Tag Archives: Amalgamated Dynamics
The fourth — and as of now, final — chapter in the Tremors series depicts the Graboids first attacking the city of Perfection (then called Rejection) in 1889, 100 years before the first film. When discussions about the projects began writer Steven S. Wilson met with Universal executive Patti Jackson. “I told Patti that we were really in a corner,” Wilson told Cinefex online. “The fans were going to want a new creature, but we had no idea where to go. We couldn’t just keep doing the same movie over and over.” He then added: “we’d have to do something wacky this time, like set it in the Old West.” Jackson’s response was concise: “that’s fine.”
Whilst Amalgamated Dynamics did not return to provide the effects, Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr. supervised the creation of the new Graboids. Several special effects crewmembers from the original film did collaborate on Tremors 4, including Robert Kurtzman and the miniature artists Dennis and Robert Skotak. The practical effects were provided by Greg Nicotero’s KNB Efx, who had already worked on Tremors: The Series. “We’re definitely going back to the old school,” Nicotero said.
An imperative for the film was not to use digital effects extensively. “The decision was primarily financial, but also partly aesthetic,” Wilson told The Official UK Tremors. “Tremors 3 was the first film in which we used CGI to create Graboids. While we had excellent people doing the work, we found we did not have the money to keep redoing the shots until we got them really looking perfect.” He also added that “Graboids are particularly difficult because they kick up so much dirt and dust, which are chaotic elements very difficult to create in CG. When we ran the budget for Tremors 4, our FX expert, Linda Drake, determined that we could do more shots with miniatures than we could with CG. That suited us fine, because the Skotaks — our Academy Award winning miniature artists from Tremors 1 – were available and wanted to work with us again. That made it a no brainer. Tremors 4 has the most active, aggressive Graboids yet, and they’re all done the old fashioned way — with full scale puppets — from KNB — and tentacles and miniatures.” Listening to the series’ enthusiasts in regards to this matter was a primary concern. “We really listened to the fans,” Wilson related. “The only negative comments we’d ever heard about our special effects — as low-budget as they’d been — concerned the CG Graboids we did for Tremors 3. They were faster and much livelier than the big, heavy puppets we’d used in the earlier versions; but, although the effects were first-rate, fans said that they didn’t ‘look right.’ And, of course, they were also more expensive.”
In Tremors 4: The Legend Begins, a silver mine owned by Hiram Gummer — an ancestor of Burt — is attacked by recently awakened Graboids. Following the concepts introduced in the precedent film, the Graboids are first presented in a smaller stage, having just surfaced from their eggs or chrysalises. The first task in the production was designing and building the small Graboids. “We took the original design,” Nicotero said, “and then we kind of said what would these thirty foot creatures look like if they were four and a half feet long? They were kind of the cherubic infant version. Ultimately, what we ended up doing was a couple, like four or five different sketches. So we made them look like grubs, they had these infantile little mandibles and little tiny nubs of teeth growing in and little sort of feelers, so that that you get the impression that this was the precursor to the adult.” KNB built the small Graboids as full-sized remote-controlled animatronics and hand puppets used on set with artificial dirt for the scenes where they burst from the ground or drag their victims under it; puppets were additionally composited into shots for the scenes where the creatures are seen springing from the ground “like some demonic trout.”
KNB’s precedent work on Tremors: The Series, for which a full-sized El Blanco puppet was built, proved useful. The new full-size Graboid animatronic head sections, 12 feet long and built based on the original moulds, featured the structural innovations of that puppet. The new models were cable-operated, and were installed on four-wheeled dollies, which enabled greater maneuverability compared to precedent versions; they could perform wide ranges of movements based on a single pivot point. Mechanically, the Graboids featured an additional articulation point in the neck, as well as a different structural design for the mouth interior that enabled actors to actually slide down the creature — for scenes such as Black Hand Kelly’s death — through the use of collapsible panels. Four puppeteers were needed to maneuver the creatures. Full-size tentacle animatronics and hand puppets were also built.
Budget restraints did not allow Tremors 4 to be shot in the original locations chosen for Perfection (Lone Pine); as such, the film had to be filmed in a more affordable place, which was found in Acton, California. For most of the bursting scenes, previous films had employed the full-size animatronic heads, installed on elevating rigs and buried in the ground, with a destructible covering. Such a stunt could not be performed on the location of Tremors 4 due to the composition of the ground. Wilson recalled: “the town was half-built, and I went out and selected where I was going to plant our eight-foot puppet. But then, production designer Simon Dobbin came to us and said: ‘Guess what? To dig holes out here we’re going to have to blast.’ The area was solid rock underneath. It caused our visual effects producer, Linda Drake, to go back to the drawing board very quickly and come up with an entirely different approach.”
The full-size puppets were in fact filmed only above ground, and were never seen bursting from it — with the exception of the Graboid trying to devour Juan in the muling station, which was filmed in an elevated set. “That was a very complicated shot, and we only had one chance to get it right,” Wilson said in the Ultimate Tremors FAQ. “We duplicated the entire telegraph room on top of two steel shipping containers (the big ones they put on ships) so we’d have space to work underneath. The entire floor was made of super delicate balsa wood. You couldn’t stand on it. You could barely touch it and it would break. So we had to ‘fly’ Brent Roam’s stunt double on cables above the floor. When the puppeteers smashed the Graboid through from below, the stunt crew tried to yank the double up at the same speed so it would look like he was carried up by the Graboid. Unfortunately, the Graboid got a little hung up and our Juan double flew up faster. Linda Drake’s visual effects people worked really hard to try to blend the action together — by adding dust and boards and trying to digitally move Juan and the Graboid closer together.” He also added that “in all the closer shots that’s really Brent Roam doing his own stunts. He loved riding the Graboid.” The same sequence used miniature tentacles filmed against greenscreen and composited with the full-size Graboid by Kevin Kutchaver’s HimAnI Productions.
Like the first two films, quarter-scale Graboid miniature puppets were built. KNB Efx provided the models, which were inserted in miniature sets and puppeteered by the Skotak brothers of 4-Ward Productions. Quarter-scale hand puppets inserted in miniature landscape sets were in fact used for the scenes where the Graboids bursted from the ground; they were filmed at varying increased frames per second to enhance the sense of their actual mass. Certain shots composited the small scale Graboids, precedently filmed against greenscreen, with live-action footage. “Compositing in the computer allowed us to do very complex composites,” Wilson said. “We could take advantage of image steadying and tracking, and we could do camera moves. It really gave us the best of both worlds to shoot miniatures and then composite them digitally.”
One particularly complex composite shot involved one of the Graboids bursting through the wall of a river bed under a bridge and then ramming through the other side. A miniature version of the bridge and surrounding landscape was built by the Skotak brothers, with a track hole cut into the surface and holes in the river bed walls. A full featureless miniature dummy of the Graboid (about six feet in length) was suspended under the bridge through a rod, which connected it with a moving dolly mechanism on tracks above the bridge. The dolly, itself pulled by a rope, drove the Graboid through the miniature set, making it move from side to side. In the final shot, the dolly was erased and the carriage (precedently filmed against greenscreen) was composited in. The last touches included digital debris at the Monster’s passage, simulating its breaking through dirt and rock. The last Graboid’s death scene was another miniature shot, achieved with a miniature city portion, a miniature locomotive, and a quarter-scale full Graboid dummy, filled with guts, which was dragged against the locomotive with graphic consequences — which were digitally enhanced.
“For me my goal always is to challenge the audience,” Nicotero ultimately commented. “I want to be able to do gags or shots where people will walk out and go ‘okay, how did they do that? Wow, that was cool. I never expected that.’ That’s the fun, that‘s the fun part.”
Special, great Thanks to Tom Palleschi, an avid Tremors enthusiast, who provided a considerable number of quotes and pictures for this part of Subterranean Terror.
For more images of the Graboids, visit the Monster Gallery.
General note: to avoid repeating the term “Assblaster”, the article (and further entries featuring said creature) will mostly use abbreviations such as “AB” or “Blaster”.
