The Thing From Another World – Part 3
Watchin’ Norris in there gave me the idea that… maybe every part of him was a whole, every little piece was an individual animal with a built-in desire to protect its own life. Ya see, when a man bleeds, it’s just tissue; but blood from one of you Things won’t obey when it’s attacked. It’ll try and survive… crawl away from a hot needle, say.
Before Palmer’s gruesome transformation, Carpenter and Cundey discussed about giving the audience subtle hints on who might be the Thing during the centerpiece of the film — the blood test scene — and eventually settled upon a subtle eye gleam. “We were looking for some kind of a subtle way, to say which one of these [men] might be human,” Cundey revealed. “You’ll notice there’s always an eye light, we call it, a little gleam in the eye of the actor. It gives life.” Palmer is devoid of the ‘eye-gleam’ moments before the transformation. “There is no eye light [on Palmer’s eyes]. Let’s make it look subtle like he’s different and the audience won’t know until later. So he has dead eyes.”
The sudden revelation is had when Palmer’s blood combines into a small Thing that jumps out of the petri dish. An insert hollow fake arm and hand holding the dish was devised with a mechanism to make the blood-Thing spring forth — which worked roughly like an air bladder. “The squealing ‘blood’ monster was just a hollow latex cast that got inflated quickly to pop out of the petri dish held by the hollow arm,” Burman said.
Originally, the Palmer-Thing was built as a puppet of Palmer’s head, which simply split in half — revealing a lunging tentacle. Deemed unconvincing, it was replaced with a transformation portrayed on the screen with progressive stages. Three puppet heads were devised with air bladders and shifting inner forms to portray Palmer’s swelling connotations and eyes — before they eventually explode, revealing a deformed skull underneath. According to Burman, the third puppet head was “a full head and torso puppet that was rigged with tubes to pump in various solvents to make the foam swell and distort.”
The Palmer-Thing is then seen thrashing around immediately afterwards; the creature is here portrayed by stuntman Dick Warlock. The make-up included a mask with an exposed skull and hanging skin, and two large foam latex gloves. The following shot of the Palmer-Thing leaping unnaturally on the ceiling was achieved with an upside-down set. Originally, the Palmer-Thing was to break free and running on the wall and then on the ceiling — an effect which was to be achieved with a rotating drum, dressed as the room.
Producer Stuart Cohen recalled: “the original idea in the Palmer transformation was for him to break free from the sofa and run full tilt while standing up the rec room wall to his left, continue halfway across the ceiling and then drop down in front of Windows. A great unexpected idea, if it could be made to happen quickly. Universal happened to own a camera centrifuge […]. It was large drum with the set built inside that could rotate 360 degrees with the camera platform locked down (its use may be best seen in 2001 with the stewardess walking on the ceiling). The original plan was to replicate the right half of the rec room set in the drum and have a stuntman in Palmer guise do a flat-out run while rapidly moving the cylinder 180 degrees, leaving the camera crew upside down but the stuntman standing upright on the ceiling.”
Budget limitations, however, quickly became obvious. “We loved this idea and were dedicated to its execution well after it became impractical — it took a crew of 20 to operate and light the drum, plus the cost of the set, upside down hazard pay for the camera crew,” Cohen continues. “I think because it was a real movie moment, one you seldom get a chance to try. With financial reality finally setting in, we met on the rec room set to map out a less expensive alternative, and what could be cheaper than a stuntman falling into frame and landing on a mattress covered with a thin layer of painted balsa wood? I proudly contributed the foot stomp that motivated Palmer’s leap to the ceiling, and a sequence was born.”
In the following shot of the Palmer-Thing on the ceiling, it is a featureless dummy. The monster then jumps back down and, in front of Windows, splits its head open into a maw and grabs him with a tentacle, pulling his head into the newly-formed mouth. The elaborate puppet head constructed for the purpose was sculpted by Bottin and Willy Whitten, with the inside of its mouth, teeth and tongue sculpted by Jeff Kennemore. Its complex mechanisms were elaborated by Gillett and his father. This puppet head was “what was dubbed the ‘Potato head’,” Burman said. “It was cast in purple foam so that it looked right when it split open and not reveal that it was just foam inside.”
