9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Movie Monster Makers

Bruno Vincent/Getty Images
Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

Almost since the beginning of movies, people have been trying to use the medium to conjure up fantastic creatures. From Godzilla to Gremlins, there’s nothing like a hideous monster or a furry freak of nature to inspire fear and glee in the audience. The artists, technicians, and designers who create these beasts are highly talented, highly specialized—and highly imaginative. Mental Floss spoke to a few for some insight into the fanciful world of monster making.

1. CREATURE EFFECTS HAVE COME A LONG WAY SINCE GUYS IN RUBBER SUITS.

A 1933 photo of a man inside the mouth of a monkey head made by a stage props company
Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

The earliest creature features typically involved a guy in a rubber suit terrorizing Tokyo or carrying off a damsel in distress. Today’s creatures are much more complex and believable, thanks to new varieties of silicone rubber, upgrades in animatronics, new forms of design software, and the development of CGI.

“Special Effects as an industry is always evolving, and products and materials are expanding and becoming more readily available than ever before,” says Stuart Rowsell, a creature technician and founder of Bloodhound FX in Australia who has worked on films including Star Wars: Episode II (2002) and III (2005), Superman Returns (2006), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), and Alien: Covenant (2017).

3D printing is also shaking up the industry. Lino Stavole, a creature engineer at Spectral Motion based in Los Angeles, founded 3D scanning, printing, and engineering company Behold 3D to cater to the needs of the entertainment industry. Stavole tells Mental Floss that his company used 3D printing in silicone to create an alien creature for the movie V/H/S in just two days, a process that once required several more. “That really opened my eyes to the potential of what technology can do,” he says. 3D printing is also pushing boundaries in terms of design intricacy—Stavole says a creature he helped create for Netflix’s planned reboot of Lost in Space incorporates about 400 different 3D-printed parts.

2. BUT SOMETIMES, THE CREATURE IS STILL A GUY IN A RUBBER SUIT.

Technological advances have by no means pushed the classic creature suit aside, however—particularly when enhanced with a little digital magic or combined with other techniques like puppetry. A suit offers certain advantages over digital or animatronic creations, after all: “Fluidity of movement is usually why the guy in the suit is required,” Rowsell tells Mental Floss. “They can run through corridors, crawl through water, caves, tunnels, and react in close quarter fighting with characters. Often it is a lot easier to make a creature suit than it is to make an animatronic puppet.”

3. A SINGLE CREATURE OFTEN REQUIRES MANY DR. FRANKENSTEINS.

A 3D-printed model made by Behold 3D from the film Ender's Game (2013) for Amalgamated Dynamics Inc.
A 3D-printed model made by Behold 3D from the film Ender's Game (2013) for Amalgamated Dynamics Inc.
Lino Stavole

Bringing a creature to life is a big job, one usually beyond the capacity of any single designer or artisan. The traditional skills involved include concept design, body casting, sculpting, molding, and painting, while more modern skills like computer animation, digital design, and engineering now round out the list. The broad array of skills required means that making a creature is typically a team effort—and participants tend to specialize. “A lot of people think you’re going to be building a creature from design to completion, but that’s not normally the case. It’s very faceted,” Stavole says.

Of course, some creature artists are the full package. Rowsell says he’s never specialized, and being competent in both design and the various aspects of fabrication has allowed him greater control over the final product. “My business relies on mostly myself,” he says, “so I have quality control and I only have myself to blame if it goes wrong!”

4. THE BEST CREATURE DESIGNERS HAVE TWO BRAINS.

Regardless of specialty, the best creature artists are typically those who are able to think in two different ways. Stavole compares the two mindsets to aliens living on two different planets. “You have an alien on one planet who is like a Vulcan,” he says, “and Vulcans like science, so this brain of a creature designer knows about anatomy, physiology, biology, entomology, and physics—that is the science part of creature design.” The other planet is populated by artistic types. “They communicate with pictures and sculptures, but they also have to communicate history and character with creature design,” he says. Stavole explains that, as a natural Vulcan, he works to help the artists and designers on a creature team understand which sorts of structures will help their design move more naturally.