The success of Tremors 2: Aftershocks led to the production of another sequel in the series — Tremors 3: Back to Perfection — that would mark the return, as the title says, to the original town in Nevada. Unlike the two predecessors, the project was rather quick-timed, with a short pre-production and production process. In particular, budget restrictions forbade an extensive shooting schedule. “To fit this very ambitious movie with three different kinds of Monsters into our budget meant we had to restrict our shooting days,” Writer S.S. Wilson said. “So we ended up with a 22 day schedule.” Amalgamated Dynamics once again returned to provide the special effects for the film, this time accompanied by HimAnI Productions, which created digital versions of all the stages of the Graboid lifecycle.
The return of the Graboids also meant the return of a small portion of the original props — restored for the production. One of the full-scale animatronic head sections, as well as the tentacle hand puppets were used to portray the Graboids seen early in the film. An insert upper jaw was also used for close-ups. Stock footage from Tremors was also sometimes used. One of the scene features a recently-swallowed Burt Gummer being saved from the Graboid’s stomach. Michael Gross was buried in a hole underground with creature guts made of lathex and orange methocel simulating blood. The actor defined the experience as “a pain in the butt,” and compared it to “being in a grave.”
Tremors 3 introduces an albino Graboid, unable to reproduce, nicknamed ‘El Blanco’ by the production crew, as well as characters from the film. The concept of an albino Graboid actually fares back to a proposed Tremors series during the production of the second film. One of the animatronics was repainted with a pale color scheme, something also reflected in one of the hand puppets, to portray the creature. Digital effects were also used for the first time to bring the Graboid to the screen; the digital model was built based on reference photos provided by ADI, but still presented discrepancies in design when compared to the practical creatures — due to rushed pre-production time.
The Shriekers are only briefly seen in the opening sequence of the film, where a massive pack is exterminated by Burt Gummer’s caliber 50 guns. ADI originally refurbished the animatronics from the previous film, but they were ultimately not used in shooting. Based on the original moulds, the special effects artists also created a new stunt Shrieker to be destroyed by Burt Gummer’s 50 caliber hits. During the scene, the creature was hung by cables, and pre-installed explosives inside of it were set off. Tippett Studio’s digital Shriekers from the previous film were actually not recycled, with HimAnI building a new model from scratch. Over 300 Shriekers are seen in the scene. ADI also built shed skins of the Shriekers in urethane for the sequence where they are discovered.
Writer Steven S. Wilson once more wanted the characters to face an unexpected turn of events — another stage in the Graboid life cycle. “When we started Tremors 3,” he said, “Universal told us that there would be no more Tremors films after that. So we decided to “close the loop” on the life cycle of the Graboid.” Wilson thus conceived the Assblaster, a further stage that acts as intermediary between the Shrieker and Graboid. In conceiving the Blasters, Wilson made reference to Valentine McKee’s speculation in the first film as to whether or not the ‘snake things’ — the Graboid tentacles — and the Graboid themselves could effectively fly. The new stage is thus able to take flight in order to reach longer distances, and lay a single egg (or chrysalis) carrying what would grow into an adult Graboid. The introduction of the Blasters retroactively erases the precedent ideas regarding the life cycle of the creatures, which conceived the Shriekers as direct infant stages, growing into Graboids after enough time.
Not wanting to give the new stage literal wings (as in limbs), the filmmakers found inspiration in the Bombardier Beetles, members of the Carabidae family and divided in various Tribes. These insects are able to produce a hot noxious chemical spray from the tip of their abdomen as a form of defense. The chemical is derived from a reaction between quinol (hydroquinone) and hydrogen peroxide, which are stored in separate chambers in the beetles’ abdomen; when threatened, the creatures send the chemicals in a third chamber with water and catalytic enzymes. The heat of the reaction creates a gas that aids the ejection, which is accompanied by a characteristic popping sound. “Building off that idea,” Tom Woodruff Jr. said, “was the notion of wanting to give the new creatures something that we hadn’t seen before.” The Blasters are able to launch themselves in the air through the ejection of unspecified mixed chemicals in their tail — through two thruster-like orifices. The creatures then glide using ‘wings’ composed of membrane supported by long and thin spines on their sides.
The overall design of the Blaster reflected its purpose of gliding through the air: the body became longer and more stremlined, as did the head — which now presented an elongated beak and mandibles. The heat sensor was also modified in two simple side plates that rear, revealing the sensory organ. Some Shrieker traits were kept, such as the two jowls on the throat. The Blasters made quite the impression on the cast. Shawn Christian recalled: “you’re reading the script and say, ‘okay, Graboid, I saw it. Shrieker, I saw it. Cyclone — oh, that’s funny. Okay, then they turn into an Assblaster.’ You flip back, ‘an Assblaster? What?!'”
ADI built several practical versions of the Blasters, which were abbreviated on set as ‘ABs’. One hero animatronic head section was built, with fully articulated jaws and sensors. A stunt head section and stunt bodies (which could be hit or damaged) were also constructed, along with full dummies (such as the one used to portray the comatose Blaster). The animatronics were frequently installed on carts on tracks in order to be able to ram against walls or doors. A complete Blaster dummy was also built and suspended on a cable to simulate the creature’s gliding, but was ultimately not shown in the final film. Creature guts were cast in latex and reused some precedent molds (such as the Shriekers’ tongues, recycled as intestines).
Another full dummy, used in combination with the El Blanco animatronic, was used to film the scene where the last Blaster is killed and devoured by the Albino Graboid. ADI’s practical effects were accompanied by HimAnI’s digital Blasters, seen most prominently in the film — although they present some noticeable inaccuracies in regards to the animatronics: the wings start at the base of the neck (as opposed to shortly after the jowls) and the interior of the mouth lacks the characteristic red color.
For more images of the Blasters, Shriekers and Graboids, visit the Monster Gallery.
Main Article: Subterranean Terror — Part II: Tremors 2: Aftershocks
Universal expressed early interest in making a sequel to Tremors — which had achieved a near cult status on the video market since its release. “We didn’t take it too seriously at first, because we couldn’t come up with any good ideas,” writer and director of Tremors 2: Aftershocks, Steven S. Wilson, told Cinefex. “We really didn’t want to deliver the same thing over again; and it wasn’t until some time later — in one of those literal bursts of inspiration — that I awoke in the middle of the night thinking, ‘what if the worms fragment into little creatures?'”
Many of the artists that had worked for the previous film returned for Tremors 2. Wilson recalled: “people wanted to work on this show, and that was a fundamental part of pulling it off. Department head after department head came on and agreed to very painful cuts in their budgets. We joked about the fact that I was one of the few people on the team who hadn’t won an Academy Award. I was surrounded by all these incredibly talented people who agreed to do this because they loved the first film and they liked the new script.”
Among the returning crew was the special effects company, Amalgamated Dynamics — again headed by Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr., who had become committed to the series. Woodruff said: “Tremors was our first project, and a real labor of love with a great group of people. We had said that if ever there was a sequel — no matter what we were doing — we would make ourselves available.” Principal photography for Tremors 2 coincided with location shooting for Jumanji, another project ADI was working on at the time. Keeping the promise, the duo signed to work on Tremors 2, assigning Andy Schoneberg to direct the special effects work on the film whilst they supervised it from Vancouver. ADI only had a modest budget and six weeks to build all of the incarnations of the Graboids and their offspring.
Tremors 2: Aftershocks marks the return of the Graboids — “the mexican variety of the creature, and it lives in southern Mexico on verdant plains,” said Wilson. The subterranean Monsters, whose origin was deliberately left ambiguous in the first film, are revealed in the sequel to be ancient creatures from the Precambrian period.
