Shiva Rodriguez is a professional practical effects and FX makeup artist who specializes in the horror genre. She has also worked as an art director, screenwriter, set designer, costume designer and prop builder. She has also worked in a wide range of mediums, including: film, theater, photography projects, exhibit work and haunted house horror attractions. She is shooting her first feature film in 2013, the werewolf film Predatory Moon…
Make sure to visit http://predatorymoon.com/ for more info!
1. You have been doing make up and effects since 1988, starting with haunted houses then moving up to shorts, then films. In terms of time constraints and budgets, which of the three did you find the most rewarding and challenging?
I really can’t choose a favorite between them because they all presented very different challenges. What really attracts me to any project is how challenging it is. With haunted houses, the trick is to come up with “quick scares” that take hardly any time at all to re-set and then hit the next group walking by with. Some were large-budget productions that went all out with elaborate costumes and makeups, and I usually was part of a team that designed characters or planned out the impacts for the maze. Others were produced by charity groups that just relied a lot on actors popping out of dark places and so the challenge there was trying to figure out how to scare the daylights out of people with no budget whatsoever. When I started doing effects for stage and live performances, I had to learn many of the same tricks that magicians use for their illusions. Everything had to be done flawlessly right there in front of an audience, which I think really helped me later on when I went into film and video work.
With film, having the luxury of post-production meant that I could worry less about designing a “one shot gag” and concentrate on the detail work. There I find the challenge to be in getting something to look exactly as it should and knowing that the audience will have a good look at it in closer detail.
2. In addition to being an FX artist, you have worn many other hats in the genre, including art director, screenwriter, set designer, costume designer, and prop builder. In conjunction with your FX work, can you give everyone reading an idea of how juggling all of these responsibilities affects your approach to a project, and other than FX, which of these you find to be the most difficult to accomplish?
I figured out pretty early on that in order to do the type of FX work that I wanted to do, I needed to know a lot about how to fabricate props and build costumes. I actually started out as a costume designer because I couldn’t find an apprenticeship position for FX at the time. Even though I primarily work in FX now, it’s not uncommon at all for me to have to build weapons or costumes as components for an effect.
Also, I have some training as an interior decorator and picked up a lot of set designing skills while working in theatre, so I put that to use when I’m working on projects that need a hand in the art department. Most projects I work on only need me to run FX for a couple days, and I’m usually happy to lend a hand elsewhere on the production if my schedule permits.
I think that almost everyone who works in entertainment eventually comes up with an idea for a screenplay (or dozens of them, for that matter.) I just jot down notes whenever my muse hits me and work on spec scripts in my free time. I also find screenwriting to be the most difficult, simply because you have to take so much into consideration… Who are the characters? Is the plot tight? Do you really need that scene? The hardest thing about it is to having to “kill what you love” while re-writing.
3. You cover three very different aspects of horror fx. Can you explain the differences between Practical FX, “Splatter” FX, Special FX Makeup and Prosthetic Makeup in your films and who your biggest influences are in the fx community?
Practical FX are pretty general, as they can be anything from adding rain outside a window to stabbing someone with a chainsaw as long as they are done without the aid of computer-generated images. (A lot of FX in larger films nowadays are a blend of practical and CGI). It often requires fabricating special props, puppets, or mechanical rigs for the illusion.
“Splatter” FX is just how I describe blood, gore, and messy effects, like splattering brains on a wall after a gunshot hit or dripping blood out of a knife wound. It sounds like it would be easy, but I have dozens of different blood formulas and devices that I use to get just the right blood effect that a director looks for.
Special FX Makeup and Prosthetic Makeups are three-dimensional makeups. Prosthetics are pieces that are glued on to the actor and give the appearance of distorted features, like pixie ears or alien foreheads. Other special effects makeups include making scars and wounds, changing skin texture, adding age or decay to a character, and things like that. It’s really not uncommon for a job to require applications of all three types. For example, running someone through with a chainsaw might involve building the practical weapon gag, fitting the victim with a prosthetic built up around the gag, and then pumping blood through the wound during filming.
