Director’s Notes #9: Jim Henson meets THE EVIL DEAD

Last week at a meeting with a production company/sales agent here in Los Angeles, Jim and I asked if this particular company actually “got it” in terms of what we were trying to do with THE MILLENNIUM BUG. We had too many meetings with various companies that just did not see what we saw, did not embrace what we had embraced, did not really care about our aesthetic or philosophy. Of course we all want the movie do well, of course we want audiences to see it on cable and iTunes and blu-ray. But come on, man! At least pretend you care that we were trying to do something unique, something that Hollywood just doesn’t do any more, namely GIANT MONSTER MOVIES FEATURING MINIATURES AND MEN IN SUITS! The companies that we passed on seemed to just want to treat it like a product, like a 10 pound bag of potatoes, like disposable diapers. Hey, we know the Bug is not freaking WAR AND PEACE. But we are proud of it, and we think its a damn fun movie, warts and all.

Writer/Director Kenneth Cran makes adjustments to the Bug puppet.

Anyway, one of the executive dudes on the other side of the table (there’s always a long conference table where these meetings take place) said something like, “Yeah, we totally get it. It’s Jim Henson meets THE EVIL DEAD!” Holy (insert expletive here… mine was a word beginning with “F”, but it wasn’t “fulcrum”)! The father of all modern notions of puppetry meets Sam Raimi’s first blood-fest! I couldn’t have said it better. He reminded me of what I saw after the finished Millennium Bug monster suit sat posed before me. It reminded me of THE DARK CRYSTAL. It reminded me of a really ferocious Muppet. I went home that night and thought, “I’ve designed a giant man-eating, toothy Muppet!” I was pleased.

Now, don’t get me wrong. In NO WAY am I saying our work was/is better than the work of the masterful Jim Henson. I’m just saying without Henson and THE DARK CRYSTAL, LABYRINTH, THE STORYTELLER series, etc., our Bug may never have been made. All modern puppet effects, from the Carpenter’s Thing to Winston’s raptors and t-rex, owe a nod to Jim Henson. So, a special thanks to that one executive for reminding me of the Bug’s (sublime) genesis, and for reminding all of us that Jim Henson did it without pixels.

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Director’s Notes #6: The Miniatures

Town-4How can you tell a man in a monster suit is supposed to be a giant unless you have something to compare it to? Simple. You build miniatures. Early on, we established that our monster would be about 30 feet tall, which necessitated a 1/6th scale for our miniature sets. These sets would provide not only “locations” for the Bug to romp, but also allow us to establish our geography, as well as create background plates in which our actors could be composited.

We decided to shoot the effects according to the script order. First up then was the miniature forest, and we needed trees. Building 1/6th scale redwood trees turned out to be a relatively simple, straightforward process. Various diameters and lengths of pvc pipe were purchased at Lowe’s and Home Depot, then cut to the appropriate length. Although it was not established in the script, I had always imagined the forest as a redwood forest. That helped us, because with redwoods, there is more trunk and very little foliage at ground level. To produce two dozen trees, I laid out a ten foot sheet of clay that was about six inches wide and two inches thick. I then sculpted “tree texture” into the clay, cast it in Ultracal, and painted-in black pigmented liquid latex. When the latex dried, the skin was pulled and glued around the pvc pipe. Instant tree trunk. We later made runs to Michael’s craft stores and bought lots of plastic evergreen foliage. Scale was always a challenge, but I think we got away with it.

Mike-G.-MBug-blocks

The tree trunks were painted and the plastic foliage wired-in. Small L-brackets at the bottom of the trees were attached and then screwed into the stage, while the trees were supported from above by a 2×4 grid attached to the warehouse’s ceiling support beams. For the ground level foliage, more plastic and nylon plants of the appropriate scale were purchased at Michael’s, and then arranged and glued onto lengths of two-inch wide by one inch thick pine lumber. For the ferns, we enlisted help from our mom, who arranged and glued the mini-fern clusters to small blocks of foam for the sake of portability.

Next up for construction were the various buildings. The script called for a hillbilly cabin, a crypt and graveyard, and a ghost town.  Again, 1/6th scale was required for these buildings, too, as the size of the monster had been established. Jim and I had begun the process of miniature construction immediately after securing the warehouse. We relied on the storyboards, determining which buildings needed to be built with full detail, and which ones we could get away with only one or two sides of detail. We also needed to take into account which buildings were going to be damaged or destroyed.

