Monday 30 March 2015

An Appreciation of Rick Baker

The 54th Academy Awards were presented March 29th, 1982 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, with the ceremony presided over by Johnny Carson.  It was the first year that the award for Best Make-up was presented and the winner was Rick Baker for his work on "An American Werewolf In London"

When I discovered the magic of movie special effects make-up, first through a Planet Of The Apes annual in 1976 and later by watching a wonderful BBC2 strand of old black & white horror films, I was an instant fan of the art.  Around the time that I was developing an interest, a man was starting to make waves in the industry with his superb designs, solid work ethic and photo-realistic creations.
‘I wasn’t the average kid in my neighbourhood. I really liked monsters and monster movies – even the cheap crummy ones’

At the 'local drugstore photobooth'
Richard A. “Rick” Baker was born in Binghamton, New York on 8th December, 1950.  A fan of monster movies from an early age, he once said “the first make-up artist I was ever really aware of - and became a fan of - was Jack P. Pierce. He did all the great classic Universal monsters, especially Frankenstein's monster [and] that make-up hasn't been outdone. It has become this iconic image. Everybody when they think of the Monster thinks of Jack's make-up.”  His passion was fuelled by TV shows, such as “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits”, as well as the magazine “Famous Monsters Of Filmland”, especially the articles by a make-up artist called Dick Smith.  Baker began building monster kits and, a good artist, he took to making himself and his friends up when he was a teenager.  In fact, he often used his parents oven to create make-up appliances and is quoted as saying “You don’t want to put a turkey in the oven after you’ve just baked some foam.”  He took photographs of these appliances, often going to the “local drugstore in full make-up to use the photo-booth there”, which must have caused quite a stir!

His first professional industry job was at the Clokey Studios, where he was a puppet designer for the stop-motion animation series “Davey And Goliath” but his life changed in 1965 when he got a copy of Dick Smith’s “Monster Makeup Handbook”.  Smith was already an influential make-up artist who helped revolutionise the field, starting out in TV before branching into films and creating work that still has the power to amaze today.  For Baker, the book showed him a way forward and he’s open about how much it inspired him - as it also did the late, great Stan Winston.  In fact, Baker and Winston maintained a good working relationship and friendship, sharing ideas and information with each other well into the 1980s.

When he was 18, Baker wrote to Smith, who invited the young artist to his house (where he had his make-up studio) the next time ‘he was in town’.  Baker, with relatives nearby, took up the invitation and Smith, immediately seeing the talent, quickly became his mentor, showing his young protégée the tricks of the trade.  Baker’s first credit on a big film was assisting Smith with his work on “The Exorcist” (1973).

Working on Baron Samedi, for "Live And Let Die"
Following this, he worked uncredited on “Live And Let Die” (1973) (creating the shot Baron Samedi and Yaphet Kotto’s exploding head), created the monster baby in “It’s Alive” (1973) before joining forces with fellow Dick Smith fan Stan Winston on the television movie “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (1973), in which the lead character ages to 110 years old and for which Baker won an Emmy Award.

Baker’s next big break came with the 1976 version of “King Kong”.  A long-time admirer of apes, he felt he was the right man for the job and joined in eager collaboration with Carlo Rambaldi, for director John Guillerman and producer Dino DeLaurentis.  Unfortunately, the production was plagued with problems and he now sums up the experience with “my mind tries to suppress the memory of King Kong”.  He describes the Kong he and Rambaldi designed, amidst restrictive union rules and creative differences with the producers, as "a joke" and much was made of the full-size animatronic version that Rambaldi built though for the bulk of the time we see Kong, it’s Baker in a suit.  Rambaldi’s mechanical Kong, all 40ft and 6.5tonnes of it (built at a cost of $1.7m), is only seen in a few brief shots, racking up about 15 seconds of screen time.

