Australia's pre-eminent Monster Maker's fascination with the craft began at age 14 while watching King Kong. A few years and many films later, John has won an Academy Award for his work in Babe and has created many of the crocs, monsters, werewolves and dinosaurs seen in Hollywood films.
When Star Wars came out in 1977, I was already interested in doing special effects and stop motion animation. Films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, the original King Kong, Jason and the Argonauts and One Million Years B.C. were the sorts of films that really influenced me. I was doing my own stop motion movies during my final years of high school. I didn't know that I would be able to make a career out of making monsters, but I figured there was probably scope in the film industry somewhere for me to make things. I started out making props for commercials and films.
No, I'm completely self-taught – there were a few people working on films in their spare time, but it wasn't actually a career. The film industry was pretty quiet at that point, but it was just about to take off so I was in the right place at the right time when a whole bunch of films started to be made. After two years working on commercials, I got a job on a film called The Return of Captain Invincible and just kept going from there.
It was in 1978 and I was 18. I didn't advertise at all. It was a very small community back then – I'm not kidding, it was very small. If someone was going to make a film in Sydney, everybody knew about it by that afternoon. Also the art directors were people I had already worked with on commercials. Word of mouth was my biggest advertisement and as more films started to get made, people started asking who did the stuff on Captain Invincible, Sky Pirates or Mad Max 2 and I would get a call.
The films we work on are usually from overseas because Australian film budgets can't afford animatronic or computer-generated creatures. Once we get a call from a studio, the scripts and the designs turn up because the director has usually already been working on the project for two years minimum and they've already nutted it all out. We work with the film's visual effects supervisor to budget it and tell them how to achieve the effects with their monsters. We then either get the film or we don't.
If the creature is a person in a suit we do a cast of the actor so they will fit inside when it's finished. We then go through the process of sculpting up the creature in plasticine then make very precise multiple piece moulds. We then have to create fibreglass sections for the animatronic components to fit inside of. Then we produce external skins for the creatures to put over the mechanical components. It takes anywhere from 8 to 10 weeks to finish a creature.
I was really proud of Babe because nobody picked we had done anything for it. Also the crocodile we did for Peter Pan (2003) even though it only ended up being in the film for 20 seconds and was not moving. We were originally asked to create a crocodile that could move around and it was absolutely spectacular, but they decided they were too far behind with shooting for the children to move forward into the cave with the crocodile so the whole thing was cut.
Unexpected. Very unexpected. It was a big surprise. The highlight was the nominating process where you have to be in LA at the 'bake off' with a 15-minute cut of your film showing all of the effects that you've done. There is a question and answer session and you answer directly to the 200 voting members of the Visual Effects branch of the Academy. They understand what you have done so it's an honour and a thrill to receive a nomination from them. Once the nomination has been announced, the 6500 members of the Academy get to vote. You can't beat getting your name called out on the night either. Will Smith presented me with my Academy Award because he was Mr Visual Effects at the time because of Independence Day.
Our side of things is quietening down quite considerably with the growth of computer-generated effects in the film industry. Computers are allowing directors to have exactly what they want as long as they have the budget. Before computers were around, you might have had to build two creatures to do part of what the director wanted and might not have been able to show the whole creature at one time. These days if a director wants a T. rex to tap-dance in the middle of the frame and then turn into an aeroplane and zoom off into space they can do it all in one take – it might cost a couple of million dollars but it's possible.
I think there will be more live, real-world requests – things like the Walking With Dinosaurs arena show that was touring Australia last year. There were full-size dinosaurs walking around and it was absolutely amazing.
On the practical side, the best advice I can give to people is just to do it. Build whatever you can, take photos and build up a portfolio. Take it around to people like us who at some point may have a job for you. Television still uses a lot of models and props so go and speak to art directors of commercials.
As far as I know, people are still mostly self-taught. There are a few courses, mainly special effects make-up courses, which are usually run by industry people rather than technical colleges. The only course that we tell people about is a fibreglassing course because being able to make moulds is such a critically important skill to master.
What I like most is solving problems and getting to find out everything I can when we are doing research on animals and creatures. That's always a lot of fun. The thing that I least like is cleaning up all the dust – we make a lot of dust.