Mehri-MBug-Crawford-Cabin

The Crawford clan’s cabin was started first, and would be featured prominently throughout the film. The entire structure was built from half-inch plywood on a one inch thick particle board base. Strips of luan were ripped on a table saw, then glued over the plywood shell. The front of the cabin was left mostly open, because it needed to be destroyed. Balsa wood was what we relied on for destructible buildings and parts of buildings. For the cabin, I built a balsa wood front, which turned out to be an unnecessary expenditure of time and money because the cabin was never seen being destroyed from the outside. We filmed it, but the destructive action was weak. Ironically, the storyboards never revealed the cabin being destroyed as an exterior shot. It was the one time that we strayed from the boards, and it proved an important lesson.

Ultimately, the overall cabin design was pretty basic, although I designed it with a steeply peaked roof because I thought  it would give it a more fairytale appearance, which fit our aesthetic.  The cabin was painted with thinned-out wood stain and detailed with balsa wood pieces and model railroad moss.

It’s probably important to note that unlike a big budget film, the miniatures were constructed primarily by just two people: Jim and me. Others came in to help when they could- Jim’s wife Mehri glued shingles on the cabin roof for what felt like months, my girlfriend and casting director Susan painted some of the buildings, and even Michael Goedecke, one of the executive producers, came in for a few days to make little bricks out of clay. But for three months, it was mostly just the two of us, and then later, just me.

Next, the script called for a crypt. I had taken a bunch of photos of crypts in the old cemetery in downtown Cleveland during a family visit to Ohio. The crypts were of the appropriate age… not that I was too concerned about historic accuracy. I built the crypt from individual clay bricks, which were sculpted individually from water based clay, then laid out on small sheets of plywood to dry in the sun. Once, after spending the morning making bricks, Jim and I needed to make a run to Lowe’s for some supplies, and so we jumped into my car and drove off. As we cruised down Magnolia Boulevard in Burbank, we heard this odd crashing sound.  I looked into the rearview mirror and what should I see but clay bricks flying everywhere! Apparently, a sheet of bricks had been laid on the roof of my car to dry out, but neither Jim nor I had noticed when we got in. Needless to say, we picked up every undamaged brick while traffic obliterated the others.

MBug_Miniatures_2Because of the delicacy of the crypt, and the fact that it had to be destroyed, I was not able to build it until a few days before shooting. I built it on a small base which was screwed into the stage floor. Brick by brick, I hot glued that crypt together. Once again, the advantage of the storyboards meant that only two sides of the crypt had to be built. I will always use storyboards for effects sequences, because why build what you don’t need?

The most challenging of the models to build were the various structures comprising the ghost town of Mason’s Grove.  I love ghost towns, so I was really looking forward to building Mason’s Grove. I had done some research while visiting the ghost town of Rhyolite in Nevada, taking lots of photos and reallyMBug_Miniatures_4absorbing the atmosphere. Mostly, though, I relied on a picture book of ghost towns I had given my girlfriend as a Christmas present (yes, I’m a romantic) and research from the internet. The challenge really was that there are very few ghost towns in the kind of climate in which the movie takes place. Desert ghost towns are well-preserved because of the lack of moisture in the air. Ours was in a mountain pine forest, and had to look decayed and grown-in, which we accomplished through the judicious use of various mosses and lots of artificial plants. We also had gotten good results with various colors of wood stain, which we thinned with turpentine and painted onto the various buildings.

MBug_Miniatures_1

The jail was the most involved of the buildings and the only one made of stone. I had gone to Foam Mart in Burbank to find some sculpture foam, but the price for it was way out of our budget for the amount we would need. Instead, I went back to Michael’s and discovered that the foam blocks used for dry flower arrangements would work for our needs. Best of all, five blocks cost only about six dollars!

The foam blocks were sliced into thirds, glued to the wood shell of the jail, and then carved. I used a steel dental tool to carve out the individual blocks, which was relatively easy, since the foam was so soft. That softness, of course, meant that it was easy to damage, so we had to take extra care when moving it into place.

MBug_Miniatures_3There was a lot of whimsy in that town, and the level of detail we were able to achieve is, in my opinion, pretty impressive. Their are miniature election posters that proclaim “Vote Mason for Mayor!” all over the place, as well as some “Circus Coming!” bills. There are also piles of lumber outside the general store, little pieces of furniture here and there (the hotel has a porch swing courtesy of suitmation actor Benjamin Watts’ impressive miniature-building skills!), flower pots, crates, trunks, barrels, etc. I doubt viewers will ever see them, but that’s okay because no one is watching The Millennium Bug for such things. But I wanted them there, if for no other reason than the atmospheric verisimilitude they provided.

There were a slew of other miniatures that were built, including a gallows, an abandoned well, a monster “nest,” a TNT shack, and a living room interior. With one small exception, the miniatures did their jobs and held up well. That one exception? I’ll reserve the story of its utter failure for another time…