Q+A: "Jurassic Park" FX Genius David Monzingo on Making Awesome Movies You're Obsessed With
David Monzingo oversees and develops the dramatic transformations and character creations for movies you probably have laying around on your iTunes selections: Iron Man 3, the Jurassic Park series, Terminator 3, John Carter and more.
He worked on the crystal alien buddies Indiana Jones brunched with in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And away from the office, as if he doesn't do enough, Monzingo runs his own FX business, Sheep's Clothing Productions.
In fact, Legacy Effects, the company where he serves as art department coordinator, has the monopoly in town on anything great released the past decades. Alice in Wonderland. Avatar. Spider-Man. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. The Avengers. Indeed, they employ people who make you sick with jealousy at their skills. David is one of them.
It gets worse: he's really nice, loves animals, and just bought his first house. I can personally vouch for his kindness because he put up with this lengthy Q&A, giving me brilliantly thought out questions about things you audiences may be wondering when watching the coolest sci-fi films ever of which he is a part of behind the scenes FX teams.
What do you do with your job at Legacy Effects? You guys have worked on Spider-Man, Iron Man, X-Men...all kinds of exciting stuff!
I work as the Art Department Coordinator at Legacy FX here in Los Angeles, the onetime capital of moviemaking. Legacy is a special makeup effects company, in the business we're often referred to as a Practical Effects company because what we make actually exists in the real world and is not just a computer generated image on the screen.
One of the most exciting aspects of my job is that we are constantly creating different things; whether it be a superhero costume or an alien puppet or a lifelike animatronic animal replica, whether it's a big budget feature film or a one week television commercial... the range of our jobs are diverse so it never gets boring, which is good for my A.D.D.
At any given time there are between fifty and a hundred artists, technicians, mold makers, fabricators, painters, mechanical engineers as well as digital sculptors and designers. People that work here come from a diverse array of backgrounds, although I would say that the majority of the people have extensive history with the company (I started working for Legacy, then Stan Winston Studio, in 1993,) the past few years we've had an influx of digital artists and sculptors, a reflection of how integral additive manufacturing (3D printing) technology has become to the process. My job as coordinator is to manage the teams of artists who work here and oversee each individual project, try to foresee and solve potential obstacles and problems, and generally facilitate taking each job from concept to completion.
When I began in makeup effects we would generally work on one or two major projects at a time, now I would say that Legacy averages between ten and twenty at any given time which means that my job is a lot like the Chinese plate spinning act: constantly running from project to project as they seem to teeter on the edge of complete collapse... or so it feels.
How do you work in a team efficiently – and without arguments? Seriously, a pile of artsy geniuses in a room together cannot always agree on stuff. Or am I wrong?
Personalities are as diverse as you might expect from a large group of talented artists, and every so often I end up being marriage counselor to keep the peace and help keep a project moving forward. Far and away however, the people I work with are dedicated professionals who are willing to endure long hours and bring a standard of excellence to their work in an environment that isn't always conducive to creativity. It's hard to be at your best when a producer calls at the last minute and you're repainting a puppet a different color at four in the morning... yet that's exactly what we do.
How many hours, days, weeks, heck months, go into creating one puppet?
In the industry today, making a sophisticated puppet or character isn't the same proposition that it was twenty years ago. In the "golden age" of makeup effects even a short term project could last six months. An average feature film build was about a year... Jurassic Park lasted closer to two. The movie industry has changed so radically since then that instead of a production coming to us and asking 'How long will it take to make this?' it's more common to hear 'Here's how long you have to make it.'
The changing landscape forces innovation, and so now making a realistic character can sometimes happen in as little as a week or less... depending on what it is that we're building. When every job we do is different, it's really hard to plan effectively. We go with our experience, but there's always a certain amount of guessing when you figure how long it will take to build something. Educated guesses, yes, but guesses nonetheless... it's a tricky business.
