In the remake of the sci-fi classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still," the character played by actor Keanu Reeves sheds a slimy body cocoon and turns into human form thanks to prosthetics and makeup combined with computer-generated graphics.
It's a textbook example of the blending of the two styles of special effects in movies. Digital work has been taking over the industry more and more, but there are still old-school artists who use plastic, rubber and glue, to pull of what is known in the industry as "practical" effects. And moviemakers increasingly have learned they can blend the two for best effect.
Reeves' transformation in the new film was the work of Mastersfx Inc., founded by 41-year-old Todd Masters, who has created gruesome prosthetics, realistic looking flesh wounds and bloodcurdling zombie faces for movies such as "Nightmare on Elm Street Part V" and "Snakes on a Plane," plus television series such as "The Bionic Woman" and HBO's "Six Feet Under," which earned him an Emmy Award in 2003.
Arleta-based Mastersfx only has about a dozen permanent full-time employees, some of whom are based at the company's office in Vancouver, British Columbia.
"When we work on a big project like 'The Day the Earth Stood Still,' or when we work on several projects at once, we tend to staff up quickly," Masters said. "Most people in this industry work from project to project kind of like circus performers."
"By mixing the two mediums, physical and CG, we are able to take advantage of the best that both have to offer," Masters said.
This was the case in "The Day the Earth Stood Still" when director Scott Derrickson used computer graphics to create the image of Reeves' Klaatu as a "light being" that transforms into a human form, using prosthetics, among other tools of old-school ghoul masters.
Anthony Timpone, horror film expert and editor of Fangoria magazine, said that computer-generated digital effects have their limitations and are sometimes not realistic enough, especially when it comes to graphic bloody effects.
"CG has its place, but too many filmmakers think that they can just go back and paint in blood or lose a leg using the computer," said Timpone. "It's just not realistic enough when it comes right down to it. You need an actor and makeup in order to have realism on the camera."
The special effects industry is made up of hundreds of companies operating in California and many more around the world. The Visual Effects Society, based in Encino, counts more than 1,800 companies as members, said Eric Roth, the society's executive director.
Digital effects companies are far more numerous than the prosthetics and makeup shops that handle practical effects. Of the latter category, San Fernando-based Legacy Effects, the successor of Stan Winston's creature shop, and makeup artist Rick Baker are the most famous players.
Masters would not say how much he charges for a major motion picture project. But Stephen Diener, who produced several of the "Nightmare on Elm Street" films, said that it's not unusual for practical special effects to run anywhere between several thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Masters was raised in Seattle and got his start when he was just 6 years old, playing with clay and making stop-motion short films using an 8-millimeter camera that his father gave him. By the time he was 12, Masters had moved on to working for a now-defunct Seattle cartoon production company,
where he colored in animation frames by hand. Masters did a day at art school before quitting.
By the time he was 13, Masters was promoted to department head at the company, becoming a member of Seattle's special effects community. He moved to Hollywood in the mid-1980s and quickly began working with effects company Boss Films, creating creature and visual effects for such major motion pictures as "Predator," "Big Trouble in Little China" and "Poltergeist II." In 1986, Boss phased out its creature effects department, prompting Masters to establish Mastersfx.
It was his fascination with clay that really propelled Masters to the forefront of the special effects business. "Clay is just the perfect medium for many things, especially when coming up with an idea that you may even want to build using other materials," he said.
Masters has also started designing toys, including a line called the Oh Lantern Family, featuring ghoulishly twisted faces on squishy foam pumpkins.
Since then, Masters has designed other original toys and products for companies such as Hallmark, Applause Toys, United Airlines and Galoob. His "Nerd-Kid" creation appears as the cover artwork of Gary Larson's best selling anthology "The Prehistory of the Far Side."
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