Monday, August 15, 2011

The Making of Letters from the Big Man: Exclusive Video and Interview

you may have read our ongoing coverage of the Christopher Munch directed movie Letters from the Big Man. Recently we connected with the creature and character effects artist of the Sasquatch from the movie (see photo above). The artist is Lee Romaire, and his creature shop is aptly named Romaire Studios. Lee was nice enough to answer a few questions, but before we get to the interview lets check out Lee's work in action.

BLC: Lee thanks for letting us have this interview, we are big fans of your craft and have a lot of respect for the art you create. How were you approached to do letters from the Big Man? Had you had a prior relationship to Christopher Munch?

Lee: First let me say "thank you" for giving me the opportunity to speak about this project. I really enjoy your website.

BLC: Thank you!

LEE: I was recommended to Chris by my friend Kazuhiro Tsuji. Kazu is literally, in my opinion, the best make-up artist in the world, so it was a real honor that he referred me to Chris. At that point, Chris was exploring his options on how to do the sasquatch. I could tell by our initial conversations that he wanted it to be live in a natural, realistic world, and to be 100% believable, which is what really excited me about the project. Sasquatch has always been either been a monster or a clown, but has rarely been portrayed in a natural manner. The opportunity to work with someone like Chris to explore the subject was just too good to pass up.

BLC: I'm sure when some one requests a Sasquatch you already had some ideas, by the end of the final design, what differed from you initial concept?

LEE: If you are a creature/character designer, you have a least 4 or 5 ideas in your head about what a sasquath would look like right off the bat. But I based my design from the beginning on the actor Issaac Singleton. I wanted his essence to come through in the make-up and suit. He has a very imposing presence because he is a big guy with a deep voice. But once you get to know him he has a very gentle side, which is why I think Chris chose him. I wanted all of that to show through the facade, and I think it did, so to answer your question I don't think it turned out too far from my original concept.

BLC: How was the process with Chris? Did he have definite ideas and boundaries, what were you able to add?

LEE: Chris was a really great director to work with. I worked with Brian Henson several years ago on a Steven King tv project, and Chris reminded me of working with Brian in that they are both very very experienced and they were both really patient and appreciative of my input. Making these kind of suits is difficult and frustrating at times, so when you have someone in the lead who is very confident in your ability and allows you do your work, it makes the process much easier.

Chris had some great illustrations that he wanted to base the sasquatch off of, so we used some elements from those drawings. Because BIG MAN is an independent film, we didn't have a million dollars to make a sasquatch, so I had to think very practically about what was achieveable. For example, we couldn't build arm extentions or any sort of mechanical face. Everything had to last throughout the shoot because we couldn't afford to do spares, so we used latex rubber finger tips instead of foam latex, which would have torn on the first day of filming. Little things like that helped make it all happen.

Chris actually asked me in to look at the sasquatch shots he and the editor chose and I was able to point out which ones I thought didn't work from a realistic viewpoint. It i is very rare to have that opportunity like that, where a director and editor want your input on the post look creaure effects.

This was also the first film that my studio had a chance to do digital make-up enhancement. After Chris allowed me to look at the footage, I felt that we could go just a bit further in taking the human element out but keeping Issaac in. So I suggested that we do some digital enhancement. I've done digital enhancement before, but only for my own work. I assembled a team, and we picked the shots that I thought needed enhancing- basically all of the close ups. We enlarged the irises, slanted the eyes ever so slightly and moved the lower lip just a bit. On the big screen it is imperceptible, but very effective. So I consider it a new tool in my arsenal.

BLC: What were some of the inspirations you used to create the final design, for instance did you look at specific primates, Rick Baker stuff, and the Patterson/Gimlin footage?

LEE: My main inspiration was the actor, Issaac Singleton jr. I wanted his face to come through the make-up. I did use a lot of primate reference. At one point we were talking about a more human feel, but I felt it had to have a wild animal/alien feel. The human would come through isaac's eyes. I really tried to stay away from Rick Baker's work and from Patterson/Gimlin footage. The last thing we wanted was for him to look like Harry from Harry and the Hendersons. Harry is a great iconic character, but it seems there are so many bad copies of harry are out there, and it would be insane to try to mimic a suit that cost millions of dolllars with a fraction of that available to us. So I pieced together a new primate looking creature.