Rick Baker, with some of his "Star Wars" creations
Burned by his experience, Baker worked on the lower-budgeted killer worm movie “Squirm” and “The Incredible Melting man” (both 1976), before helping out friends with second-unit work for the cantina sequence of “Star Wars” (1977).  He contributed several aliens (some of which are only visible in the original releases) and also played one of the band members.
The final 'change-o-head', just before its few seconds of brilliance, from "An American Werewolf In London"
“An American Werewolf In London” (1981) was ground-breaking in many ways.  John Landis originally wrote the screenplay in the early 70s and discussed the film with Baker when they were making “Schlock” (1973) together, giving Rick plenty of time to come up with some effects that hadn’t been seen on film before.  The delay - it took eight years to get the film financed - meant that Baker had already used some of the ideas when he started work on “The Howling” (also 1981) though Rick left that production in the hands of his protégée Rob Bottin (who would go on to create the special effects for “The Thing”).
There were a lot of effects in the film (werewolf victims, ‘meatloaf’ Jack, the wolf itself) but the key sequence was the transformation, which Landis specified in the script ‘happens in bright light and it's extremely painful.’  As well as featuring make-up appliances on the actor David Naughton, the sequence employed what Baker called ‘change-o-heads’.  These were elaborate puppet reproductions of parts of Naughton’s body (head, face, feet, torso, hands) that could stretch and transform into the wolf in real time on camera.  Naughton said the transformation sequence (shot at the end of the production schedule) took six days to complete, the make-up and effects so laborious that only half an hour of footage was filmed in the week.  The snout pushing through, the key change-o-head, was the last thing to be shot.  As Baker says, “It would take us months to make one of the Change-O-Heads, but it would be quick to shoot [and] we laughed that the head parts took so little time on camera. It would be, “Action!”, the thing does its job, “Cut! We got it!” seconds later. I'd be, like, “What? Is that it? Don't we need another take?” And John would ask, “Does it do anything else?” “Nope…” And that would be it. All that work and it was over in a blink!  But when the movie came out, I took my crew to see it and when the transformation came on screen, people stood up, clapped and cheered…”
Behind the scenes - left: John Landis pushes Rick Baker, who is operating the wolf puppet head in Piccadilly Circus
right - the crew working on the 'spine' segment of the transformation sequence
The "American Werewolf In London" crew
In fact, the result was so impressive that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to create a new Oscar award category specifically - Outstanding Achievement In Makeup - with Baker the first recipient.

And here it is, in all its glory (with the key 'Change-o-heads' at 2.01 and 2.09)…

After extensive work on David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome” (1983) (which I blogged about at length here), Baker re-united with John Landis for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1983), which came about because the singer was so impressed by “American Werewolf” (and Rick gets a cameo, as “the guy who opens the door and comes out of the crypt, with my eyes rolled back.”).

Rick Baker's make-up for Kala, which graced the cover of Cinefex 16
Then came Hugh Hudson’s “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” (1984), which was a true labour of love for Baker and the opportunity to create the ultimate ape suit that he’d tried so hard to do with King Kong.  He poured all of his experience into the project and relocated to England, setting up his workshop in Stage 5 at the EMI Elstree Studios.  For a year, Baker’s fifty-person crew (along with a further forty wig-makers) became an ape-suit factory, turning out numerous finished suits in an assembly-line fashion (each one took about eight weeks to complete).  None of the suits were identical and some, for key characters, had to be shown to age.  Baker said in a Cinefex interview; “We went for a fictitious kind of ape - not a chimp and not a gorilla, but some lean more in one direction or the other. That's what was fun. I could draw what I liked from different apes and combine them according to what seemed to fit the character. Kala, Tarzan's ape-mother, is more like a chimp, though her ears are smaller. White Eyes, a mean one, is closer to a gorilla. Figs, a big fat one, has a lot of orangutan in him.”  Although he was Oscar nominated, he lost out to Dick Smith’s work on “Amadeus”.

