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Exclusive Interview With Special Effects Man Karl Derrick
By James Whittington, Sunday 14th June 2009
Karl Derrick (here on the left!) is a multi-talented Make-Up, Special Effects and Visual Effects artist who has worked on some of the most successful genre movies of recent times. His latest creations can be seen in Jake West’s Doghouse which opened on June 12th so we decided to have a chat with this inventive guy to learn exactly how hard it is working in the movie industry.  

ZH: When you were growing up did you know that you wanted to work in special effects?   KD: When I was growing up Special Effects such as Make up and Creature effects were still in their commercial infancy. Back then, the Giants of make up effects whose shoulders we stand on today, people like Dick Smith, were still working in film. So, as a film fan back then, you grew up with Special Effects industry. I always knew I wanted to create and I’ve always been a bit of a joker, so the idea of getting one over on people is appealing. Getting them to believe what their eyes are telling them, rather than their brains.    ZH: How did you get your big break?   KD: Oh, there’s no such thing. I don’t know why this myth persists. My ‘overnight’ success has taken 17 years. You just have to keep plugging away. After a while, IF you stay within your budgets and deliver on time and go the extra mile, the jobs get a bit better, the budgets a bit bigger and the phone starts to ring more often. There’s no ‘break’ or shortcut.   ZH: You’ve worked on some very big Hollywood movies; do you prefer to have more money at hand or less? I mean, do you feel more creative the less money you have?   KD: I like both, they present different challenges. There’s a comfort in having a big budget, but then there’s less creative input. On the big budget films you’re a smaller part in a bigger machine. The converse is also true. I’m not afraid of venturing an opinion, I mean the production is paying for your knowledge and experience, may as well let them have it! I’ve been spoiled by working with directors like Jake West and Mikael Hafstro though. They make it possible for you to make them happy. I like budgets of 2-3 million Sterling. It’s big enough to make a decent film, to be able to afford a competent and experienced cast and crew, yet small enough to allow a great deal of one-to-one work with the Director and other Heads of Department. I believe film is still a powerful collaborative art and it’s really thrilling working with people who are very good at what they do. It’s magical.    ZH: How did you become attached to Doghouse?   KD: Jake and I met through a mutual friend a few years ago. We connected creatively and became friends. Jake landed Pumpkinhead 3 and I really wanted to work with him on that. But, the budget wasn’t enough for me to be able to do Jake and the creature justice and it didn’t happen for me. When Doghouse was green lit, Jake sent me a script and I replied with a 3 word email; ‘f***ing love it!’. That was it. I was the first person hired on Doghouse. We were up and running even before the Art Department. It’s necessary on a film like Doghouse, as we had so much to do. Dan Schaffer’s script is really, really good. I am a great fan of Dan’s writing. This is a far better script than most films of this budget level have access to. Dan’s background is Graphic Novels, so he writes very cinematographically. You can see the story as you read it. James Ryman, a really talented artist, had already done some great artwork for the different Zombird characters, so we had a good place to start. 2D to 3D is always a challenge though. What works on paper isn’t necessarily practical in the real world. I worked closely with Jake at every stage to be sure we were giving him what he wanted. We decided very early that the quality of the Effects work wouldn’t suffer for the film being a low budget project. We set the bar high. We also agreed to try and do as much as possible in-camera, with an absolute minimum of postproduction work on the make up and creature effects work. There are a couple of tweaks, but almost everything you see on the film was as it happened on set. I’m proud of that.   ZH: Was it a tough shoot?   KD: Yes, but tough and fun aren’t mutually exclusive. It was a wonderful experience. We were totally nocturnal for about a month. I needed a big on-set crew for this. We had over 14 make up effects crew on location. Mostly prosthetic make up artists, but also Effects Technicians and contact lens specialists too. We did a lot more than make up on Doghouse, we also made all of the action props and weapons and even the remote control trucks.   ZH: Was it hard to come up with the Zombirds appliances?   