Making corpses for Six Feet Under is stiff work
June 11 2004 12:00 AM ET
In the realm of MastersFX, a special effects studio, the bizarre is commonplace. So is the art of death--an art that the studio embraces in supplying make-believe bodies and prosthetics for HBO's Six Feet Under. When the mortuary drama returns for its fourth season at 9 p.m. Sunday (Eastern and Pacific), the company's Emmy-winning handiwork will be on display again. If a stiff is needed for the Fisher family morgue, this is where it comes from. MastersFX also has designed special effects for HBO's Carnivale (note the head resembling actress Adrienne Barbeau, which was used in a scene in which her character ostensibly dies and is revived); Kingdom Hospital; Stargate SG-1; Stargate Atlantis; and for films, including Hidalgo and Predator.
As clever as the monsters, aliens, animals, and other figments of the artists' imaginations are, it's the human corpses and heads--mundane but astonishing in their realism--that catch the eye. The Six Feet Under trademark opening, with some poor soul meeting his or her demise, demands realism, especially when the victim ends up on a mortuary table, closely scrutinized by the camera. "Their work is a huge element of the show because if these bodies or injuries didn't look 100% real, we wouldn't be giving viewers the you-are-there sense," said out executive producer Alan Poul. "They [the bodies] just have to be super-lifelike, or it's going to blow the quality of the scene," agreed MastersFX effects producer Dan Rebert.
The company's contributions are detailed in a 20-minute featurette included in the second season DVD set, out in July, Poul said. Six Feet Under was created by out Oscar winner Alan Ball. It stars Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Rachel Griffiths, Freddy Rodriguez, and Lauren Ambrose. Full artificial bodies or heads are required when a scripted injury is so grotesque it would be difficult to simulate on an actor or when a scene would be more easily filmed with an inanimate form. With a fake corpse's cost being roughly equivalent to a moderately priced car, only one or two are made per season, Rebert said. In other cases makeup and prosthetics are used on actors. (If the camera captures a bit of eye movement or breathing by someone playing dead, digital effects can be used to erase the evidence of life, Poul said.) A body's creation represents equal parts technology and artistry, said Todd Masters, who founded the company in 1986. Special effects in general encompass "drawing, sculpting, performance, painting. Everything you can do in a creative environment," he said.
The MastersFX studio, deliberately placed in an anonymous, out-of-the-way building to thwart would-be souvenir collectors (Masters recalls Star Trek fans rifling trash bins), is where the morbid magic happens. (A second studio is in Vancouver, Canada.) The process starts with a "life cast" of an actor's head, made with a seaweed derivative called alginate that's also used by dentists to form tooth impressions, Rebert said. The fragile, rubbery material is reinforced with a plaster jacket to hold its shape and then filled with clay, which can be easily molded to open or close the eyes and add injuries. Life-casting a full nude body is trickier, Rebert said: The cast is removed in pieces and reassembled on a steel-welded framework, or armature. "We build it on an armature standing up so we can walk around it and see what it's going to look like," he said. A fiberglass mold is made from the ensuing clay sculpture. "Once we have the mold, we take silicone and brush or cast it in for the skin. Silicone is a skin-like material, and we plasticize it and get a pretty realistic feeling." The fake stiff is far from complete. The equivalent of a skeleton is placed inside, made to be floppy so when the body is laid down gravity pulls it into a natural position. The muscle structure and internal weight of a human body also is re-created. Among the finishing touches in the weeks-long effort: Hair is placed, strand by strand, on the newly born "skull."
Injuries demand a special creativity, Rebert said. In creating the head of a woman who slammed into a cherry picker (after exuberantly popping up through a Las Vegas limousine's sunroof), the MastersFX designers were told to think of art, not forensics. "We had real pictures of heads with that type of damage and they [the producers] thought it was too much," he recalled. "They wanted it to look more like a Picasso painting...rather than be literally, 'This is a crushed skull.'" Those who appear as Six Feet Under victims respond variously to seeing lifeless versions of themselves. The woman playing the cherry-picker victim was fascinated; an actress in another episode was decidedly less so. "She had finished a heart-wrenching scene, going through the convulsions of dying" in bed, recalled Masters. Moments later, he came in bearing the limp look-alike to take her place. "She had issues with that," he said. (AP)