My biggest influence for FX has always been Tom Savini. His work in Friday the Thirteenth was what really got me interested in creating horror and casualty illusions for film.
4. You are getting ready to direct Predatory Moon, a feature length werewolf film. As this is your feature film debut as a director, you have chosen a topic that will incorperate heavy fx for the make-up. You are also serving as the writer and director of the film. What led you to pick such a heavy fx creature for your first film, and how do you feel the challenges of heavy fx and directing are going expand your talents in the genre?
I’d written Predatory Moon because I always wanted to do a werewolf transformation. They are notoriously complicated and time-consuming, so I consider that to be the mother of all challenges for myself. I had also assumed that someone else would be directing it. However, when the producing team asked me to consider directing it myself because I had so much experience working with actors in heavy effects scenes, I really couldn’t argue with that logic. I knew that it will be almost impossible for me to direct and do the FX work on set at the same time, and I have been joking about having the crew set up a monitor for me under a table while I’m operating the FX rigs.
Instead, we scheduled a long pre-production period so that I have the time to build all the creatures and FX gags and then train a team to operate them while we are filming. We’re not going to shoot the transformation scene until several weeks after the bulk of principle photography so that I’ll be able to put my full attention on the most complicated FX sequence in the film.
5. While reading the Spotlight on Mel Heflin on the Predatory Moon website, you state “The one female role that I thought I’d have the hardest time filling was the one that required a wide acting range, nudity, and heavy FX makeup. I can’t tell you how excited I was when Mel Heflin came onboard this project!” Many female actors and directors that I have worked with or interviewed have had various opinions about nudity and violence towards women in genre films ranging from acceptable to demeaning. What are your views on these topics, and being a female director, how do you see these elements of our genre progressing in the future?
Generally I don’t have a problem with sex or nudity if film as long as it looks like it belongs in the story. I’ve seen a lot of films where it looked like it was only in there as cheap thrills for the audience. I mean, is absolutely necessary for the babysitter to take off her clothes and dance in front of a mirror after putting the kids to bed? In Predatory Moon, nudity is used in realistic situations that move the story forward.
I also think that the fans have come to expect a degree of sex or nudity as being part of the traditional formula in genre films. Regardless of any personal opinions a director has, sex sells in show business and they do have to look at film-making as a business if they want to be successful. In regard to violence, I think that a lot of horror films have been going more equal-opportunity with victims instead of just focusing on carving up scantly-clad girls like many of the slasher films in the 80s did. We’ve been seeing more female villains too, and they can be just as sadistic as the men.
6. In January, you are having a casting call in Florida for Predatory Moon. You mention on your site that you have done casting work before and do not envy the task. But with this being your first feature film and wanting to bring your artistic vision to the screen, what are you looking for in terms of your actors and actresses and how much freedom are you going to allow in terms of improve?
Above anything else, I’m looking for people who have made a strong commitment to their acting careers and understand that it involves a lot of hard work and sacrifice. Both my parents, my husband, and many of my friends were actors, so I have a deeply-rooted understanding that an actor will often spend a lot of time and money working on one production to another and never make it past having a bit part in a studio blockbuster. At the same time, it’s hard to name many movie stars who didn’t get their start by working hard on low-budget film, television, or theatrical productions. It’s very important for me to have a cast that trusts that I will do everything I can to make this film successful, and that I trust that they will do likewise.
I’m not a very big fan of improv on the set simply because I’ve put in some time in the editing room. In fact, earlier this year I was working on a production where the lead actor was improvising his way through scenes very differently on each take, and all I could think about was how much the editor would be tearing his hair out over that in post while trying to match up dialog and action with different camera angles. However, I also believe that actors should be allowed to contribute to developing their characters, and sometimes that includes having to change dialog. I plan to spend a lot of time working with the actors on their characters before we start shooting. Of course, I can’t dismiss the possibility that something that happens off the cuff while on set might do wonders for the film, so I probably won’t be too much of a stickler about it.
