As War of the Worlds unfolds, pioneer Charles Gemora demonstrates
HOW TO MAKE A MARTIAN
By Diana Gemora as told to Tom Weaver
Hey, who's the gorilla in this flick?" That's a question asked for decades by fans of such legendary films as The Unholy Three, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Monster and the Girl - even classic comedies with the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy.
Well, my father was the gorilla, and he was a great deal more. My father was awesome in his capacity to do everything, from makeup to monster-making to portrait-painting. Starting as soon as I was old enough, I helped him do everything: Building his gorilla suits (crocheting the yak hairs on, three at a time), prepping monsters, mixing and baking latex, keeping clay moist for his incredible sculptures cleaning brushes, sweeping and cleaning the makeup lab. I was the original studio brat, raised on the Paramount lot every free day from the age of three 'til I became a stunt double for children at 18-and during that time, I was also the original "sorcerer's apprentice" to my wonderfully multi-talented father, Charles Gemora.
What many people have lost sight of is Charlie's influence on the makeup industry and his many achievements. "Studio blood" that didn't stain. Lipstick in a tube. The first Kleenex box. Falsies, "Whipped" latex that felt spongy, like skin. Having been Lon Chancy Sr.'s apprentice, his credits wrap around the whole foundation of the movie industry. His generosity of spirit reached beyond his ego and allowed him to give just about all his ideas away. He wasn't a businessman, he only wanted to do his art, and he couldn't care less who got the credit as long as everything came out all right. He was a true "mad scientist" and inventor, and at home we had a special FX lab that wrapped around the swimming pool on a cliff that overlooked Hollywood and Vine. It was too unreal even for Hollywood.
Charlie was still working at his "home studio" Paramount in 1952, when I was 12 years old. As the head of the makeup lab there, his latest assignment was to make the Martian for producer George Pal's The War of the Worlds. One day that year, I had just put my hair up in curlers, the big wire curlers that were still being worn back then. Little do I know what adventures await me that night. As soon as I finish, my father, the great Charlie, comes rushing in, gulps down his usual dinner (rice and pickled fish out of a jar) and then tells me we are on a "mission" and it will take all night. He grabs me by the arm and out we go, curlers and all. I never protested, no matter how weird or bizarre his flights of fancy, because I loved being his mad apprentice.
On the ride to Paramount in his 1951 Cadillac convertible, Charlie explains to me that he had already made a Martian for The War of the Worlds - but now, at practically the last moment, the art director has decided that the Martian is too big to work on the set (a devastated farmhouse). Gee, I thought, the monster should be the main attraction-not the set. But in those days, even though the story might revolve around the monster or FX, the technicians (i.e., props and makeup) were at the beck and call of the art directors. So Charlie has to rebuild the entire monster, using some of the same mechanisms, in time for an 8 a.m. shoot the next day. It's already 7 p.m. The thought "Good luck!" comes to mind.
At Paramount, Charlie's lab was specially built for him in the upper corner of a sound-stage, just about mid-lot, making easy access to every set. It was a suite of rooms, one containing hundreds of life masks (some dating back to the '20s), used as reference for every star he had ever worked on. There was the latex room, the special FX makeup room, the storage areas and lots of nooks and crannies.
We arrive to more than the usual chaos - limbs, masks, plaster dust, wet stuff all over the place. Charlie throws me what looks like an automobile headlight. It's actually the salvaged eye from the original, "too-big" Martian. I have serious doubts about making this thing look realistic. I become even more dubious after seeing some of the sketches for the arms and body. It seems to me that our Martian is going to look like a mushroom.
The latex sheeting from the original Martian has been "compromised," so Charlie must start from square one. The new wood armature for the small replacement Martian has already been constructed (he had started at 4 p.m., just before coming home for dinner). Standing about three and a half feet tall, its top is bulging with the beginning of the chicken wire form for the head. Besides the headlight eye, the only parts of the "old" Martian we'll be able to use for our "new" alien are the arms, which now seem too long for the shorter body.
A master at working under pressure, Charlie dives right in. He's always one step ahead of himself; his eye sees the process steps ahead, and he goes at it so feverishly, you would think he was working from a blueprint. He tears the remainder of the other monster apart for whatever pieces we can re-use, then we mold the chicken wire around the new armature like a capped mushroom. I hold up the old Martian's arms, up and into the wire, and he sculpts it like the expert he is-always using the flowing curve, the graceful line. The old Martian arms have been made around wood two-by-twos, hinged at the elbow. By now, the tape on them is starting to unwind and fall away. Oh, no! Another added layer of work, but not unexpected.
On goes more chicken wire, but leaving the "back" of the Martian open so that Charlie can just kneel into it-Charlie, of course, will be the one inside the Martian when it comes time to shoot. Charlie works quickly, speaking to me the whole time: "Get this," "Do that," "Turn that on," "Hand me that," "Quicker! Quicker!"
