THE MASTER OF ORGANIC TECHNOLOGY
- By David Sanger
Today's Monster Maker Interview features the inimitable, ingenious Bill Bryan.
CLICK on the video above to watch the FULL Monster Maker Interview
For years, Bill was Steve Johnson's secret weapon at Steve Johnson's XFX, designing creatures in the wild boom times of the 1980s and 90s out of plastic bags, foam and air. He brought his special skills and knowledge to the Stan Winston Studio on JURASSIC PARK III and other projects, but is perhaps still best known for his turn as the suit-maker and performer of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from GHOSTBUSTERS. In today's interview, Bill explains where he came from, the extraordinary meeting of luck and talent that brought him to success as a Hollywood creature fabricator, and gives some insight into his unique and entertaining creative process. Come join the ride.
Pictured above: Bill Bryan puppeteers a slimy, inverted , tentacled, Alien SNOOT in this still from his SWSCA lesson with Steve Johnson.
SO YOU CAN BE A PUPPETEER ALL YOUR LIFE
Bill's earliest inspirations were, naturally, Jim Henson's muppets. "Actually, I didn't think that film was something that ordinary people could do. I saw a show by Jim Henson and Frank Oz called MUPPETS ON PUPPETS, where they showed how to make a Muppet, and I was way into the Muppets, just because...why wouldn't you be? And we happened to have some foam and some glue, and that was how they showed us how to make a puppet. And so I made one, and my mom's best friend said, 'Oh, you make puppets. Can you put on a show for us next week?' I had my midterms then, but I thought, this is more important. So later on, after I had done my puppet show and hadn't done that well on my midterms, my dad said, 'Oh, great. So you can be a puppeteer all your life.' Sounded good. Why not? So that's how it really started. I actually didn't know even then that there was a possible life in it.
Bill went on to study metal-smithing at Syracuse University, though he became involved with the students majoring in communications. "One of them asked me if I would make a plant costume for a plant food commercial that he was doing for a class. It just so happened that one of the guys, the guy who was doing the announcing for the commercial, his name was Bruce Tufeld. His father, Dick Tufeld, did the voice of the Lost in Space robot. Dick was in town, in Syracuse, seeing his son and giving some lectures, and he happened to sit in at the shooting. He was in the control booth. The director went in and said, 'So what do you think, Mr. Tufeld? Is there a place for me in Hollywood' And Dick said, 'No, but there's a place for the guy that made that costume.' Bill followed up that lead and ended up with an introduction to the wardrobe department at CBS.
Pictured Above: Some of the animal creature costumes Bill Bryan fabricated during his tenure for NBC Television.
A VERY LUCKY GUY
"I'm a very lucky guy, okay?" Bill admits. "I hitchhiked. I hopped freights. I got to California in one piece, such as it is." Bill got his first job making walk-around costumes for a place called Fantasy Fair, a contact he got from someone who picked him up hitchhiking. After that, one of Dick Tufeld's leads, Kelly Kimball at NBC, offered Bill more costume work. "My first job was making a new duck body for Disco Duck. Rick Dees did his Disco Duck song and he had a fiberglass costume that he was wearing and it was extremely uncomfortable. So, with my knowledge of foam, I went over and we made him one of those, and it went on from there. I was there for five years working on, oh, SONNY AND CHER, and DONNY AND MARIE, and BOSOM BUDDIES, Tom Hanks' first show, if you remember that one."
NBC kept Bill on payroll making animal costumes which ultimately got used in projects as varied as THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN, THE GONG SHOW and INNER SPACE. He moved from NBC to a brief stay with Sid and Marty Croft where he met Mark Siegel. When Mark was at Don Post Studios, the famous latex mask company, Mark was brought on to do space suits for David Lynch's DUNE. According to Billy, "They wanted him to sculpt them and cast them in latex. Mark said, 'You know what? That's the wrong way. Call this guy.' He called me in. We constructed them all out of foam, and coated them with latex. We made 300 of them, I think. Something like that."
Pictured above: Mark Siegel, Jerry Goodman and Bill Bryan contributed to the methodology of the stillsuits featured in David Lynch's DUNE.