To get something to the point where it is so realistic that it is scary, do you have to go out and study real animals?
Building a lifelike animal or human replica is definitely a time consuming task, because human eyes and brains are so in tune with the forms of nature that when something isn't genuine or true we immediately pick up on even subtle inconsistencies, and it's not hard to spot a puppet or recreation that lacks an absolute level of realism. Getting to that level of "perfection" requires not just a solid artistic eye but also a core understanding of biology, anatomy, and physics. So we do spend a lot of time looking at reference and studying the real thing. Things that seem simple at a glance really require a Herculean amount of work... and that effort really gives you an appreciation for the beauty and power of nature when you have to replicate it (even if only in the most artificial of ways).
How might that work with non-existent creatures like space aliens?
When it comes to creating something that there is no direct biological correlation to, like say an alien... there is certainly more license, but most of the same rules apply. Maybe we don't have a biological blueprint, but science is still science and even the most abstract alien characters have some root based on Earthbound biology... look through cinema history and try to find an alien that doesn't look like SOMETHING from nature. Earth's biology is what we as a species know, it's what we are familiar with, and by making things look familiar we are able to sell a viewer the idea that what they are looking at is real.
How often are puppets used nowadays instead of CGI? What are the benefits of working with puppets?
There are a lot of factors that go into deciding whether or not a character ends up being a practical puppet or being a CG creation, from the logistics of what action a character is needed to do down to the more mundane restrictions of time and money. In the feature film world, it has been trending towards less and less puppetry and more and more CG. Again, many reasons why, and there are always exceptions (some directors want their actors to interact with their characters live on set), but I think one key reason is that directors don't like being locked into a decision... any decision, until they can see how their film is shaping together and plays to an audience. If they create a puppet, then the performance of that character is done in camera on set and cannot be revisited except at great, GREAT expense. With CG a character's performance isn't cemented until post production, when a director has the luxury of having completed principal photography and can make decisions with the benefit of hindsight. There are obvious advantages to making a CG character there, financial considerations notwithstanding.
The technology and artistry of CG have steadily progressed and while an argument can be made about the technological advances that have been made in puppetry, I think anyone doubting CG's dominance over practical puppetry need only look at the history of the Jurassic Park film franchise to end the debate: The first film witnessed the birth of CG as a viable alternative to practical, and although screen time was in favor of practical puppets it was definitely a showcase of both technologies. I don't remember the numbers, but Stan Winston Studio made somewhere between 10 and 20 animatronic puppets for the film. Four years later on Jurassic Park 2, we made similar numbers of puppets, screen time was evenly split with CG. Four years later Jurassic 3, and you see the number of puppets we build begin to decrease. Not a lot, but this time CG has more screen time than the practical dinos. Fast forward eleven years to 2015 and Jurassic World, when CG has made it through it's infancy and has truly matured. We made 1 puppet for that film. One. Now, there are a LOT of practical effects purists out there who get angry just hearing that and are not shy about voicing how CG looks fake and cartoony, but most of these people have a dog in the race and don't want to accept the reality that technologies change. I know that practical puppetry and animatronics will never go away completely, so I'm not as doom and gloom as some. Times change, technologies change, and as an artist you have to adapt with the times or risk becoming obsolete. Puppetry has certainly not died out but the days of animatronic dinosaurs and large scale puppets is I think by and large over.
The trend in puppetry has been to build characters that are controlled by external performers who manipulate the character with rods who can then be digitally painted out of the frame, so most common now is that rather than a character being either CG or a puppet... it's a marriage of both.