Given these differing approaches, communication is key. Stavole says he has a deep respect for specialists, but adds “the people who have a more complete overview of things tend to be the best communicators and have the best results.”

5. ONE CREATURE MIGHT ACTUALLY BE MANY CREATURES.

A "wheelbarrow" version of one of the giant lizards made by John Cox Creature Workshop for the 1999 film Komodo
A "wheelbarrow" version of one of the giant lizards made by John Cox Creature Workshop for the 1999 film Komodo
Stuart Rowsell

It’s a fact of movie magic that a creature presented as a single entity on screen may actually consist of several different versions used in tandem to create the illusion of life. Rowsell explains that while working on the 1999 movie Komodo with John Cox Creature Workshop, the creature crew made several versions of the giant lizards that appear in the film, including full-size animatronic- and puppeteer-driven komodos, as well as both full-length and wheelbarrow-style (i.e. just the front half on a wheelbarrow rig) creatures. A fully CGI lizard was also created “for the wide shots of the komodo’s faster and deadlier action," Roswell adds.

The luxury of having many creatures to work with, however, is very dependent on budget. Stavole points out that some productions will try to make one version of a creature work throughout a film, because it’s more cost-effective.

6. EVEN KING KONG HAS TO STICK TO A BUDGET.

And yes, even fantastical creatures have money problems. “The creature effect on any feature film or commercial depends on the budget. Usually the production company wants 10 thousand dollars to look like one million dollars,” Rowsell says. Budget is often the determining factor in whether a creature is rendered entirely practically (i.e. in physical materials), entirely digitally, or a combination of the two. It also influences details like whether a production can afford to pay a day rate for a puppeteer to manipulate elements like tails or wings—which often gives a more natural feel than rendering those elements digitally. “It is essentially our job to make as convincing as possible an original-looking creature within the deadlines and budget that performs on-set without falling to pieces,” Rowsell explains.

7. THEIR CREATIONS ARE INSPIRED BY REAL LIFE.

A prop for the 2003 movie Peter Pan, made by John Cox Creature Workshop
A prop for the 2003 movie Peter Pan, made by John Cox Creature Workshop (Foam Latex Supervisor Stuart Rowsell)
Stuart Rowsell

When it comes to the design process that precedes any crafting or building, creature artists draw inspiration from the natural world. They study animal and plant life, and borrow elements of bone structure, skin texture, and physical movement. (Interestingly, Rowsell worked in an abattoir before becoming a full-time artist, where he got a crash course in anatomy and internal organs. He says he recalled the horrible things he saw there when designing the innards of the lizards on Komodo).

They must also take into account another earthly presence: the director. “The director’s vision is paramount to any film,” Rowsell explains. And while the designers may draw on a broad array of sources and render hundreds of drawings of a creature, it is the director who makes the final call when it comes to design.

8. … AND SOMETIMES BY VISITS TO THE MORGUE.

Creature design does involve anatomy, but the morgues designers rely on don't house bodies. In this case, “morgue” refers to a collection of images and ephemera, long a mainstay of artist repertoires and newspaper industry archives.

Stavole, who considers himself to be more of a creature engineer or artisan than a designer, says that when he does take on design, he likes to work with a morgue. For him, this means doing a search of libraries and the internet for images, consulting with various people for ideas, and throwing everything he finds into a sort of creative stew. From that stew, surprises can emerge. “Happy accidents can happen and ideas from one project can get incorporated into another project,” he says.

9. MANY OF THE BEST CREATURES ARE PART PRACTICAL AND PART DIGITAL.

While advances in digital technology have changed the movie creature landscape, they’re unlikely to eliminate the need for practical effects and many traditional techniques any time soon. “Many SPFX artists were worried in the early '90s that CGI would end the industry,” Rowsell says, “but CGI has been very good to the special effects industry. It has enhanced it.”