BEING STAY PUFT - A CAREER IN FOAM AND PLASTIC
One of the people Bill worked with building the Dune suits was, Linda Frobos, a sculptor. As Bill says, "She happened to know that I built with foam. She also happened to know, because of a photograph she'd seen, that I had performed Shakespeare at Will Gere's Theatricum Botanicum. And so when they asked her if she knew somebody who could build and portray the Stay Puft marshmallow man, she said, 'Yes, I do. Here's his number.'" He goes on to say, "One of the first memories was when I called my mom to tell her that I was going to be in a movie. And she said, 'Really? What are you going to be?' And I said, 'A giant marshmallow man.' She said, 'Oh, that's very interesting.'" And that break was all it took to really start Bill's film career. "I dropped into there where I first met Steve Johnson, who gave me, I guess, my first real job in the film industry."
Pictured above: A very young Bill Bryan as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man from GHOSTBUSTERS, photo by Marc Tyler courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH w/STEVE JOHNSON
When Steve Johnson opened up his own creature shop, he brought Bill Bryan along to provide the sort of alternative approach to sculpting, molding and casting that had proven success with the Marshmallow Man. Each new job called for new and different innovations. Bill says, "I find that I can be more innovative if I just pretend I don't know anything. If I just let it all go blank, and then study the assignment, whatever it might be, and approach it from a newcomer's point of view. Okay, granted, I'm not really a newcomer. I have enough bits and pieces of information that will join up in my beginner's mind and help me out. But if I approach it as if I don't know anything, then I end up connecting things that might not ordinarily be connected. In the instance of the plastic bags, it was, 'This stuff is made for putting trash in, and everybody's used them. But it's also a thin membrane that can be filled with air and fluid and whatever.'
Bill says that the piece he's proudest of is the Slug Guy from MEN IN BLACK. "It was all made out of plastic bags. But I got to weld together the little tricycle arrangement that I had under me. I got to figure out how the mechanism on the wheels was going to work, and how it was going to activate the tentacles. And this critter had so much going on that you never see all of it. It was what, probably a 4 second shot. But it's got inflatable antennae, delicate, feathery antennae. It's got stuff going on inside the head...So, yeah, all the stuff in there, nobody will ever know all that was in it, but I know. And I'm kind of proud of it."
Pictured above: The Slug Guy, or Grouchy, as he came to be known, performed and fabricated by Bill Bryan at Steve Johnson's EdgeFX for MEN IN BLACK.
TAKING US PLACES WE'VE NEVER BEEN BEFORE
Bill also had the opportunity to work at Stan Winston Studio. On JURASSIC PARK III, Bill was instrumental in solving the challenge of the Pteranadon wings. "They already had in storage these wings...but they were massive molds that they'd made for casting wafer thin wings. I had a feeling it wasn't it, so I started throwing some ideas down. If we stretch this spandex and dot some latex on it, I knew that we could get some texture on there. But then, to take it the next step and silkscreen foam latex onto this stretched spandex, that ended up being the approach we used. Because it was foam latex, you could texturize it after it had been silkscreened, and before it was baked. So it would have not only the separation on the screen, but also the texture on the surface."
Bill shares a moment with Stan, "One of the wings was standing there, and I was texturizing it. Stan Winston walked up behind me and he kind of looked around and he whispered, 'I won't say this in front of anybody else, but I consider you one of the great finds that we have at the shop here today. You're taking us places we've never been before. But don't expect me to say it out loud.' Okay. At least I got it. It was nice to hear."
Pictured above: Ever the performer. An even younger young Bill Bryan has a pan-pipe solo as 'Puck' from A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM!
For future generations that might be inspired by Bill's work the way Bill was inspired by Jim Henson and others, Bill leaves us with this message, "I think, if you think you're a creative person, there's no reason not to try to prove it. Dig in. Try to make your dreams come true. Because if you don't, you certainly won't. If you do...you just might."
- David Sanger
For the EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW simply click the player at the top of the page.
More from Bill Bryan:
Artist Bio Page HERE.