To me there are no definite answers about what is a better route to choose for a character; CG or a puppet, because each circumstance is different. There are some characters that will always be better as a puppet, and others that couldn't be realized unless they were CG. In terms of where puppets really excel, in my opinion, is ease of capturing a successful performance. Again... the artistry that goes into making a CG character is undeniable and there are plenty of examples of beautifully animated characters, but I think it's far easier to capture a convincing live performance of a skilled puppeteer than it is to achieve the same results through animation. This is why motion capture has become such a huge part of performance, and someone like Andy Serkis has forged such a successful career. There is a magic to live performance, happy accidents and subtleties of movement that are just incredibly difficult to duplicate artificially. It's really about expedience... which technique gets to the desired results the fastest and cheapest way. Puppets are terrific for actor interaction; for years actors have complained about having to act opposite a cardboard cutout or a tennis ball on a stick... having a puppet provides a tangible character right there on set that interacts in real time, and a director can know immediately if what the puppet is doing works or doesn't. Even when a character is fully CG we will oftentimes be hired to create a full sized statue version of the character so that the actors can see what the character that they are interacting with will eventually look like.
How do you craft such amazing, realistic fur and hair?
Puppets that have fur, hair and feathers are definitely among the most difficult to make. There are many techniques that have been employed through the years to try to make convincing hair... and most of them suck. Hair growing from a real living thing is directional and has life to it that most techniques of hair application lack, and it's easy to spot when fur looks fake. The artists who do this kind of work are specialists who work at their disciplines for years to get good, and having delved into it just a little myself, I can say that it takes a very special personality to have the patience and discipline to stick with it. I am not one of those people. Most furry puppets have each hair INDIVIDUALLY punched or even crazier... tied. Just imagine if you will the skill involved in tying 50,000 or more knots on individual strands of hair... it's staggering.
When you started your side business, Sheep's Clothing Productions, how did you spread the word about your services? How long did it take before everyone was hiring you left and right because they knew you were the hottest wool in town?
I started my own company, Sheep's Clothing Productions (the name was inspired by the Warner Brothers cartoon where the wolf dresses up as the sheep to get past the sheep dog... hysterical...) doing the same makeup effects that I do at Legacy but on a much smaller scale. Where Legacy is one of the biggest operations in the world, I'm just one guy. I started the company after getting some calls from filmmakers who I'd worked with who wanted to do some projects of their own that were too small for Legacy to consider. It was a great opportunity for me to expand my abilities as an artist and do things that I didn't often get opportunities to do: apply makeup, make a puppet from scratch, design... all by my lonesome without a team of other artists assisting. Being a sideline, it also allows me to cherry pick which projects I take on and who I work with. If I'm too busy at Legacy... no need to take an extra job. I've done several jobs with a few directors whose work I really admire, and I think from them there was good word of mouth so now when I get calls for work I generally hear that someone I had worked with recommended me. I've never really advertised or tried to market myself, but I'm sure that if I wasn't in the position that I'm in at Legacy that would be a different story. As artists go, I consider myself EXTREMELY fortunate to be steadily employed.
My favorite character you've ever worked on is the Aflac duck. He is so adorable, the only word for it could be...oh, "kawaii!" That Japanese style where things are so cute, it's near impossible. The almond eyes are natural looking and gorgeous. What characters do you receive the most feedback on?
Which characters have I gotten the most feedback on? Hmmmm. That's a tough one. There are fans of almost any film franchise, and while commercials are so short lived, there have been some that really resonate. It's been several years now, but when we did the Budweiser Frogs (Bud... Weis... ERRRRR), I don't think anyone expected too much from that commercial and it just EXPLODED. In terms of my personal favorites I tend to see things from a different perspective because I don't get the same experience as the average viewer after all the late nights of blood, sweat and tears building the character... and it's hard to watch a film or commercial I've worked on and judge it purely on it's merits.
Which have been your favorites?
My personal favorites tend to be the projects that I had the most fun making... or projects that were real adventures. Sometimes it was a project that was unexpected, like Mel Gibson's 'Apocalypto', where I was hired to be an extra set of hands for a few weeks, and ultimately became an integral part of the crew for 9 months in Mexico... or another project that was incredibly difficult, like 'Red Planet' where we filmed in the deserts of Jordan for 15 hours a day in the baking sun and then would return to our hotels to work for another four hours each night before repeating the process the next day. At the time I certainly didn't appreciate it... but in hindsight it was an incredible experience, and I tend to forget the more unpleasant parts of my memories and see things with rose colored glasses.
