Life-caster and special effects artist John Schoonraad interview

Life-caster John Schoonraad tells us about his work, from Star Wars and Kick-Ass through to Rambo, X-Men and Jim Henson.

“Head on a stick!” I’m sitting opposite life-caster and special effects artist John Schoonraad, and he’s regaling me with a story about the time he made a fake head of Kristin Scott Thomas during the production of The English Patient.

“I did Kristin Scott Thomas’ head on a stick,” Schoonraad says. “You know the albatross on a stick [Monty Python sketch]? I just walked in, shouting, ‘Head on a stick!’ No one knew what was going on.”

This brief tale sums up John Schoonraad’s genuine enthusiasm for his remarkable body of work. He’ll casually mention working on something as jaw-dropping as Return Of The Jedi (“I worked on Jabba the Hutt’s skiff”), and then immediately go on to talk about the years he spent working with Jim Henson (there was, he said, “A smattering of Ninja Turtles”). He’ll rush into an anecdote about creating the decapitation effects for Highlander, before taking an abrupt left turn into a story about the young, up-and-coming artists he worked with on Clive Barker’s Nightbreed.

His stories are extraordinary, and made all the more so by the fact that we’re surrounded by examples of his 30 years’ experience. The plaster casts of famous faces – Vincent Price, Nicolas Cage, Arnold Schwarzenegger – line shelves of his Elstree Studios workshop, their expressions nonchalant. Props and concept models lie on desks or locked away in glass cabinets.

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Schoonraad’s rapid-fire storytelling comes as a result, perhaps, of the sheer variety of movies, music videos and television shows he’s worked on over the years.

“I found myself working on For Your Eyes Only,” he says, talking of his early-80s days as a set plasterer at Pinewood Studios. “But then I might do that in the morning, and then after tea, be working on Dragonslayer, or Clash Of The Titans.

On each successive movie, Schoonraad learned more and more about mould making and prosthetic effects, having worked on the creature effects on Return To Oz, and the huge number of exploding and shrivelling bodies required for Tobe Hooper’s 1985 sci-fi curio, Lifeforce. It was on the production of Lifeforce that he first began to experiment with his own ways of casting bodies and creating moulds.   

“In those days, it was a very longwinded, crazy process,” Schoonraad tells me. “If you wanted to do an alginate of a body, you’d have a really long table, and lots of beakers and water. They’d mix up a bit, pass it to you, mix up a bit pass it to you. So I just said one day, ‘Why don’t we just get a bucket and mix a bucketful up in one go and just do it?’ And that changed everything. That was when I started making innovations in life casting. I brought my training from other areas I had into the make-up side.”

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Since his experience on Lifeforce, where the prosthetic effects were created inside an old converted ambulance, Schoonraad has gone on to work as a prosthetic make-up artist on movies such as 28 Days Later and Rambo, and in 2010, created a burning, animatronic Nic Cage for Kick-Ass.

With the rise of digital effects changing the way films are made, you’d be forgiven for thinking that computers may have encroached on Schoonraad’s line of work – but the reality, he tells me, is rather the opposite.

“Mould making and lifecasting is the cornerstone of all make-up effects and creature effects,” Schoonraad says. “Say you want to become an alien. I’d have to life cast you and sculpt on top of you so you can wear that skin. Or, say you don’t want to be standing around while a costume’s fitted, perhaps, so a bespoke costume can be made from a life cast.”

Physical prosthetic effects – whether it’s an alien mask that fits like a second skin on an actor’s face, or a subtle scar that bespeaks a character’s violent past – are vital, Schoonraad argues, to aid actors in their performances. As an example, he shows me a picture of himself wearing Pigsy – a pink prosthetic mask with pointy Yoda ears.

“The thing about this is, when you’ve got a piece of foam on your face, it’s like a second skin. I started to pull facial expressions – I had this whole new character that I developed through the mask. When you take it off, it’s gone. And people can look at a prosthetic and react to it. When you’re wearing one, people look at you a different way. They don’t look at you like you’re John anymore. They look at you like you’re something else.”

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One of the most prominent specimens sitting in the workshop is a gruesome model of a human torso with a hole where its throat should be. It’s one of the dozens of corpses and disembodied limbs Schoonraad created for 2008’s Rambo – in this instance, the torso was used for a scene in which Sylvester Stallone tears the gizzard out of an unsuspecting victim. But in spite of the grisly effects he created for that film and many others, Schoonraad woulnd’t count the macabre as his main interest in special effects.