According to Rowsell, working with practical creature effects comes with a host of considerations: foam rubber creatures or suits can tear or break down under wear; they can lack realism; and unlike a purely digital creation, they cannot be completely changed in post-production. But CGI can seem fake or end up looking like a video game. “I can still see (CGI) as a flat animation from a mile away,” he says, “whereas practical effects have substance.” The ideal situation, then, is a bit of both worlds: practical elements to add substance and weight, and CGI elements to augment the effect. “Today’s creature effects, when they work best,” Rowsell adds, “are 50% practical and 50% CGI-enhanced.”

This Innovative Cutting Board Takes the Mess Out of Meal Prep

There's no way any of these ingredients will end up on the floor.
There's no way any of these ingredients will end up on the floor.
TidyBoard, Kickstarter

Transferring food from the cutting board to the bowl—or scraps to the compost bin—can get a little messy, especially if you’re dealing with something that has a tendency to roll off the board, spill juice everywhere, or both (looking at you, cherry tomatoes).

The TidyBoard, available on Kickstarter, is a cutting board with attached containers that you can sweep your ingredients right into, taking the mess out of meal prep and saving you some counter space in the process. The board itself is 15 inches by 20 inches, and the container that fits in its empty slot is 14 inches long, 5.75 inches wide, and more than 4 inches deep. Two smaller containers fit inside the large one, making it easy to separate your ingredients.

Though the 4-pound board hangs off the edge of your counter, good old-fashioned physics will keep it from tipping off—as long as whatever you’re piling into the containers doesn’t exceed 9 pounds. It also comes with a second set of containers that work as strainers, so you can position the TidyBoard over the edge of your sink and drain excess water or juice from your ingredients as you go.

You can store food in the smaller containers, which have matching lids; and since they’re all made of BPA-free silicone, feel free to pop them in the microwave. (Remove the small stopper on top of the lid first for a built-in steaming hole.)

tidyboard storage containers
They also come in gray, if teal isn't your thing.
TidyBoard

Not only does the bamboo-made TidyBoard repel bacteria, it also won’t dull your knives or let strong odors seep into it. In short, it’s an opportunity to make cutting, cleaning, storing, and eating all easier, neater, and more efficient. Prices start at $79, and it’s expected to ship by October 2020—you can find out more details and order yours on Kickstarter.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Meet Ice Cream Scientist Dr. Maya Warren

Maya Warren
Maya Warren

Most people don’t think about the chemistry in their cone when enjoying a scoop of ice cream, but as a professional ice cream scientist, Dr. Maya Warren can’t stop thinking about it. A lot of complex science goes into every pint of ice cream, and it’s her job to share that knowledge with the people who make it—and to use that information to develop some innovative flavors of her own.

Unlike many people’s idea of a typical scientist, Warren isn’t stuck in a lab all day. Her role as senior director for international research and development for Cold Stone Creamery takes her to countries around the world. And after winning the 25th season of The Amazing Race in 2014, she’s now back in front of the camera to host Ice Cream Sundays with Dr. Maya on Instagram. In honor of National Ice Cream Month this July, we spoke with Dr. Warren about her sweet job.

How did you get involved in food science?

I fell in love with science at a really young age. I got Gak as a kid, you know the Nickelodeon stuff? And I remember wanting to make my own Gak. I remember getting a little kit and putting together the glue and all the coloring and whatever else I needed to make it. I also had make-your-own gummy candy sets. So I was always into making things myself.

