Interview with John Dods
By David Kempf
Horror and special effects artist John Dods has been described by CNN as “one of the world’s foremost masters of disguise.” Dods has worked on such great cult favorites as Don Dohler’s NIGHTBEAST, SPOOKIES and the unforgettable DEADLY SPAWN. He did the makeup work on the TV Horror hit Monsters and Broadway’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. John studied under Academy Award winning makeup artist Dick Smith (The Exorcist) and began a successful career in mainstream film.
The movies he worked on include POLTERGIEST III, GHOSTBUSTERS II, DEATH BECOMES HER, THE X FILES and ALIEN RESSURECTION.
Most recently, Dods was the prosthetics makeup designer for the Broadway production of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN by Mel Brooks.
As a lifelong fan of John’s articles in Cinemagic Magazine and his work in general, it was a real pleasure to interview him.
John Dods INTERVIEW
Tell us how you came involved in makeup and special effects.
When I was 10 years old, I produced and directed "The Wizard of Oz" in the back yard. It had makeup and special effects galore - such as they were. My Alice In Wonderland had been so well received the previous year, that I went for broke with Oz. There were 15 neighborhood children were in the cast - all in costume - and the famous characters - Cowardly Lion, etc were all present. The "Tin Man" was actually the Aluminum foil man, The Cowardly Lion was me in dyed long johns and a rubber lion mask, etc. The adult audience seemed to enjoy the sight of small children putting on a show. I thought then that I would grow up and direct shows on Broadway, and for years, each summer of my childhood I staged one or more shows or "Spook Houses" - usually in the basement.
My parents were very supportive and they always gave me a place to be creative. Later I realized that I was too introverted to be a Broadway
director and that I better enjoyed the more solitary life of a stop motion filmmaker. But I never stopped loving live theatre and it come back into my life later in a big way.
How many short films have you made?
I've made three short films and am now working on a forth. GROG (1970) was my first - a 5 minute comedy which introduced the Grog character who appears in all of my films. I had started to shoot GROG in 8mm Kodachrome, but was miserable with the poor image quality of 8mm. So I began to save for a 16mm Bolex camera. This took me a year - while I worked at Macy's department store. The new 16mm footage was exhilarating - the registration was rock steady,
and the sharpness and grain looked nearly as good as the 35mm prints I saw at my local movie theatre. My next film was FOREST STORY - which I worked on for years. Because I was learning, I shot on a very high ratio - about 6 to 1 - often rebuilding the models and sets in order to improve the footage and learn all the craft skills needed by a model maker and miniature set builder. I worked on FS for years but then left it sitting on a shelf while I had several careers in practical effects for film, TV, amusement parks, and theatre. FS sat for 30 years
I went back to it recently and finally finished it using new digital technology to do the post production. Now, I'm working on GROG RETURNS which will be animated with stop motion photographed with HD digital still cameras.
Tell us about your work with the late cult director Don Dohler.
In 1972 Don asked me to write for his new magazine Cinemagic. He had seen an article on my short film GROG in the Bolex Reporter Magazine and wanted to do a feature on it himself; that article appeared as the cover story of Cinemagic #2 in 1972. I wrote for Cinemagic for many years after that and Don and I became good friends. Every year, I would go down to Baltimore for the annual Balticon Convention to screen GROG and later the unfinished FOREST STORY and visit with Don. In 1979 He asked me to create the monster for his second film production NIGHTBEAST and that became my first paying job in filmmaking. Don made a long series of extraordinarily low budget features and got each one of them distributed. Although these were not "good" films by conventional standards, Don became an inspiration to Do It Yourself filmmakers by proving repeatedly that it was possible to make a film for a few thousand dollars and get it distributed. Today, Don Dohler is legendary among independent filmmakers. An impressive roster of the NIGHTBEAST crew members went on to very successful and prominent careers in film production- perhaps the best known of these is producer/director J.J. Abrams - who wrote music for NB. Although Don and I went in very different directions after NIGHTBEAST, I remember of all of my projects with Don as exciting adventures.
Please tell us what it was like to learn your craft under Dick Smith.
