From humble childhood beginnings fashioning homemade monsters out of melted-down green army men to becoming the head special effects artist on TRAPPED ALIVE while still in his Senior Year of High School, Hank Carlson became a definitive voice in the world of special and make-up effects in a Golden Era for horror.
Here we interview the man himself on everything from his inspirations, his proudest career moments, his opinions on how the industry’s changed, and his advice for anyone wanting to follow in similar footsteps.
A: How did you first fall in love with horror and the world of movie monster effects?
HC: My career was started by chance and persistence.
I am from a very small tourist town in northern Wisconsin named Eagle River. The population is only 1,498. As I grew up, I was drawn to anything dealing with dinosaurs or monsters. My only outlet to find movies containing these subjects was going to Saturday matinees at our local theater OR on late at night television on one of the only 3 television channels we received. It was the early 1970’s and during that time those movies consisted mostly of the classics from Universal Studios, “VERY” edited Hammer films and those from the great Ray Harryhausen. But my favorites were any that had giant monsters fighting other monsters like those from Toho Studios such as the GODZILLA series. Those movies kickstarted my imagination and creativity.
I remember during this time in my early youth hearing on the news about the Guerrilla warfare in Warsaw, and there was a small town just over an hour away from my home named Wausau. Because of my age and the movies, I loved I thought that real “damned dirty apes” were fighting in the town I bought my school clothes and toys from. One day on one of those said shopping trips to Wausau, my mom took a shortcut and that was when I saw a giant spider sitting off in a field off the side of the road. Years later I would come to realize it was from GIANT SPIDER INVASION by Bill Rebane, whom I met would collaborate with later in my career.
I had great parents who supported my love of monsters from the beginning and would let me purchase anything that would help to inspire my creativity and imagination. This included letting me read magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland, horror comics from Marvel and DC. My parents also helped in creating toys of the monsters from movies to play with since at that time nothing like that existed. It wasn’t till Kenner Toy Company released the “6 Million Dollar Man” dolls and shortly after the iconic “Star Wars” action figures. No longer were we forced into melting green army men down to make monsters from movies like THE BLOB.
Also, back then I couldn’t just play with imagination using a stick as a sword. I actually had to build the sword and the castle and the villain I needed to slay because in my mind’s eye I saw everything play out like a movie. Then one day at school I ordered a book called MOVIE MONSTERS by make-up effects artist Alan Ormsby. In its pages it showed how to make masks and costumes of monsters using household items. That one book changed my life, because I realized that I could have a career as a movie monster maker.
A: How did you get your career started?
HC: When I started to prep for college or a trade, the guidance counselors had no idea how to direct me. It was easy for them to say how to get into a college or to become a plumber but not how to become the next Tom Savini. Then in 1987 I found out an actual movie studio was being built about 15 minutes from my house in the middle of nowhere: Windsor Lake Studios. The owners of the studio were from the UK and were the producers of HELLRAISER and HEATHERS.
So, I put together a resume that said I had never done any effects professionally and was still a student in high school but if given the chance I could show them I could make monsters and the effects needed. Since the studio was on private property and the owners didn’t take kindly to visitors, I started the persistent battle of getting my resume into the right hands. This was not an easy task. Finally, after many attempts they finally hired me. I think it was just to get me off their backs and shut me up. And so began the start of my 31 years in the motion picture industry.
A: What was your debut experience working as the special effects artist on TRAPPED ALIVE like?
HC: It was both exciting and terrifying at the same time. For those who don’t know I was 17 going on 18 years old, and still in high school. I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself and embarrass the studio so I would always stay past when everyone else would go home, just so I could study what I was working with and make sure all would be ready to go the next day.
I ended up getting really sick on the production, but in filmmaking you can’t take sick days – not when you’re a teenager and scared you’re going to have your dream of making movies taken away from you. I didn’t realize how bad it was till one day the tonsil on my right side exploded – and I ended up in intensive care for a week. I had been working with severe strep throat. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way, but these are the lessons you never forget. The biggest lesson I had to learn was that you have to take care of you. Your body needs to be healthy so you can work at your full potential. If you take on any responsibility you should give 100% no matter what it is.
I remember just really over-focusing on everything I did. I had to learn how to work around/with each person on the crew. I had to learn that some are stronger than others, and around the usual Prima Donnas. One of my biggest shocks was that moviemaking wasn’t like what you see on TV. It isn’t glamourous! There’s a lot of waiting around day after day after day. You really have to like filmmaking to stay in the business or you might run screaming into traffic just to get some excitement. For those who are wanting to pick filmmaking as a career choice remember my words because it’s not all red carpet and slaps on the back. I have seen many people who work behind the scenes that don’t always get the credit they are due.
I like to tell people filmmaking reminds me of a line from a Great White song that sums up the film industry the best: “Hollywood isn’t paved with gold, it’s just a trick of light”.
HC: THE CHILL FACTOR was the third production that Windsor Lake Studios produced.
When I was hired, I was hired to be the studio’s in-house special effects person but in between doing effects I would work on everything from helping the production coordinator, Xeroxing scrips and arranging airfare for talent, to building sets, props and wardrobes.