I didn't really connect that to chemistry until later on in life. When I was in high school, I fell in love with chemistry. I decided at that point I should go to college to become a high school chemistry teacher. One day I was over at my best friend's house in college, and she had the TV on in her apartment. I remember watching the Food Network and there was a show on called Unwrapped, and they go in and show you how food is made on a manufacturing, production scale. In that particular episode, they went into a flavor chemistry lab. It was basically a wall full of vials with clear liquid inside them. They were about to flavor soda to make it taste like different parts of a traditional Thanksgiving meal. So you had green bean casserole-flavored soda, you had turkey and gravy-flavored soda, cranberry sauce soda. And I was like, "Oh my gosh, like how disgusting is this? But how cool is this! I could do this. I'm a chemist."

I love the science of food and how intriguing it is, and I had to ask myself, "Maya, what do you love?" And I was like, "I love ice cream! I’m going to become one of the world’s experts in frozen aerated deserts." I found a professor at UW Madison [where I earned my Ph.D. in food science], Dr. Richard Hartel, and he took me under his wing. Six and half years later, I’ve become an expert in ice cream and all its close cousins.

How did you arrive at your current position?

I didn't actually apply for the job. Six years ago, I was running The Amazing Race, the television show on CBS. After I was on it, a lot of publications reached out wanting to interview me. I did a couple of interviews and someone from Cold Stone found my interview. They noticed that I’m a scientist, and they were looking for someone with my background, so they reached out to me. I was actually writing my dissertation, and I was like, "I'm not looking for a job right now. I just want to go home and sleep."

I originally told myself I wasn't going to work for a year because I was so exhausted after graduate school and I needed some time off. But I ended up going to their office in Scottsdale for an interview. At that time, I still wasn't sure if was going to do it or not because I didn't want to move to Arizona. It's just so incredibly hot. I ended up being able to work something out with them where I didn't have to move Arizona. I came on board back in 2016. I started as a consultant at first because I didn't want to move. But then I proved I could make this work from afar.

What does your job at Cold Stone Creamery entail?

I'm the senior director for international research and development for Cold Stone Creamery. A lot of what I do is establishing dairies and building ice cream mixes for countries all across the globe. Dairy is a very expensive commodity. Milk fat is quite pricey. Cold Stone has locations all over the world, and they all need ice cream mixes. But sometimes bringing that ice cream from the United States into that country is extremely expensive, because of conflicts, because of taxes, different importation laws. A lot of what I do is helping those countries figure out how they can build their own dairies, or how can they work with local dairies to make ice cream mixes more affordable.

The other part of what I do is create new ice cream flavors for these places. I look at a local ingredient and say, "I see people in this country eating a lot of blank. Why don’t we turn that into ice cream? How would people feel about that?" I try to get these places to realize that ice cream is so much more than a scoop. In the States, we have ice cream bars, ice cream floats, ice cream sandwiches. But many countries don’t see ice cream like that. So getting these places to come on board with different ideas and platforms to grow their business is a big part of my job.

Ice cream scientist Maya Warren.
Maya Warren

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor you made on the job?

I made a product called honey cornbread and blackberry jam ice cream. Ice cream to me is a blank canvas. You can throw all kinds of paint at it—blue and red and yellow and orange and metallic and glitter and whatever else you want—and it becomes this masterpiece. That's how I look at ice cream.

Ice cream starts out with a white base that's full of milk fat and sugar and nonfat dry milk. It’s plain, it’s simple. For this flavor, I thought, "Why don’t I throw cornbread in ice cream mix?" I put in some honey, because that’s a good sweetener, and a little sea salt, because salt elevates taste, especially in sweeter desserts. And why don’t I use blackberry jam? When you’re eating it, you feel the gritty texture of cornbread, which is quite interesting. You get that pop of the berry flavor. There’s a complexity to the flavors, which is what I enjoy about what you can do with ice cream.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

One of the most rewarding things is being able to produce a product and see people eat it. The other part of it is being able to have a hand in helping people in different countries get on their feet. Ice cream isn’t a luxury for many people in America, but there are people in other countries that would look at it that way. Being able to introduce ice cream to these countries is fascinating to me. And being able to provide job opportunities for people, that sincerely touches my heart.

