Greetings, Earthlings! This is Xander, the WonderLab’s Production Designer extraordinaire, here to tell you about my forays into special effects last October.
I asked Stephen if I could create some spooky characters throughout the month to advance my skills and portfolio as a special effects artist. He told me I could do three characters, choosing between classic folklore horror, creepypasta, American Gothic, Creature feature monster, and sci-fi/fantasy horror.
I got cracking right away, excited to get my hands dirty and make somethin’ freaky. Immediately I had an overload of ideas. I drafted concept overviews for several characters – werewolf, banshee, giant spider prey, rogue cannibal, pinhead cenobite, mad scientist, and more. Stephen glanced at them and chose his favorite – Nuclear Mutant and Transhumanist, and commissioned an idea of his own – Demon Pig Warrior. With the three characters settled, I scheduled them for each remaining Friday of the month.
I selected Matt, our IT Specialist, to be my first victim.
My concept for the Nuclear Mutant was the survivor of should-be-fatal radiation. I wanted it to be deliciously gruesome; a very unfortunate dude hideously deformed beyond recognition.
I began by researching the effects that radiation has on the human body. I looked for inspiration in my book, Special Effects Guide of Real Human Wounds and Injuries. This book provided sobering photos of radiation burns. I also turned to YouTube to see how other artists accomplished radiation burns, including an interview with Daniel Parker, who created the astounding special effects for Chernobyl.
Over the next few days, I practiced my techniques, experimenting with different methods of creating blisters. The technique I found most effective involved creating a bruise with cream makeup, coating the bruise in a skin-like layer of liquid latex, and injecting diluted petroleum jelly. The result is a believable and very poppable blister.
Alexia Lucio, a talented makeup artist who I previously worked with at the WonderLab, assisted me on the day of production. We began by applying the bald cap and sculpting growths around Matt’s head using modeling wax. We also added an eyeball and two ridges of teeth, resulting from the Mutant’s scrambled DNA. We slathered the whole shebang in latex and injected blister after blister until he looked like he’d gone for a stroll on the surface of the Sun. Then came the most enjoyable part: painting our design. We were like Jackson Pollock, slinging pus and slime and blood with wild abandon. For the finishing touches, we pulled strands of Matt’s hair through the bald cap to create the remnants of his once-luxurious mane and misted him with diluted glycerin for a gorgeous dewy glow.
It was straight-up nasty. We juxtaposed many great textures, from the bald cap’s crinkle to the sagging boils to the marbled flesh. It didn’t feel too refined or over-thought. Instead, there was the perfect amount of chaos — the hapless randomness that only unmitigated catastrophe can create.
If I could have changed anything, I would have been slightly less heavy-handed. The way I applied the red makeup to Matt’s entire head made the mutant look like hamburger meat rather than skin. Sometimes less is more. If I’d been more sparing with the SFX and retained more of Matt’s natural skin and features, it might have looked more realistic, and therefore more horrifying. That said, I intended it to be somewhat fantastical.
We shot the Nuclear Mutant in an apocalyptic scene I had created on the Soundstage with heaps of rubble and debris. We also filmed Matt stumbling into the auto shop next door, giving the mechanics a good old October fright.
Demon Pig Warrior
With the character’s name as my only direction, I came up with a visual concept and a backstory.
My interpretation of the Demon Pig Warrior was a menacing human-pig hybrid from the roasty-toasty depths of the Underworld. A bounty hunter responsible for vanquishing the souls of those who try to escape. Oink oink, honey!
Because of the Demon Pig Warrior being burly, brutish, and ugly, there was no doubt in my mind that the role could go to none other than our Operations Manager, Mr. Patrick Pujol. The Demon Pig Warrior was the least complex but had its own challenges. I couldn’t hide beneath frills – the character was bare and in plain sight. The prosthetics, paint, shading, and textures needed to be executed perfectly. If these elements aren’t successful, neither is the illusion. And illusion is everything!
The forehead and pig nose prosthetics already existed in our collection, so I only had to buy a tusk/chin prosthetic. On production day, I was assisted by Rain Williamson, a professional special effects artist. Rain’s experience and insight made her a great asset to accomplishing this character. Even though I was the creative lead, I requested her input throughout the process, a great learning experience for me. The prosthetics were a challenge. The forehead and nose were made of foam, which had to be shaved down to appear seamless with Patrick’s skin. The chin was latex, and the edges kept coming loose. But it all came together in the end.
I draped the Warrior in an abundance of severed appendages, the trophies of his unfortunate victims. We photographed our monster on the Soundstage against the green screen. Overall, I was happy with the Demon Pig Warrior and happy that I got to try some new techniques. I felt that the texture of his skin was quite successful. If I were to revisit this character, some improvements I would try to make are ear prosthetics, something going on around the head like a mohawk wig or helmet, evil contact lenses, dustings of prosthetic facial hair, and a more comprehensive costume.
I did the final character on myself.
I’m inspired by cyberpunk fashion and aesthetics, and have always thought it’d be gnarly to have a bionic implant (or 10). This was my chance to live that fantasy while improving my practice in character design. I wanted the look to be intricate and detailed, a fully realized character from head to toe—stylish, grisly, and creeptastic.
After drafting some sketches, I settled on my design and began compiling the materials. I bought some costume elements online, such as the LED headset and cyborg prosthetics, while other elements, such as the punk pants and silver jewelry, I already owned. Matt and Daria accompanied me to the local dump, where we scavenged for junk in true dystopian fashion. It was a time crunch before we got kicked out, so I got my paws on everything with hidden potential, from discarded wires to random scraps of metal. Matt brought me some motherboards, which I was delighted to bash into trillions of cybernetic shards to glue to my platform boots. I attached other circuitry to my clothing.
I worked alongside our new Creative Director, Jasmine, to conceptualize how we would capture this character. We shared visual inspiration, eventually agreeing to create a set on the Soundstage where I’d be tangled in cables and awash in projections of glitchy GIFs. Alexia again assisted with the special effects, while Jasmine painted techy tattoos on my head and helped get me into costume.
I was stoked that the final result looked exactly like my design sketch. Next time I’ll focus on making a better costume. It was less of a proper garment and more of an assemblage of trash precariously strung together by hot glue. It was challenging to move in and disintegrated the instant I took it off. Unsanitized metal from the dump scratched my arm, but luckily I didn’t need to have it amputated. I would love to elevate my costume design by gaining more experience and learning skills like sewing and tailoring. But as a wise sage once said, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”
A WonderLab of Possibilities
The creation and capturing of these three characters was a company-wide effort, with every IVM employee contributing. I had so much fun and definitely grew as an artist. The WonderLab is such an amazing place for me to have these learning experiences. I’m looking forward to continuing to improve my skills and take on new projects. Get in touch if you have an idea I can help bring to life!