As far as my favorite characters go... I think I really enjoyed pupeteering on 'Small Soldiers.' The movie isn't particularly memorable, and I personally don't find the characters we made intensely interesting... but not only were we integral to creating the puppets but that was the first time that I puppeteered and really had a hand in bringing the characters to life. We supplied the voices of the characters on set, we worked with the writers in coming up with dialogue, it was really the first time I felt like I was INVOLVED in the creative process, and that is a really magical feeling. 'Face Off' makes it seem like the makeup effects artist gets called by a producer with a vague notion of an idea and then it is their job to design and create a whole world for a character. In reality that's exceedingly rare. Production companies come to us with fully formed ideas that they want us to execute, so a lot of the imagination and creativity is already done before it reaches us. That's why Small Soldiers holds such a special place for me. It was the first and one of the very few times that I had a real hand in developing the characters and shaping the finished film.
Speaking about how times have changed and how much influence and control Production now has over design and execution of makeup effects, I have and awesome anecdote from a different era of makeup effects: the early 80's. Movie called 'Space Hunter', low budget post apocalyptic Sci-fi extravaganza. The story is about a futuristic warrior/hero Mad Max type who is travelling through the wastelands of an alien planet trying to get to some robotic bad guy. Looking for shelter he comes across a cave that seems abandoned, so he and the young female lead spend the night. In the middle of the night, they hear a noise and look up at the ceiling of the cave where alien 'Bat People' hanging from the ceiling wake up and attack. Our hero and his girl barely escape with their lives. At least, that was what was scripted. Now in those days, a producer would call up a Makeup effects artist and deals would be hammered out over the phone... there was no protracted approval process like there is today. So the producer of the film calls up the makeup artist and explains what he needs... a dozen 'Bat People' suits. Not a lot of money, not a lot of time to build... but the makeup artist goes on his way and starts building. They get to the film set out in the desert with the completed suits, and on shoot day the actors playing the Bat People climb into the makeup trailer to get suited up. After a while the producer starts asking how the Bat People are looking, he hasn't seen anything that looks like a bat on set. All he sees wandering around set are a dozen fat people. UH OH. With no designs provided by production, and only a phone call description to get started, the makeup artist mistook 'Bat People' for 'Fat People' and made fat suits. In a Spinal Tap-esque move of brilliance/(desperation?) the producer and director made lemonade from their lemons, and in the finished film the hero and heroine are chased from the cave by an army of fat people hanging from the ceiling. True story.
If someone wants to have your career, what should they do? Is college always necessary? Can you learn about this on your own? I'd like to think most of, if not all of, what I do now I never learned in college. Clearly, while I went to an amazing university, I'm not urging my kids if ever I have any to go if they don't want to do it.
There is no one path to being a special makeup effects artist. Someone setting out on a career in makeup effects does not need to go to college, although I personally think that further education is important to personal growth and maturity, it's not any kind of requirement to land a job in effects. What is important to getting a job: whether someone is qualified to do the job. When I started out there was much more opportunity for someone with little or no experience. In today's industry it's much, much harder to get a job when you can't show that you have a solid skill set.
When I was younger, there were not many resources to learn how to be an effects artist, but today that's no longer the case. There are schools that specialize in just makeup and makeup effects, however I personally don't see a lot of graduates from those schools working in the business. I have had some involvement with the Stan Winston School of Character Arts, (www.stanwinstonschool.com) which provides online web-courses and videos aimed at teaching the direct skills and techniques that are applicable to makeup effects taught by a litany of working professionals in the business. I have actually learned quite a bit that I wasn't good at from the Stan Winston School, so I definitely suggest it as an excellent resource to anyone looking to become an effects artist.