KD: It was challenging on the budget, sure. The difficulty we had to face on Doghouse was the sheer volume of prosthetic make up and effects needed. Here are some stats: Over four hundred foam latex prosthetic appliances 38 pairs of 15mm and 22mm contact lenses 52 sets of creature dentures 20 dead bodies A small mountain of body parts and dead heads. All the hero Zombird weapons All the rubber stunt Zombird weapons Up to 9 hero (close up) Zombird prosthetic make ups a day 50 background Zombird masks 4 hero R/C monster trucks 250 Litres of blood Over 60 make up effects gags   ZH: Did you add anything to the original make-up designs that Jake thought up?   KD: One of the great things about working with Jake West is that he thinks a good idea is a good idea, he doesn’t need to have come up with it himself. Jake and I are on the same page creatively, so we worked together to develop the look of the characters and to come up with some new and original gags for the film.   ZH: Did it take you long to apply the make-up to the Zombirds, such as Emily Booth who plays The Snipper?   KD: The stage one make-ups took up the 3 hours, depending on the character. The Stage 2 make-ups were more involved and took longer. We saved as much time as possible by going through the script and schedule with Jake and Dan Mumford, the 1stAD, and identifying times when characters weren’t front and centre. If they didn’t need to be close to the camera, we put them in a background mask. The focus drop-off on the lens was such that if they were only a few feet further back, they were in soft focus and you couldn’t tell. Saved hours of performers’ and make up artists’ time every day.      ZH: Emily said it took a few hours to get her make ready, how do you keep someone from moving around when you’re applying make-up?   KD: Emily is great to work with because she’s a total pro. We work with actors so that they work with us. They’re made to feel part of our team and we’re all out there with them in front of the camera. They know it’s a serious business and we’re on a tight time schedule every day. Everyone was great.   ZH: Did any of the cast complain about the prosthetics you applied?   KD: Not to my face! Seriously. We were blessed with a great cast and a great crew.   I was way too busy to do much hands-on application myself. My guys were brilliant and worked so hard every day, and the performers were all a treat to work with, so upbeat and professional. It was a great experience. One of the best ever for me.   ZH: Which character was the hardest to realise?   KD: I guess ‘Bubbles’. It’s back to the 2D to 3D thing. Bubbles stage 2, as drawn, was impossible on the budget we had. We needed to come up with a way to make the lovely Annie Vanders into this rampaging juggernaut but couldn’t afford a bodysuit or animatronic mask. So we made a big wraparound neck and chin piece that had a flabby silicone rubber bladder in the chin to make it flop about. Along with the facial appliances it really got the change we needed to distinguish it from stage 1. As always though, it’s the performance that sells the character. Annie did a great job. There were some great performances all round from the Zombirds. Everyone brought something special to their character. It was like the ‘Bash Street Kids’. Deborah Hyde who plays ‘Stella’ the Barmaid Zombird, is actually my department co-ordinator as well. She was busy on this one! It was funny walking into the huge make up room we had to find her in full Barmaid stage 2 make up and lenses, typing crew rosters with her long black bony finger extensions on. Surreal.   ZH: Has there been a point in your career when you’ve thought that you just couldn’t handle the challenge of what was given to you?   KD: No. If I’m not certain I can do it, I won’t take it on. I think very important not to over-promise to a production. If you start writing checks you can’t cash, you can find yourself in deep sh*t pretty fast. You have to pick your battles carefully.   ZH: Do you have any projects lined up?   KD: Doghouse 2! Ha ha…Seriously though, I have a few things which have been promised which are very exciting but I can’t talk about them yet. I’m waiting for Jake and Dan’s next project as I really want to work with them both again soon. We make quite a team. I’m also working with a young writer/Director called Zeb Lamb on a contemporary horror drama called ‘Tanners Walk’. Great project. I’m in the middle of writing a screenplay called ‘Lament’, a contemporary comedy/horror, about a group of holiday Brits undergoing mid-life crises while being hunted by zombies in a Western ghost town. Pure fun, lots of monsters. We’ll be after a couple of million in finance for that very soon.    ZH: Karl Derrick, thank you very much.   KD: Anytime.
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