The last part is the fact that when I tell people I’m an ice cream scientist, it doesn’t matter how old the person is, they can’t believe it. I’m like, "I know, could you imagine doing what you love every day?" And that’s what I do. I love ice cream.

What are some misconceptions about being an ice cream scientist?

When I tell people what I do, they automatically think I just put flavors in ice cream. They don’t know that there’s a whole other part of it before you get to adding flavor. They don't think about the balancing of a mix, the chemistry that goes into ice cream, the microbiology part that goes into ice cream, the flavor science that goes into ice cream. There’s so much hardcore science that goes into being an ice cream scientist. Ice cream, believe it or not, is one of the most complex foods known to man (and woman). It is a solid, it’s a gas, and it’s also a liquid all in one. So the solid phase comes in via the ice crystals and partially coalesced fat globules. The gas phase comes in via the air cells. Ice cream usually ranges from 27 to 30 percent overrun, which is the measurement of aeration in ice cream. You also have your liquid phase. There’s a semi-liquid to component to ice cream that we don’t see, but there’s a little bit of liquid in there.

People don’t think about ice crystals and air cells when they think about ice cream. They really don’t think partially coalesced fat globules. But it’s really fun to connect the science of ice cream to the common knowledge people have about this product they eat so much.

If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?

If I wasn’t an ice cream scientist, I think that I would have been a motivational speaker. When I was a kid, my parents would send me to camp, and I remember having a lot of motivational speakers that would come in and talk to us. I always wanted to do that as a kid. So it’s either between that or a sport medicine doctor, because that was the track I was on in college. So if I didn’t figure out food science, I probably would have gone back to sports medicine. But I’m glad I didn’t go down that path, because I think I have one of the coolest and sweetest jobs—pun intended—that exists on planet Earth.

You’ve been hosting Ice Cream Sundays on Instagram Live since May. What inspired this?

At the beginning of quarantine, I was like, "What am I going to do? I can't travel anywhere. What am I going to do with all this extra time?" I was on Instagram, and I started seeing people at the very beginning of this make all this bread. And I was like, "I need to start talking about ice cream more. Ice cream can’t be left out of this conversation."

I started making ice cream and posting here and there, and people would ask me about it, and I would ask them, "Do you have an ice cream maker?" I put a poll up and 70, 80 percent of people who replied did not have ice cream makers. So I was like, "How am I going to make people happy with ice cream if all I do is show photos and they can’t make it?" Then I decided to make a no-churn ice cream. That’s not how you make it in the industry, but it’s how you make it at home if you don’t have an ice cream machine. I think it was around May 3, I decided I was going to do an Instagram Live. I’m going to call it Ice Cream Sundays with Dr. Maya, and I’ll just see where it goes from there.

I did one, and from the beginning, people were so in love with it. Then I thought, "Whoa, I guess I should continue doing this." I’ve made a calendar. People really attend. People make the ice cream. People watch me on Live. I’ve always wanted to have a television show on ice cream. I figured, if I can’t do a show on ice cream right now on a major network, I might as well start a show on Instagram.

What advice do you give to young people interested in becoming ice cream scientists?

My advice is: If you want to do it, do it. Don’t forget to work hard, but have fun along the way. And if ice cream isn’t necessarily the realm for you, make sure whatever you do makes your heart flutter. My heart flutters when I think about ice cream. I am so intrigued with it. So if you find something that makes your heart flutter, no one can ever take away your desire for it. If it is ice cream, we can get down and dirty with it. I can tell them about the science behind it, the biology, the microbiology that goes into ice cream itself. But I just encourage people to follow their heart and have fun with whatever they do.

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?

If we’re talking just general flavors, I love a good cookies and cream. I’m an Oreo fan. I also make a double butter candy pecan that is my absolute jam.