Demons of the Gate
To unleash the demons of The Gate, director Tibor Takacs needed the right special effects artist — and he found Randall William Cook. “When you talk to special effects people, a lot of them talk about limitations,” Takacs told Cinefex. “‘Well, you can’t do this and you can’t do that.’ But with Randy Cook it wasn’t like that at all — he talked about possibilities.” The Gate offered Cook the opportunity to use a wide array of different effects techniques. In his task, he was aided by Craig Reardon (for creature effects), Frank Carere (physical effects) and Illusion Arts (mattes and opticals).
The first creatures seen in the film are the monstrous hands that attempt to grab Alexandra from beneath Glen’s bed. Those were constructed by Craig Reardon, who designed, sculpted and built them as hand and arm appliances in polyurethane.
The Minions, small goblin-like creatures that are featured the most in the film, were designed by Cook and translated in three dimensions by Craig Reardon. Although the special effects crew did employ hand puppets and dummies for certain shots of the Minions, as per industry standard (i.e. Critters, Gremlins) the majority of the sequences were achieved with 4:1 scale suits in appropriately scaled sets, using forced perspective methods. Cook — who was inspired by the 1959 film Darby O’Gill and the Little People, as well as ‘Manners the Butler’, a character in television commercials of the late ’50s — said: “forced perspective is essentially the process of the hanging miniature, only in reverse; a hanging miniature takes something small and makes it appear to be normal in size by placing it closer to the camera. In forced perspective, something that is actually normal in size — like a man in a suit — is placed farther away from the camera to make it look small. So instead of building a miniature set and magnifying it, you build a huge set and ‘mini-fy’ it by placing it farther away from the camera. On The Gate, we worked with a ratio of four to one; so if we wanted to make something appear to be four feet away from the camera, we had to build it oversize and place it 16 feet away.”
The process involved three basic steps: building the Minions as creature suits; constructing appropriately-sized forced perspective sets that would allow the illusion of interaction between normal-sized actors and the small Minions; and filming the individual shots. Reardon built the Minion suits. “The suits were of course a large endeavor because we were working with a modest budget,” he said. “We had to have 15 of these rather elaborate suits. I decided to make them out of polyurethane materials because foam latex is slow to work with — you have to bake it for five or six hours — whereas polyfoam shoots up in a container brief minutes after being mixed. Also, foam latex has a tendency to shrink while polyfoam does not. This ensured that a month or so down the road, when we were shooting scenes, the suits would still fit the actors.”
People of average heights were selected for the roles. “I think we worked with a standard of about 5’6″ or 5’7″, something like that,” Reardon continues. “A casting call was put out for men and women of that general height, and when they showed up we arduously put them into our suits. Everything fit adequately. We had made allowances for adjustments at the elbows and the knees because we figured we might have some problems; but as it turned out, I think we would have been better off with unit suits that they could just have jumped into because we were constantly patching those joints. I regretted that, but you simply don’t know all these things in advance and you seldom have time to thest. Certainly on The Gate, everything had to come right off the griddle and onto the plate. So you take your best guess and go for it.”
None of the suits had elaborate mechanisms in them. Mechanical heads were built, but did not work as intended — something that the filmmakers retroactively appreciated. Reardon explained: “there were plans for three functioning heads. We had some radio control on two of them and one that was supposed to be our ‘hero’ head, but none of them worked very well. Fortunately, they really didn’t have to. Without any movement at all, the creatures had a sort of fascinating, stupid fish look. I liked the design because they seemed like minions of any overlord in that they had a kind of mechanistic expression, as if they were incapable of any independent thought or action. And so that fortunately allowed us to take the liberty of not giving their faces a great deal of animation — which I don’t believe damaged the effect in any way since really the charm and interest of these creatures is in their pale, plucked-chicken immediacy as they scurry around the kids’ feet.”
To increase the illusion of the Minions’ size, they were filmed at slow speed — at around 12 frames per second. “We lowered the film speed to what I figured would make the physics look correct — 12 frames per second. It seemed to work dramatically, even though the characters were quarter-size and the speed was only twice as fast. Of course, that meant the actors playing normal-size people had to be coached to move at half speed. This usually wasn’t much of a problem because the actors normally had to do only simple movements during the perspective shots. We knew from the outset that there would be no time for retakes. The schedule was so tight we had to get our shots the first time, because whatever we got the first time was what we had to live with. So all our ‘tests’ show up in the film. We didn’t have a chance to experiment with a single one of the forced perspective setups beforehand because we just didn’t have the time.”