I was nearly 40 years old when I decided to take Dick Smith's Professional Makeup Course and finally fulfill an old ambition to learn how to do prosthetic makeup. I was already a somewhat competent sculptor and mold maker,
but had never learned the techniques and materials specific to "special effects makeup" - that's a term which was invented to describe the work of Dick Smith, whose astonishing creations for ALTERED STATES (1980) and THE EXORCIST (1973) had expanded all previous conceptions what a makeup artist might contribute to a film. It was a mail order course and the actual interaction with Dick was normally minimal, but Dick started recommending me to the producers of the MONSTERS television series ('88-'90) - on which he was the "Special Makeup Consultant" .One episode, "Holly's House" led to many others - 18 by the end of the shows 3 year run. There was so much work that It was like having an entire career in 3 years. I thought that it was the best job imaginable. They would
send me piles of scripts and let me pick which episodes that I wanted to work on. Each season of that show was like Christmas for me -I created prosthetic makeups, mechanicals and puppets, and even filmed a stop motion mutant rat for the "Stressed Environment" episode.Dick advised me on many of my episodes, and personally designed the monsters for 2 of them - "Holly's House" and "The Gift" (written by Dick's son David). We often spoke on the phone or met at his house in Larchmont, New York. Dick had no professional secrets
and shared his expertise freely with everyone who asked for help. His curiosity about finding new and better ways of doing things was boundless, inspirational, and exciting to be around. He would talk with as much enthusiasm about Danny Kaye movies or the physicist Richard Feynman as he would about silicone prosthetics or new ways of coloring foam rubber. Working with Dick Smith
made me a better makeup artist and, I think, also a better person.
Do you enjoy mentoring other special effects artists?
I've been influenced by Dick Smith to freely share my knowledge with others. A lot of people in the film business have told me that my instructional articles for Cinemagic, Fangoria, Starlog and other magazines over the past 30 years have inspired or helped them in some way. That's wonderful to hear. I'm not sure that anything I do rises to the level of "mentoring" but I try to help anyone who asks for it.
How many plays have you worked on?
About 6 shows - all musicals… A few of those were such big successes that they kept me occupied for many years, designing and fabricating prosthetics. Right after "Monsters", I was asked to work on Disney's first Broadway show "Beauty and the Beast" in 1990. That came out of the blue because I had not been trying to get into New York theatre. I loved it and B&B was a gigantic worldwide hit and my involvement - making masks and prosthetics for eight characters - became an 18 year long occupation. We made over 50,000 prosthetic pieces for companies all over the world. "Mel Brooks Young Frankenstein: The Musical" followed B&B directly and also ran for years - I am the "Prosthetics Designer", and "The Toxic Avenger Musical" (Prosthetics and Special Effects Design by John Dods) must still be running somewhere - although I'm no longer involved. "A Christmas Carol" returned every Christmas at Madison Square Garden for nearly 10 years. I did the head casts for "Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway for many years (Chris Tucker in England created the prosthetic pieces). My work in theatre has completely satisfied my childhood yearning to work on Broadway shows and I continue to work in theatre occasionally.
Are there significant differences between working on your own films and working for other filmmakers?
They're very different. When I'm hired, then my only job is to help the client to create whatever it is that he want s to see; my creative input may as a designer or it may be only as a fabricator - and there is always a deadline. I'm happy to create someone else's design if that's what the job calls for - it's not always
creatively juicy but I get plenty of creative fulfillment from many personal projects. Today, I'm mostly working on my own projects. I only have to please myself so I can do whatever I want without deadlines.
Tell us about your daily (or nightly) working routine.
Although I try hard to avoid work entirely, my inner demons keep driving me to be productive. I spend much of the day at the computer, editing movie footage, or trying to upgrade my graphics art skills, or checking to see how many of my Facebook friends have "liked" the photo I posted. I have several elaborate stop motion models under construction for my film project GROG RETURNS so I try to move that project forward - I just made several silicone molds of cores and teeth for two new Grog models. I also have a beautiful house, three cats, and one partner - all needing frequent attention.
What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an artist so far?
