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John Carpenter's

 

SPECIAL EFFECTS

One of The Thing's most memorable effects...

Immediately upon its release The Thing set new standards for special effects in film.  New ground was broken by the talented FX crew.  The long hours and extreme challenges the special effects team were trying to pull off worked and worked damn good.  Today, two decades later,  the effects of The Thing hold up against the computer graphics imaging that modern films now use.

Rob Bottin, Special Make-Up FX

Heading up the FX team was a 22 year-old Rob Bottin, fresh from working on The Howling and The Fog.  He was hired by Carpenter to do the 5 big effects sequences in the film.  Bottin worked closely with storyboard artists Mike Ploog and Mentor Huebner.  Ploog conjured up incredible storyboards depicting the creatures in the film, encouraged by Bottin to take the monsters to the extreme.  Ploog would come up with a walking mouth on legs and Bottin would say, "Put some eyeballs on it!" and Ploog would respond, "You can't put eyeballs on a mouth!" 

Mike Ploog, Storyboard Artist

The make-up effects budget for The Thing was $750,000.  That number eventually swelled to $1.5 million as the production went on.  Bottin's crew of illustrators, designers, sculptors. painters, and mechanical effects technicians quickly grew to over 40 members.  For Bottin, work on The Thing began in April 1981 and would span the next 57 weeks into late May 1982. (Remember, the film first screened on June 11th!)  Rob, pushing himself against an ever diminishing schedule, slept at the Universal lot and lived off of candy bars and cola.  Upon completion he had to check himself into a hospital for 2 weeks to recover from extreme fatigue and burnout from the constant stress. 

        

Bottin and Carpenter with the Palmer sequence effects puppet


The Thing employed pretty much every conceivable and known special effect at the time.  A combination of many effects was used.  Rob said, "If you named it we used it!"  Some techniques that the FX crew utilized: hand puppets, marionettes, reverse filming, radio controls, wires, hydraulics, and pull cables.  An extensive ingredient list was concocted to create the gore: heated bubble gum, strawberry jam, mayonnaise, cream corn, gelatin, and food thickener.  Some synthetic materials used were metal, urethane,  fiberglass, foam latex, rubber and KY Jelly.  The "Blair Monster" in the film's finale required 300 pounds of foam rubber alone!

For scenes involving autopsies of the Thing and its victims, Bottin originally planned to use real animal organs purchased from a slaughterhouse.  However, this was scrapped after a box of raw meat was absentmindedly forgotten at the back of a soundstage at Universal.  It was discovered by one of the studio guys a week later who complained that the entire stage "smelled like shit."

The special effects were a major factor in the script's being re-written.  As production went on and the FX crew came up with new and outrageous ideas, like the Norris sequence with the chest and spiderhead, the story was re-worked to include these incredible scenes.  Almost nothing turned out as originally planned but in the end both Carpenter and Bottin were pleased with the result.  Much had to be scrapped for various reasons including an extended Blair Monster stop-motion sequence in which a bizarre Dog-Thing bursts from the Blair Monster to pursue MacReady.  Stop-motion animator Ernie Farino spent nearly 2 months constructing the puppet armature for this scene and unfortunately it did not end up being included in the final film.  It can be seen on the DVD's Bonus Materials.

The live-action, full-size Blair Monster had 63 technicians operating it.  They were pulling cables, manipulating hand puppets, and tugging monofilament line.  Says Bottin: "The guys were just outside of the frame.  John had to scrap a couple of shots as fingers and elbows would show up in the frame."  Bottin himself became the Blair Monster, climbing inside to operate the dog that bursts out of the stomach.  Despite being wrapped from head to toe in trash bags Rob came out so covered in slime and goo
he could've been the Thing!

Deleted Scene of the "Blair Monster" stop-motion animation

Still shot of the "Blair Monster" model for the stop-motion sequence

 

THE KENNEL-THING


"I don't know what the Hell's in there..."

The Kennel-Thing model
(designed by Stan Winston and sculpted by Jim Kagel and Lance Anderson)

Stan Winston of Stan Winston Studio

Effects wizard Stan Winston was eventually called in to cover part of the dog-Thing sequence.  Rob Bottin turned this project over to Winston with much relief.  He was sick of dog effects from working on The Howling and was already wrapped up with the film's other huge effects sequences.  As it stood now Bottin was already needed in two or three places at once.  Winston told Bottin he did not want screen credit so as not to take away from Bottin's show.  However,  Winston is recognized in the film's end credits with the line, "Special Thanks to Stan Winston." 

