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“I would suggest, then, that the monsters are not an inexplicable blunder of taste; they are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem, which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness.”
-J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics
Welcome to Monster Legacy, your one and only pit stop for everything concerning movie monsters! With this Blog, I attempt to give you visitors a journey through the making of the greatest cinematic monsters. These creatures, born out of the imagination of talented people worldwide have an articulate history that can be traced back as early as the very dawn of Science-Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Cinema. Monsters were among the first elements of creativity and fiction shown to audiences. From suits, to animatronics, to stop-motion, to digital technology, the most various techniques have been and continue to be used to bring film creatures to life. For the most popular films, an extensive array of behind-the-scenes material is available, but that is not true for all of them.
Monster Legacy’s purpose is properly that of writing retrospective articles that can provide a clear image of the history of the monsters’ creation. I take information and quotes from various sources — from behind-the-scenes featurettes, to magazines (like Cinefex, one of my main sources), to online interviews.
There are various kinds of characters presented in motion pictures and novels that can be described as ‘monsters’, or are labeled as such in the films themselves. This blog, for reasons of continuity and personal taste, arbitrarily chooses what characters definable as ‘monsters’ can be analyzed here. Monster Legacy focuses on organic, fictitious creatures — not oversized (or overly ferocious) simple animals, or serial killers, or human ghosts. Obvious reminder is that this is what estabilishes Monster Legacy’s canon, and should not be necessarily applied to other contexts — meaning that if you disagree with it, simply let it be.
When you are reading Monster Legacy, I assume that you have a portion of outside knowledge: besides contextually necessary explanations, the articles will not provide generic details about film storylines, casts of actors, character names, or other subjects that are easily researchable on the web.
The Monster Legacy logo is courtesy of Gyula Nemeth!
Lexicon of terms
When talking about monsters and how they are brought to life by special or visual effects artists, you may have already heard of things such as ‘maquettes’ or ‘hero suits’ or ‘zBrush’ in backstage featurettes. The following is a list of frequent contextually used terms:
- Animatronic (also Puppet) – a mechanized model of a creature, able to be animated and interact with the actors on set. The term was coined by Walt Disney Studios in the 1960s.
- Armature – the articulated understructure of a Stop-Motion model.
- Concept Art – a drawing used to conceptualize and define the design of a creature.
- Core – a structure a cast is based upon; usually a sculpture.
- Digital Input Device (DID) – small scale articulated model fitted with motion sensors that transfer any movement applied to it to a digital model.
- Fiberglass – polymer made of a plastic matrix reinforced with glass fibers. Used commonly for the more consistent parts of a creature (e.g. skull, plates) or for the understructure of a model.
- Foam – rubber that has been manufactured with a foaming agent to create an air-filled matrix structure. Commonly used for creature skins.
- Go-Motion – animation technique based on the puppeteering of a small scale model, either in a accompanying set or superimposed into the frame, via the use of a motion control machine. The puppet is positioned and then rehearsed.
- Hand Puppet – a model of a creature primarily puppeteered by hand.
- Hero – prefix adjective that usually indicates a fully detailed and mechanized model, be it an animatronic part or a suit, able to be filmed in full light conditions.
- Hydraulic Puppet – a Puppet, usually of large size, featuring hydraulic pistons.
- Inset (or Insert) – prefix adjective that usually indicates an animatronic model filmed in close-up on the set, either used singlehandledly or in combination with another animatronic or creature suit.
- Latex – type of foam rubber commonly used for creature skins.
- Key-Frame – digital animation technique based on the manual animation of a digital model.
- K-Y Jelly – water based lubricant. Frequently used to create slime or sweat, sometimes combined with other substances to create other effects (e.g. blood).
- Maquette – sculpture, or cast of a sculpture, of varying scale (usually small) used to define the appearance of a creature. Once approved, a final maquette is the basis of a full-scale sculpture (later used for moulds and/or digital scans), and can be digitally scanned to create a rough digital model. Maquettes can be also used for reference by digital effects artists to estabilish how a character reacts to light in certain conditions.
- Maya – digital program commonly used for rendering and animation.
- Mo-Motion – animation technique based on the puppeteering of a varying scale rod puppet, which is then superimposed into the shot — via green or blue screen.
- Motion Capture – digital animation technique based on the capture of a real performer’s movements, transferred onto a digital model through sensors and refined manually.
- Motion Control System – digital system able to control, program and rehearse a Puppet’s movements.
- Moulding – process of manifacturing (usually for creature skins) by pouring pliable material (usually latex) into a mould structure.
- Puppeteer – a member of a special effects crew specialized in controlling the movements of a puppet.
- Rod Puppet – a model puppeteered primarily via rods attached to various areas of its body.
- Servomechanism – Small electric motor used to control a puppet’s movements remotely. It is usually used for small moving parts.
- Spandex – synthetic fiber used for certain models, usually undersuits.
- Stop-Motion – animation technique based on a series of frames that, put into sequence, give the illusion that the portrayed model is moving.
- Stunt – prefix adjective that usually indicates a model that either is not completely detailed, thus with a less expensive production cost, and/or a model that has to be phisically damaged.
- Telemetry Device – a small scale model fitted with motion sensors and potentiometers that transfer any movement any movement applied to it to a Puppet.
- Urethane – colloquial name for Polyurethane, a polymer usually used for creature skins, namely parts that have to stretch or be distorced considerably. The most flexible variation of urethane is Skinflex.
- zBrush – digital sculpting tool commonly used to craft digital models from scratch, or to refine digital scans.
“Monsters are patron saints of imperfection. And they represent otherness. You and I may have a trade or a proclivity that can marginalize us. We can be neatly grouped for people to hate us, you know? It can be gender, race, you name it. But monsters are all-in-one. Monsters simply don’t belong, you know? They’re the biggest outsiders, and that’s what I celebrate and love about them. There’s a liberating aspect to monsters that I find, spiritually, very close to the way that I view the world.”
-Guillermo Del Toro