Now, through the years I would say that somewhere in the vicinity of 90% of all the people who I know who want to get in to makeup effects end up doing something else... and I know there are a variety of reasons but I think right up at the top it's that there is an misconception about the glamour and sexiness of the job which in reality is rarely there. Makeup effects is hard, HARD work; oftentimes with hazardous materials and chemicals, oftentimes with people and actors who are unpleasant, oftentimes for little or no pay. The glamour evaporates real fast when you're served a steaming hot cup of reality. Is it a cool job? Absolutely. Would I recommend it for my kids? Fuck no. If it was their passion, then I would offer all the support in the world, but knowing what I do I would secretly be hoping they drop it and go to law school.
How do you train your brain not to go crazy when you've done work like paint 10,000 frogs for six months for Magnolia? Or any project that is so time consuming and repetitive but you need to really pay attention with all your force?
There are a lot of jobs that can be really tough because they are endlessly repetitive... 'Magnolia' was a great example. My job on that film was to paint frogs... day in, day out; paint frogs. For six months I came into work and had to pump out frog after frog after frog. I had a quota of 10 frogs per day. (There were other guys painting "background" frogs at a clip of something like 100 a day with a lot less detail). I had to go to a very zen place in my head. The nice thing was that I was able to really get into a routine... I knew what point I had to be at by 10:00 am, by 1 pm, by 3 pm in order to reach my day's quota and deliver the quality expected of me. After a while I got so good at it that I could push really hard in the morning to get the bulk of the paint job done so that all afternoon could be spent "noodling" and trying to make them look different and interesting. Again... it takes a certain type of personality that can stay focused long term like that... there were at least two or three other guys who I worked with who just cracked and lost it and had to move on to a different project. Most people would put on their headphones and listen to music. Back then I preferred books on tape, these days I stream documentaries on Netflix. I have a short attention span but I also have always been intensely competitive so I look at an uncomfortable work situation like Magnolia as a challenge that I need to conquer, and I am equally stubborn... I toughed it out. I can say definitively that I did not miss painting frogs when that job was over.
Let's have fun with you revealing all about your personal life, being this is a big scoop interview right up there with Paris Hilton. All right. You and your wife just bought a new home. Would you like to share your home remodeling process? Actually, you don't get a choice. You have to tell me because that's how I see people at E! Entertainment pull scoops: by force and lots of fist intimidation.
My wife and I just bought our first house, and it's just about the most exciting thing I've ever done. We're both super control freaks and so we've got plans for every little nook of the house and yard... which is tough because my to-do list just keeps getting longer and longer. I cross one project off the list, and four more are added. BUT... it's so fulfilling because after years and years of renting, everything that I work on now is ours... it's a liberating, empowering feeling. When I leave for work in the morning I don't want to go, and I can't get home fast enough at the end of the day. I've got plans to landscape, build furniture... everything is very exciting but I have also surrendered to the reality that it all takes time and careful planning to do successfully.
Both Carla and I have different tastes but we share everything in our relationship so every decision has a bit of back and forth until we arrive at a concensus. We've only been in our home a month and so far I have managed to get our televisions mounted to the walls and get all of those annoying cables wrangled to be as invisible as possible (I spent a long day crawling underneath the house with a bucket of tools to get things sorted.) Carla has managed to arrange her kitchen (yes, HER kitchen...) and I have begun getting the office situated. We still have an ocvean of boxes to go through in the garage, and we're still sleeping on a mattress on the floor... but slow and steady wins the race. Sitting in our yard in the evening with our dogs with a nice breeze blowing through the trees is just about the best feeling in the whole world.
What are your favorite things to do when you aren't working? Do you often get inspired by things you do when not at work?