Chris Webster by this time was proud of me and saw that I had what it takes to work on films. He helped me continue to grow over each of the productions and learn different crafts. He taught me to work to my full potential. By the time THE CHILL FACTOR had started principal photography, I think I was spending more time with Chris and his wife Cheryl than my own family. Chris never let me have down time. He would teach me things like storyboarding, lighting, how to block out a scene to film, etc. He went above and beyond what he had to do as an employer and didn’t do this for anyone else. Chris Webster is just a great person, whom I call my friend. I owe him so much – if it was not for him taking a chance on an inexperienced kid from a small town, I would not have the effects career that I have had today. Chris Webster providing me the opportunity to work and gain knowledge of each department the studio had to offer would lead to Howard Berger discovering my abilities and offering me to join KNB EFX Group in Los Angles.
A: What have been the proudest moments of your career?
HC: I actually have three:
- The first is working on ARMY OF DARKNESS. Sam Raimi, who loved to abuse his friend Bruce Campbell, wrote an effect into the script where the Deadites first awaken in an old cemetery after Ash speaks the wrong words removing the book of the dead from the alter. The effect was that a skeleton arm shoots out of the ground and into Ash’s open mouth going down his throat. No one could figure out how to make this practical effect work. We had many group meetings discussing ways to develop the effect. I had an idea and told Howard Berger. He liked the idea and told me to make a prototype that I could show Sam Raimi at an upcoming meeting. So I did – and Sam loved it. I got to make the arm and work directly with Bruce and Sam on how the effect worked and how to film it. The effect worked great and will forever live on in cinematic history.
Since then many people have asked me how it was accomplished. Essentially, I constructed a thin latex arm that was hollow and could be rolled up and placed into Bruce Campbell’s mouth. Then, with myself underneath, a false floor would inflate the open end with air as Bruce pulled up and the arm would unroll as it came out of his mouth. Then the film was reversed in the editing process making it look as if the arm shot up into his mouth as Bruce fell forward.
- My second proudest accomplishment would be that my effects career led into a medical career where I was able to help people with disabilities by building braces and prosthetics and healing wounds. It’s such an incredible feeling when someone who couldn’t walk is able to walk away with a device you made, that now allows them to live a normal life. For many years my medical career was my day job and I would do effects by night. I would tell people: “I heal the sick by day and kill them by night”.
- My third proudest moment happened only a couple years ago, when my town and high school honored me for my accomplishments by adding a large plaque on the wall of the high school’s lobby. I’ve won a few awards over the years for things I’ve made, but this was by far the most special – all the people that doubted and picked on me growing up now have to see that plaque on the wall whenever they take their kids to school. And all the kids who go there now, who’s like me, can see that the things that make you different and weird in high school are ultimately what lead to your biggest accomplishments. One thing I’ve learned is that Karma is a real bitch.
A: Looking back, how has the effects business changed since you started?
HC: In the early 1990’s when I left Los Angeles was when everything started to change from practical effects to CGI. It was a scary time for those who were used to physically making monsters and props out of actual materials, getting their hands dirty. All of the effects artists I knew were not computer people. I think the only studio that had started to integrate the use of a computer as a tool at that time was at Stan Winston’s, with TERMINATOR 2 and JURASSIC PARK. Major film studios saw that the computer was a faster, less expensive way to create effects, and I felt like it might be the death knoll for a lot of us.
I remember thinking that those who wanted to survive had to adapt and become techies. I know that both Robert Kurtzman and I went to a demonstration at a computer store, at a mall in the Valley, that was demonstrating something called the “Video Toaster”, and saying to each other, “this is the future”. I am not a computer person to this day. Computers scare me. I like technology – but it was killing the profession that I loved.
So that transition time of my life really became the dark ages for the effects’ artists. But as we all know this didn’t last. Studios who only used computer generated effects looked like what they were. They may have been cheaper, but they also made the consumer angry because they looked fake. So practical effects have slowly made their comeback.
Another change was the use of silicone as a material. I think I was one of the first people that got to use silicone on SUPER MARIO BROTHERS for Yoshi’s tongue effects. At the time silicone was very hard to use and to color, but since has become more user friendly. I still think it’s used way too much on film sets though – you should only resort to it when using 4K technology for close-ups.
The last major change is the use of 3D printing. Now you can scan a sculpture/actor and with the press of a button send away a file to a company, and in a couple days a suit is milled out of foam and shows up to your studio in a big box ready for painting.
A: What advice would you give to anyone who wants to go into filmmaking?
HC: If you have a dream, no matter how big, never give up. I believe that if you work hard enough ANYONE can make any dream come true. But you must be persistent. Practice your skills every day. Be able to adapt because situations can change at any minute. Be sure you have thick skin and are able to take criticism. Criticism isn’t always a bad thing, it’s someone trying to make you better.
Also – and this is important – not everyone is going to like what you do. You are always going to have haters. The biggest mistake is to always be safe. Don’t just watch YouTube videos for a paint-by-numbers on how to do effects. Accidents can and will happen – but that’s the only way you’ll ever get to where you want to go.