Another insert puppet with pneumatic components was used to portray the Palmer-Thing thrashing Windows around the room. When the creature is set on fire, a puppet head was used for a close-up shot, and in the following sequence of the creature thrashing around, Warlock performed in a specially-devised suit — which predated the reshoots and, as such, sported the earlier head design.
The notion of Garry’s death — the Blair mimic’s hand melding with the man’s face — was Ploog’s idea. “Sometimes between the lines of the script, there’s a huge space. If you don’t fill it, nobody fills it. So you throw something in. It’s just like my comic book days — you never read a writer’s script because writers are the worst people in the world at filling in the gaps of the story.”
The effect was partially redesigned from the sketch: instead of having Blair’s hand sink into Garry’s face and into his skull, Bottin fitted Donald Moffat’s cheeks with pliable latex appliances. Complete with holes where fingers could be inserted, the appliances gave the illusion of stretching flesh when a hand fit into them — and in the film sequence, the hand that performs the ‘melding’ is actually Bottin’s. In the next shot, a dummy of the assimilated Garry with stretched facial skin was dragged across the floor.
One important deleted sequence from the film involved Nauls’s death. In the final cut, he simply walks down a dark corridor and disappears; but as originally intended, he would have found Garry’s legs, only to discover that they were being assimilated by the so-called Box-Monster, dubbed such because it would have emerged from a large box like a Jack-in-the-box. The Box-Monster was built with a Blair head rigged with tentacles. As it was done in a rush, it had to be discarded as the results were not convincing enough.
Although Ploog had completed the storyboards depicting the finale of the film, he did not have the chance to finalize the design of the final Thing iteration — the Blair-Monster, as it was dubbed by the crew. With Ploog gone to work on Superman III, such task was assigned to Huebner — who had to match the appearance of the other creature storyboards and effects.
Huebner conceived the Blair-Monster as a serpentine or worm-like tentacled monstrosity. He related: “we were always fighting it looking either cute or funny. Some of the insect-type concepts looked a little cute. We had to be careful it didn’t go so ridiculously overboard that it began to be funny. One laugh in the crowd, and there goes the ballgame.” Before a satisfying version came to light, the Blair-Monster went through several iterations — unused concepts included mouthed tentacles erupting from Blair’s wrists; the bodies of Blair, Garry and Nauls melded into an amorphous mass; pulsating viscera; and more.
The final design was the result of a collaboration between Huebner, Bottin and animator Randall William Cook — with additional refinements by Carpenter himself. It had Blair’s head with a monstrous mouth growing on its side, and two insectoid arms in place of the man’s left arm.
Cook had been hired by Bottin to assist with the creature concepts, but briefly left to work on an eventually unrealized adaptation of Graveyard Shift, which he had co-written. When that project fell through, Cook returned to Bottin’s crew to supervise the stop-motion sequences that had been proposed to depict the Blair-Monster, combined with a full-sized insert puppet. Storyboarded but never filmed was a series of shots where a whimpering Nauls is seen in the final stages of absorption, before his head erupts into a tentacle.
Cook only had less than five months to build and animate the creature. Based on the selected design, he sculpted a small-scale puppet assisted by Carl Surges. The inner armature was instead devised by Ernest Farino: he devised separate armatures for the serpentine body and tentacles, the head and torso, and the deformed dog appendage that emerges from the Thing’s abdomen. To ensure smooth motion, nearly all of the joints and body portions were custom-machined out of steel and aluminium. “Quite frankly, making a million little joints for those damn tentacles was extremely dull,” Farino said. “There were probably two weeks spent doing nothing but making tentacle parts, one after another after another.”
The leaping dog that burst forth from Blair’s body proved to be particularly arduous. “There was a lot of effort put into that silly dog,” Farino continues. “It’s difficult disguising armature joints in very thin legs, such as what were called for with this dog. Thin joints need to have tension, hold a pose and pull against the foam, which gets increasingly difficult the smaller you get. I worked it out, but it wasn’t easy.”
