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LIMBO interview w/ Tim Martin

Today I had the chance to sit down with creature effects artist Tim Martin to discuss his latest film, LIMBO.

A man drives alone through the desert, full of regrets. A relationship ended, or perhaps ending as he drives. He pulls over. Stranded and distraught, he wanders into the desert and stumbles across a dying, mystical dog. He gives the dog water and in return for this kindness it offers to grant him a single wish.

Shot on 35mm film, LIMBO is a stark but moving adaptation of a graphic novella by comic book artist Marian Churchland.

Tim is best known for his work on the Rami Spider-Man films, The Thing (2011), It (2017), Fantastic Four, and Hellboy. For more information on LIMBO and where you can see it, visit them on Facebook.

Where are you from?   

Firstly, I am originally from Fort Bragg, North Carolina as a child. My father was in the army so we moved around a lot more than the average person. I ended up in Tampa, Florida for high school then I moved to Los Angeles in 1999 when I was 23. So basically I used to say that I am from the East Coast but now I have been here for nearly 18 years so I'm pretty much Californian.

When did you discover movies? Is there a film that inspired you to get into special effects/creature design?

I discovered movies at a very early age, which to me should be a common statement but I have met a lot of people in my journeys that did not grow up having movies in their lives. I also like to think that growing up in the 80s was the pinnacle time to be a childhood movie buff.

I'm sure the film that inspired me the most to get into special make up FX would have to have been the original Alien. That film came out when I was three years old but I hardly remember a time growing up when I didn't have it in my mind, I know that I saw it when I was very young and it has been one of my favorite movies my entire life. Of course the Star Wars movies inspired a lot of creativity in me early on As well as the Terminator, Aliens, and then Predator.

As a 40-year-old, Tom Savini was the first special effects artist who I was aware of. I had a deep love for horror films and started making backyard zombie shorts when I was in middle school. Armed with my copy of Grande Illusions, we shot dozens if not hundreds of VHS shorts. When was the first time you picked up a camera, can of rubber cement, or bottle of Kayro Syrup to start experimenting on your own?

I started my art career too young to actually remember how old I was. I started drawing monsters as a child and by the time I was 15, I started sculpting maquettes in my bedroom with Super Sculpey. When most kids nowadays are playing video games, I spent most of my free time making as many cool things as I possibly could with my hands.

One of your early experiences in Hollywood was woking on AI: Artificial Intelligence. Right out of the gate you were working on a Speilberg/Kubrick project. Most people I speak with slowly ramp up over many years to get a gig on a show like that. How was that experience? Did you feel ready?

To make things perfectly clear to your readers as to how this industry works, my early experience with the film Ai was a very exciting one but as a young make up FX artist I was just a cog in the wheel. I didn't go on set and work directly with Steven Spielberg, I was at Stan Winston's studio in the mold department making fiberglass and silicone molds of the robots. It's where a lot of artists have gotten their start, mold shops and technical jobs that is. It is still an extremely small and very competitive industry where I still have to fight to get creative, sculptural and design projects. And unfortunately for the last 20 years the industry has gotten much smaller and the work a lot lighter because of CGI. I did however, very recently have the opportunity to physically, sculpturally design the new  xenomorph creature for Neil Blomkamp's now debunked Alien 5 and the new Rodan for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, in which I sculpted the design maquettes out of clay, which nowadays is very rare when most design work is done in the computer. Michael Doherty the director of G2 really gravitated towards my design, and it wasn't the medium that was important but the fact that the design was strong. I feel this is something also lost nowadays with the advent and subsequent overuse of CGI, there are a lot of people with technical computer skills but not the design strength.

Did the job on AI lead to your relationship with Stan Winston Studios?

Stan Winstons was one of the first places I was able to get my foot into the door, I am currently working at Legacy FX which is the company created after Stan passed away in 2008. He was always someone I admired greatly as a kid and it was such a privilege to have worked for him and met him when he was alive and now I have done several tutorials with his son, Matt Winston at the Stan Winston School of Character Arts online, keeping his legacy, pun intended, and spirit of character creation alive.

Is there a creature effect that still blows your hair back no matter how many times you see it? Does working in the industry increase or decrease your appreciation of creature effects?

The creature in fact that still stands up today and was always an inspiration and influence on my career would have to be in John Carpenter's The Thing. The scene where the creature explodes out of the guys stomach, his head rips itself away from the body onto the floor and then sprouts legs and crawls away. Come on! Still so f***** cool! I had the opportunity to work on the prequel in 2011, unfortunately all of the amazing work we did with the real life puppets was covered in post with, of course, CGI. The end result was in my opinion very unsatisfying. Listen, I'm actually a very big fan of computer-generated images as long as they are appropriate and done well. I think truly it's a matter of lazy filmmaking to just cram all of these effects in post regardless of how they look. Practical, real life special make up FX is a truly unique art form that shouldn't disappear from film.

Could you talk a bit about how you came on board LIMBO?

I honestly don't remember how I came to be a part of LIMBO. Lol. In my business sometimes people just find me on social media or they will call the studio I was working at and if it was something they couldn't do at the time it could get passed along to me. Regardless, I met Will Blank the director about making an animatronic  dog for his project and we hit it off instantly. He is a great and talented guy who has a lot of respect and patience for the art form that I do. He was all about doing a real life puppet that we could have on set, my kind of guy.  I had a great time making the dog, it is not something I usually would do on my own but it was a challenge to say the least. As usual, I was working on a limited budget, unable to hire a big crew for what would be a pretty extensive piece of animatronics.

It seems like the key to this particular creature is in the eyes. Having it voiced by Sam Elliot certainly doesn't hurt but the eyes are what seem to give him life. Do you approach your designs from a specific place like the eyes and work from there? 

Will's primary direction was that he wanted the dog to exude emotion from its eyes, "the windows to the soul". It was a beautiful concept and something I think would have easily been taken for granted. So from that point, A lot of my attention went into making those eyes as beautiful and realistic as possible. My son has an Australian Shepherd with the most amazing blue eyes and I modeled the puppet after her, Dixie. The build of the puppet was time-consuming, it's sometimes hard to justify the expense to directors and producers unless they really know how long the process takes.

How long did the dog take to design and build?

I believe it took me about 10 weeks to build the puppet from sculpture to molding to painting to hair fabrication not to mention the animatronics inside. Those we're done by a very gifted mechanic Dave Penikas. The puppet worked beautifully in the beginning but we shot it out in the middle of Mojave Desert in extreme temperatures. The heat actually caused the radio controller's transmitter to burn out then the servos themselves burnt out and locked up one at a time, luckily by then we had gotten plenty of footage that ended up in the finished product.

Despite the problems, we were all very pleased on how it looked and performed in the film. And yes, Sam Elliot's VoiceOver was just the perfect cherry on top. That really brought it to life.

Best Xenomorph? And why?

Being asked what my personal preference to the perfect Xenomorph has an obvious answer, its namesake itself, the titular creature from Alien. H.R. Giger tapped into something so dark and primordial in all of us and brought it to life in his paintings and then for us to fear forever in film. Often imitated yet never duplicated, that creature is still the coolest and scariest movie monster of all time.