When I have free time and need to decompress, Carla and I play video games together. Strange for adult husband and wife to play video games? Perhaps. But we enjoy it, so there. There was one particular period (I am not proud of) where I got too competitive and wound up in a game; I let one of my anonymous online teammates have it for not performing well, then felt like a complete douche when he turned out to be a little kid. He said "I'm trying as hard as I can", and I felt about 3 inches tall. I try not to be that guy anymore. As much as I enjoy video games though, I do feel a pang because I like making things, I like doing things, I feel most satisfied when I am being productive. A good friend of mine has a tattoo on his wrist that says 'GSD', stands for Get Shit Done. I totally get it. If I spend too much time playing video games I feel what little time I have left in my life is going to waste and I need to hurry up and work on all of the projects that I have sitting on a shelf. I enjoy painting, sculpting, writing... but all on my own terms and schedule.
I've done some oil paintings, but it usually take me a good month to finish a canvas so there aren't many that I've completed. I have sculpted a few bronzes, I had a small online gallery for a few years that specialized in dinosaur artwork... it was an outlet for me and my artist friends from the Jurassic Park days. Writing... as much as I enjoy it I have yet to produce anything tangible there, but I'm fine with that. If and when anything comes from it, great... If not, c'est la vie.
I do work on one "passion" project that eats up my free time when I'm not working. Ever since I was a kid I have admired and been fascinated by Japanese anime, but alongside my admiration of the artistry there's always been something missing for me. Even something as visually amazing as 'Ghost in the Shell' never could fully keep my interest because to me the dialogue was so hammy and contrived... it always bugged me that the stories and dialogue in anime were so bad. I know that some of that might be cultural, but I thought about how cool it would be to come up with a story that was geared towards an adult audience and had compelling enough story and character development to keep someone's interest while still have a striking visual style.
That was my starting point, and what I've been developing for the past several years. In my lifetime I've seen a shift in attitude towards animation as being something just for kids, and I think there's a ripe untapped market of adults (and kids) who would follow an animated television series if it were given that same attention to the story as it had to the animation.
What fun pranks have you done on your wife using your super cool props and makeup? That Cactus Kid look on your Sheep's Clothing website...if that guy walked into my kitchen while I'm eating cereal, I would pass out.
Whenever I'm on set I get asked a lot 'You sure must have fun at Halloween', or 'you must play the best practical jokes' with all the bodies and makeups and props that we make. Funny enough... not really. The novelty of this stuff just wears off, and after years and years of the job the best pranks that we play have less to do with the makeup effects and more to do with making fun of the personalities of the coworkers that we've worked with for years. We really like to stick the knife in and twist it.
What's going on with your cartoon project that is so eerily mysterious which you just mentioned – and I can't wait to tell everyone about?
My project takes place about fifty years in the future, and the main character is a corrupt Federal Agent on the take, an anti-hero with few redeeming qualities. Stylistically I want to create a realistic hi-tech future full of robots and self-driving cars and non-lethal weapons, but with the grunge and grit of 70's police dramas like 'French Connection' and 'Dirty Harry', where the bad guys and good guys were hard to tell apart... I call the style Tech-Noir. I've written one season of the show with an outline for a second season, and have been working on putting together visual aids and style guides to complete a presentation package that might hopefully convince someone to invest in it. When it comes to my personal artwork I am a perfectionist and it takes me forever to get to the point where I am satisfied enough with something to let it go, and that has a lot to do with why it's still not ready to pitch. When people ask me about it I tell them 'soon, hopefully soon.'
Insert a Pac-Man sound. Not the one where you die like an onion. No, the Pac-Man sound where he eats ghosts.
Check out Mr. Monzingo's official IMDB credits page, which includes trivia such as he is 5'11" and a 2005 message board post called "Yummy!" where someone asks, "Isn't Dave just the dreamiest?" Because as if it isn't bad enough that the gentleman is talented to an extreme, he also apparently has a female following comparable to Channing Tatum's now.