We recently profiled the work of Chris Walas, who created the incredible animatronic creatures for Gremlins. Walas other memorable works include effects on films like Enemy Mine and David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly. His make-up effects for The Fly were wonderfully sick, and with Walas's help, Cronenberg gave us a sci-fi horror film that blew away the original. We were fortunate enough to get Walas to talk about that project.
Walas had a hell of a learning curve on Gremlins. In the days of practical effects, effects artists had to reinvent the wheel to make something come to life, and it was a hard process to make an army of animatronic creatures. As Walas recalls, "I should say that I was personally terrified for the entire show. It was a gigantic project for me, beyond anything I had done before, and time and the schedule were not on my side."
Once he got Gremlins under his belt, "It was a very empowering experience for me," Walas says. "I think I gained a lot of confidence out of it. The Fly wasn't really that much of a leap so much as it was a journey down a different path. The Fly was all about the make-up and the emotional reality of the work. It was less crazed fantasy and was less puppets from start to finish like Gremlins was."
For Walas, one of the most important lessons he learned from Gremlins "was the fact that there is always more than one way to do an effect. There's always another option. We developed a lot of our own technology for Gremlins that we adapted to The Fly, particularly along the animatronics line, so we had an existing library of hardware available. That became critical on The Fly as we had to rethink some effects due to the tight schedule."
As far as his creative relationship with Cronenberg, Walas says the director "is fascinating to work with. He's very intelligent, observant, and understanding. He's also challenging and supportive. He has a very clear idea of what he wants and how he sees things, so the design phase tends to go quickly. His design directions also tend to be more emotional and psychological than most directors. Most directors will describe what they want physically. They'll say, 'It needs to be bigger; make the eyes red; add more horns.' David's descriptions were more like, 'It needs to be in more pain, and I want to see confusion in its eyes.' I would say David's style is much fuller and covers a wider design approach than most directors."
It's been reported that initially Walas felt Jeff Goldblum's face would be difficult to work with, make-up wise. As he tells us, "David asked if there was anything specific he should be looking for when he was casting Brundle. We told him to try and find someone with a small bridge of the nose to allow us more freedom with the make-up. Jeff's got a larger nose and big ears that were a bit of an issue to deal with, but when David said he was thinking about Jeff for the role, both Stephan and I were very enthusiastic and said we'd make it work. We were both fans of Jeff's work."
Rick Baker had once told me that when you would read a Cronenberg script, it was a challenge to try and figure out what effects could actually be pulled off, and what effects couldn't. Walas tells us, "I don't remember any effects we didn't attempt. There was a lot cut from the film, naturally, as that's the nature of practical creature effects. There's an entire stage of the make-up that didn't make it into the movie."
Like Gremlins, albeit on a much milder level, the really sick stuff in The Fly, like Brundle throwing up, and all the gooey fluids, were great fun to watch in a gross way. (There's that memorable scene where Goldblum throws up and humorously acknowledges, "That's disgusting.")
"The vomit was Stephan Dupuis's (another member of the make-up team) secret formula. I seem to remember it was all food stuff; honey, flour, food coloring. We used plenty of methocel slime on that show, especially during the final transformation. The poor prop guys were on clean-up crew, and they really earned their pay!"
In the original Fly, when the doctor comes out of the transporter, he had a gigantic fly head, which was fine for the fifties, but it would be ridiculous for modern audiences.
How to create a modern day creature for the story was the real challenge of the film, Walas says. "We really needed to have a carefully worked out, logical visual development of the character that would keep Jeff onscreen as long as possible. The final transformation wasn't as drastic in David's original script. I think the jaw coming off and the head splitting open are the only descriptions."
At first, Walas figured they'd just need a couple of fake heads for the final transformation, but Cronenberg of course wanted an extreme transformation, "so there was no way we could use an actor for the final creature. We initially tried to design different make-up approaches, working from Jeff to what might be the final version, but it quickly became clear that we needed to define the final stage first, and work our way backwards with the make-up design."
Walas wanted a actor in a suit, but Cronenberg wanted to make sure it was unrecognizable as a human in any form. "Once we had that design done up as a maquette, we worked backwards with the make-up designs to suggest the final forms slowly growing into place."
The only technique that Walas avoided for The Fly was bladder effects, which were used in An American Werewolf and The Thing to great effect. Walas didn't go this route because it had already been done many times in previous effects movies, "and I didn't want the final transformation to become just one more in a long line of them."
Walas says that on every project there's usually one effect that's a real pain to pull off, and on The Fly it was the melting hand. Walas wasn't thrilled with the end result, but the shot was sped up, and Cronenberg was happy with the end results. The scene where the arm wrestler's wrist breaks originally had a more elaborate rig, then Walas came up with a simpler approach, "a plate was glued to the actor's hand that had a projection (the snapping bone) extending a couple of inches down the arm so that when the actor snapped his hand back, the bone came popping out. One of the biggest disappointments for me was the monkey-cat scene. It was shot very, very quickly at the end of a long day with no rehearsal. We needed more time to get it right, but there just wasn't any."
Looking back on The Fly today, Walas recalls it fondly. "I think we did a hell of a job at the time, and we had half the time we would normally have on a project like this. I had my shop constructing puppets to 80-90% finished, then shipping them to Toronto where I had set up a shop space to do all the final work on them just before they had to shoot. This was while we were filming, not pre-production, so it was a difficult shoot for us trying to stay ahead of the show. I had to finish the puppets and suits on location so that everything matched. We used all the tools of the day to our best advantage. We had to cut corners and cheat here and there due to the time restrictions, but overall we took full advantage of just about every make-up / creature effect technique there was at the time.
"Overall, I was happy with the work we did," Walas continues. "And while some of it doesn't hold up as well as I'd wish, I think most of it does. It's effective and doesn't detract from the story."
The Academy agreed, and Walas won an Oscar for his work on the film. "I'm not really a public person, so big events like the awards aren't really my thing," Walas says. "But it was a big thrill to have the work recognized by the Academy. I think that's the only time I've ever worn a tuxedo!"