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Breathing life into Bigfoot

Robert Hall's job isn't just about makeup. Engineering, chemistry and more are involved.

January 27, 2008|Cristy Lytal | Special to The Times

At 5 years old, makeup effects designer Robert Hall went to the drive-in for the first time for a double feature of "Dawn of the Dead" and "Alien." His mother had planned to cover her son's eyes, but he stared at the screen in rapt fascination. "I really was into how they blew the zombies' heads off in 'Dawn of the Dead,' " he says. "Because even at that point, I knew that it couldn't be real, and I just wanted to know how they achieved it. So it was more of an inspirational sort of outing."

From that moment on, it was obvious that Hall was a little different from the other boys. "I grew up in the Deep South in Alabama, and everyone else was playing sports and doing the traditional things, like homecoming games and driving trucks," he says. "I was reading Fangoria and stealing my mom's makeup, going to Wal-Mart for the Halloween sales and stocking up. I thought it would be a [good idea] at the time to make my wrists look like they were sliced on my 16th birthday and lay down in the bathtub and surprise my mom when she came home. She will not let me forget, even to this day, how I freaked her out. That was pretty awesome."

When Hall was 19, he moved to Los Angeles, and within a few years had landed a job with creature effects legend Stan Winston. After becoming the go-to gore guy for B-movie king Roger Corman, Hall set up his own company, Almost Human. Now 34, he has created monsters for the Sasquatch comedy "Strange Wilderness," due in theaters Feb. 1, and for Fox's new series "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles."

Weird science: Effects artists such as Hall have to be as comfortable applying makeup as building robots. "Our job is an amalgam of a lot of different things: chemistry, engineering, cosmetology and tons of very unorthodox techniques all mixed up into one," he says. "I have a basic understanding of animatronics and engineering, but generally we hire guys where that's their specialty. So you tell them how you want it to move and what the needs of the script are, and they go off and do their own thing."

Monkey business: For inspiration on "Strange Wilderness," Hall looked to what he imagined would be Bigfoot's closest cousin. "Bigfoot definitely has a lot in common with primates," he says. "We looked at a lot of apes and simians and orangutans. But then we also went back to the standard Bigfoot mythology designs: this pretty established silhouette and the really famous footage online that you can see of the Bigfoot. We went back to that and said, 'What if this is real?' "

My, what fine fur you have: "There's one place that makes synthetic fur that's on this netting," says Hall. "You cut out patterns to fit over your Bigfoot suit or your werewolf suit or whatever it is. And you sew them on, and you glue them on. [For 'Strange Wilderness'], it's the werewolf fur that we painted."

Machine head: Hall used a clever combination of techniques to bring the legendary Bigfoot to life. "We hired a really tall performer, and he's wearing a prosthetic makeup," he says. "And then we added extensions to his feet that made him like 7-foot tall almost. But the muzzle comes out quite a good ways, so his whole lower half [of his face] is animatronic. So his lips move, and his jaw opens. We [also] have an animatronic turkey that has a neat little scene with Steve Zahn. Let's say they get really intimate!"

Paranoid android: For "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," Hall went back to basics. "The design has changed slightly from the film series just because of rights issues," he says. "It's all back to the first movie, really, with Arnold [Schwarzenegger] versions of the terminators, so they're all just metal. They can't go through walls and do everything. It was Stan Winston [who did the original], so I definitely saw them when I worked there, and I'm such a huge fan of the movies that I knew them inside and out. So it's really a kick for me to actually be involved in the reimagining of it."

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