I still love much of my work on THE DEADLY SPAWN. "Beauty and the Beast" features some of my best sculpture work - especially on the "enchanted" characters - Cogsworth, Lumiere, Wardrobe, Chip, etc. My prosthetics and hair work for the1,000 year old gnome for the "Household Gods" episode of the "Monsters" TV series looks good to me. The "Ice-Age" miniature set which I supervised for the "Back To the Future Ride" (I had a crew of 6 talented sculptors) turned out very well. FOREST STORY is the only thing I've done that made me use everything that I know how to do - writing, directing, editing,
and all of the crafts skills you need to do a stop motion film by yourself. Filmmaking is my passion, so it's gratifying that at age 65 I have come full circle to resume the work that I began as a teenager and always saw as unfinished business.
How do you come up with the original monsters you create? The Deadly Spawn certainly comes to mind.
I use no reference material when I design an original monster - when I'm actually designing the shape and form of an original character. I'll study nature for texture and detail but not for shape and form - that has to out of my head. It's too easy for me to give in to the temptation to copy the great work of other artists if I have pictures of their work thumb tacked to my studio walls. The Deadly Spawn designs were a conscious effort to avoid the "man in the rubber suit" look which
had dominated the horror genre since the early 50's. Even a masterwork like the Creature From the Black Lagoon looks like a man in a suit and I was tired of seeing that. On the other hand, something real - like a realistic dinosaur -
is different in that anatomy has to be researched and reference materials used.
Since you do so much prosthetics work and build mechanical creatures, do you miss the old style effects prior to CGI? Ray Harryhausen's stop motion animation comes to mind. As does the beautiful matte painting work of Albert Whitlock he did in many movies. I know you are very familiar with the painful and patient joys of stop motion animation.
I love Harryhausen and I continue to watch his films - as well as KING KONG ('33), and all the classic practical effects films. All of that great work is looking better than ever on Blu-ray. Today, practical effects have been largely replaced by computer graphics technology - which is increasingly spectacular. THE HOBBIT looks astounding. This change is permanent. We're not going back to the way things used to be done. I think that practical effects should marry the computer and live happily ever after. I'm creating practical effects all the time for my animation project, so I live in that world of "old school" physical reality every day. But the computer has become my most valuable helper and tool.
Name some of your favorite horror books.
I don't enjoy horror fiction nearly so much as the more optimistic visions of Science Fiction stories - Heinlein, etc. Poe, Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard are the horror authors whom I frequently reread. Howard's "Pigeons From Hell" is a long time favorite. Poe and Lovecraft wrote with so much craft, style, and dark beauty that I find their work hypnotic. Poe and Lovecraft especially seem to me better than most other writers by far.
Name some of your favorite horror films.
How much time do you have! Hmmm…The visual German expressionism of the 20's, the Universal Horrors of the 30's – especially BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE BLACK CAT, Val Lewton in the 40's, the great parade of giant monsters in the 50's, the colorful Corman/Poe and Hammer Horror series of the 60's, the 70's great trio of horror films for me is SUSPERIA, EXORCIST, and ALIEN.
I'm still catching up on the last 3 decades but DAGON, NIGHTBREED, 28 DAYS LATER, and the WALKING DEAD TV series come to mind.
Why do you think older low budget horror films remain popular?
The more entertaining works of 80's Do It Yourself filmmakers have found a new life and a new audience. DIY 80's horror films have now become a recognized genre - their grainy 16mm look is now forgiven, the obvious gusto and enthusiasm of the filmmakers is enjoyed, and the merits of the best of these movies is finally being appreciated. THE DEADLY SPAWN was widely panned when it opened in theaters in 1982, but today it is one of the best reviewed films currently out on DVD. Don Dohler's work today has a loyal fan base and Ed Wood's films are more popular than ever. The budget seems irrelevant if the film is entertaining.
What are your latest projects?
THE RETURN OF GROG is a short film project, and my graphics art project is a Grog "children's" book.
Please in your own words write a paragraph about yourself & your work.
I am a filmmaker, writer, and practical special effects non-specialist - that is, I've worked in many different areas of practical effects - prosthetics, cable control, puppetry, stop-motion, and miniature set construction - but never specialized in any one of them for very long. In 40 years I’ve only had one bad job in the business - I had to make synthetic sliced cheese for a Kraft commercial. I'm partly color blind and it was a nightmare because when you unwrap cheese it quickly changes color. They kept telling me that I'd got the color wrong. I had to turn that job over to someone else!
Apart from that one, I've had a lot of dream jobs and have finally reached my goal of working less hard than I used to and of putting work and life into a sane balance.