Baker works on Kevin Peter Hall, buried under the Harry make-up
Eddie Murphy, as Saul
Baker won his next Oscar for “Harry And The Hendersons” (1987).  He has since called his work on the film “one of my proudest achievements.  I really loved that character and I think it still holds up.  I read an article about CG stuff and somebody was talking about animatronics and how they didn'’t think they could do something better than Harry was in that film -– and I did that in the 80s.”.  He was nominated the following year for “Coming To America” (1988).  As well as re-uniting him with John Landis, it was also the first time he worked with Eddie Murphy, making him up as several different characters in the film.  Of them all, the one that took most people by surprise (including those who I watched the film at the cinema with) was Saul, the old Jewish man in the barbershop.  Says Baker, “the make-up was something like 15 or 17 separate pieces of foam rubber, and when we got him all made up he couldn’t believe it, it was much more real than he expected it to be.”

Rick Baker working on David Warner in "Planet Of The Apes"
Dave Elsey and Rick Baker work on Benicio del toro for "The Wolfman"
For “Gorillas in the Mist” (1988), Baker created hyper-realistic ape suits that were mixed with real primates in the film and virtually undetectable, created a horde of Gremlins for “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (1990), which he also co-produced, made a werewolf of Jack Nicholson in “Wolf” (1994) and won another Oscar for transforming Martin Landua into Bela Lugosi in “Ed Wood” (1994).  In “The Nutty Professor” (1996), Baker worked with Eddie Murphy once more, making him both big and all the members of the Klump family, before taking on aliens in “Men in Black” (1997), which was great fun.  Another ape (much bigger this time) featured in  “Mighty Joe Young” (1998), Jim Carrey became the Grinch in Oscar winning make--up for “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000) and Eddie Murphy was back in the make-up chair for “Nutty
Professor II: The Klumps” (2000).  For Tim Burton’s poorly received “Planet of the Apes” (2001) - it’s really not very good - Baker created the excellent ape effects and his work was one of the few things praised in the film.  Although he worked solidly through the 2000s, it wasn’t until “The Wolfman” (2010) that he won another Oscar, in partnership with Dave Elsey.  Unfortunately, the transformation is all CGI and it shows.  More recently, Baker worked on “Men in Black 3” (2012) - the Boris The Animal make-up is superb - and “Maleficent” (2014).

He was married to his first wife, Elaine Baker (nee Parkyn), from 1974 to 1984.  In addition to helping him with the effects, she also appeared in “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) as The Emperor (her voice was dubbed by Clive Revill and the eyes of an orangutan were composited over hers), though her appearance was replaced by Ian McDiarmid in all prints following “Return Of The Jedi”.  He is now married to Silva Abascal, with whom he has two daughters.

Baker was awarded a Doctorate of Humane Letters from the Academy of Art University San Francisco in 2008.  In 2009, he received the ‘Jack Pierce - Lifetime Achievement Award’ at the Chiller-Eyegore Awards.  He also has a star (the 2,485th) on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, located in front of the Guinness World Records Museum.

He holds the record for the most Academy Awards wins (seven) and nominations (twelve) for make-up artists.
Rick Baker wins his first Oscar, 1982
Filmography (make-up effects, unless specified)