Around the armature-and-chicken-wire framework, we begin gluing on rubber sheeting. Then 'round and 'round with plaster bandages - wet bandages with plaster dust in them - around the head and torso. They'll harden as they dry and give it all some structure and strength.
The rubber sheeting for the Martian head was pre-made. Charlie had gotten down a technique for gooey globs of rubbery stuff. He can make it translucent with veins showing distinctly, or opaque with clusters of cloudy veins like a hemorrhage or dye or paint it any way he wants.
Now the real fun begins as Charlie, the envy of any Dr. Frankenstein, starts what I call his "process": On go the machines. He has a giant latex mixer (converted from a drill press), and he puts it to work on a huge vat of what looks like thick whipped cream. (Charlie came up with the technique of beating foam latex and, at the same time, aerating it via an air hose in the vat.) Then he throws in the catalyst, waits five minutes and - voila! - it gets painted and spatula-ed onto the Martian, like frosting a cake.
The fact that he conceived these innovations is even more incredible when you know his background. The youngest of 18 children, Carlos Cruz "Charlie" Gemora was born on June 15, 1903, on Negros, the biggest island in the Philippines. His father died when he was very young, and at this point, the story begins to read like a swashbuckler novel: Each of the 18 children were willed a million acres on Negros. But the eldest brother took over the assets, forcing even his own mother to relinquish her rights. Charlie ran away to the capital city of Manila and, along with other native youths, dove for pennies thrown from ships. He was later found by the eldest brother and sequestered in a monastery where, according to the brother's scheme, he would stay until he was old enough to sign his land away (Charlie was then nine). But at 15, he was in the monastery on a death watch with a body that suddenly rose straight up into the sitting position (an effect of rigor mortis). That was it! Charlie got up and walked out, never looking back.
He returned to Manila, drawing sailors and begging to be stowed away on a ship bound for the U.S. of A. Finally, he charmed some sailors who took him on board their ship and hid him. Halfway through the journey, a pressure valve got stuck and it was necessary for a very small person to wrench it open. Charlie to the rescue! As a reward, he was given the freedom of the ship and smuggled past Customs at the port of Long Beach.
Charlie began earning a living in America by washing bottles for a dairy, and somehow he ended up renting a room at the Westmore Boarding House. Soon, he and the Westmore boys were camping out in a gully across from Universal Studios, hoping to be used as extras on "cattle call" jobs. When Charlie began drawing people as they exited the studio, he was immediately snatched up by the art department. The Westmores, who were also brought in around that time, all ended up in makeup, but Charlie started with sets. He did most of the sculptures on the facade of the Cathedral for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and designed and was in charge of building the soundstage for The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Even though this Martian is a big job with a hard-and-fast deadline, it's just my father and me. Nobody worked with him, he always worked alone. If he really needed help with something, he would bring in my brother Pat or me. In those days, the unions wouldn't raise a fuss about a man's kids coming on set and being there to help.
The alien's head still needs lots of work, and I have to hold the headlight-eye up as Charlie wires around it. It's quite a precarious operation. He has to make more sheeting as we go, so the kiln is cranking. He realizes that - since he'll be on his knees inside the Martian when they shoot the scene-the electric wiring powering the eye needs to be strung up out of the way, across the top of the head. To camouflage the wiring, he decides to add veins like the ones on the arms. "Impromptu" should have been his middle name!
Time is beginning to run short-we have to move fast, no time to think! Charlie uses lots of gauze to get the Martian's "curves" nice and graceful. He puts very thin sheets of latex on over the metal of the eye, and chuckles as he adds the lid. Suddenly, this headlight is starting to look like it's staring back at me. Cool!
As we begin putting the finishing touches on the Martian, it's like we're in a time warp: We're moving as the clock runs down, but it feels as though everything around us has frozen still. Charlie runs air tubing (for the veins) along the arms and head, and "frosts" and colors it as we go. What stands out in my mind is the sheer joy he has when it comes time to get artistic. The hard part is now behind him, and he's able to "loosen up" artistically. We paint the Martian with studio blood and glycerin, to keep that wet look, which is a great asset (the wetter, the better!). Charlie starts having fun with the coloring, making it darker around the veins. I suddenly realize that the old skin is showing through and giving a deeply translucent and realistic effect. The throbbing of the veins is going to be accomplished by what is called the Venturi Suction Effect: The air tubing in the arms and head will run to both the pressure and vacuum sides of an air compressor. Operating the compressor with a "hand clicker" will cause the tubes to pulse like veins. Pure genius! And it's going to be my job to control the air!
It's getting close to dawn and time is moving fast. Our Martian monster is barely together when Charlie has me start cleaning up. Pretty soon there will be someone coming to approve the alien, and Charlie wants all the mess cleared. Sure enough, just as the Sun comes up, somebody does stop in to check the Martian out, to be certain that it's going to be ready on time. It might be George Pal, but I can't say for sure. Whoever it is, he says it looks good to him. We've just done a project that should have taken days in hours.