ADI refurbished the full-size animatronic head sections used for the previous films. The Graboids bursted through the ground with new rigs devised by physical effects supervisor Peter Chesney. Wilson recalled: “the underground rigs we used in Tremors were powered by air rams, which often jammed and never really moved the worms fast enough. I told Peter early on that one of the things we desperately needed was to see a worm come out of the ground and lift someone in the air.” Ivo Cristante’s physical effects team built a 18 feet tall, 20 feet wide platform in which to place the burst rig — an uneven parallelogram crane on which the creature was installed. A spring-loaded device was employed for the Graboid’s fast movements. Chesney explained: “we vbuilt a nine-foot-wide steel track with skateboard-like guide wheels, and added a lot of counterweight on cables to power it, including a huge amount of bungee cord. We actually had to use a block and tackle to pull it down, like loading a catapult.” The creature’s head was close to a breakaway ground surface, which was easily destroyed. Chesney continues: “we were trying to duplicate the energies of an eight-ton creature with the ability to plow through brick walls, but the puppet had to be light enough to perform properly — which meant it wouldn’t have the strength for a big breakaway. So we prepared the platform surface by layering hinged pieces of plywood in jagged sections, laid out like the scales of a fish. At the intersections we used small sticks — and even finer sticks in the crosshatch. On top of that, we laid peat moss and sod.” For the prologue scene — the most expensive of the entire film — the spring mechanisms had to be precisely calibrated in order not to injure the stuntman contained within the Graboid’s jaws. Movements underground were replicated with a method already used in Tremors, with a wood-lined trench covered in layers of rubber and dirt — under which a cart was moved.
A key scene of the film involves one of the Graboids above ground, in a severely weakened state. The first scenes involving the creature were achieved with the full-scale animatronic head section. At night, the Graboid is seen convulsing in its final moments. For this sequence, a 1:4th scale puppet was built based on the moulds of similarly-scaled puppets from the first film. Where the armoured head was casted in fiberglass, the body was not moulded in latex — like the previous miniature creatures — but in a new hot-melt material ADI had first experimented with on the set of Santa Clause. “It was so jiggly and lifelike,” Woodruff said. “We were able to get some really good blubbery movements to show something we really hadn’t seen in the worms yet — the conveyance of great mass and weight.” The puppet was maneuvered from a puppeteer below the miniature landscape set specifically built for the sequence, which was filmed at 96 frames per second in order to further increase the sense of mass.
The creature is later found dead, with its side bursted open and three sacs hanging inside of it. The Graboid carcass was the first model to be built for the film. It was constructed as a wood and wire armature, with polyfoam skin (as well as fiberglass beaks) casted by Marc Tyler — who also painted the creature — based on moulds from the original film. The internal organs and sacs were cast either in latex or in silicone, and once again orange methocel was used to simulate the blood.
It is revealed that the Graboid has given birth to its offspring — a baby stage labeled in production as Shriekers, based on the loud sounds they make when they locate prey. Wilson once again wanted to stray from usual genre tropes and audience expectations, as he told The Official UK Tremors that “the obvious thing then is that there’s a graboid queen, five hundred feet long — we just didn’t want to do that.” In his own words, he wanted the characters of the new film to “be behind the eight-ball” once again, not knowing what to expect or how to counter the new creatures. Wilson said in a Cinefex interview: “normally, movie Monsters are indestructible; and that’s what’s scary about them. However, what was scary about our Monsters was that you couldn’t figure out how they worked. Once you knew that the Graboids traveled underground and hunted by picking up sound vibrations, they became less dangerous. But it only took one movie to realize that. So our idea for the new creatures was that they would hunt by infrared instead of sound. We thought: ‘that will be fun. Everybody will be going around trying not to make any noise, when that’s the wrong thing to do.'”
Designing the Shriekers proved to be a longer process compared to that of the Graboids years before. “The Shrieker designs went through a number of variations before we finally hit on the right look,” Wilson said. “Partly it was a size thing, and partly it was the fact that these creatures are supposed to be babies — something Tom and Alec and Andy Schoneberg worried about right from the start. There’s an inherent cuteness to babies — but we knew the Shriekers had to be scary; otherwise audiences might start feeling more sympathetic toward the Monsters than the humans.” A key element of the new baby creatures was their heat-based vision that detects the bodily heat of organisms and objects.
Gillis and Woodruff started sketching and sending concepts to the production from Vancouver. Gillis said: “we knew that they wanted two-legged little creatures that ran around, saw by infrared and emitted a scream upon sensing a source of food. One of the features of the original movie’s creatures was the big four-piece head, jaw and mandible assembly; and we wanted to mantain that.” The final design featured a body with infant-like proportions, the signature armoured head, as well as three-toed legs inspired by ostriches and a short, fleshy tail.
Being infant Graboids, the Shriekers were designed with several details that were reverse-engineered from the previous creatures. Woodruff recalled in our collaboration interview with Strange Shapes: “[the Shrieker design was] very much inspired by the Graboid itself. The idea was to reverse-engineer the original creatures to establish the Shriekers as an earlier developmental stage, hence the translucent beak for example, as if it was still cartilage in development like a baby’s skull. The growth pattern would eventually have them begin to pack on pounds and become so huge and lethargic that their legs (which were only intended to carry them to a new location where food and protection would be more plentiful) would atrophy and fall off. They would then create a growth of spines that would propel them underground.” The skull in development was a key trait. Woodruff said in the Monster Makers website: “we designed [it] to look as if it was still in cartilaginous state before the beak shells hardened, like on the adult worms.” Another subtle detail in the design is the Shriekers’ tongue — which ends in three elongated bulb-like appendages joined together, suggesting the Graboids’ signature tentacles still in development.
Once again, the special effects artists wanted to bring to the screen creatures that would feel realistic and actually biologically plausible. Gillis elaborated: “what we liked about Tremors was that there was a logic to it, so Tom and I actually wrote several pages of backstory on the Shriekers, offering different scenarios of how they reproduce, how they communicate — that sort of thing. For example, we decided that they are pack animals; and the purpose of the food scream for a creature that can neither hear nor see is to raise its body temperature, thereby attracting its pack. That provided the rationale for incorporating several brightly colored spots — one on the jowls and one on the side of the tail. We reasoned that those spots, in particular, would heat up during a food scream and work as a heat signature, totally unique to the Shrieker. The pack members would recognize it — and that would prevent them from mistakenly attacking each other.”
A key element of the design was the heat sensor on the Shriekers’ head. This organ, when exposed, allows a better focus on the heat signatures of the surrounding environment. Several variations were tested, as recalled by Gillis: “we tried panels that lifted up from the head like gull-wing doors to reveal the sensory organ inside, but Steve was concerned that those might look like ears. He wanted something totally non-anthropomorphic. Then we toyed with the idea of a plate on top of the head that lifts up; but we were afraid that would look too much like a trap door — something you’d expect to see Thing from The Addams Family pop out of. Finally, Andy came up with a three-plate design that was more organic looking.” A central plate first rears, followed by two side plates — which in turn fully reveal the pulsating heat sensor within.
With the final Shrieker design approved by Wilson, ADI began building the full-scale creature puppets. The life-size sculptures — based on a maquette sculpted by Alec Gillis — were sculpted by Schoneberg, Jim Kagel and Brent Armstrong. The skins were casted in foam latex by Mark Viniello, whereas the head pieces were moulded in semi-translucent fiberglass by Steve Frakes.
ADI built two hero animatronics with fully articulated bodies, three hand puppets with articulated heads, and five stunt creatures whose purpose was to be hit, damaged or shot; they were in fact filled with orange methocel and pieces of latex. Their remains are thrown at the end of the film when Shrieker carcasses are scattered by the enormous explosion. Also built were three insert animatronic tongues for close-up shots.
The mechanical systems of the creatures were designed and constructed by David Penikas; the hero animatronics featured the most complex, cable-driven mechanisms. Jaws and mandibles were fully articulated, and bladders inside the head suggested the pulsations of the heat sensor when the organ was exposed. Bladders inside the jowls also simulated the Shriekers’ breathing. The cables passed through the Shriekers’ feet and were buried in the ground area next to them, only to re-emerge next to the controlling mechanisms. 8 to 16 puppeteers were needed to fully maneuver one of the hero puppets. Producer Nancy Roberts and Tremors director Ron Underwood also occasionally collaborated to the performance.