Octaman (1971) (costume, with Doug Beswick)
Bone (1972) (uncredited)
The Thing with Two Heads (1972) (uncredited)
Schlock (1973)
The Exorcist (1973) (special effects assistant)
Live And Let Die (1973) (uncredited)
Cop Killers (1973)
Black Caesar (1973) (uncredited)
It's Alive (1974)
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)
Flesh Gordon (1974)
King Kong (1976) (plus actor)
Track of the Moon Beast (1976)
Squirm (1976)
Zebra Force (1976)
The Food Of The Gods (1976) (uncredited)
The Incredible Melting Man (1977)
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) (cantina make-ups for second unit, plus one of the band members)
The Fury (1978)
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
The Howling (1981) (consultant)
The Funhouse (1981)
The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981)
Videodrome (1983)
Thriller (1983)
Starnan (1984) (transformation sequence, with Dick Smith)
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)
Into the Night (1985) (actor only)
My Science Project (1985)
Captain EO (1986)
Ratboy (1986) (design only)
Harry and the Hendersons (1987)
Beauty and the Beast (1987–89) (design of Beast)
Werewolf (1987–88)
Coming to America (1988)
Gorillas in the Mist (1988)
Missing Link (1988)
Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) (also co-producer)
The Rocketeer (1991)
Wolf (1994)
Ed Wood (1994)
Batman Forever (1995)
The Nutty Professor (1996)
The Frighteners (1996) (design of The Judge)
Escape from L.A. (1996)
Ghosts (1997)
Men in Black (1997)
Critical Care (1997)
Mighty Joe Young (1998)
Life (1999)
Wild Wild West (1999)
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000)
Planet of the Apes (2001)
Men in Black II (2002)
The Ring (2002)
The Haunted Mansion (2003)
Hellboy (2004)
The Ring Two (2005)
King Kong (2005) (actor only)
Cursed (2005)
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Click (2006)
Enchanted (2007)
Norbit (2007)
Tropic Thunder (2008) (makeup design for Robert Downey Jr.)
The Wolfman (2010)
Tron: Legacy (2010)
Men in Black 3 (2012)
Maleficent (2014)

Academy Award wins

An American Werewolf in London (1982) (First year of the award)
Harry and the Hendersons (1988)
Ed Wood (1995)
The Nutty Professor (1997)
Men in Black (1998)
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2001)
The Wolfman (2011)

Rick has a presence on Twitter which is up-to-date and good fun - @TheRickBaker

In a wonderful twist, Rick Baker favourited my tweet promoting this blog post.  I really do hope he read it and enjoyed it.

* thanks to Cinefex #16, “Rick Baker - Maker of Monsters, Master of the Apes” by Jordan Fox

Wednesday 25 March 2015

My part in Sue's Bloghop

I've been challenged by my fine friend Sue Moorcroft to join in the Lovely Blog Hop to talk about some of the things that have shaped my life and my writing.

At the end of this post, you’ll find links to some blogs and writers I like. The writers have all agreed to participate in and continue this Lovely Blog Hop.
me, Dude & Sheepy, April 2010.  Dude's probably forgotten this...
First Memory
As the father of a young son, it’s become increasingly obvious that whilst I’m already aware even the most vivid of memories will fade over time, when you’re a kid, they can slip away altogether.  Sometimes I’ll ask Dude if he remembers something and he’ll look at me blankly, even though I know we had a great time doing it and I have the photographs to prove it.  In my case, my first memories go back to living in Corby in the early seventies with my folks - playing with my friends, collecting Planet Of The Apes cards, the toys of the era (especially Action Man), Saturday morning pictures, Bullet comic and Spider-Man weekly.

Bearing in mind that I write horror, this is what I recall as my first memory of being scared (always good for a laugh, eh?).  When I lived there (and it's the same today), Corby had a huge contingent of Scottish folk and some of their cultural elements were brought down with them, including the Highland Gathering.  One year (I reckon it was either 1974 or 1975), my parents took me and my sister to one such gathering and we sat on the grass (near to the rope ‘fence’) and I can’t remember anything we saw, except perhaps for a motorcycle display team.  One act that I do clearly remember, however, was a bunch of clowns that ran into the ring to, I assume, distract the kids attentions whilst something was being set up.  I remember one clown in particular, a short round bloke who seemed to be completely blue, running over towards us - in my minds eye, he’s gibbering and laughing and sticking his tongue out as he waves his arms wildly in the air, but maybe didn’t happen in real life.  What did happen, though, was that I reacted - I was terrified.  I remember Dad hugging me and taking me away, I remember him explaining what clowns were and - later - I remember him assuring me that no clowns could get into the house and none of them would be hiding under my bed when I went to sleep.

I’m not coulrophobic, though they’re still not my favourite thing in the world - there’s just something about their need to hide behind a mask and caper desperately to get a laugh, that jars me.  Not nice.