The Martian is now together, standing on a wooden pallet. The next major challenge will be getting it onto a furniture mover (with casters) and transporting it to the set. Charlie grabs wet sheets and the biggest rags we can find, anything to cover the alien and hold it together as we roll it out. We will have the help of two prop men in moving it. The lab has a long ramp down to the ground floor for just such times. I'm now very nervous.
Up goes the Martian onto the mover. The vibration of movement makes some of the tape start to come loose. Unsure whether to laugh or cry, I begin laughing. Our Martian is like a big mound of taped-up Jell-O. The two prop men do the actual moving while Charlie and I try to keep it together, holding the sheets and rags around it. Wrapped up in sheets, the Martian looks like E.T. in the Halloween scene. We push the monster to the set, barely able to keep it together, treating it like the extremely delicate object that it is.
The wrecked farmhouse set is spectacular in its profound dark scariness. It is Klieg back-lit, with shafts of light streaming up through Venetian blinds. Surrounded by heavy darkness, and with those beams of light shining out like beacons, it's like a living charcoal drawing. I now understand what the art director had in mind, and I know he has done the right thing in making such a night of wonderful madness for us.
First things first. We take the rags off the Martian, mash, mush and push, repaint and pull out the sprayer for the final "wet" look. Glycerin and studio blood here, some Vaseline there, a dab more purple on the veins.
By now I am as profoundly tired as the set is scary, but I realize Charlie's day has just begun and I'm the young one. I pull myself together for the "real" work. The Martian is so small that Charlie has to be on his knees inside of it - and now he realizes that he can't move around in the Martian on his own. The whole thing needs to be on a dolly with casters, and will have to be pulled by wires. Now he has to figure out how to work around the electric cord, air hose and guide wires. The really funny thing is watching as Charlie tries to coach the prop men working the pull wires. As they pull, he goes off one way and then another and awkwardly teeters back and forth. It will be a disaster if the Martian falls over!
Charlie also has to "work" the Martian arms in the scene. Of course, they're the arms made for the first, larger Martian, and so long that Charlie can't reach into them far enough to move the three suction-cup-tipped fingers. To solve that problem, he has attached to the inside of each of the three fingers a wire with a small ring on the far end. The three wires come up the arm to where he can reach them and the small rings, which go over his fingertips. Every time he pulls on those rings, the Martian fingers pull in; when he lets them go, the Martian ringers flex out. It's very realistic movement for its day. So realistic, even I get scared - although I helped make it!
Since I'll be working the clicker to make the veins throb, I have to be wedged under the set floorboards. (The floor of the farmhouse set is about two feet up off the soundstage floor, so they can get low-angle shots.) Down underneath I go, all balled up and crunched, my curlers catching on snags. I'm told to respond to "Pump! Pump!"
Charlie falls to his knees and gets inside the Martian, putting his arms into its arms. I adjust myself into position under the floorboards, a clicker in each hand. Lights! Camera! Action! At the appropriate cues, it's "Pump! Pump! Pump! Pump!" as Charlie is pulled across the scene. I'll never forget the absolute comedy of that poor monster barely holding together and my Dad inside of it, teetering, trying to breathe life into his creation, while at the same time remembering marks and yelling, "Pump! Pump!" The suit is almost melting from still being wet-the foam rubber hasn't even "cured" yet. This is seriously funny to me. But, sure enough, the reverse-suction pump blows air into the veins, making them full, and then sucks the air out, making them collapse. My click-click-clicking makes them look like they're pulsating.
I don't remember the reaction of the people on the set to the scene after it's finished; I'm so tired, I just want to go to sleep. I hazily recall falling asleep in the lab until Charlie drove me home at lunchtime. What I remember distinctly is the wonderful relief of taking out those darn curlers. It was a night (and morning) not to be forgotten.
The great surprise came months later, when we went to see the movie - and it looked so real. The wet, unfinished look gave the Martian a slimy, living appearance. Watching the scene, you see how the body movement is kind of "teetery." I still can't watch the end of that scene (the Martian running away from Gene Barry and Ann Robinson) without remembering those funny off-camera prop guys giving Charlie such a yank that he almost fell backward! My single letdown is that the Martian is only on-camera about 15 seconds, and it's difficult to see the great vein action on the head created by my feverish clicking. To this day, when I see War of the Worlds, I still wish for "Just a little more time - please!"
But what really struck me, watching the movie for the first time in a theater 50 years ago in 1953, was that I actually was scared to death. Believe it or not, even though I knew the entire process involved in making that Martian, the effect was so incredible and intense that to this day I still get the same feeling that I had when I was a child. All the reasons I thought Charlie's War of the Worlds Martian wouldn't work turned out to be the things that made it one of the classic movie monsters.