The hand puppets were operated with interior handholds; the puppeteers controlled the creatures through a backpack connected to “four-way jaw and neck mechanisms.” The performer could only see from a small hole located in the model’s throat area. Once on set, all the models were treated in order to be believably integrated in the environment. Gillis recalled: “to make them look as if they belonged in the environment, buckets full of dirt were rubbed all over the bodies and applied to areas in the corners of the mouth where the bony shapes meet. Then we squirted water in the creases behind the neck and dusted the high points so that it looked like oily sweat where the folds were contacting. We also spritzed the colored areas on the jowls and tail so that the color spots would appear shiny — as if there were extra body oils in them because they heat up.”
Despite being an infant stage of the Graboids, the Shriekers are also able to reproduce asexually: after having eaten enough nutrition, they regurgitate a newborn creature. For the sequence where this new feature is revealed, an almost amorphous fetus was sculpted by Marc Tyler and painted by Tom Killeen — and dubbed the ‘vomit baby’. The fetus was covered in a slimy membrane and pushed out of one of the Shrieker hand puppets — adapted with hyperextending jaws. The subsequent shot of the newborn breaking its placental sac and screaming was achieved with one of the hand puppets, puppeteered by Yancy Calzada and shot in an oversized cage section built by production designer (and original Tremors crewmember) Ivo Cristante.
Unlike the previous film, Tremors 2 employed digital effects for the sequences where the Shriekers perform actions — such as actually running — that the practical creatures could not act on set. Wilson knew from the beginning that the new technologies would eventually have to be used, and for that purpose he hired Phil Tippett to do early animation tests whilst the film was still in development. Tremors 2’s visual effects consisted only of a moderate amount of 14 digital sequences, and was one of the first independent efforts in computer animation for Tippett Studio. The artist recalled: “our goal on Aftershocks was really to generate a great deal of animation as quickly as possible. At the time, we were just beginning to make the transition to digital; so it was an ideal opportunity to take some of the input device work we developed on Jurassic Park a bit further, to get in there and start experimenting with other ways of puppeteering and moving characters around. Since the film would be going straight to video, we knew we could work in broad strokes and concentrate on refining some of our techniques.”
Tippett actually provided input in ADI’s designs, suggesting wrinkle areas. “Once we had some idea of what Tom and Alec were going to do, we could make a few suggestions,” Tippett said, “such as how to fit certain body parts together or where to put the wrinkles in the skin — things that would make our work easier.” Tippett Studio art director Craig Hayes supervised the creation of the digital Shriekers. He recalled: “we began by scanning photographs of ADI’s Shrieker maquette into our computer and tracing over it. As soon as ADI completed one of the full-scale puppets, they sent it to us for reference and we took our measurements from that.” The digital model was built by Peter Konig and painted and texture-mapped by Paula Lucchesi to be as accurate as possible to the practical creatures (something also aided by reference photos taken on location). Dusty textures were also added.
Animation was achieved with an array of different techniques, as recalled by Hayes: “anywhere from one third to two thirds of the animation was done through stop-motion input, using a Shrieker armature, built by Bart Trickel, and our own motion input software. It was very similar to the methods we used on Jurassic Park.” Said armature was a DID (Digital Input Device), a small scale model with motion sensors that transfer its movements to the digital model. A limited number of shots was also created with standard key-frame animation.
The climactic scene of Earl trying to reach Burt’s truck inside the warehouse was originally going to feature thousands of Shriekers; budget restraints only enabled the scene to happen on a smaller scale — with dozens of Shriekers. For shots of multiple digital Shriekers the model was duplicated, and each copu was individually animated. Tippett explained: “any time you get more than one character on the screen, it really complicates the animation. They have to interact, and the pantomime has to be staged in a way that makes the action clear. We basically built a room full of characters, then animated them individually so they wouldn’t all appear to be moving at exactly the same time. When you’re dealing with a bunch of things, the whole mass takes on a character of its own. You’re really animating an overall texture. Otherwise, the shot can turn into a can of worms (!), with audiences not knowing what to focus on.”
Lastly, the Shriekers’ heat vision was rendered with an inventive method. “To get the infrared effect,” Wilson said, “the actors were shot wearing red suits and yellow stockings so that in post-production the video engineers could render the faces and bodies in different colors. This effect was also shot on High 8 video tape and blown up to 35mm film, adding an additional grainy effect.”
Wilson ultimately commented on the experience: “what made it a delight was the tremendous support, inventiveness and professionalism on the part of everyone involved — from the producers to the creative team to the effects crew to the cast. Everybody, at one time or another, contributed some idea for how to solve a particular problem — and that always got us through the day.”
For more images of the Graboids and Shriekers, visit the Monster Gallery.
In the early 70s, filmmaker Steven S. Wilson was working for the Navy in an isolated area near China Lake. One day, whilst the writer was sitting on a rock, an idea came to his mind: he wondered what would happen if something under the ground forbade him to get off that rock. He remarked in an interview with The Official UK Tremors: “one of my first jobs was working as a film editor for a naval film company that worked in the desert at a naval base in California. We used to hike around the gunnery ranges out there and I was always making notes for ideas for movies. So at one point, I was hiking on these big rounded boulders which were very much like the ones that we ended up shooting in the movie, and I made the note: ‘what if there was something under the ground, like a shark, and I couldn’t get off this rock?'”
Said note remained in Wilson’s file folder, until 1984 — when he (and his writing partner, Brent Maddock) found a chance to finally bring it to the screen. Having sold the script for Short Circuit, and having been hired by Steven Spielberg to collaborate on the scripts of Ghost Dad and Batteries not Included, Wilson and Maddock were allowed to propose a project of their own. Wilson recalled in an interview with Cinefex: “our agent, Nancy Roberts, sat us down and said, ‘okay, guys, now comes the fun part: for a brief time, anybody will listen to anything you have to say. What’s in your files?’ So Brent and I got together and we picked from each of our files ideas that we had jotted down, including my ‘Monster in the ground’ concept, which at the time was called ‘Landshark’. Nancy loved it and we began working on a twenty-five page treatment.” Long time friend Ron Underwood — with no previous experience in creature features — was attached to direct the project, and also collaborated to the script.
According to Maddock, the film was initially shaped more like a comedy than the final product, mainly due to how the Monsters were narratively treated. He recalled: “the project was much more comedic in its early stages, and we got to a point where — towards the end, a number of drafts in — we made the decision that we wanted the audience to take the Monsters seriously; to feel that the Monsters were a real threat. So we went back and we took out some of the humour. We didn’t want to go so far that we were poking fun at the idea of the monsters. We went about as close to it as we could get without losing the sense of real jeopardy.”
In an attempt to differ from usual Monster films, the creatures’ origins were also deliberately left unknown. “There was a big debate about it early in the process, Wilson said in the Making of Tremors. “First of all, we didn’t care. Since I’m the one who comes out of science fiction films, I was saying, ‘there’s only four places they can come from: they’re either radioactive, or they’re a biological experiment, or they’re from outer space, or they’ve always been there. These are the only options you have.’ So I didn’t want to say it. In fact, I said ‘let’s say all of them at the same time.'” Underwood added: “it was more reality-based that [the characters] wouldn’t figure it out.”
Veteran Monster Makers Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr. were hired to bring the subterranean creatures to life. Tremors, in fact, marked the first creature effects work of Amalgamated Dynamics, which the duo had recently founded. Gillis and Woodruff came highly recommended by executive producer Gale Anne Hurd, having already collaborated with her during the production of The Terminator and Aliens. Wilson recalled: “Tom and Alec were excited about having a fairly big project land in their laps, but their company was so new that they did not have a facility set up yet. So we met at Marie Callander’s in Burbank to discuss the script and what we wanted the creatures to look like. The script had just a few lines of description. It said that the mouth opened like some kind of grotesque flower and there were horrible tentacles inside it and it had spines all over its body — and that was about it.” The spines were conceived to be the creature’s method of locomotion. Maddock explained: “it had these spikes on it that it moved along with. This was all based on what I knew about earthworms – which was not much, except that they have these stiff hairs on them and that the hairs point backwards and that’s how they move.”