After almost three months, the puppet was ready to be animated in the miniature set devised by Susan Turner. Despite the pressures to complete the live-action effects, Bottin was also present on the stop-motion set. Miniature photography supervisor Jim Aupperle recalled: “Rob was always there conferring with Randy Cook on the look of the Thing. He looked at our dailies and made comments about what he’d like to see. He gave us an overall idea of what he wanted, and we went from there.”
In the meantime, Bottin was also occupied with the full-size insert puppet of the Blair-Monster — the “most taxing” effect in the project and the “most difficult, logistically,” according to Brian Wade. The puppet was cable, wire and radio-controlled, with a wide range of motion including facial expressions, eye, mouth and tongue movements, and writhing of arms and tentacles. A stomach-bursting mechanism was also included for the shot where the dog form bursts forth. Some functions — such as the deformed dog’s mouth — were also directly hand-operated from within the frame of the creature. All in all, the Blair-Monster required 300 pounds of rubber for its skin, as well as urethane and fiberglass for certain components.
To operate it, several technicians were lying on the floor and crouching out of sight. “It was like the falling walls of Jericho,” Kelsey said. Bottin himself maneuvered the stomach-bursting dog. Diaz recalled: “we were using a lot of gelatin for all the goo, and the dog puppet just got covered — it turned into a real goo ball. One of the grips took some real old gelatin and stick it in with the stuff Rob was using. The old stuff had mold on it and smelled like rotten eggs. So Rob was inside the dog, and we’d wrapped him in trash bags to keep him clean. He had all these hoses inside with him. John asked him to do something, and all we heard was this ‘glub blub’ sound. Somehow a hose had wound up pointed toward his mouth, and all that rotten gelatin was all over him. We hauled him out, and he was just covered in goo. He could’ve been the Thing!” Carpenter, all in all, was very satisfied with the results of the Blair-Monster shooting.
The destruction of the detonator was originally going to be done in live-action — as storyboarded, a tentacle was to wrap around it and swell, crushing it. Carpenter ultimately resorted to Cook’s animation. “There was no way [Bottin] could have crushed it convincingly,” Cook said. “I suggested that the tentacle simply whisk the detonator out of sight, so that’s what we animated, and that’s what you see in the finished film.” Of Cook’s five cuts of stop-motion animation, only two survive the final film: the tentacles erupting from the floor, and the dragging of the detonator — which culminates in the Blair-Thing bursting out. The decision was made because Carpenter felt the animation was too detached visually from the rest of the effects, and the fact that the stop-motion model had been built before the full-size puppet resulted in slight design discrepancies.
“The film had two hours worth of this certain kind of fake rubber work, which was practical — guys puppeteering and stuff,” Cook said in retrospect, “not necessarily real but a kind of fake to which one would grow accustomed to. Now at the end of the film, to suddenly go to a different kind of fake — stop-motion — you have an intrinsic problem. I was unfortunately terrified the stop-motion would be insufficiently smooth, and so my animation in that pivotal shot was way too conservative, in retrospect. At the time I was just thinking, ‘smooth, smooth, smooth’, but what it needed to be was ‘violent, violent, violent’.”
As to the biggest mystery in the entire film — whether or not one of the two survivors was infected in the end — Cundey related: “that was discussed. Should one of these guys be treated as if one of them are the Thing? But no, John very deliberately wanted to leave the question of if one, or both, or neither of these guys is the Thing.”
“It was — at least at the beginning — one of the hardest projects I had been ever involved in,” Burman said in retrospect. “Granted, we were doing things nobody had done before. It was all experimental and new for everybody, and I don’t think anybody came away from that film lesser everybody came out of it with deeper respect for what’s really possible, and I think it showed what talent rob really is. He’s done an awful lot of amazing and talented things since then, but I think The Thing is the pinnacle, no matter how good the other works get. I don’t know how you can top it.”
“The hardest thing about The Thing is taking something that is unreal and making it look real,” Bottin said, “and to do that you have to make it look alive — it has to breathe, to blink, to twitch and to shake. I’m thrilled with the attention to detail we accomplished. It’s not something you normally get a chance to do.”
“The big job was to convince the audience that this Thing is real,” concluded John Carpenter. “We might have convinced them a little too much!”
Special thanks to Rob Burman for providing some great insight for this article!
For more pictures of the Thing, visit the Monster Gallery.
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