7. One of the more amusing and unique things on the Predatory Moon site is Blood Drive campaign. Jeremy Westrate, your assistant director, talks about killing off different horror monsters everytime you guys meet a milestone on your Indiego site. I found it to be a refreshingly entertaining way to stir up interest and raise funds for the project. How did you come up with this concept and how well has it been received by fans and the crew?
The idea for the Blood Drive came to me one afternoon while I was working on some FX props. We were about to start our Indiegogo campaign and had already been warned that most crowd-funding campaigns really slow down at the halfway mark of their run time. I’d been trying to think of a way to keep people interested at the mid-point, then looked down at my work and thought: Hey, let’s just kill someone every time we meet a milestone. At the time there were only about eight of us on crew, so I pitched the idea to everyone and we decided to go ahead and do it. As an added bonus, we used filming the Blood Drive as being a way to “test drive” some more people who were interested in joining our crew. We ended up having eighteen people out in the middle of nowhere for fourteen hours shooting a series of six slaughter-for-dollars videos. Everyone had a lot of fun and we learned that we all worked amazingly well together on an incredibly difficult shoot.
Unfortunately, while most people I’ve talked to agree that it was a really creative way to try to keep the donations coming in during the slow period of the campaign, it didn’t succeed with actually increasing donations. However, it did attract even more attention to the production as word spread around horror blogs and various social circles about our little publicity stunt.
8. On your site, you state that you have acquired a deep understanding as to why “We’ll fix it in post” is not a good motto. Does that mean you are not a big fan of digital fx and prefer practical make-up for what you do and what are your thoughts on film makers becoming more content with doing things digitally?
My statement had much more to do with my experience with film-makers who let continuity problems slide and just assume that everything can be magically fixed in post. I’ve seen some FX people who get sloppy with their work (let blood tubes peek out from behind actors, not double-check if a blood splatter pattern matches from scene-to-scene, etc…) and they don’t believe that it presents a big headache in editing. I think that there are some film-makers who are getting more dependent on digital effects to fix problems rather than taking the time to prevent problems while shooting. I can usually tell when CGI was planned and when it was thrown in to cover up a mistake.
As far as CGI vs. Practical in FX work, I really think that it a matter of aesthetics as to how well it works for a film. In superhero and sci-fi movies, I expect to see things that are more “unworldly” and good CGI application does just that. However, in films that have a more rugged and realistic feel to them, I think practical effects look much better. One of my favorite films, The Devil’s Rejects, also has one of my favorite examples of how I think a CGI effect can ruin a mood. Throughout the entire film there is a very dirty and gritty feel to the characters and locations, which I thought was done incredibly well. You could practically smell the roadkill. But then in one scene a woman gets a knife to the chest that was done digitally, and it looks too neat, clean, and out-of-character for the general aesthetic of the movie. (I found out later that it was done digitally to save time on the set, which I think was a really bad choice in an otherwise great movie.)
9. You have a “Howl-Out” section on the Predatory Moon site thanking fans and others that have contributed to the funding of the film. How do you feel this has helped the marketing and funding of the film, and do you feel that more directors and producers will be doing this to thank the fans on the genre?
We just felt that it was common courtesy to thank someone for helping out the production. We also do Howl-Outs on our Twitter and Facebook feeds to thank our contributors, and we’ve seen that a lot of people enjoy being recognized in that way. Of course, some of our supporters do choose to remain anonymous and we respect their wishes as well.
I’ve contributed to other film campaigns before and some were very quick to thank me while I never heard so much as a peep from others. Obviously I am more inclined to support more projects from people who expressed their appreciation for their fans. I’d like to think that more producers and directors will take this approach, and I understand that many do keep in touch with their fans by using Twitter and Facebook pages.
