Off Hollywood - Steve Wang
Legendary Special Effects Creator
Predator, The Monster Squad, Guyver, Underworld, Kung Fu Rascals
As mainstream cinema turns its attention to computer-generated imagery, it’s important to remember individuals like Steve Wang, who’s still at the forefront of practical effects. When I visited his workshop in the valley, I was filed with new hope the minute I walked in the door. No one was hunched over a computer, it reeked of epoxy, and people were working together on a number of elements with their bare hands. Steve Wang is keeping the dream alive.
VICE: You became interested in special effects makeup because as a kid you had a large collection of Halloween latex masks?
Steve Wang: My family moved to the US from Taiwan back in 1975. I was about nine and a half. Right as we arrived Halloween was coming up, so when I saw all of those full-headed latex Halloween masks in the store, it just blew my mind. I was already obsessed with monsters so to see them rendered out like that, my little kid mind said, Does not compute.
What type of monsters were you into?
I liked all the weird ones. While some people were into vampires and werewolves, I responded to the more unusual creatures. My all-time favorite is the Creature From The Black Lagoon. I was so in love with latex masks I started to bug my Grandma to get me one. From then on I got one every year from my family. After four years of saving up allowance and doing chores, I accumulated about 30 masks. By the time I was 14, I decided it was time for me to learn how to make them.
Without the internet how were you able to learn about making latex monster masks?
Back then makeup effects were still pretty new. I found some books about theatrical makeup and some famous monster magazines. I would flip through them and scour the photos for information. Then I discovered Cinemagic magazine. Two issues changed my life--so much so that I still have them. I followed Kirk Brady’s tutorial, and from there on I started making latex masks.
Wow! You were making latex masks at home when you were a teenager?
My mom thought I was crazy. The first year I started making them I was in my bedroom 18 hours a day just sculpting. I made a mess of the garage using plaster, making molds, and learning how to use latex. She was so worried about me.
Do you think she was concerned about your psyche because you were making frightening monsters?
No, not at all. When you come from a Chinese family, the standards for success are high and there are expectations. I had no interest in becoming a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. I just wanted to make monsters. My mom was so worried about me she got my brother’s older friend, who was totally into disco and the martial arts, to come over and try to get me out of the house. He came in ready to change my life but when he saw all the masks in my room he was amazed. He couldn’t believe it, “Did you make these?" he asked. "Have you ever heard of science fiction conventions? Let’s make some costumes.” Next time my mom saw us together he was in the garage making masks with me.
Although you're exposed to so many different types of monsters in the United States, your work appears to be more heavily influenced by Japan. What drew you to the tokusatsu superhero?
In Taiwan, my family lived near a big movie theater. If anything changed my life it was the day I saw a three-story high billboard of Ultraman fighting a couple of monsters. Professionally, I had the great honor of going to Japan and visiting Tsuburaya Studios and meeting the family who created Ultraman, as well as a lot of the people who worked on the Godzilla movies--basically I met everyone I admired as a kid.
While working on the creature effects for Gillman from the Monster Squad, you developed a seamless rubber suit. I can’t think of a better way of showing your gratitude to tokusatsu than to create a technology to help them get rid of the zipper up the back of the costume.
The suit technology created for Monster Squad is now an industry standard. In the 90s I made further developments by placing compression springs, body armor, and boning inside the suits to get rid of all the buckling in the arms and the crotch.
You also brought Guyver and a modern version of Kamen Rider to the American audience.
It was my lifelong dream to do Kamen Rider. Unfortunately creator Shotaro Ishinomori died before he could see my version. That broke my heart.
Not long after the Monster Squad you were working on Predator. How many versions did the Predator costume go through?
There were two versions. The original was done in 1986 by Boss Films and was this strange-looking horse skull. It proved to be really impractical so they shut down production to redesign it. At the time I was working over at Stan Winston and together we could bounce ideas back and forth. The final suit and design was made in two months.
Did you know at the time Predator would have a huge cult following with people who follow the design of the suit and spend years making replica costumes?
I had no idea. I was 21 at the time. You know what’s funny about Predator is that Arnold Schwarzenegger said to me one day, [in the Austrian accent] “Do it now--today is tomorrow’s yesterday.” It’s like a fortune cookie message stuck in my head!
One of my favorite movies you've directed is Kung Fu Rascals, which is based on a movie you made originally made in 8mm.
Right out of high school I made an 8mm film called The Kung Fu Rascals Monster Beach Party. It was made on weekends over the course of six months. It was so much work, I wondered why anyone would want to become involved in the movies, but when it was all done I got bit by the bug. It’s the reason I’m in the movie business.
Have you ever shown the 8mm version?
No, aside from my friends back home no one else has seen the original Kung Fu Rascals. The only form that it exists in now is on VHS.
Here you were, working one blockbuster after another. What made you decide to go back and revisit a labor of love?
I’ve always believed in that. If you want to be happy, you have to do what makes you happy--even if it doesn’t make you a ton of money. At that point of my life, I got sick of makeup effects and had worked so hard I overexerted myself. I wanted to do something fun with my friends and colleagues. The cast of Kung Fu Rascals are all the A-list makeup and effects designers–Eddie Yang, Johnnie Saiko, Aaron Sims, Evil Ted Smith, and Cleve Hall–all getting together and having a good time on the weekends.
Do you ever feel the pressure that makeup and practical effects will become obsolete with all the new advancements in CGI?
Constantly. It’s one of the reasons why I’m not as involved in film industry as I used to be. What’s ironic is my biggest clients are the video game industry, which is of course all CGI. However, they call me to make practical elements of their creations for display in the real world–and they are so appreciative of it. Back in the 80s when makeup effects were still pretty new, effects people were like rock stars. We’d walk on set with an animatronic head and the crew would part like the red sea. “Get out of the way, here come the makeup effects guys!” We’d walk onto the set like we were in the Right Stuff in slow motion. People loved us.
What was the first sign that practical effects were in danger?
It came on a lot faster than expected. When we all first saw Jurassic Park we knew it meant trouble. I always thought there was a conspiracy against us. I don’t mean to say "conspiracy" like all the CGI guys were plotting against us, it’s as basic as business. All these new companies created a technology that they had to sell to people. When someone hears "practical is limited" over and over again, our involvement in filmmaking became diminished. It’s sad how much people have forgotten how cool practical can be, especially if you know how to use it. It’s only a matter of time before digital tracking gets rid of prosthetic makeup. Our business is dying.
Is there any new technology you are excited about?
Well, I want them to put more energy into developing the transporter. I’m tired of sitting in traffic.
Previously - Off Hollywood - Sybil Danning