Legacy Effects co-founder Shane Mahan will be speaking this week at Trojan Horse was a Unicorn in Portugal. The special effects supervisor is a veteran of such classic effects pics as Aliens, the Terminator films, Iron Man and Pacific Rim. We sat down with him at the conference to preview his talks here and discuss the melding worlds of practical effects and digital art.

fxg: What will you be presenting at Trojan Horse?

Mahan: They’ve asked me to do a demo, and what I thought to do was to show traditional sculpting, which is my past, to modern sculpting, which has come into the digital age. So I’ll be showing some examples of ZBrush sculpting that I’ve been teaching myself to do, versus practical hands-on sculpting. They are fundamentally very different, but the thoughts are very similar.

Shane Mahan sculpting at the Trojan Horse gallery.
Shane Mahan sculpting at the Trojan Horse gallery.

I’m also going to be presenting a retrospective of film effects from various movies I’ve been involved with - before Stan Winston, during Stan Winston and now at Legacy Effects. It will be about how the technology of art has gone berserk and has become things like this conference. This, 30 years ago, just did not exist.

There’s really been a whole re-birth of digital art internationally. When I first started out there used to be a few people in England, a few people in New York, a few people in LA and that was about it. And nowhere to learn it apart from your local library and doing theater. That’s what I did. When I was in high school, I joined local theater groups and I was like the kid working amongst a bunch of grown-ups doing plays putting bald caps on - just to get the experience working with other people.

fxg: You mentioned learning ZBrush - it always seems like Stan Winston and Legacy have taken on new technologies but used them to still make things feel hand-crafted?

Mahan: It’s always still hand-crafted, whether you’re using a Wacom tablet or sculpting tools. The machines don’t make the art. You don’t just type in ‘Build extraordinary alien head’. It doesn’t happen that way. It’s merely a tool - 3D printing or anything digitally. It’s a very modern tool, but it’s the equivalent of making a mold, really. I never saw it coming, though.

fxg: How has doing a lot more digital sculpting changed that pipeline between say concept stage, builds and final VFX work?

Mahan: It started early on at Stan Winston during the time of Zathura, Constantine and Terminator 3. All of these digital tools were really starting to happen. We’d already been using things like Cyber FX for scanning and we’d been milling big pieces from CAD machines, mostly because it was available and because timelines on films are shortened - from a year to three months. So the glorious days of sculpting by hand three tons of T-Rex out of clay are in the film world probably gone just because of time alone. No one gives you two years to make anything anymore. You’re lucky if you get four months.

Shane Mahan works on an Iron Man suit.
Shane Mahan works on an Iron Man suit.

So the digital tools are a tremendous time saving device. Although, not everything is always done in the computer. There’s still prosthetics and other things are hand-sculpted. You have to weigh up the odds - should we model this and grow it and sculpt it, or should we just sculpt it?

And I think you should be able to know how to do both. To a lot of young digital artists I would say, OK, let’s say you’ve got a job, and you’re sculpting something in the computer and your computer breaks! But you have two days to deliver, what are you going to do? Do you know how to get some clay and make a mold? You need that back-up plan.

But we do embrace use of the digital tools and we encourage it - fantastic stuff comes from it. Let’s use an Iron Man suit as an example, or even the alien from Cowboys & Aliens. The alien was completely designed first by Scott Patton and Ian Joyner collectively working with the director John Favreau working in the computer doing concepts. Then maquettes and full sized pieces were made. I re-molded them and filled them with clay. Then that model was given to ILM to do previs with. And right away that they had a 1:1 transfer and then there was a process where the first time you see the alien it’s an animatronic to sense something’s there - then it could transition to a digital alien and other props. That’s about an emotional connection - it’s not just an effect, it’s supposed to be a character in the film.

Legacy Effects builds for Cowboys & Aliens - image from website of Ian Joyner.
Legacy Effects builds for Cowboys & Aliens - image from website of Ian Joyner.

fxg: It's almost become: you don’t really do creatures, you do characters.

Mahan: Yes, it comes back from the days of Stan Winston and even before that. We all had different backgrounds but we had this love of the old Universal films, say, when they were re-run on television. All the classic monsters were the main characters in the movie. Stan always said, ‘This is not an effect, this is a character, an actor - this robot is an actor in the movie.’ When Arnold turns into an endoskeleton it’s still Arnold but it’s a continuation of what you’ve been watching the whole film, and that’s how it should feel.

fxg: But then even when Legacy is making a partial prop or something for on-set interaction or as a guide for the final character or robot - that work still has the same role of informing the artists down the line and the actors on set too, doesn’t it?

Mahan: That’s right. I mean, CG will then give you that advancement that a standing robot can suddenly run, say. We’ve always been impeded by physics. The computer has no sense of weight or needs to worry about it - but that’s where they need our help for us to say ‘Cool it a little bit, ground it, make it not so bouncey and floaty’.