Oversized set elements built for the Minion sequences included 4:1 stones, and an oversized leg that had to be lined up with the actor playing Terry for the scene where he falls into the hole. One of the most complex sequences to film, however, was the scene where the ‘Dead Workman’ falls in front of the children and shatters into a swarm of Minions. Cook related: “now that was something nobody had seen before, except maybe in a Tex Avery cartoon. It was a typical cartoon gag where a character would smash into a wall, break into a hundred little versions of himself running around in confusion, and then reassemble and go on to the next gag. And I just thought it would be a visually memorable thing to do in live-action. We timed it so that we would always stay one beat ahead of the audience and play on their confusion.”
The shot was set up as follows: the room set included a full-size section on the right and a forced-perspective section on the left; a workman dummy was suspended above the forced-perspective set; it was dropped to fall face-first, with a system rigged to ‘catch’ it on time; when it falls, to avoid a bouncing motion, “we did a freeze-frame on it so the bounce wouldn’t be seen,” Cook explained. “Then we had an eight-frame rotomatte transition — animated by Catherine Sudolcan of Illusion Arts — that had the workman transforming into the minions.” Each element of the final sequence was shot separately. “It had to be treated like an optical. For instance, we used split-screen to isolate the kids who are standing off in the corner watching the action. They were shot at 24 frames per second. We shot the dummy falling also at 24 frames per second, and then did the freeze-frame on him. And in this instance, even the Minions were shot at 24 frames per second, then skip-framed. If we’d shot them at our usual 12 frames per second, the exposure would have changed and the lighting wouldn’t have matched. Then we had the rotomatte elements to cover the transition. So it was a multi-element effect.”
The Minion performers were carefully directed in order to move apart in an appropriate fashion. Cook recalled: “when we were lining up to do the workman breaking up, we were working late at night. I first got them all into a rough positio, and then I went through and told each one to lie down in a way that would approximate a body part. One guy would be the head, two guys would be the shoulders, another two guys would be parts of the arms and so on. They all had to contort themselves into ridiculous position to approximate the outline of the body; and so there was a whole big line of them all crouched down in their positions. These guys had all been told to take care of the suits and be real serious — no fooling around. Well, at one point I was up on the camera platform and Craig was down on the floor attending to the suits, and this one guy was lying down sort of on his back with his legs crossed and one arm up over his head, looking like he was taking a sunbath. Carig walked over to him and jokingly kicked him in the polyurethane butt and said, ‘hey, get up you silly-looking dope.’ Then he heard this muffled voice from inside the mask saying, ‘I can’t move — I’m an arm.'”
The Minions are only servants announcing the coming of an Evil creature — the Demon Lord. Dozens of them gather around the hole in the house to greet their master. Cook said: “on stage and in film you always give a main character an entrance; you just do. It’s a dramatic rule. I wanted to do something that literally made it feel like you were being drawn into the presence of royalty.” Once the Demon Lord appears, the Minions swarm off — their purpose fulfilled. “The Minions decamp because their function — preparing for the way of [the Demon’s] arrival — is over,” Cook continues. “Their moves were basically staged like the parting of a curtain. It’s very theatrical — shameless pageantry.” For this sequence, the Minions were optically replicated by Illusion Arts to increase their number.
Originally, the Demon Lord was conceived in a much different manner, being described as a mass of human flesh and entrails. In its final incarnation, designed by Cook, the Demon Lord is a serpentine Monster, with a horse-like head and multiple pairs of arms and tentacles. Unlike the Minions, the Demon Lord was brought to the screen as a stop-motion character. It was built by Cook as a two-foot tall puppet, which was animated either against bluescreen or a miniature set. A close-up head was considered, but ultimately unable to be built. “We really did expend a lot of effort getting as much detail into the puppet as possible,” Cook related. “Since in the film the creature is magnified seven-and-a-half times the size of the actual puppet, the puppet as a consequence had to be sculpted with seven times the care because it was to look seven times as big.” For certain scenes, the Demon Lord was used in combination with a puppet portraying Glen.
For the scene where Glen kills the Demon Lord with a positive-energy-charged rocket, a rubber duplicate of the Demon Lord’s chest was used in combination with a prop rocket. “Incidentally,” Cook said, “that shot was a conscious lift from Harryhausen’s It Came from Beneath the Sea in which a torpedo was fired into the giant octopus.”
Tibor Takacs concluded: “I think we were just lucky. We almost overextended ourselves. It was extremely ambitious and we didn’t have time to test or reshoot anything, but it all happened to work. Due to everyone’s work on the film, and to Randy Cook’s effects planning and his talent, we were able to pull it all off the first time.”
For more images of the Demons, visit the Monster Gallery.