Then — A HUGE MOUND OF EARTH RISES UP UNDER VAL AND EARL!! The cowboys tumble down its side, Val losing his rifle. They roll over and stare dumbfounded at the mound.
There must be a million of them!!
The mound of earth turns toward them. The ground splits open and out rises — a huge head!
Nope… just one.
The monster is a horrendous thirty-foot long eating machine! Its head is eyeless, utterly alien, covered with tough boney plates which close together to form a cork-screw point. The cowboys stumble back toward the fence in speechless terror. The creature slides toward them, pushing through the earth like a whale through water.
Now it opens its mouth — but it’s like a grotesque flower, boney plates spreading open like petals, revealing a huge, slimy, fleshy, oozing orifice! And inside the mouth, a ghastly multi-tentacled tongue! These are the “snake things,” not snakes at all but actually the horrid hook-tentacles that can shoot out six feet to snag their prey! -S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, Tremors early draft, 1988
Based on the simple descriptions provided by the script, Gillis and Woodruff began designing the Monsters — which at the time had no precise label. In the script (and film), Walter Chang proposes the term Graboid, a name that would become official in the sequels. Gillis and Woodruff were inspired by a variety of real animals. “Whenever we’re designing a creature,” Woodruff said, “even if it’s some fantastic Monster, we really like to go to research books of real animals — looking at forms and details like skin texture, coloring, even the way the animal moves — so it has a basis in reality. If there’s no reality, it’s all completely made up, completely fantastic — there’s a sort of unreal quality to it that’s hard to get over. and were also aware that they should not imitate precedent creatures, such as the Sandworms from Dune. “What we did not want to do,” Gillis said, “was repeat what had been done in Dune. Because in Dune, the Sandworms were like earthworms, sort of more muscular, you know. They seemed to be kind of like a long muscular tube — rather than anything with a skeletal structure or armor plating.”
Curiously enough, in fact, worms were not used as reference. “We actually did not look too much at worms because they are very boring,” Gillis said. “We used a ‘form follows function’ kind of thinking. We wanted something that looked like it could come from this planet — or could come from another planet — but it had to be functional and look like it was part of a desert environment. We started off by considering its mode of movement — whether it was a muscular movement or more like a locomotive that could barrel through the ground. For dramatic reasons, Ron liked the latter idea. With that in mind, we went with a heavy armored look rather than something slimy and soft and undulating. The outer surfaces combined the look of a crocodile skin with the leathery dry look of an elephant’s skin — cracked and wrinkled around its points of movement.” Dinosaurs and rhinoceroses were also used as reference. The ‘battering ram’ movement through the dirt (“like killer whales,” as described by Gillis) implied a mechanism that would enable the creatures to propel themselves through the ground; the spines, now distributed on the sides of the torso, became that expedient.
The head of the Graboids was a key element of the design, and one that went through a considerable number of iterations. Since the beginning, the special effects artists wanted to make it bony and armored — so that the creatures would be able to overcome most obstacles. “If a creature were to be swimming through sand or dirt,” Gillis said, “it would need a pointed, armored head, so that it could push that matter away, and then the rest of the body then would have some sort of muscular action.” The Monsters also lacked eyes — another challenging aspect. Woodruff continues: “the script also specified that the creature not have eyes — which makes sense for something that lives underground, but it was a challenge for us — because eyes are such an important point for emotion and expression. Without that focus point you have to rely more heavily on the body movement. Since its entire head was just kind of a big bony shell, there was not much we could do to make it register any kind of feeling. Its only real feature was a mouth.”
Wilson and Maddock in fact wanted “an unusual mouth,” and Gillis and Woodruff provided one — trying to stray from usual design tropes. “We also got rid of the idea of sharp teeth,” Gillis said. “We based the look on the head of a snapping turtle, with side mandibles angled down that could act as scoops. It looked threatening and like it could cut you up, but there were not the standard pearly white fangs you normally see on a Monster.”
The duo originally conceived the head of the creatures moving independently to the body — functioning like a turtle neck. The concept, however, proved controversial and was discarded. Gillis explained: “at one point we designed the head so that it could move in and out of the dirt independent of the body. We had big thick folds of skin — kind of like a turtle neck — to bridge the body and the head. But we found that nobody who saw it called it a turtle neck — immediately they began calling it a foreskin. So that idea was out. We were dealing with something that was phallic in shape, so we had to take the curse off of that as much as possible.”
Another signature element of the Graboids is represented by their tentacles. The script refers to them as simple appendages with no particular features. As the creative process progressed, however, the tentacles’ role was expanded — to the point where they fundamentally became a red herring for the audience. Initially, they seem to be the antagonists themselves, and not part of them. Wilson explained: “somewhere along the line, we decided to convince the audience that the movie was about big snakes that lived underground. It occurred to us that it would not be immediately apparent that the tentacle torn off the truck early in the film was actually part of a larger creature, so we decided to try and keep that a bit of a surprise. Then Tom and Alec came up with the idea of giving the tentacles mouths — but without throats. Since the mouths are essentially grasping mechanisms, a throat was neither necessary nor appropriate.”
The design of the tentacles itself went through different iterations — some of which were more ornate and with “almost a flower motif.” The final appearence was mainly inspired by catfishes, with four sensory barbs on the sides of the pseudo-mouth. “We designed the tentacles with a sort of catfish look to them,” Gillis said. “The idea was that they could flatten down and look quite featureless — almost like tongues — until their mouths opened.” Some elements of the design were also inspired by snakes, and the bulk of the surface was based on slugs.
The final Graboid design was conceived to be a vertebrate as opposed to a boneless worm; several details were added — such as the sutures on the head of the creatures — to exemplify this element of their biology. Maddock and Wilson were extremely satisfied with the appearence of the Monsters. “They just knocked us out of our chairs,” Wilson said. Once the subterranean Monsters reached their final incarnation, the special effects team began constructing animatronics in various sizes — from full-scale creatures to miniatures. A quarter-scale maquette was first sculpted: “we knew we were going to do a quarter-scale creature — head to tail — for the miniature work, and originally we were planning to use that for a maquette,” Gillis said. “But we wound up not having as much time as we wanted, so the quarter-scale version only led the Others by about a week. Tom and I blocked out the sculpture and then Carl Sorensen and Dave Miller detailed it. We had the form done on the quarter-scale and pulled a mold and made a plaster duplicate off of the fgront end of it to serve as a model for the full-scale head. Mark Wilson, Howard Berger and Bob Kurtzman did a lot of the sculpting on the big one.”
A total of five full-size creatures were built: four head sections and a featureless dummy of the full creature, used in the scene where one of the Graboids, having recently died, is unearthed and analyzed by the protagonists. The eight-feet long head sections featured an internal structure composed of appropriately shaped aluminium bands; the skin was casted in foam latex — as opposed to the then commonly used polyurethane. Woodruff explained: “foam latex has a nice, compressed look to it; because the creature was so big, though, we had to build a custom oven — an eight-foot box — to be able to cook these things. Inside the foam latex we did pattern tracings of where the body was wrinking on the outside; we did that so we could pad up the inside, but still leave divisions where the wrinkles were so that when the skin moved it would naturally fold along the same lines that were already sculpted into the creature.” The head, jaws and mandibles were instead casted in resistant fiberglass, which infused them with the desidered plated appearence.
All the creatures were painted with primary grey and brown color schemes. The full-scale head sections were mechanized primarily by Craig Caton and Jeff Edwards. The mobile fiberglass parts were attached to a metal plate and connected to a large spring, which was in turn mounted on a backpack. Depending on the demands of a specific sequence, said backpack could be worn by a puppeteer, or be installed on on one of the rigs devised by physical effects supervisor Art Brewer, who also directed the construction of the shaking building sets for the film and other practical effects. Gillis explained the mechanisms: “the head movements were actuated by four rods that came out from the metal plate like a parallelogram. The rods went back to a T-bar; and whichever way you moved the T-bar, the plate in front would move as well.” The parallelogram mechanism was a modular device that could be “plugged” into the creature.