The philosophy of Legacy Effects is that we are not afraid of digital work - it is an extension of what we do. Whether we’re giving a full-sized bust to ILM of the Hulk, just for a lighting reference. If that makes the digital Hulk look better so I can enjoy the movie more, I’m going to do it. There’s no way I’m going to make an actual Hulk that does what the Hulk does - we wouldn’t even attempt it. It’s not even a conversation anymore. The idea of making a hydraulic Hulk is absurd. But if it was a dead one, just breathing, much like the dying Apatosaurus and the actor needs to go up and touch it and feel it breathing, I can buy that. We often build the creatures to give to the VFX companies for reference. So on Life of Pi, for example, we built all the animals, gave those animals to Rhythm & Hues, they scanned them and reproduced them.

So in the end it’s not that the work isn’t on screen - it’s totally on screen - it’s just a different kind of thing. It’s like you’re a tube of oil pant as opposed to the final painting.

The other thing is - these digital tools are not going away. There’s no need to sit here like a curmudgeon and say ‘I need to make it all out of rubber!’ First, it was all a learning curve. We went from films Iike Aliens where we were doing everything in-camera with huge pieces of articulated effects that photographed beautifully, but you’re limited by camera and setup - and you have to work with a director who really knows what they’re doing, and one that knows how to make an 18 foot tall puppet come out of a dropship and hide cables and people. Today, very few directors have the patience to even construct or shoot something like that.

fxg: In the past few years there’s occasionally been a practical vs. digital effects debate, and it sometimes seems the audience is clamoring for more practical work - do you have a view on that debate?

Mahan: The issue has been, in the past, where CG was a brand new tool where it was an excessive tool used excessively. It becomes really boring when people know that a building’s not really collapsing on top of their stars and you really don’t sense that anyone’s in any kind of danger at all. It goes back to the essence of the emotional connection that you get. Something like Mad Max - I was on the edge of my seat because, ‘Oh my God, that car’s flipping over and it looks like there are people in it!’

Mahan and the Mark I suit from the first Iron Man film.
Mahan and the Mark I suit from the first Iron Man film.

I hadn’t felt that way since Terminator 2. Jim had to actually fly helicopters under bridges and wipe out really semi-trucks and it was really possible for someone to get hurt - you can sense the danger in a really good film, as opposed to absolute pandemonium happening where it actually puts you to sleep. If you don’t do it cleverly, no one cares. So we always say why don’t you mix the media? If you can have half a practical puppet and half digital, no-one’s going to know how that was done. Everyone is very savvy now as to how it’s done these days.

fxg: Pacific Rim even had an interesting practical mix - the big robots of course were ILM effects but the suits worn by the cast and the Conn Pods - it felt like because they were practical it was easier to relate to the characters.

Mahan: That was an interesting thing. Actually, Guillermo’s name came up a long time ago when Dick Smith (the makeup artist) told Stan, ‘You know there’s this young Mexican filmmaker and his name is Guillermo del Toro and he’s going to be the next James Cameron’. And Stan didn’t really register at the time what was going on. But Dick told him about Cronos and that he was one of his students.

Then when del Toro did Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth, we couldn’t even get a phone call into him. Dick was right! So I was very surprised to get a phone call to work on PacRim. I had to go to his ‘Bleak House’ in Los Angeles which is where he has filled it to the brim with everything he’s collected - paintings, sculptures, shrunken heads. It’s amazing. I was stunned, I couldn’t even think in there!

 

That was the first time I saw the concepts for the walking rigs and the suits and the big mechanical arms. He said I want to do it all practical, can you do it? I said it was going to be hard, but we can do it. It was very important to him that the suit-up scene where things are being clamped on and screwed on that things are moving and it was all in-camera. It sets a psychological feeling in your head that’s all about ‘I can believe this is happening’ and now I can believe this big monster and they’re really in there.

fxg: Now that there are more conferences like this and perhaps more people doing digital art, how does that translate in terms of who might end up working at Legacy?

Mahan: Well, the younger generation of people who have some experience in films that we see - they work on films but they don’t really work on films, if you know what I mean? They’ve never placed a foot on an actual movie set. I would hope that more people would experience the energy of trying to complete something on set. There’s a big difference being out on location on a volcano say and it starts to rain and all your equipment starts to wash down the hill, and what goes on back in front of the computer. I guess my only critique of the modern computer artist is that they don’t always know how to talk to or inspire other people in the film world. It can be a solitary kind of work. At Legacy we place people amongst each other - they have to work together and talk on the shop floor. I think it encourages creativity - sometimes it’s hard, it’s noisy and chaotic - but it’s better that way.


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