Monsters in Chinatown
To bring to the screen the creative Monster effects of his long-sought martial arts film, John Carpenter hired Boss Film Studios, headed by Richard Edlund. “Twentieth Century Fox had a very good relationship with Richard Edlund and Boss Film,” Carpenter said, “and I’ve always been impressed by their work — so we decided to go with them. When Richard — who is an extremely professional, extremely talented man — and his people came in, their ideas and input melded together with mine and we were in business.”
As the heroes of Big Trouble in Little China attempt to escape Lo Pan’s labyrinth, Gracie is unwillingly captured by one of Lo Pan’s henchmen — the Chinese Wildman. This character was based on the Yeren, a creature from Chinese folklore said to be an ape-like being — inhabiting the mountainous regions of western Hubei — covered in reddish hair. In the film, the Wildman is “in and out of the story strictly for shock-fright value,” according to Visual effects art director George Jenson. The first concepts were found to be too horror-oriented; “[those] concepts [were done] before Carpenter let me know how cartoony he wanted to go with the character. I should have known – I read the script!” Steve Johnson, part of the crew, joked.
Initially, John Carpenter intended the creature to resemble a cross between a wolf and a vampire. However, the concepts shown to him all seemed to resemble Werewolves — and thus Jenson had to gravitate towards other inspirations. “He was, in John Carpenter’s early thinking, to be half-wolf and half-Nosferatu,” Jenson explained to Cinefex. “I went through probably a dozen drawings trying to develop the look that he wanted; and each time I drew the wolf’s snout on the head, it just didn’t seem to work. Then I found– in a National Geographic magazine — a picture of a mummy that had a really incredible look about it. So I started to bring a little of that influence into the drawing and toned down the animal quality of the creature — made it fierce and more human. The result was a qualit where he looked like a half-mummified, half-wild creature that had been wandering around the sewers of Chinatown for centuries, doomed to this life by some god. He even had shreds of old robes on him. That approach seemed satisfactory to John, so Steve Johnson took over from that point and did a three-dimensional sculpture. The Wildman turned out to be another one of those half-amusing, half-frightening creatures.”
Once a satisfying design was selected, the Wildman was sculpted and built as a creature suit by Kevin Brennan and Theresa Burkett. Johnson related: “we made what was basically a Greystoke suit, using the same technology Rick Baker had worked out. The undersuit was made of an unusual kind of spandex wth large, ventilated areas of mesh net so the suit could breathe a little more. Then on top of that, we added muscle padding which was sewn on at strategic points with elastic so that the muscles would slide over each other. That way, the actor wearing it had complete mobility. On top of the muscle layer we made a very tight-fitting spandex suit with hairs individually tied into it by Jack Bricker. He tied the hairs on one at a time, double-knotting them throughout the entire body — as well as for several pairs of extra arms and feet — using different shades of reddish-coloured hair. He did an incredible job. It’s really the best way to go when doing a creature with hair because it allows the use of skin for the whole body — and the spandex suit was actually painted like skin. Theresa coloured it with dyes, putting in a lot of mottling.”
The Wildman’s head included a self-contained mechanism rigged to follow the opening and closing motion of the suit performer. The creature’s lips could also curl. The mechanisms inside the creature’s head were devised by David Matherly. An insert close-up head was also constructed with cable-control mechanics by Makio Kida. “There were probably 20 cables on that one,” Johnson explained, “the ears pulled back, the eyes moved, they blinked, the brows worked just like the Greystoke brows, the tongue worked, the sides of the mouth pulled back, the cheeks puffed out. It was definitely going away from realism, but I’ve found that the most effective use of a mechanical head is to do broad movement. Even if it’s not the best thing to do in all situations, it definitely worked in this case.”
When the heroes enter Chinatown’s sewer system, one of the gang members is suddenly and unexpectedly snatched by a grotesque amphibious creature. “The sewer Monster is the one true shock-cut we did for the film,” Johnson commented. “It was the shot that was designed to get a jump out of the audience.” Joji Tani (Screaming Mad George) sculpted the sewer Monster — whose design, conceived by Johnson and Jenson, was loosely based on an angler fish combined with a toad — and supervised its assembly as a full-sized puppet, which included a solid steel armature and foam latex skin. Unusually enough, the Monster’s long fangs were appropriately sculpted glue sticks. The puppet was mounted on a track, and was operated from within by a puppeteer for the gross body and head movements. Arms and legs were maneuvered externally through wires. All the mechanics and rigging were devised by David Kelsey, Ed Felix and Alex Felix.
The large puppet was a potential hazard for the actor that it had to interact with. “We had to be extremely careful that when the Monster shot out on the track it didn’t atually hit the actor who was being attacked,” Johnson said. “If he had been hit accidently, it would have been as if he’d been hit by a car. As such, the shot had to be staged in a cheat — the actor had to be standing back far enough so there was no way the Monster could catch him. At this point they cut away to a reaction shot. When we cut back to the man-eater, we used an interesting stand-in for its victim. Screaming Mad George came up with some spring-mechanized legs that attached to the head of the actor playing the Monster. The legs were very lightweight, so when he shook his head, the legs were activated, making it look as if the character was kicking around half-swallowed already.”
“A Guardian. What it sees — Lo Pan knows!”