Me and Dude, reading on the patio, summer 2013
I can’t remember when I started reading for pleasure, but (see above) I was reading comics - Spider-Man and Bullet - from an early age and once we moved to Rothwell in 1977,that took off.  Having an excellent town library - in the old Market Square building, up a spiral stone staircase and into a dark room with what seemed like more books than the space should have fitted - and a great one at my juniors school, I embraced them.  At school, I discovered The Three Investigators series (as I’ve blogged about here) and began reading some of the books from my Dad’s shelves (though his copy of “The Fog” - with the cut-off ladies head on the cover - scared me for years).  In the early 80s, Dad took me and my sister into a second-hand bookshop in nearby Wellingborough and, because I’d heard people talking about having watched it on TV, I picked up a battered copy of “’Salem’s Lot” by Stephen King.  That was a revelation and I gobbled up as much of his work as I could, using his non-fiction exploration of the horror genre “Danse Macabre” (which I blogged about here) as a guide for further reading and I got into Clive Barker early, on King’s written recommendation.

I still love reading and often get through sixty or more books in a year.  I used to be one of those people who, once they’d started a book, couldn’t stop it midway through but life’s too short for that - I have books on my shelves that I know I’ll probably never get to, so why waste my time reading something that clearly doesn’t sit well with me?

I try to read widely across genres and take in crime, thrillers, drama, Chick-Lit, autobiographies, behind-the-scenes stuff on films, Snoopy and Calvin & Hobbes collections, some sci-fi and - of course - horror.

Rothwell's old library, or The Market House, designed by
William Grumbold for Sir Thomas Tresham.  Construction
began in 1577.
As I mentioned above, my first experience with a public library was in Rothwell and even though it’s not in the same building any more (a new one was built on wasteground across the road in the 80s and although it’s lovely and well-stocked, it’s not a patch on the old one), I still use it and signed Dude up for his library card as soon as we were able to.  Back in the day, when research didn’t mean a few sentences typed into Google, the library was where you did homework that required the use of encyclopaedias and it was generally a treasure trove of information (and new Three Investigator books!).  Whilst that research aspect might have been replaced with laptops, tablets and smart phones, the wealth of books, the huge range of worlds that are ready to be visited with the aid of the readers imagination, is a wonder to behold.  I don’t use the library enough - and if you saw my TBR pile you’d understand why - but I passionately believe they should be there, open to everyone who wants to explore the written word.

What’s Your Passion?
My family, especially adventures with the Dude and hopefully giving him a childhood he’ll look back on favourably (assuming he remembers our adventures...).

I quite enjoyed school and have warm memories of my junior school years (I’m a Parent Governor now and although the old building is still there, the new additions mean that it doesn’t really resemble the place I remember) and my stint at Montsaye (especially the Sixth Form, which I think was the best school year of my life).  I wanted to go on to study journalism, though that never quite happened and I fell into accountancy, which led me back to night school, where I got my professional qualifications (the course was three hours a night, up to three hours a week - how on earth did I manage that?) just before Dude was born.

I’ve been writing stories for a long time, starting when I was about eight and wanted to know more about “Star Wars” so expanded the universe and put me and my friends into the various adventures.  I also wrote about Steve Austin (there were always short stories in the Six Million Dollar Man annuals and I enjoyed reading them), spies (for a while, I wanted to be either James Bond or Simon Templar) and detectives.  I didn’t write much about my own life until I went to Montsaye (our Comprehensive, or senior school), which coincided with the start of “Grange Hill” (“flippin’ ‘eck, Tucker!”), but apart from a few stories, I focussed on crime fiction (I homaged The Three Investigators with my own Three Intrepids series).  I hope I’ve come a long way since then and I love the process (though I do prefer editing to writing - I’m one of those writers who ‘likes having written’).  I don’t write as much as I would like to - there’s a lot of life going on, but I’m also still battling a couple of the demons from a serious block that struck me just after Dude was born - but I’m still there, still plugging away.  After all, whatever would I do without it?

Sue's original post can be found here.

These are the links to other blogs from writers you might find interesting. Not all of them write in the same genre as I do, but they're all very good, as is Sue herself.

Anthony Cowin
Sue Fortin
Donna Bond
Steve Harris
James Everington

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Dude in print...

