Chris Walas is an Academy Award winning special effects/makeup artist & director who is the mastermind behind the creatures found in such films as Gremlins, The Fly, Return of The Jedi, Dragonslayer, and many more. We are honored to have Mr. Walas join us for a one on one during our Wicked Awesome Halloween Hubub 13.
BMI: With such an impressive resume, how did you get your start in movie special effects?
CW: Worked my way in. There was no other way back then. I didn’t know anyone in town, wasn’t related to anyone in the business or anything like that. I got a job at Don Post Studios painting masks , where I watched and learned what everyone else was doing. Bob Short and I did a few odd projects together and I started making some connections from there. Fortunately for me, it was just about the time Star Wars came out and everyone in town was desperate for aliens and monsters suddenly and so there were a lot of opportunities.
BMI: Early in your career you took on role of as a creature consultant/designer for Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Which characters from the film can you accredit to your concepts?
CW: Oh, I don’t remember the names. They were all changed for the film. I worked on the development of the Ewoks, although those designs were changed by Stuart Freeeborn’s crew. There was a squid head, a three-eyed thing, four or five others that wound up being basically background characters on Jabba’s barge. Really, I just did a dozen or so different designs at ILM while I was working there on Raider of the Lost Ark and Dragonslayer. I think George just picked a few out of the bunch.
BMI: The movie Gremlins was one of my favorite films as a child due to the unforgettable characters you created. Where did the inspiration come from to create such iconic creatures?
CW: My original concept for Gizmo was based on a little Asian primate called a Tarsier. It’s got great big eyes, which I thought would be needed for such a small character and seemed to be just about the right size. I added big ears, as I knew I wanted them in the Gremlin incarnation and they would serve as a sort of design connection. From then on, it was just a matter of adding “cute” and different fur colors. The final colors came as a suggestion from Steven’s office. They were the colors of his dog.
The Gremlins themselves went through more of a developmental stage. I did a number of drawings based on the script and discussions with Joe Dante. There was a good deal of input. Chris Columbus did a sketch. At that point I did a smaller scale maquette to pull all of the design elements that had been discussed into one form. I like to think there’s a lot of my own whacky sensibility in the design. At any rate, when I finished the maquette, I knew in my heart that it was “the one”. Everyone else seemed to agree, fortunately. And the real performance character came out of the puppeteers, Joe Dante and the whole crew. Gremlins was an amazing experience for the sheer amount of crazy fun ideas that flew around the set every day.
BMI: As the designer for Gizmo/gremlins, do you feel that the Furby toy plagiarized your final designs from Gremlins?
CW: I first was made aware of the whole Furby issue by loads of friends calling me up and telling me about the Gremlins rip-off toy, so I was a bit pre-conditioned to believe that it was, indeed, a rip-off. I like to believe that the Gremlins designs are genuine originals of their kind. I do think they stand out as such from anything previously. There are always similarities to other things to be found in any design, but I do think that the Furby design crossed the line of mere coincidence.
BMI: In 1986 you won an Academy Award for “Best Makeup and Hairstyling” in the sci-fi masterpiece, The Fly. How did creating the metamorphosis of Jeff Goldblum’s character, Seth Brundle, differ from your previous projects up until that point?
CW: The Fly was unique in that our “monster” was the main character and ran through the entire film, changing all the way. Planning and coordinating the many stages of make-up and animatronics was a real challenge and even when we thought we had a handle on it all, we still had to make big changes along the way through almost the entire production. More usually, it’s a matter of designing and building the creature or creatures for a film and taking them to the set and making them work. Our FX schedule on the Fly was very tight and things were changing constantly, so I had to set up a second FX shop near the shooting stages to be able to rework the puppets and FX that were being “finished” and shipped from my shop in California. Our biggest challenge was keeping Jeff Goldblum as the character for as long as possible before making the switch to animatronic puppets and finding actions, mostly head twitches and tilts, that Jeff could imbue the character with that we could then use with the puppets to maintain the character’s consistency.