Phantom Sharks and Mutant Alligators Come to Life at Shark City Ozark
For as glamorous as it looks from the outside, the entertainment industry is an extremely tough business. For every international superstar, there are thousands of actors, directors, writers and production crew members who are struggling to get by in such a demanding, hyper-competitive business. This is especially true for practical special effects artists: With Hollywood's desire to go digital, artists who aim to keep practical effects alive in both movies and television are facing increasingly steeper challenges from production companies that see CGI as sure-fire means of saving time and money--albeit at the steep expense of quality effects work and fan satisfaction.
Entering the fray of practical special effects services is Shark City Ozark (SCO), a creature effects shop in Missouri. I've been in contact with SCO about their latest projects, the recent SyFy production of Ghost Shark (read my review here) and the upcoming Ragin' Cajun Redneck Gators, which airs on SyFy this Thursday, September 5th at 9 p.m. (Fans of the 1959 creature feature Alligator People should check out Redneck Gators, since both films seem to be cut from similar creative cloth.) SCO provided mechanical creature effects work for both films and given my fascination with mechanical monsters, SCO let me post some of their behind-the-scenes production photos of their work and shared some insights with me about what it's like to break into a field where hands-on monster making isn't nearly as valued as it should be. Click below to continue.
If you're familiar with SCO's work with their mechanical shark maquettes from Jaws and Jaws 2, then you know that the folks at SCO know their movie sharks. Thus, the scaled-sized mechanical shark that SCO provided for Ghost Shark is clearly a labor of love, even if the film doesn't do the shark itself justice. Here are some examples of conceptual art by SCO for Ghost Shark:
When I contacted SCO owner Mike Schultz about SCO's mechanical shark, he mentioned a few details to me that didn't make it into the film. "I built him so he could bend into a deep 'C' curve and thrash around and snap like a Deep Blue Sea Mako, but by the time we went before camera all he was allowed to do was shake his head a little and barely snap his jaws," he told me. "We knew when we got the script what we were in for, but how often does one get the chance to make a mechanical shark for a film?!"
As you can see from the photos above, SCO's mechanical shark was mostly inserted into the movie through green screen shots. (Given its amount of detail and its original range of motion, it's a shame that this shark wasn't around for the miniature shots in Jaws 3D.) Of course, SCO didn't just provide a shark that could do dry green screen work--it could do water shots as well:
As someone who is all thumbs with even the simplest of plastic model kits, my head spins to consider how someone can make both movie-accurate mechanical shark collectibles and a movie-ready mechanical shark that works for both dry and wet shots. Did I also happen to mention that unlike another mechanical shark named "Bruce", SCO's shark never broke down once during production? "I provided extensive art design and story-boarding for almost every key sequence," Schultz mentioned. "Ghost Shark required extensive design work and story-boarding with the shark attack sequences, although much of the action simply ended up as transparent blurs shooting through the frame. I'm not really sure why so few ideas made it to the final print. Then again, when schedules are changed four times a day and things must be done on such a tight deadline, I can understand why much of what we loved, planned for and of what they wanted never made it to print. You just do the best that you can and move to the next need to fulfill."
So with Ghost Shark done, what can we expect this week from Ragin' Cajun Redneck Gators? Unfortunately, Schultz doesn't know. "I am not sure what parts of my gator work will air at this point," he said. "They contacted me really late in production. I actually had to set aside painting the nearly completed ghost shark to make these various gators and gator parts for them and then return back to finish the shark, which was due on another set only days later--and with us running it! I do know that they filmed everything we built and shipped to them, but how much will survive has us really wondering. We'll just have to watch with everybody else."
According to Schultz, SCO made a gator head, tail, and 4-foot long dead baby gator prop for Redneck Gators. Here are some pictures of the concept art and completed work:
"We're really proud of our polyfoam-gators," Schultz added. "When you look at our gators closely, you will see that every scale and wrinkle and armor plate is anatomically correct. We did not make all of the gators for the film, but what we built looks real and scary. The actors did not have to pretend that something was there either. There is very little that cannot be done with a realistic looking practical creature right there on the same set with the actors and crew."
So with so much work to do and so little time to do it, will SCO keep making monsters for future creature features? Absolutely! "I want to keep doing these things," Schultz told me. "These have been roller-coaster adventures for all of us. We'll endure the ever-changing schedules, the crazy scripts, the rushed late hours and last second creature changes. We want to be there on location again. We want to be racing those insane deadlines and trying to make things better and memorable. We love the green screen and the hot stage lights and the cold stale food. We love breathing life into polyfoam and silicon. We build these living things and get to travel to location and operate them. We want these same people to call us back and we want to make more monsters for them."
Click here to see more behind-the-scenes photos from Ghost Shark and Ragin' Cajun Redneck Gator, as well as photos for another upcoming production called Bering Sea Beast.