I'd like to introduce you to Rob Burman. You've likely seen his work. With hundreds of Hollywood films to his credit, Mr. Burman's practical effects and makeup wizardry have astonished audiences for decades. Retro Injection contributing writer Luke Worle chats with Mr. Burman about working in the effects industry, branching out into bronze sculpture, and that creepy Frank the Bunny mask from Donnie Darko.
Today’s cinematic climate has largely shunned practical effects in favor of CGI. In what ways, if any, do you feel computer graphics have improved special effects? In your opinion, how and when are practical effects better utilized over CGI?
I’m a firm believer in doing both practical and, as I refer to it, “animated” imagery to create an effect. Do everything that you can practically, then fix the things that don’t look quite right digitally as well as the things that it just isn’t practical to do in the real world that you can only do with animation. Then everybody gets a piece of the action and the effect looks better than if either one of them were to do it on their own. That said, the digital world has given us the Pixar movies and I’d rather watch those for my style of entertainment than 90% of what else is out there. Done well, Computer animation can be some of the best entertainment out there.
You were nominated for a Saturn Award for your work on 1993's now-cult classic Super Mario Bros., starring Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper. What character creations from the film were your favorites? How did your practical effects integrate with the then-trailblazing Autodesk Flame software?
For me, Super Mario Brothers was a good job. A chance to show what I can do. 13 weeks of preproduction and three weeks on location. All for 13 seconds of film time, mixed with some pretty primitive animation. It was disappointing for me. However what you do see of our makeups and puppets looks pretty cool. Patrick Tatopoulis’s design concept was awesome and a lot of fun to build. Something like this would be done using a dozen guys in a huge shop to build this stuff today. There were four of us on cosmetics (The outer skins that made it what it looked like) and two over at Bud McGrew Productions doing the animatronics.
The stuff that Makeup And Effects Labs did was some of their best work up to that time making the Goombas, and Mark Maitre and Dave Nelson did a truly phenomenal job on Yoshi. Lots of great people were involved in the movie and all of us were at a time in our careers where we had something to prove. It’s a shame all of that was kind of wasted on the movie it became. At least I got to be directed by Dean Semler the DP. The Directors left the movie the day that I arrived on location and we shot for another three weeks without them.
2001's Donnie Darko remains a controversial psychological thriller. Please describe how your involvement with the 1988 period piece came to be, and how your haunted imagery was inspired.
My long-time friend Dale Brady approached me to sculpt something for him on that. He showed me a very simplistic sketch on what amounted to a napkin. The Director had made it after waking up from a dream or something. It looked a lot like Bugs Bunny’s skull on LSD. So, I started working on it and kept thinking, this can’t be what they want? But it was and they liked what they were seeing. I gave it to Dale when I was done and they had him change the teeth and eyes somewhat (A little more “cartoonish” I think) and then he made them. Thus Frank was created. To this day it’s probably the silliest thing I’ve been asked to sculpt (Well, maybe the big, fat hubcap in the neck prosthetic for World Gone Wild might be, but still…)
(Here's our interview with World Gone Wild star Catherine Mary Stewart.)
You’re a fine-arts sculptor, with a mastery of working with bronze. What prompted this extension of your creativity?
In my early 40’s I was going through what some might call a mid-life crisis. I was’t happy with what was coming my way and disillusioned with what I was doing. When we sold my Mother's company, Burman Industries, the new owner brought us to England for a trade show so that the oversea’s customers could sort of experience the handing of the baton, as it were. Anyway, my Wife insisted on us staying an extra couple weeks to visit family and see Edinburgh. While in Edinburgh I saw some amazing architecture and art work. I discovered what are known as Leonardo daVinci’s Grotesque series and was blown away. I wanted to know what these people would look like in 3-D. I bought the book of the collection and when I came back home, I started sculpting them. That introduced me to an Art Manager and my Wife produced an Art Show for me. The next thing you know my work is being seen in Galleries. Currently there are a few in Whistler BC, Canada and Sun Valley, Idaho as well as online at www.robburmansculpture.com.
You and your wife Jennifer have a latex/prosthetic and makeup effects company called Rubber Wear. What's it like working with her in a creative partnership?
When I met my Wife, we both had extensive careers behind us. She, as a costumer had worked on things like Honey I blew Up The Kid, The Flintstones and dozens of others including designing a few of them. The fact that we liked each other notwithstanding, it was a perfect blend of character. Both Makeup and Costume. The first big project we did together as our company Sticks And Stones Fx was The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers Movie which was a perfect blend of both of our abilities.
