X-Files mythology, TenThirteen Interviews Database, and more

The Associated Press: Aliens, Mayhem, All in a Day's Work

The Associated Press
Aliens, Mayhem, All in a Day’s Work
Lynn Elber

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Makeup artists Cheri Montesanto-Medcalf and Kevin Westmore were confronted with the task of turning a chubby-cheeked doll into a believable corpse for “The X-Files.”

“So Kevin throws the doll on the studio sidewalk and he’s stomping on its head. A guy walks by and says, ‘That’s really sick, buddy,'” recounts Montesanto-Medcalf.

It’s just an average day for the special effects experts who conspire to make the Fox drama one of television’s most ghoulish and reliably chilling experiences.

The truth isn’t out there, as lead character Fox Mulder insists. It’s in the wizardry of technicians who can make us believe that aliens have landed, that a patient has been barbecued in an MRI machine, and that a handsome young actor is wizened and ill.

A small army works behind the scenes of the show (9 p.m. EST Sunday), which stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI agents solving oddball cases while trying to expose a government conspiracy possibly involving an alien invasion.

The prop department alone has six to seven people, double the usual number for a TV show, said property master Tom Day. There are three people in Bill Millar’s visual effects squad and an equal number in the department run by Montesanto-Medcalf. John Vulich contributes additional makeup effects.

Some joined the series when production was moved to Southern California two years ago, after five years of filming in Canada. And they really love their work.

“I do nice beauty makeup but I also have a kind of sick mind and can make people look disgusting as well,” said Montesanto-Medcalf, cheerily. If she’s haunted by frightening images, it’s only professionally.

“I’ve been up since 2 a.m. thinking of zombies because of you,” she chided Duchovny recently. An upcoming episode he’s written and directed is filled with undead souls, and Montesanto-Medcalf had to devise a makeup scheme for them.

Day’s Fox studio prop room is filled with evidence of the mayhem he regularly helps fake. There are boxes marked “human guts,” skeletons and a rainbow of body bags – yellow, black and white representing different law enforcement agencies.

Many items are custom-made, such as a machete that was shown slicing into a scientist’s shoulder in the season’s opening episode.

A weapon with a cardboard “blade” patterned to fit snugly against the actor’s shoulder was created, then held in place with a thin metal plate and straps. Makeup provided the bloody finishing touch.

“It looked great, but it was kind of silly to watch the guy walk over to craft services and get himself a sinker and cup of coffee in the morning,” Day said.

The aliens who make occasional appearances in the series are MIA from this storage room.

“We have a selection of alien bodies at another warehouse, the ones with big eyes that look so friendly,” Day said. “As we use them and they get more and more beat up … then they become the body of the guy from Florida who’s just been eaten by the swamp monster and is inside the bag.

“As long as they don’t complain, they’ll go into any body bag we can fit them into,” Day said, a grin stretched across his face.

Some props are benign. A baseball-themed episode last season called for a mechanical bank. When a suitable one couldn’t be found, Day and his crew researched and engineered a bank with a ballplayer whose hat tips in coins.

“All that happens in five or six days,” Day said, referring to the average prep time available for each episode. “That’s the part that amazes me. How quickly it winds up happening.”

The various departments collaborate on each episode. Although division of labor is the rule, sometimes one unit – such as CGI, or computer-generated imagery – will take the lead on a special effect.

“They decide by virtue of what gives them the most bang for their buck, so to speak,” Day said. The big-ticket effects, such as giant spaceships, provide a respite for his department.

“When we read ‘CGI’ in the script, it’s great. We’re at craft services (eating and relaxing) for those parts,” he said.

For performers, the “X-Files” experience can be truly memorable.

“A lot of times the actors are hired and think, ‘Oh, I got a part.’ Then they read the script and go, ‘Oh, my God, this is going to happen to me?'” said Montesanto-Medcalf.

In one episode involving poisonous snakes, a guest actor was covered with prosthetic blisters that seeped a pudding-like substance with the help of air pumps. For another episode, titled “Theef,” the MRI victim was “burned” by four makeup artists working for eight hours.

“We put a bald cap on her. Then the hair people glued on yak hair, which is wiry, that had been singed,” said Montesanto-Medcalf. A blend of acetate, gelatin and paint was used to simulate charred flesh, with dog rawhide serving as exposed bone.

It was “X-Files” perfect. “It looked so disgusting,” said Montesanto-Medcalf.

Most actors are good sports, including the stars. Anderson was a real trouper when subjected to a swarm of insects, including giant winged beetles, in the season’s first episode, while Duchovny was equally game when facing live snakes, Day said.

Duchovny even relished being transformed into an elderly man in one story, Montesanto-Medcalf said.

“Not only did he have to look old, he had to look diseased. So he wasn’t a good-looking old guy, that’s for sure,” she said. “But he loved it. Everyone on the set was so amazed at how great it looked and kept going up to him and saying ‘You look fantastic.'”

There seems to be only one thing that can frighten an “X-Files” veteran – sharp-eyed fans looking for flubs.

“If a baseball bat is used in an episode in season two and I bring out the same baseball bat for something in season seven, there will be people who get on the Internet to carp,” said Day.

Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.