A couple of us wound up with pulled muscles from doing it — I was actually out for three weeks because of that.” A ‘back-up’ team of puppeteers — Michael Quinn and David Barclay — was in fact hired to replace Wilson and Tygner whenever needed; in addition, a physical therapist was also among the crew.
A miniature version of the Mean Green Mother plant was briefly considered — to the point where a miniature set began construction — but ultimately discarded. The full-size animatronic actually exceeded expectations, though it did remain the most arduous and complex task to perform in the entire production. Wilson compared the process to “lifting a piano and doing multiplication tables at the same time. Your body takes over and it’s hard to concentrate. Even at half-speed we were always having to think ahead to the next shape — which was difficult, especially since we were being bombarded by input from our headphones. There were long lines of lyrics — and Mean Green Mother from Outer Space is a fast song. Just that line alone was hard to do — and it was so fast, sometimes we never got a chance to get the lips together. So we’d wind up with ‘I a ean green other rom outer ace…’ That was the hardest song to do. It took a lot of work — ten to twelve takes, or even twenty takes, for one or two lines at a time. We had rehearsed all of it in the rehearsal period, of course, but by the time we got to shooting a particular line, a month or six weeks my have passed. We couldn’t have too many rehearsals on the set because we would have had no energy left for the actual shooting. As a result, the cameras ended up shooting our rehearsals, just in case we got it. In general we got two shots in the morning and two shots in the afternoon — maybe eight lines of the song by the end of the day.”
Antony Asbury puppeteered the plant from the inside, being located inside its pod. The artist had precedent experiences with “one-man” puppeteering and mainly the character itself, having operated stage appearances of the plant in cities such as New York and London; obviously, the film needed a far more complex and cooperative effort. He controlled the lower jaw, and by pushing his back up he could also maneuver the upper section. “Inside the plant, he was leaning forward,” Wilson said. “Almost like a jockey sitting on a horse — with his chest supported and his legs going out backwards. As he leaned forward, he looked back between his legs and upside down in a monitor. In his right hand he held the lower jaw and in his other the pole arm going out the back of the plant. That’s how he rode around on that thing. Other people felt rather sick when they had a go on it because there was just no sense of where you were.” Mechanical legs were again employed for the scene where Audrey II attempts to devour the original Audrey alive.
The newborn “killer buds” form a chorus for Mean Green Mother from Outer Space. The ten pods were maneuvered by one operator each. Their size and disposition prevented Conway’s crew from being able to make elaborate lip mechanisms. It was the most “crowded” set-up for Audrey II — with a total of over 70 puppeteers controlling the plant at once. Conway recalled: “many of the puppeteers were underneath the stage, and they were packed in so tightly it looked like a slave ship down there. All we needed was a drum.”
In the final theatrical cut of Little Shop of Horrors, after tearing down Mushnik’s shop (a specific “destructible” version specifically built for the purpose; Martin Gutteridge designed the destruction effects) at the end of Mean Green Mother from Outer Space, Audrey II is electrocuted by Seymour and finally explodes, after muttering its last words: “oh, shit!”. Electronics wizard Bran Ferren (who had worked on Altered States) was hired towards the end of production to create the final demise of the extraterrestrial plant. He recalled: “I designed the electrocution and explosion sequence, based on discussions that I had with Frank Oz and Eric Angelson, who was the production supervisor for The Geffen Company. We wanted something that was funny, that would work visually within the context of the picture. And we wanted something that would be a big finish. The problem was, ‘how do we make the plant destructible?’ The plant had originally been conceived as indestructible and there had been several scenes in the film to back that up. there was a scene, for instance, in which Seymour shot the plant and the bullets had no effect on it. So we edited things like that out — scenes that indicated that the plant was too durable. We considered a lot of different ways to destroy the plant. Weed killer was discussed. We also thought about using the old Jaws-type ending, with pressurized air tanks blowing the thing up. Finally, we settled on the rather surreal, stylized electrocution that you see in the film.”
The electrical demise of Audrey II was achieved with a combination of various techniques — a mixture of full-size and miniature effects. Three miniature versions of the Mean Green Mother stage were specifically built for the sequence. “The largest one was six to eight feet tall,” Ferren explained, “and the smallest was about three feet. Lots of different techniques were used to produce the electrocution — rotoscope mattes, bluescreen mattes, even computer animation. Some of the matting was done on high-resolution video. There was also a lot of motion control camera work using our portable motion control system. What distinguishes the electrocution end sequence is that we couldn’t figure out one simple way to do it, so we ended up using a lot of different simple ways to do it.”
In the end, Seymour and Audrey marry and go on to live in Audrey’s dream house. Audrey II also lives on, however — in the form of another newborn bud. For this shot, the very last of the film, Conway’s crew used a full-size animatronic, about as large as the baby stage — the sculpture of which was in fact reused. The animatronic was simpler — and needed only to turn towards the camera and smile. It had actually been built for the original ending of the film — where a new baby Audrey II is shown to Seymour by Patrick Martin. The model was recycled for the theatrical ending, with some of the petals repainted in order to resemble newborn clothing.
Frank Oz ultimately commented on his collaboration with Lyle Conway on Little Shop of Horrors: “It is important to me that Lyle’s work not to be thought as filmic gimmickry. We worked very hard to make the plant a real, mechanical, on-the-stage effect. There is no visual wizardry in the plant at all [except for its electrocution] — no bluescreen, no animation, no stop-motion. We’re very proud of it. I was lucky enough to work with a lot of talented people. But even with that, you never know. You can have the best people in the world and still wind up with garbage. It’s serendipity to some extent. I’m just happy it all came together.”
For more pictures of Audrey II, visit the Monster Gallery.
To see what happened in the original ending of Little Shop of Horrors, visit the special: The Plant Conquered the World.