Werewolves, Shape Shifters, and Darkness

 Rob Bottin

Rob Bottin

I love practical makeup and effects, and for me certain names always stand out because of the creatures and worlds they helped create: Dick Smith, Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Stan Winston, and Tom Savini. While Dick Smith (creator of Reagan’s look in The Exorcist) will always hold a special place in my heart, it is Rob Bottin who ruled my childhood. You may not recognize his name, but he’s brought some of Hollywood’s most memorable characters to life. As with any subject, I threw myself into researching Bottin’s career. So, I thought I’d share some of the highlights from some of his most well recognized works.  

At age fourteen, Rob Bottin was hired on by special effects/makeup artist Rick Baker after sending him a collection of designs he had drawn. Bottin was an avid movie fan and dreamed of getting into the movies to create his own monsters. He wasn’t credited for his early work in makeup and effects on films like King Kong (1976) and Star Wars: Episode IV (1977). He got his big break in 1981 when he was asked to take over special effects on The Howling after Rick Baker left the film to continue his work on An American Werewolf in London, which was already in production when The Howling went into pre-production. Baker had originally planned to stay on as a designer and leave the actual work to Bottin. However, Baker quickly discovered that some of the makeup and effects designs looked too much like what he was creating for American Werewolf and felt he was screwing over John Landis if he continued. He stepped back from The Howling and handed the task of design and creation over to his protégé. 

Bottin seemed to take his good fortune to heart and used it as an opportunity to stretch his ability, with guidance from Rick Baker, Dick Smith, Phil Tippett, and others. Despite the film taking only 28 days to shoot, Bottin was reportedly fanatical about the quality of his work. In Unleashing the Beast: The Making of The Howling, the story is told of the day Robert Picardo (Eddie Quist) was supposed to start shooting the transformation. However, they didn’t shoot a single foot of film because Bottin spent hours tweaking the makeup and appliances. Thanks to the perseverance of the crew and actors, they managed to shoot the first on-screen transformation of a werewolf that didn’t involve lap dissolves to connect different stages of the transformation using progressive makeup and appliances. That was an amazing feat when you consider that everything we see (with the exception of the horrible animated sex scene) was done with practical effects.

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The following year (1982), John Carpenter’s The Thing hit theaters. Carpenter and Bottin worked on 1980’s The Fog and re-teamed for this film. The pair discussed what they wanted to bring to the screen before Carpenter sent Bottin to work with storyboard and comic artist Mike Ploog to get their ideas in visual form. Bottin was unsure of how he was going to pull off all the effects, but it was another chance to stretch his legs. The bigger budget afforded him the chance to bring even more spectacular effects to life.

The iconic chest defibrillation scene where the Norris-Thing (Charles Hallahan) comes to life exemplifies the dedication and artistry Bottin applies to his craft. It was intended as a one-take shot because the stomach skin appliance would have to be replaced if a second take was needed. The first shot failed, despite the mechanism working like it was supposed to, when the slime (KY jelly) shot out of the opening like a geyser, ruining the shot. They had to clean Hallahan up and get him back into the table rig, replace the skin, repaint, and light before the second take. So much went into the scene, including fake arms attached to an armless actor, the mechanism and reverse shots for the Norris head sliding off the table and making its way across the floor, etc.. Every single creature scene had its own challenges, but this scene probably gave Bottin the biggest headache simply for the amount of time it took to set up. Despite technical achievements in makeup and visual effects, the movie performed poorly at the box office and was badly received by critics and audiences at the time. The Thing released two weeks after E.T. The Extraterrestrial. Audiences preferred the lighter tone of E.T. to the dark and disturbing tone of The Thing, contributing to its failure at the box office. However, over subsequent decades the film’s effects have become more widely acknowledged and are now considered a benchmark of quality in the industry.

A few years later Bottin worked on one of my favorite films, Legend (1985). This time around Bottin and his effects team, one of the largest assembled for one project at the time, were in charge of creating a world on a massive scale. They also had to bring an array of mythical characters and creatures to life, including unicorns, fairies, goblins, dwarves, even the Devil himself. The process involved Bottin dividing his facility into different shops to handle the workload.

 Tim Curry makeup process for Darkness

Tim Curry makeup process for Darkness

As the roles were cast, Bottin and crew made life casts of each actor and designed the characters as they went along. Bottin designed the prosthetics in his Los Angeles studio and would travel to England to help apply the makeup on occasion. The principal actors, with the exception of Mia Sara and Tom Cruise, spent up to three and a half hours getting 8-12 prosthetic pieces applied by teams of 3 makeup artists. Tim Curry, who played Darkness, spent up to five and half hours in the makeup chair. His makeup included a full-body suit, stilts, multiple facial prosthetics, and a massive set of horns. Bottin seemed to have a theory of “bigger is better” concerning the horns. As he designed the makeup, he kept making the horns larger and heavier despite using lightweight fiberglass. The impressive horns eventually reached three feet each and had to be supported by a rig under the neck and shoulders of the suit. However, the larger than life creation paired with Tim Curry’s fantastic performance made Darkness one of the most menacing characters to come from the 80s.

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The teams who worked on putting the sets together had an even larger challenge on their hands. Ridley Scott wanted a forest built once he realized there was no way he could ever control a natural location. Bottin and teams set about designing and building Scott’s vision. Giant tree trunks were made from reinforced styrofoam, painted, and even had live limbs attached to make them appear real. The crew put down a layer of soil, planted real saplings and bushes, and once assembled, everything got a “healthy” coat of glitter (shown here in the great hall scene). Even the actors were given a coating of glitter to reflect the light and give a more fairy tale feel. Once the forest was finished they released all sorts of animals into the set which caused problems for the sound crew later on. The great hall that Lily runs through before encountering Darkness was done in a similar fashion. The pillars were carved from blocks of Styrofoam and painted to look like carved stone. The amount of detail that went into the sets was absolutely mind boggling.

So there you have it, a snapshot of my childhood. Rob Bottin went from a kid with a dream to an effects master in his own right. Many of his earlier movies, like these three, weren’t commercially successful when they premiered but they went on to have cult followings and die hard fans. After Legend, Bottin cemented his status as an effects master by working on movies such as Total Recall, the RoboCop franchise, Se7en, Mission: Impossible, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Fight Club. In recent years Bottin seems to have become a recluse, having disappeared around the time Freddy vs. Jason went into production and hasn’t been seen in the public eye since.   

I hope you enjoyed reading this and if you have any questions or suggestions for future topics  feel free to leave a comment or message me on Twitter @InsomniacTx, where I also do daily movie trivia.