BLC: As a make-up artist do you have an opinion on the creature in the patterson/Gimlin footage?

LEE: The only thing I want to say about that footage is that I desperately want it to be real, so that clouds my judgment.

BLC: On your site you have a few jobs that are defined as being done in "record time", was this the case with Bigman? How long did each stage take on bigman, Design vs. production.

LEE: I always want to have more time on jobs. I would have loved to have more time and more money on BIG MAN of course, but you have to deal with the reality of your situation. We had several months, a very open an cooperative director and Isaac was very helpful in coming in for fitttings. Our design process went quickly, it was the production of the suit that took up a lot of the time. Chris fortunately pushed the schedule, so the crew had enough time to get what I think is a pretty good result.

BLC: Some of the things I liked about the design was the placement of the ears, the belly, and the facial hair pattern. Any stories behind any of those decisions?

LEE: Well, I had started the job, and we had already sculpted out the chest and belly. Chris sent me a pic of this horrible sasquatch suit that had a six pack. He said, " I want to avoid this look". I sent him back a pic of our stomach, and chest which was patterned after a gorilla with an enormous belly, so after seeing that I think he was a bit relieved and felt we were on the same page. The ears were small and placed upward to emphasize the size of the jaw. Also, the facial hair pattern is based on a mountain gorilla, but is shaped to really build up the size of the jaw. We had very large teeth in Isaac's mouth, but in the face sculpt, which I did in a day and a half or so, I didn't make the mouth wide enough. But we were able to cheat it
with hair so there is an illusion that the mouth is wider than Isaacs mouth really is.

BLC: Was there anything you were trying specifically not to do?

LEE: Yes, I was trying to stay away from the "monster" look and the "harry and the henderson's look. There are many things that I would have liked to do, like lengthen the arms, change the shoulder set a bit, make his legs shorter looking etc.

but it just wasn't practical for this project. Perhaps on LETTERS FROM THE BIG MAN 2 we will be able to do more.

BLC: Please tell us about your studio, how you got started, past and future projects, what are your influences?

LEE: My studio creates creatures and characters for entertainment purposes, which in include movies, tv shows, and museum and theme park attractions. I am lucky work with a lot of talented artists who help create the things we produce.

On BIG MAN, we had a crew of about 7 people who helped make everything. We do a wide range of projects. I've been doing work with Disney Imagineering recently, and one of my most interesting projects was to be part of the team at Disney Imagineering research and develeopment who re-created Abraham Lincoln for the Disneyland attraction THE WALT DISNEY STORY FEATURING GREAT MOMENTS WITH MR. LINCOLN. Abraham Lincoln was the very first human Audio Animatronics © figure that Walt Disney attempted, so it was very exciting to become part of that lineage.

Most people in my business loved monster and horror movies as children, and take their inspiration from that. I enjoyed that as well, but I was very interested in fake things that looked real as a kid, and being from the south, I took up taxidermy as a hobby. Being from Louisiana, it was a natural choice for me as a youngster. I practiced taxidermy from age 6 into my early 20's and had people paying me for my work at about age 10. I'm not saying it was good work, but it helped me refine my eye for what looks real. I went to college and majored in advertising and marketing, but there was something missing for me. So 10 years into my advertising career I decided to make a change and work on make-up effects in Hollywood. And I've done a lot of creatures and characters since then.

I am currently making my first short film entitled LET'S EAT LOLLY, that includes a lot of creatures and effects that my studio created. I will see it completed by the end of this year.

BLC: Thanks for the opportunity to do this interview. We have to ask one last question. What is your take on Sasquatch in general?

LEE: I think it's great. It allows us to dream and have adventure and mystery in our lives.It allows us to maintain some of the wonder and innocence of childhood. Although it would be thrilling for the world to actually gain proof positive scientific evidence of the sasquatch's existence, there is something wonderful about us never knowing the truth. In my experience in life, the truth about a thing is never as interesting as the stories we weave around it.

BLC: Thanks again Lee, we hope to you keep us updated on your new first short, "LET'S EAT LOLLY" and good luck with Mr. Lincoln. We look forward to watching for updates on your website

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