Model dog stand-in for Jed with concept sketches
 

Concept art and sketches for the Kennel-Thing
 


Rob Bottin and the Norwegian-Thing

bottin.jpg (54696 bytes)
Rob puts finishing touches on the Norwegian-Thing

 
A couple of rare photos of Charles Hallahan in the Norris Creature SFX scene.

blairmonsterwaxhead.jpg (44321 bytes) 
A shot of the Blair Monster head and Spider-Head made from wax by Henry Alvarez. Photos courtesy of alvarezwaxmodels


SFX photo sent in by Willy Whitten - June 2008
 

In the months leading up to the film's June '82 release, Fangoria magazine held a contest for readers to "Draw The Thing!"  The Grand Prize was a trip to Universal Studios in L.A. to visit the set.  Here are the finalists:

 

Outpost #31 interviews SFX artist Rob Burman - April 2007

For me, the difficulty was in keeping enough foam latex parts available. Each piece had to be flawless (Rob, having come out of Rick Baker's, was quite the perfectionist). We would stock-pile as many as 30 of the Norris head skins - Then, over the weekend, the mechanical crew would use them to test a mechanism and shred them all. I'd come back on Monday and there would be a major push to get more foam skins to the finisher's so they would have something to actually use on film - Lots of all-niters. The Blair monster was the biggest thing I'd ever cast - Five 20 quart mixers to fill one mold (that comes to roughly 75 batches of foam in two separate injections)

I think that the Norris sequence is still one of the best "live" effects ever put on film. I also think that having the dog puppet push out of the Blair monster's chest and sit there like a writhing cancer patient was pretty disappointing (Especially since it was designed to chase MacReady around in the underground tunnel via stop motion - too bad the footage didn't match the live action stuff.)

The main thing I remember being scrapped was when Nauls gets it. We called that monster the "spaghetti monster" since it looked like a plate of pasta with meatballs that the table flowers fell over on! I believe that they referred to it as the "box" or "crate" monster at the time. It was played by artist Vince Prentiss' arm!

I was there from about mid September through mid April. I left about two weeks prior to final wrap. Prep the mold, weigh the foam, mix the foam, inject the foam, clean it up - REPEAT! Kind of grueling actually.

From what I understand the only place you will find any parts of Thing monsters is in Rob Bottin's old basement - everything from his shows got piled in there indiscriminately. Don't know how true it is, but that is what I was told.

I had a "What were you thinking" moment when I watched John Goodwin microwave-ing Bubble Yum to test its viability in stretching the Norris neck - How do you reset for take 2?! That kind of thing rarely, if ever, works. I knew it and I was barely 19. Of course, I was third generation in my family to do this work (Grandfather made stuff for Jack Pierce strating with "The Wolf Man", Dad began on "Planet of the Apes" and I had a couple of years at that point on things like "My Bloody Valentine", Happy Birthday to Me", "The Beast Within" and had just come off of "Cat People").

Huge amounts of drawings were made but very little that was "started" was abandoned. The only one that I remember was Naul's demise from the spaghetti/crate/Blair monster. Rob would sit in a room with Mike Plug and say, "How about something that looks like this...", Mike would draw it and Rob would say, "OK, now add this part over here to this...". And so it would go night after night (Rob was only in shop, for the most part, from about 5PM until about 8AM, unless otherwise needed)

In retrospect, I have to say it was one of my greatest opportunities working on film. It is definitely iconic in more ways than one. I got the job when Rob's shop called my Dad's (The Burman Studio). He asked if my Dad would offer some advice on how to get the foam to work better (They were having people running it as a "side" job at that point). My Dad said he would come by and take a look but Rob wouldn't allow it. Rob then asked who did my Dad's foam and asked if he could borrow that person. Well, it was me and my partner at the time, Dale Brady (we were neighborhood and school friends). We interviewed and got the job a week later.

Talk about trial by fire, we had never run foam in such quantities before - Turns out, no one else had either. After that, I was known as "The Foam God" around the industry. It landed me work on many films, including Ghostbusters, The Fly and Tremors.

I haven't seen it in years, but there is some pretty good info from my interview with Cinefantastique magazine in the article on Rob and "The Thing". I look like a crazed wild man in the photo. (Page 57)

Have fun at THING-FEST!

Rob Burman

Info Sources:

- Cinefantastique Magazine, The Thing Special Double Issue, Vol. #13 No. 2 & 3
- Fantastic Films, #31 November ’82, Interview with Rob Bottin on make-up effects
- Fangoria #21, Rob Bottin and the Effects of The Thing
- BEHIND THE MASK : The Secrets of Hollywood's Monster Makers


 
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