A chuffed Dude, with the anthology
On Monday, when I got home from work, a very excited Dude came barreling through to the kitchen to greet me.  He was clutching a copy of "Out Of This World", which features his poem "Icy Wind".

My Dude, a published poet.

I read his poem again (it's very good) and watched him over the course of the evening, as he looked at the book cover, checked out his poem and beamed, from ear-to-ear.  It reminded me a lot of the way I reacted when I first saw "Strange Tales" and also the way Dad looked at his book of my Grampy's war diaries (which I blogged about here).

My Dude, a published poet at aged nine (knocking on ten).

I was first published, in the school magazine at Montsaye, in my first year there (so I'd have been 11 - I went on to co-edit an issue when I was in the Sixth Form).  My wonderful son, the apple of my eye, has beaten me by two years.  The little git.

He's taken an interest in my writing for a good few years now (though he's never read any of my published stuff) and has helped me out a couple of times too.  I sometimes run through ideas in my head as I drive and, when I was working on my werewolf short "Last Train Home", I was thinking aloud in the car.  Dude, in the passenger seat, gave me the perfect ending and what he said is the last line of the story (he was thrilled to discover that, though I haven't let him read the rest of it).  So instead of horror, I've written a few short stories for him and we've collaborated on a couple of things and I've really enjoyed those moments.

As I've mentioned elsewhere before, I started writing fiction when I was eight, expanding the Star Wars universe or coming up with new adventures for The Six Million Dollar Man and my love of the creative process - whilst taking dents over the years - has never lessened.  I'm not sure yet how strong Dude's love for writing is but I am happy to nurture it and I hope it never goes away.

Very proud Dad.

Friday 13 March 2015

The Death House, by Sarah Pinborough (a review)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book that I've read and loved, which I think adds to the horror genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.

Toby’s life was perfectly normal… until it was unravelled by something as simple as a blood test.

Taken from his family, Toby now lives in the Death House: an out-of-time existence far from the modern world, where he, and the others who live there, are studied by Matron and her team of nurses. They’re looking for any sign of sickness. Any sign of their wards changing. Any sign that it’s time to take them to the sanatorium.

No one returns from the sanatorium.

Withdrawn from his house-mates and living in his memories of the past, Toby spends his days fighting his fear. But then a new arrival in the house shatters the fragile peace, and everything changes.

Because everybody dies. It’s how you choose to live that counts.

In an unspecified near future, children under the age of 18 can contract a mysterious and apparently terminal illness.  If tested positive, these so-called Defectives are taken away from their families to an isolated country manor which serves as both a boarding school and a hospice to see out their days, which end in the dreaded sanatorium.  The Death House, as they all call it, is run by the Matron and a squad of nurses, backed up by teachers who sit through lessons teaching children who will never need the information they’re being given.  Toby, the narrator, is 17 and top dog of Dorm 4, keen to protect his friends - young Will, brainy Louis and the religious Ashley - and while away his time until he falls ill, thinking about the past and what might have been with a girl he fancied from school.  Understanding that the kids are sedated at night, he stops taking his ‘vitamins’ and roams the house whilst everyone else is asleep, catching up on his rest during the day.  When a new batch of Defectives is brought in, one of them is a girl called Clara who also skips her medication and likes to roam after dark.  After an initial frosty period - Toby resents her presence, thinking she will spoil his night-time freedom - the pair become friends, even as things begin to go bad in the house.

Simply put, this is a stunning novel, perfectly constructed by a writer who is at the top of her game.