Shortly afterwards, the group is pursued by a floating, fleshy spherical creature with eyes distributed all over its surface — a guardian, Lo Pan’s own telepathic, organic surveillance camera. “The general idea is that it’s this mythological Chinese creature that is Lo Pan’s way of seeing remotely,” Johnson told Entertainment Weekly. “So, this flying eye will go out and get information and bring it back to Lo Pan. It was just a huge, surrealistic ball of eyes.”
This ‘flying eye’ was designed by Jenson and Tani, and sculpted by James Kagel. Tani assembled and painted the creature, which was one of the most difficult effects in the whole film. “The other things we did for Big Trouble had problems that were difficult to solve,” Johnson recalled, “but they were just individual problems. Everything on the flying eye was a problem — basically becuse it was supposed to have 30 working eyes, make all sorts of faces and fly. From the beginning it was our biggest headache.” Dave Kelsey did a lot of the actual design for the mechanism; and the thing we were primarily fighting, at least in the beginning, was how to puppeteer the eye without creating massive problems for the roto department.”
Having had previous experience on Poltergeist II (with the creation of the Great Beast) Edlund and Bill Neil devised a new solution for the practical issues concerning the Guardian. Edlund said: “I figured that if we were to make a little donut-like bluescreen, the eye could be mounted right next to the screen. It seemed reasonable that if the eye had a hole in the back, the guys could then reach in to operate it yet it could be still surrounded by bluescreen material. Thaine Morris took care of the screen itself — he basically took a piece of bluescreen, cut a hole in it and rigged it up so that the flying eye was mounted on a rod that went through a 13-inch hole in the screen. Then Bill Neil set the camera up in such a way that it ‘floated’ — which made the eye appear to be floating.”
Two 24-inch diameter flying eyes were constructed (one for front shots, one for back shots); after filming, they were optically reduced to the desired size and composited into the live-action footage. Johnson recalled: “once we knew there were going to be shots from the back — with all the problems we had already — it seemed obvious that there was no way we could make one full sphere capable of doing everything. We tried to do as much direct rod operation as we could because the more direct the mechanism the better. For example, the cheeks were actually on big fiberglass pieces that were operated straight out the back. For a pivot point we had a large plexiglass plate coming out at the back of the blue screen that we ran all the rods through. That way, the puppeteers could see through it and see what they were actually doing, as well as watch the monitor. It still took about 24 puppeteers, but nobody had to do any roto.”
The Guardian featured a complex mechanical system animating its eyes, which were also used to express its emotional state. “It had two large mechanized eyes in the front that were really its major eyes for focus,” Johnson said. “Actually, they were the most highly mechanized function we did. They moved from side to side, up and down and any combination in between. They could roll, push out, pull in and could also be set to operate independently. For instance, there’s one shot where the flying eye gets stabbed in the forehead and its eyes cross and look right up at the knife. It also had to breathe, so we installed a system of bladders towards the bottom that could inflate and deflate. We put several other bladders in random places that just kept the skin bubbling a little bit — really subtly. We made a lot of the lesser eyes workable, but some we just made stageable — going on the principle that no one would notice — and we moved them slightly between shots. There was a little wire under the eyelid that could be pulled. Even the brows worked. It also had several eyes that were called ‘feeling eyes’. They were located at the end of eyestalks, like a snail, and were attached to a big rod at the end of a funnel-shaped collar which, in turn, was attached to the foam of the main flying eye body. They had mechanisms for a blink and eye movement; and when we moved the rod, all the flesh around each eye would move too. That added a lot of realism and organic movement to it. We could not only rotate the eyestalk a bit, we could twist it and push it out as well. They were all pretty much a four-cable mechanism and just came out in certain places. Only certain feeling eyes would move — they could stretch way out and around the back as if trying to peek over the front. We also used them for expression. When the eye was surprised, they would stick out like exclamation points; when it was scared, they would pull in. We made the eye’s lower lip and jaw the same way we did the Onion Head ghost for Ghostbusters — which was some spring banding connected to the lower lip with a line coming out of the back. But once again, we were limited because the line couldn’t come out from below — the optimum place to get the most movement out of it — it had to come straight out the back along with everything else. That made it really hard to maneuver.”
Shooting the Guardian proved to be no less difficult than conceiving its structure. Neil said: “the interesting about shooting the eye was trying to keep it animated with changes of expression, to keep it alive and also to keep it floating. The flying eye was locked off on a very rigid mount with all the puppeteers behind the blue screen. I floated the camera with pan and tilt just enough to keep the eye floating gently and to try and take the curse off the rigid mounting. It worked out pretty well, but it’s really hard to judge sometimes when dealing with one element and knowing there is going to be another element down the road somewhere. I think, in retrospect, I was a little too conservative in the amount of movement I did use via the pan and tilt floating. If I had the opportunity to reshoot the footage, I would have given the creature a little more movement so it would have had a greater sense of floating in the quick cutting of the sequence.” Despite his partial dissatisfaction, Neil still found the final results appropriate: “I think we ended up with some pretty nice shots. The eye seems to come to life and has a real vitality on screen.”
In a later scene, the eye is seen at rest on the ground, licking itself with a cable-controlled animatronic tongue. It is later killed by Wang Chi with his sword when Lo Pan is warned of the intruders’ presence. For the stabbing shot, one of the eye puppets was used in combination with an oversized sword prop; and for the final shot of it flying off, a life-size model was used.
For more images of the Chinatown monsters, visit the Monster Gallery.