Rubber Wear grew out of a desire to keep our crew working between projects. Besides, I was getting calls for things that they wanted over night and it just wasn’t possible. With a bit of thought and planning we worked out a way to create pieces cost effectively and be able to sell them to your local makeup store. Then people had them available any time they needed them. Everything from pointed ears to old age characters. They are made to mix and match to create unique characters for yourself. Now they can be found in a variety of countries around the world.
You were the department head on John Carpenter's The Thing, Ivan Reitman's Ghostbusters, David Cronenberg's The Fly and James Cameron's Terminator 2. What contributions did you make to these productions?
For each of those projects I was primarily the Foam Latex Technician. Making anything in the molds that was made of rubber or polyurethane. On The Fly I was also a mold maker and fabricator, building things like the skins that split off the final transformation creature. Not a lot of people are comfortable being the Foam Latex guy. To me, it’s one of the easiest things to do in the business. Others are afraid of it because it just seems confusing and they have trouble getting it to do what they need it to. Provided a nice little niche for me over the years.
1985's Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf boasts terrifying and iconic character designs. Please describe your experiences filming in Czechoslovakia, and how you aesthetically approached your designs.
I got on to the Howling 2 right after leaving Ghostbusters. My Uncle had the project at his company Cosmekinetics along with Clan Of the Cave Bear. Mostly I did molds and fabricated parts for puppets. At some point I was doing the foam latex for all of the prosthetics and puppet skins so I was shuffled off to my Dad’s company The Burman studio because they were set up for that kind of thing and my Uncle was more set up for the mechanical end. When the crew got set to go overseas for location, I was stuck here due to other commitments so I stayed at my Dad’s. Good thing too because then we started Teen Wolf and The Goonies right after that.
You galloped into the film industry straight out of high school. Who were your early mentors and inspirations?
Well, my Dad was my main influence from the start. One of the guys in the shop, Francisco Perez taught me an awful lot as the Foreman. My Dad was trained by John Chambers so I suppose that was quite an influence. I didn’t come in to the industry as a “fan”. I learned more about what came before me after I’d already established myself than before it. At that time, if it wasn’t done the way “we” (the Chambers/Burman method) did it, it wasn’t any good. Only after I started freelancing around the industry did I find out there was so much more to the craft.
You’ve instructed students through your own Rob Burman Laboratories and at the Stan Winston School of Character Arts, among other institutions. Many of your pupils have been weaned on CGI. What's your take on their reception to learning practical effects? How have you bridged the gap between changing industry times and younger generations?
I think the Digital guys are starting to find out that their craft isn’t the magic bullet everyone thought it would be and that there is plenty of room for practical work. A lot of my students don’t even intend to work in film when they get done with my course. They are doing it for many other reasons. The thing they come away from my classes with is the ability to “make things”. They discover it’s all around them in their lives and the craft isn’t limited to makeup or prosthetics or masks. It expands to every part of our lives and our lives look different afterward. That, to me, is worth the price of admission any day!
What advice do you have for aspiring students of practical effects?
If you want to be good at a thing, do it every day. Weekends, Birthdays, Holidays… Every. Day. In a year you will know one of two things: “Hey, I’m getting good at this!” Or, “Maybe this isn’t for me.” It’s worth the time to find out. My classes are here when you are ready.
You've worked on over 200 films. Which directors did you find most engaging, particularly in sharing your special effects visions?
So much of my career has been in the workshop. Most of it I don’t interact with the Directors at all. That said, JJ Abrahms, Richard Donner, Irwin Allen - those are the primary big guys I’ve interacted with. I spent all day on an elevator set with Richard Donner and Bill Murray while in the Ghost of Christmas Future puppet. Not going to forget that any time soon.
What film did you find the most logistically challenging, and how did you circumvent those obstacles?
Doing Super Heroes in general is tough. All handcrafted work that needs to look spot-on perfect. The Power Rangers movie could be the hardest thing we’ve done. These guys needed to look like Ferrari’s and withstand close ups that made the work 40 feet tall! The slightest imperfections show up like a pimple in the middle of your forehead. All you can do to make it work is put in the time and the effort.
Which films are your proudest achievements and why?
Most of the stuff I’ve done that I am most proud of nobody ever saw. They were either never released or so low budget they were never seen. The stuff I’m doing in my classes is some of the best work I’ve ever done. It’s so freeing to not be constrained by production and other people’s ideas of what it should be. It’s all mine and extremely satisfying.