The characterisation is superb, from the main players down to those who are seen only briefly during lunchtime.  Toby is angry, with his condition, the House and being away from his family, sinking into a mass of hopelessness and it’s only the arrival of Clara that brings him back.  As one of the older kids, his young friends - Will and Louis especially - look up to him for guidance (and, perhaps, love) and his interactions with them form part of the books emotional heart.  The other part is his burgeoning relationship with the vivid and vital Clara, a free spirit who gives him a new sense of purpose.  Their love affair is wonderfully observed, from the first stirrings to the night-time adventures as they explore the house and island, making plans for their future.  They begin to form a family unit, rescuing an injured bird they call Georgie, as well as uniting the kids in the house who before struggled to cope with the situation.  Those kids are written as real children - stroppy and funny, playful and spiteful, eager and annoying - and never less than believable.  This did have the drawback for me, however, that as the parent of a young boy, I identified strongly with one particular character and it was heart-breaking to follow his development, especially that his greatest adventure was also his last, a set-piece that brought tears to my eyes.

Another strength is seeing the adults as Toby perceives them, vague characters who intrude upon his life (apart from his parents, where we see their love for him clearly, especially in a harrowing flashback) with the Matron the de facto villain who might, actually, just be someone who divorces herself from reality in order to cope.  When touches of humanity from the adults are glimpsed - the kindly nurse who mentions she’s read “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”, for instance - the reader is surprised as much as the children are.

Perfectly paced, the book is peppered with well staged set pieces, from the Northern lights on the cold beach to the special cave that becomes more signficant as time goes on; from the one-up-manship between Toby and Jake over who’s top dog to Ashley’s increasing religious fervour, that creates divisions in the house; from the desperate plans made for the future and a tough decision that breaks a lot of hearts.

The location is well used, with the gloomy house, its empty rooms and the bare countryside around it - we don’t know where the Death House is any more than the characters do and their sense of being isolated and trapped seeps into the gaps between the sentences, creating an air of foreboding that is never properly shaken off.  In fact, the sounds and activities of the Death House create the horror, especially the clanking of the lift as it comes down from the upper floor to whisk away the ill children.  In a clever touch, the disease - and what happens to the Defectives in the sanatorium (indeed, why they need to go there) - remains a mystery, as does the timeframe (at one point, the children mention that it hasn’t snowed in England for over 100 years, yet they are all familiar with record albums) and I liked that it added to the sense of unease.

The writing is smart and assured, capturing a teenaged voice (as I remember it) with apparent ease and there wasn’t a jarring note in the book.  Topped with an ending I didn’t see coming - that is both uplifting and melancholic, but absolutely perfect - this is already a strong contender for my book of the year.  Tightly constructed, well paced and full of believable characters, this is a fantastic tale that packs a real emotional punch and I think it’ll linger with me for a long time.  Very highly recommended.

The novel can be bought from Amazon in hardback here or as a Kindle ebook here

Wednesday 4 March 2015

More matte painting magic

Following on from my other blogs last year about matte paintings (here, here (the Return of the Jedi one), herehere and here) which seemed to go down well and which I enjoyed doing, I've had great fun tracking down some more bits and pieces.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
artwork by Alan Maley
James Bond heads for the light display at the Pyramids
The Blues Brothers (1980)
artwork by Albert Whitlock and Syd Dutton
"Have you seen the light?"
 Ghostbusters (1984)
artwork by Matt Yuricich
The real location only went to the 20th floor.
Venkman: "When we get to twenty, tell me... I'm gonna throw up"
Aliens (1986)
artwork by Robert and Dennis Skotak (the opening shot, all painted)

Who's That Girl? (1987)
Artwork by Mark Sullivan
This Madonna/Griffin Dunne comedy featured several pieces of wonderfully 'invisible' art.  In this sequence, Dunne is hanging out of his car which, in turn, is hanging out of a building.  The building is painted, the car is a large scale miniature and the actor is replaced by a small articulated puppet.  Note how the painting and model are precisely lined up, whilst Sullivan stop-motion animates the puppet.

Robocop (1987)
Artwork by Mark Sullivan
The matte shot was combined with a stop-motion animated puppet of Ronny Cox's Dick Jones, falling to his death.

The Doors (1991)
Artwork by Mark Sullivan

And simply because I adore it (and this is a much better quality image than any I've seen before), here's Albert Whitlock's wonderful painting of Covent Garden by night, from Hitchcock's "Frenzy" (1972)
thanks again to