Stuart Bray knows a thing or two about making monsters. The rogue’s gallery of his 20-year special effects career includes Shaun of the Dead’s zombies, Doctor Who’s Autons and a whole host of wounds and disfigurements featuring in everything from The Mummy Returns to Saving Private Ryan, and now most recently Doctor Strange. When Directors and producers want someone to get audiences squirming in their seats, Stuart’s the guy they’ve got on speed-dial. We caught up with him to have a relaxing conversation about terrifying monsters, blood-soaked mayhem, and the importance of keeping things messy in an increasingly digital world.
“It’s hard to make things genuinely scary,” he says: ” but the creatures I like the most, I think they have something familiar about them, and speak to something deep inside, a primal fear.”
According to Stuart, it should all start with story:
“The character has to be there first as a concept, from a script or story. Once that’s understood and fully appreciated, you can then work to create the physical representation of that,” he says.
“The last big thing I did was create the hand scars for Dr. Strange. We came up with designs for the hands with makeup department head Jeremy Woodhead. I designed some elements based on the placements they wanted and sculpted several variations and came up with a transfer technique to quickly apply the many scars on both the front and backs of both hands.”
These days, alongside his effects work, he co-hosts the Battles with Bits of Rubber podcast and teaches the next generation of effects artists how to maim and mutilate – but, you know, only with prosthetics.
Stuart’s role has always been very much behind the scenes, but one of his career highlights involved stepping in front of the camera to rip a certain Irish comedian limb-from- limb:
“The dismembering body from Shaun of the Dead was my gag to do, and it was achieved with the use of a fake body section attached to the actor’s neck, with the guts held in a cavity covered by a skin which tore easily. It was fun testing the body and making the limbs detach when pulled, held on by carefully trimmed cable ties. I’m actually the zombie that pulls open Dylan Moran’s stomach to open the guts up – I’m in there for about a second dressed as a zombie!”
Apart from this brief foray into performance, most of Stuart’s time was spent crafting that distinctive Shaun of The Dead zombie look:
“I was one of a team, and credit goes to Stuart Conran for supervising the look of the prosthetics and Jane Walker who was head of makeup (she was also head makeup on Game of Thrones!) We kept everyone’s individual look by working with their face. There was a theme of pale, bruised and freshly dead. There were no ‘walking dead’ rotted corpses except for the main guys like ‘The Hulking Man’ and Ed’s makeup at the end which Stuart Conran did beautifully.”
Stuart also had a hand in one of the most wince-inducing death scenes in Game of Thrones:
“For Game of Thrones Season 4, I made several neck gags which required stabbing and bleeding on camera. Working for Barrie Gower, we developed a cool neck appliance for the character Polliver, who gets stabbed slowly in camera and bleeds out. It was a mix of prosthetics, blood tubing, a retractable blade and CG all mixed onto great performance. That was a satisfying day on set!”
For many, British special effects work has long been synonymous with Doctor Who. The effects in the classic series may have been cheap and cheerful (and even decidedly ropey at times), but despite severe budget limitations the effects team delivered iconic monsters into the living rooms (and nightmares) of entire generations time and time again. With the 2005 reboot, the BBC needed to kick things off with an updated version of one of their classic villains. Stuart Bray was part of that team:
“We made a load of gags and effects at Millennium FX. I was a workshop supervisor on this one and had to oversee the Auton stuff, which were an alien race using shop mannequins as their bodies. We made masks, gloves and various body sections to sell the idea that these crowds of shop dummies had come to life.”
Things had come a long way since the plastic peril first faced up to Jon Pertwee’s Venusian karate in 1970, but some things stayed true to the original production. In particular the stifling lack of cash. In the original Spearhead From Space he the production team couldn’t even afford plate glass to smash onscreen for the scene when Auton dummies launch their invasion from Britain’s shop windows. They had to make do with throwing buckets of pre-broken glass onto the pavement. Stuart’s team felt the pinch as well:
“It was logistically very tricky to do all that on a low budget, and the show hadn’t gotten into its stride yet. There was a lot demanded and as the show progressed, the system of FX became smoother as the crew all understood what could be expected practically.”
Looking back, Stuart sees his time on the Who set as being more frantic than fun:
“We made several masks for adults and children, smooth faces and with stylised features, and trying to make them seamless and with eyeholes which were not obvious on camera was hard. The production didn’t want to see eyeholes yet they also needed crowds of them to run through dark corridors so it was a nightmare trying to patch holes and seams on set between shots.”
While Stuart’s handiwork is most noticeable at its most bloody, the real challenge for him, and what he enjoys working on the most, are far subtler effects.
“My favourite kinds of makeups are the character makeups, clean and precise. When there is no blood or bruising to hide bad edges behind, those kinds of makeups are the best from a crafting point of view. They test you the most.”
“I’d love to work on great character actors who have fantastic faces and who would really suit a cool character makeup. I think someone like William H. Macy or John C. Reilly would be amazing to work with.”
As for the future, many people are concerned at the prospect of digital animation and effects overtaking physical puppetry and prosthetics, but Stuart says he welcomes innovation:
“I am surprisingly in favour of digital stuff where it is better than practical. There are some things it does well, and makes life so much easier and safer for various gags. I think it’s a mistake to think in terms of one or the other,” he says, adding: “The computer is a tool and there is no reason why someone couldn’t do both well if they took the time to learn it. Who better to do a digital prosthetic than someone who already knows about sculpting, painting and anatomy? There has never been more digital stuff, and yet there seems to be more practical stuff too. There is a huge amount of FX work in shows – both digital and practical departments just make more of everything. I see work becoming more sophisticated and materials and techniques becoming ever slicker.”
According to Stuart, the outlook for your favourite films and TV shows of tomorrow is bright, and hopefully still covered in gore.