Halfway through the location shoot — Tremors was mainly shot in Lone Pine, California — ADI arrived on set; working in an abandoned railway station, the special effects artists shot the creatures in six weeks following the schedule. The Graboids needed constant repair, as — unlike many other films — they were shot in broad daylight. “We knew we were not going to have the benefit of shooting them in the dark,” Woodruff said, “with lots of goo coming off of them, and that had moved us to make them look as realistic as possible — more like an actual animal and less like a fantasy Monster. When we got out to the desert, we found we were able to make use of all the dust, though, which took the curse off of it a little bit. Dust became a substitute for other things that we are used to using. It was actually refreshing to be able to exchange dust for slime.”
Nevertheless, saliva — thus slime — was actually needed for the mouth interior, as recalled by Gillis: “we had just come off of Aliens recently; we said to ourselves, ‘Aliens was a dark movie. Everything in it was wet and slimy. This seems to be more about broad daylight, hot, dust. Let’s stay away from the slime. Let’s just let them be a little drier and create their own character; that way it’s a little different than what you usually see'; and we didn’t slime up the mouth. It was glossy because of the coatings we put on it, but it was dry. We saw it in the dailies; and the editor remarked that it looked kind of like it was painted with nail polish. We didn’t fully understand that comment but understood what he was reacting to — which was the lack of wetness. So we started puttin the slime on it and doing the webbing in the mouth.”
The creature effects team worked in close collaboration with Art Brewer. When one of the creature heads was filmed above the ground, the shot usually required operators in a 12-feet deep pit dug by the physical effects crew, and external puppeteers. Gillis elaborated: “in the pit, the creature was used as a big rod puppet — everything was connected in the back. We had cable controllers hooked up to the jaw and mandibles, and each could operate independently to get the snapping movement. The head itself was operated by using the T-bar at the end of the rods. It would lunge forward by means of a sliding rig that was anchored inside the pit. It took two guys holding the parallelogram, a third guy to help with the upward motion and then three more guys above ground operating the cables. The guys underground were handling the gross movement, while the articulation of the head was operated by three guys up top. The guys in the pit really had the worst of it. The pit was shored up with plywood, like a big box. The top had more plywood around the creature — as snug as possible — and then we would close them up and dress the Whole area with sand and vermiculite. The operators had to wear respirators because the pit would fill completely up with dust. There was no light except the glow of a TV monitor that was supposed to help the puppeteering. In fact, however, the people inside could see nothing at all — especially since there were air tubes rigged up to blow dust all around. So they had to puppeteer the thing by feel alone. We were up on the ground giving them directions by two-way radio and they would just feel around in the dark and to the best they could. The operators were as blind as the creature was supposed to be — but they could not hear nearly as well.”
The sequences involving the Graboids bursting out of the ground were among the most complex effects stunts achieved for the film. For these scenes, the controller backpack was worn by a single puppeteer — Woodruff, usually — whom was lowered into the ground through an elevator rig. “We built a 10-foot aluminium elevator,” Brewer said, “that was 60 inches in diameter. It was operated by means of pneumatic cylinders — the same kind used by NASA on the space shuttle doors. The cylinders are made in Houston and are very clever high-tech rams run by oxygen and nitrogen. We used of them to power the Platform insite the elevator. The prototype Platform had been solid plywood, but we found that it created too much suction when it went up, so we switched over to a grated platform.” The rig was able to move at about 12 miles per hour — even when it carried the weight of the animatronic and the operator.
The rig was installed in a 11 feet deep hole with a 10 feet diameter and then covered with a 2-inch-thick piece of styrofoam painted dirt brown. The beak of the Graboid protruded from a pre-cut foam lid, and the entire system was camouflaged with vermiculite and sand. The elevator was operated from the surface and could rise, enabling the creature to erupt from the foam lid. Air hoses enhanced the effect by spewing additional dust. Brewer recalled: “we tested it at our shop before we went out on location and it worked perfectly; but then we got out to Lone Pine where it is all sand and pumice dust and the wind was blowing constantly and all of that really sabotaged us. We finally found a silicone-based lubricant that the dust would not stick to and that pretty much solved the problem.” The elevator rig was completely self-contained and could be moved from place to place by a crane, to the point where the set-up time (including finishing touches on the creature) was cut down to about 45 minutes.
What actually infused life into the movements of the Graboid was however the performer himself. Woodruff was positioned inside the elevator pit and lowered 10 feet into the ground, and had to wait for his cue; the experience was not particularly pleasant, as recalled by Woodruff himself: “it was one of the worst things I have done because the creature was so cumbersone and so difficult to move. I had a Watchman monitor inside the elevator to guide me, but it got to the point where I could not concentrate on that. All I could do was move the creature the way I felt it should be moving. It was quite an ordeal — I would strap the backpack on and climb into the elevator, put on goggles and radio gear and a respirator, and then they would drop the elevator down. Because of all the dressing they had to do around the area after the elevator was lowered, I would be down there for about 25 minutes before they were ready for a take. It was a very isolated feeling, even though there was air pumped in and it was very safe. One advantage to it was that it was the coolest spot in the desert. When they were ready to go, I would get into a crouching position and as soon as the elevator went up, I would stand to give it a little extra burst up through the styrofoam piece. Even so, it seemed to move at an agonizingly slow rate most of the time. The sound effects helped and they also minimized it in editing by cutting the shot down so that the creature comes out three feet before they cut instead of eight feet. But the rig moved pretty well. If it had moved any faster I probably would have had the thing crashing around me.” A second elevator rig was built for sequences where characters or objects are dragged in the ground.
Out of location ground, the Graboid was attached to a different rig — described as a “rolling dolly with an arm”. Brewer explained: “the creature was mounted from a parallelogram and hung from a custom-made crane so that it would stay level as it lunged forward. The rig was all steel, and with the creature in place it weighed about 900 pounds — we had to use 120 pounds of weight to counterweigh it.” The dolly rig was used on location, but was employed most prominently for the interior sequences on stage at the Valencia Studios outside Los Angeles. The first scene was the Graboid bursting through the market floor. Brewer recalled: “for the store scene, we put the dolly on a track and then rolled it forward and raised the creature up as it smashed through the floor — which was made of several layers of balsa wood so the creature could break it apart easily. The rig was manually operated by six people — everyone pushing and moving levers and cables. Two of the guys were operating the creature and they ened up actually riding the dolly.” A prosthetic broken leg provided the effect of the violent dragging, whereas the actor could sit in a seat rigged inside the creature’s mouth. The other scene involved a Graboid ramming through the wall of Burt Gummer’s basement. A similar method was employed — with the addition of a section with dirt and sand that the creature bursted through — allowing the visual detail of sand dripping from its head.
The only full creature built for the crew, measuring over 30 feet from head to tail, was the featureless dummy of the dead Graboid that had collided with a concrete culvert, unadvertedly killing itself in the process. “We had built the basic frame for it in LA, and then we shipped it up to Lone Pine in sections. Whenever we got a chance, we would cast up skin pieces and glue them down and paint them. We built the entire thing from head to tail, but you do not actually see it all in the film. The set department had built a fake canal wall and then dug a channel to set our creature into. We had one of the heads in there — attached the full-length body — for the shot of Earl and Rhonda prying the cement off and the creature plopping out. Tom and I were inside pushing the thing out, and there were two other guys pushing out blood and slime. For the cracked skull on top we put slushed liquid polyfoam into the head mold and then sliced it up and offset it and glued it down like a giant worm appliance.”
Gillis also recalled the success of the scene, also determined by the amount of slime used in it. “By the time we got to the point where the dead creature — rammed into the retaining wall — they break it away and the head rolls out, there’s a POV shot were the camera is moving and there’s all this dripping slime. We really went overboard with the wetness there. We saw it at a test screening with a bunch of guys — heavy metal guys, with Metallica T-Shirts — guys that would really eat that up. When they saw all that dripping slime, the roof went off the theater — everybody was cheering. we looked at each other and said, ‘slime. Never underestimate the value of slime’.” The slime was, as usual, achieved with KY jelly.