10. While I see that you have worn many different hats with the various projects that you have worked on, I noticed that one in particular is not listed. Do you have any aspirations to act in any films, and if not, why?
Actually, I have appeared in a couple films. I was dragged kicking and screaming in front of the camera and told that it was absolutely necessary to have me there. I did do some stage acting up through my 20s, but I really just never developed the desire to be a professional actor. I always tell people that I don’t want to be the person on the stage, I want to be the bloke in the mask behind the scenes that drops the chandelier on her!
11. While digital has become the format of choice for most low to micro budget indie films due to ease of editing and cost, what format are you planning to shoot Predatory Moon in, and if given the choice (taking budget out of the equation) which format would you shoot in and do you prefer?
We are shooting digital for Predatory Moon. Given the advancement in the technology with digital, I have to trust my DP when he tells me that there is no excuse for going back to celluloid except for wanting to spend a lot of money. I think that any money is better spent in adding production value with the art departments rather than the bragging rights to whatever type of camera you’re filming with. I’ve seen really bad films shot on RED ONE cameras and really extraordinary films shot on home camcorders. And I think we can all agree that there have been some real stinkers shot on celluloid too.
12. As an FX artist, what are your thoughts on horror films becoming more “gore for gore’s sake” and do you think that with the modern horror film that this becoming more and more the norm, or are we going to start seeing more story since violence is taking the center stage in our society since the recent rash of shootings in our country?
Some of my favorite horror movies are “torture porn” films that have a good story behind them. The Saw series amazed me because it kept my attention all the way through seven films with an interesting plot and a very complex villain. I loved Hostel II for its originality with a behind-the curtain story, great characters, and fun plot twists. At the same time, I just grow bored with films that feature a killer with the personality of a turnip graphically hacking his way through victims that might as well be delivered to him on a conveyor belt. A few years ago I saw a movie which I’m fairly certain was just three people performing the same torture session repeatedly with the victim being switched out every ten minutes or so.
I think that the trends will come and go in the genre, and you’ll always have those die-hard fans of the sub-genres that a few film-makers will cater to. Right now you can’t throw a stone without hitting a “Paranormal Whatever” film, but movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D are still being made too. People who go for the gore aren’t going to stop watching movies just because terrible things happen in real life.
13. In addition to Indiego, how do you feel that social media has impacted our genre in terms of promoting and making films?
Honestly, a project like Predatory Moon would not have been possible to get into production on its tiny budget were it not for social media, and I think that holds true for a lot of other micro-budget projects as well. Having the ability to easily find and network with other film-makers, both local and distant, is priceless. Many of our supporters wouldn’t have ever heard about the project had it not been mentioned on horror blogs or posted on Facebook and Twitter by other fans. I frequently hear from people who learned about Predatory Moon via social media and offer to contribute their services and resources toward getting the film made.
14. You are working on your directorial debut, but in the future, what would be your dream project and who else in the industry would you like to work with?
This may be a little surprising, but my dream project is actually to produce the very first feature-length screenplay I ever wrote (which took me about eight years of researching to complete.) It’s a dramatic biography about the Paris executioner during the French Revolution that did fairly well in contests and has been my “signature script” for years. I’d need at least forty million dollars to produce on the low end. I think that someone like Johnny Depp would be interested in working on it.
15. What advice would you give to up and coming FX artist and directors looking to break into the industry today?
As a director, I would say that the respect of your cast and crew is one of your most valuable assets when working on a film. Film is a collaborative medium and while being the director generally puts you “in charge”, it’s very important to remember that the people working with you are all playing a necessary part in the production as well and often have experience in areas that you don’t. I tell everyone who asks me for advice about getting into FX work is that it is really 10% know-how and 90% making things up as you go along.
I have a blog (http://shivarodriguez.blogspot.com) where I post essays about my experiences as an FX artist and offer advice for beginners so they can avoid making some pretty common (and sometimes pretty painful) mistakes.