All the life size creatures could be fitted with the corresponding tentacles, whose movements were inspired by elephant trunks and octopus tentacles. Gillis and Woodruff, supported by crew members Mark Rappaport and Mecki Heussen, built several versions of the tentacles to work in cooperation with the full-sized Graboid heads. The duo were already familiar with the creation of Monster tentacles; Gillis recalled: “the tentacles on Tremors are the third generation of tentacles that Tom and I have worked on. We did tentacles on Invaders from Mars and Leviathan, so we were able to build on our past mistakes and rectify them. We made three 10-foot-long tentacles that were cable-operated — also a four-foot [tentacle] head section with articulated barbs on the head and chin that would stand up to give it more character in close-up. The spine of the tentacles was braided hydraulic hosing — which flexes any way you want, but does not twist. A lot of our previous efforts had ball joints and other things that would twist on themselves causing loss of control.” The internal structure also employed discs of delrin — a machinable lightweight plastic — that were bolted to the hydraulic hosing “to create a series of ribs.” Cables of bulkheads installed inside the model allowed for several points of articulation.
The jaw mechanism was anchored by a vacuformed underskull. Woodruff commented: “rather than having a single hinge point, we made two hinges to give it a compound movement and help widen the mouth out. It was a double-jointed jaw that hinged not only at the back but also about halfway up the thing. We liked the way it enabled the mouth to open really wide. For shots of the tentacles darting out, we used reverse photography. We started with the tentacles out of the mouth and we would slime them up and put them in a good position. Then we would go wild with them when we pulled them in. A large part of the challenge was just moving these things. The tentacles were not lightweight — especially with all the control levers. Only our strongest guys got to go on set with us. Normally we did not do too much operating of the head for those shots — the focus was on the tentacles coming out, so it was not as critical.”
Maddock also suggested the use of a hand puppet, a device that unexpectedly proved very useful during shooting. “He said, ‘what about a hand puppet?'” Gillis said. “‘You know; don’t you think we should have a hand puppet?’ We sort of said, ‘okay, we’ll have a hand puppet.’ We used that hand puppet more than we ever expected!” Woodruff added: “the hand puppet was used for close-up shots — like where the tentacle is snapping at the truck. Any of the finer movements like grabbing or snapping were done with the hand puppet. It was better for those kinds of things than the cable-operated ones because it was more maneuverable.” ADI also built nine stunt tentacles, devoid of any mechanical features. Additional gore for other scenes, such as when the third creature is killed, was achieved with latex patches and pantyhoses, both filled with orange methocel to simulate the blood. For the scenes where the Graboid intestines and other entrails are shot towards the characters, air cannons were used to shoot them.
By the time principal photography had wrapped in Lone Pine, miniature effects Veterans Robert and Dennis Skotak — in partnership with supervising producer Elaine Edford in 4-Ward production — were hired to shoot the miniatures. The Skotak brothers had already worked with Gale Anne Hurd on Aliens. “We were very impressed with the way the Skotaks approached their work,” Underwood said. “They are true artisans. We had gone into the project knowing that we needed some miniature work, but initially we were leaning much more toward full-scale. By the time we were through, we had a lot more miniatures than we had anticipated. Full-scale — no matter how well it is realized — is just really difficult to control.”
Miniatures, in fact, were used for actions and movements that the full size creatures could not perform — or could do with certain restrictions. The miniatures allowed for more creative liberty in the sequences for which they were employed; quite in fact, the miniature work was so exceptional that the final film employed far more than originally intended, creating a whole second part of miniature shooting after the initial one.
ADI built five 1:4th scale Graboid puppets for the Skotaks’ miniature sequences. The first to be built was a seven feet long animatronic, with fully articulated head and neck mechanisms. The miniature puppet required different mechanical systems when compared to the full-size Graboids, since the mechanization would extend to the whole first half of the creature. “The head mechanics were similar in design,” Woodruff said, “but the body mechanics were based on the same principle as the cable-operated tentacles. We sectioned off the body core into disks — leaving spaces in between — and then fed cables through and out the back. If necessary, we could reroute the cables and have them run down and out the bottom.”
The tail section of the miniature Graboid was made of soft polyfoam; a departure from standard procedures, which involved fiberglass understructures. “It was something that Alec and I wanted to try,” Woodruf said. “We wanted the creature to sort of squish down under its own weight to give it more mass and bulk.” The head could be used independently, but the tail section could be attached if the shot required it. Simpler versions of the tentacles were built for the miniature Graboid. “they still had to ahve some movement to them,” Woodruff continues. “Very little of them is seen in the film. There was a feeling that there was a difference in movement between the miniature and the full-sized tentacles.”
The 1:4th scale Graboid animatronic was puppeteered by six to eight crewmembers. Gillis recalled: “there would be two people operating the tentacles, and then another person providing the gross body movements. Generally the creature was mounted on a pole that stuck up through the miniature set and the operator would be at the other end of the pole. We would have one guy operating the skull, one guy operating the mandibles and then one operator for each of the three body sections. Each operator had what amounted to a big joystick to control left-right and up-down movement on any given body section.”
The miniature animatronic was most prominently seen when the film first reveals the appearence of a full Graboid, bursting from the ground. The creature was filmed in a forced perspective miniature lanscape, built by the Skotak brothers, with a matte painting created by Rick Rische. Robert Skotak recalled: “physical effects had done the initial ground-breaking shot on location, then ours picked up with a POV after Earl and Val have backed away. The ground is just starting to crack — then there is a separate shot of the creature breaking through with dirt blowing up around it. That was our quarter-scale shot. The breakthrough was very straightforward — just a matter of actuating the puppet to break through a thin crust. We had fans outside to create dust blowing by and we had compressors below to kick a lot of dirt up into the air — whatever we could do to make the creatures look explosive. Steve Brien worked out most of the gags with us — and there would usually be several grips involved. Sometimes the creature was pushed out and sometimes it was levered up.”
To achieve the gun shots on the Graboid, pre-cut holes in the creature were covered with patches of skin and then filled with air lines. A BB gun was then used to create hits on the ground and the Monster. For the shots of the Graboid traveling underground, a slot was cut into the table and covered with a foam rubber membrane. Thin foamcore plates were glued to said membrane, to simulate surface dirt. A pipe was moved through the underside of the rubber to achieve the effect of the ground heaving and cracking and settle back at the passage of the Graboid — which was maneuvered from below. Fuller’s earth, microballoons and miniature roots were added to enhance the effect.
As production progressed, the special effects crew found that the miniature animatronic could easily be replaced by simpler models — hand puppets. “Originally we expected that [the 1:4th scale animatronic] would do all of the quarter-scale work,” Gillis said. “But once we got into it, we realized that wer needed something easier to handle — which is when we began different hand puppets. We needed one to crash up into the ceiling in Burt and Heather’s basement — just a hand puppet with the mouth closed. Another one had an articulated head that was used for a lot of the stuff. We just built a variety of puppets that we could pick and choose from depending on what was needed.” Shots of the creatures heading down to the ground and other key sequences were achieved with the hand puppets.
Crucial to the miniature shooting was not only the necessity to match the miniature footage with the principal live-action footage — but also the fact the small-scale creatures had to be shot at more than 24 frames per second, in order to infuse them with a sense of actual mass. In this field the hand puppets also proved to be more practical than the animatronic. “Because the miniatures were shot overcranked,” Woodruff said, “we had to do our puppet movements twice as fast. We could get more specific movements with the fully-articulated puppet, but with the overcranking it got to the point where the movement was very random anyway. With a hand puppet, we could produce very hard, fast movements which were better suited for the way it was shot. The hand puppets had a grip on the inside that the operator could grab onto to steer the creature around. One of the hand puppets was articulated — the head could turn from side to side and it also had cable-operated jaws that opened and closed.”
The basement fight was the sequence where the miniature Graboids were featured most prominently — alternated with the full-size creatures. “It was a similar idea to what Jim Cameron did on Aliens,” Robert Skotak recalled, “building the Queen and the power-loader in quarter-scale to get the big punches and rolls that would be impossible to do in full-size.” The Skotak brothers built a quarter-scale basement miniature –four feet deep, six feet wide, two feet tall — complete with individually-painted floor and ceiling tiles. The Skotak brothers “suggested things we could do that would have been difficult for [ADI] to do in full-size,” Robert Skotak said. “We did shots where the creature rears up through the ceiling and knocks some tiles off. We also did a shot where it hits the door and knocks it down. Finally we did its death scene where it falls and thrashes about. Much of the basement sequence was done in miniatures.”
A prime concern was estabilishing a bond between the principal footage and the miniature sequences. Robert Skotak said: “we discussed with Ron and Steve the lack of shots with the creature and the people together. There was an over-the-shoulder shot where Michael Gross shoots the elephant gun at it, but that was one of the few. So we came up with the suggestion of doing a whip-pan which looks as if it is one continuous shot with both the character and the actor together. The idea was that Michael Gross would drop a gun and we would do a shot of him desperately grabbing for it on the ground. Then we would do a whip-pan off the set and do a corresponding whip-pan on the miniature set of the creature lunging forward. A simple cut in mid-pan would effectively join the two.”
The live-action shot was done with crewmember Ray Greeer playing Burt for that specific shot, plus details like falling cartridges and shadows. “It looks flawless and like it was all part of it,” Robert Skotak said. The scene again featured bullets hitting the Graboid. Robert Skotak estabilished cuts in the backside of the creature. “Then the pyro guy would come along to lay his squibs in and we would replace the plugs and color over them,” Woodruff said, “and add lots of dust so that when the impact happened there would be a puff of dirt. We had three phases of squibs all wired at once. The first was supposed to look like small arms fire. Those would all be blown out first. Next would come larger-caliber rifle hits and machine gun fire. Finally the mouth and back of the head were squibbed for really big elephant gun hits. So the thing was just riddled with squibs.”
The basement scene was technically the last intended miniature shoot; when Tremors was shown in its rough workprint for the studio, Universal executives were enthusiastic about the creature effects — to the point where they authorized an additional budget to increase the creature effects shots. “In the rough cut, the creature had been shown only obliquely in many instances,” Robert Skotak recalled, “its presence suggested by moving clouds of dust and rumblings and windows shattering. Now the idea was to go in and add another 16 or 18 shots to flesh it out. This time we decided to shoot indoors because it was now late into August and the days were getting too short to shoot outside.” Unlike the ‘phase one’ miniatures, the ‘phase two’ ones would be shot in artificial light. despite concerns, the Skotak brothers achieved perfect matches with the live-action footage. Among the sequences was the shot where the Graboid is seen circling the boulder on which Rhonda, Val and Earl are confined. “Ron felt that he needed to estabilish at least a couple of shots where you saw a shape come out of the sand and then go back down again,” Robert Skotak said. “He felt he needed that to sell the idea — a down-angle of it coming out and then the hole filling up after itself.” A mixture of fuller’s earth and colored microballoons was used to simulate the sand and the environment.
A featureless 1:8th scale puppet was built by ADI and maneuvered from below through crescent-shaped slots cut into the set. “On both sides of the screscent there were chambers,” Robert Skotak said, “like drawers — full of microballoons and fuller’s earth, and as the creature rose up the hill in its path, someone on either side would be feeding in new soil mixture to bring the level back up to normal as it dove down at the far end.” Air lines eased the creature’s traveling. An additional shot of the Graboid rearing its head to grab the shovel was achieved with the hand puppet.
“The whole second batch of shots were here and there shots, rather than whole sequences,” Skotak continues. “They were spread throughout the film — little things that revealed the creature in action. We did a couple of burst-ups against the sky — just shots of the creature going up and then back down. There was a scene in a lot between the general store and the trailer where the creature breaks out and kicks a bunch of timber in the air. Also superfast traveling shots across the yard in pursuit. We did a shot of the creature jamming the underside of the trailer, as well as one where it is shaking the house underneath. There was a scene where the characters are pulling the bomb across the yard and the creature comes up and grabs the bomb, so we had to make a miniature bomb with a smoking fuse. We also did a POV from the rooftop where the creature is heading towards the survivalists’ house and it comes up out of the ground and keeps on going across the landscape. That one was also done in eighth scale, which made it difficult because we found it was harder to get the nuances of the set dressing at that scale. We put heating elements under the camera on that shot so that we could get a telephoto effect — a mirage-like shimmer.”
A dual scale shot used both the quarter-scale puppet and the eighth scale puppet, and was achieved with forced perspective — when the camera passes from the former to the latter model. Fuller’s earth was blown diagonally across the set to help achieve the effect. Additional Point-of-view shots were filmed, showing the Graboids’ travel through the ground: dirt and lightweight rock props were shoved into a vertically-placed camera.
In the end of the film, the last surviving Graboid is lured through the side of a cliff when Valentine McKee throws a bomb right behind it — thus making it accelerate for the intense sound. The Monster breaks through the cliff wall and meets a gruesome demise, falling into the canyon floor. A highly realistic 1:4th scale miniature cliff was built for the sequence, which was part of the initial portion of miniature shooting. “Steven and Brent and Ron were very much into desert geology and they really wanted everything to make sense from a geological standpoint,” Robert Skotak said. To make the Graboid break through, a hole was cut in the side of the model cliff — and a ramp was positioned behind it. The opening was then covered with wet paper toweling and portions of broken plaster and dirt. The creature was then placed on a cart that would be driven up the ramp and rammed through the covering.
The first breakthrough was achieved with the miniature Graboid animatronic, which was also used for the last close-up of the creature’s head as it frantically screams to its death. The shots of the falling creature employed a full featureless dummy. For the sequence where the Graboid finally splatters on the canyon floor, a gelatin creature was first considered — but discarded for time constraints. Woodruff explained the process: “we made a polyurethane skin that was prescored and draped around a core section made of rope. Inside of that we put condoms filled with orange methocel creature blood. We had thought we were playing it safe by making the creature strong enough to sustain three takes — but the one that ended up on screen was take number nine. After each take we would open the creature and clean it up while two of our guys filled a new batch of condoms and tied them off. Then we would put them inside the body and superglue the skin shut. Invariably, one would break while we were tying them and worm blood would get all over the thing. Since we had been prepared to do only three takes, we ran out of condoms quickly. So we sent Mitch Coughlin — the youngest guy in the crew — across the street to the pharmacy. Three times in one day we sent him to get more condoms — he wwas getting some real respect from the people over there.”
Once filled and ready, the ‘splattering’ Graboid was holsted by its tail over the set and released on cue to the canyon floor. Dennis Skotak recalled the complexity of the sequence: “much of the difficulty in the drop was fighting gravity. We had to hoist up all this weight and try to keep the condoms from breaking — and all of this before we lost our sunlight! The drop was actually only about 12 feet to the point of contact — the creature was so heavy, it did not need to drop far. Getting it to drop exactly where and how we wanted was the biggest problem. We had designed the rock so the creature head would kick back and the body would flatten out in a certain way — but of course it never would hit right. Either it would go too far to the left or too far to the right, so we had to do it over and over again and the turnaround time was hours and hours. One of the difficulties we had was that all of the blood and guts splattered out and sometimes hit the two cameras we were shooting with. We would have had a good shot going and then a big wad of stuff would strike the lens and drip down into the frame.”
The fall was filmed at 72 frames per second. Wilson was extremely satisfied with the miniature effects work, saying that “there are many miniature shots that you would never know are miniatures. The Skotak stuff is just that good. Full-scale creature and miniature creature are intercut throughout the basement sequence and we literally just picked whichever one was doing the best action. We did not have to concern ourselves with whether something looked like a miniature — after a while we forgot all about it. We were just flabbergasted by their work.” Underwoord ultimately commented on the effects work of ADI and the Skotaks for Tremors, saying that “with the greater complexity of feature filmmaking, you thank your lucky stars for all of the incredibly talented people who come together to help make your ideas possible.”
For more images of the Graboids, visit the Monster Gallery.