“I’ve an interest in sci-fi and aliens and goblins and fairies,” Schoonraad tells me. “As for things that look horrible – cut open, gashed, and blood spurting everywhere – I’d think, ‘Cor look at that cut. That’s really good.’ I look at the Holby City stuff, and think, ‘That’s really good. I wonder, what silicon did they use?’ It’s purely curiosity, in a work sense. But I don’t like it really. I don’t go and see films where people get their heads cut off. I don’t enjoy it.”

What Schoonraad did enjoy, however, was working with Sylvester Stallone – as actor, producer, director and writer, Sly was, he said, “Very, very cool.”

“He knows his onions. So when he puts some blood on one of our corpses, we were really chuffed. And when someone asked him, ‘Do you think it looks real?’ He said, ‘That’s a fuckin’ work of art.’ And we said, ‘Quick, write that one down!’”

At the 83rd Academy Awards, The Wolfman, on which Schoonraad and his team worked as creature effects prosthetic artist with Rick Baker and Dave Elsey, garnered an Oscar for Best Make-up. The year after The Wolfman’s release, Schoonraad and Elsey played a key role in creating the distinctive look of Beast in X-Men: First Class.

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On the way out of Schoonraad’s workshop, I notice Beast’s face staring down from a shelf. Like so many other objects in this fascinating building, its existence outside the make-believe world of movies is jarring, and it’s a little bewildering to think that Schoonraad had a hand in creating this and so many other film moments.

During an anecdote about his work on the Return Of The Jedi, Schoonraad sums up just how important his work has been to the success of so many classic movies – and all in one deceptively simple, modest line: “There’d be a big hole in the films if my stuff wasn’t there.”

Without John Schoonraad, the last three decades of movies, from Lifeforce to X-Men: First Class and beyond, would have looked very different. And the world would almost certainly been worse off without a fake Kristin Scott Thomas head on a stick.

John Schoonraad’s anecdotes

On blowing off limbs in Rambo

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“We had lots of arms getting cut off – we used amputees for that. We blew this poor bloke up three times. I put a fake leg on him with a charge in it, so there was a mortar underneath, there’s a charge in his leg, and he gets yanked up by a jerk rig, and that looked brilliant to me. But this poor bloke who lost his leg, I think through a landmine, was getting paid to go through it again, except he’s getting applause. He’s getting up all smiles, and getting pats on the back. And then we fitted him with another leg and did it again – three times in all. I had to go and get a shoe off a roof – it had blown his shoe right up onto one of the roofs.

“We had a big workshop, and every other day we had a new air conditioner brought in. The heat was going up four degrees a day. It started at about 38 degrees, but we were hitting about 50 by the end. I remember going out and getting the highest temperature melting point plastilene, and my mate said, “What have you got this for? That’s too hard!” And I said, “It’s Thailand.” And when we got out there, it was like butter.

“Working with Stallone was amazing. I’d put that down as one of the most memorable I’ve ever worked on, actually. As far as the experience goes – in the jungle, in Thailand, with Stallone…”

On Return Of The Jedi

“I worked on Return Of The Jedi, as well, after Dark Crystal. In those days, we had CB radio, and my call sign was Jedi. I used to get people saying to me, “What’s a Jedi?” And of course, everybody knows what a Jedi is now.

“I worked on Jabba the Hut’s skiff. And there was another little skiff that hovered over the pit [of Sarlacc]. We made that. We made the Ewok village. I was down on the swamp working on an X-Wing. And a bit of a Speeder Bike. Some of the things we made are now worth a fortune!”

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On Highlander’s decapitations

“We were experimenting with prosthetics. Those decapitations were great. We had a dummy that fell down. I was puppeteering it – I had to drop it to its knees, an animatronic hand goes up, clawing the air, the head gets cut off, it’s got pasta stuff inside it that looked like veins. Gelatine necks with foam heads, animatronics and radio controls. And these were the days before CGI.”

“[Highlander] nearly went into obscurity, but it got picked up by Cannon Films. It wasn’t going anywhere, and then it suddenly took off. The Queen soundtrack to that film was amazing. That was one of my favourite films to work on, as well.”

On Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down

“I was very proud when I saw my name, my son Tristan’s name, and my son Robin’s name, in a line on the credits for Saving Private Ryan. I’m proud of that film. I’m proud of Black Hawk Down. In both cases, they were both semi-true. In Black Hawk Down, we had people from the conflict advising us and telling us how it went. So that was a big responsibility, to be true to those people.”

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Beyond Borders, as well, where you’re looking at a lot of references of people starving and dying. That sort of thing brings a sense of pride and sadness to what you’re trying to do.”

On working with Jim Henson

“The Hensons really brought things forwards in terms of creature effects. They’re very positive, very dynamic. Henson’s people were great – it was a great learning curve to be around those people. And Jim, of course, who was the loveliest bloke in the world.

“I remember taking Robin and Tristan to The Dark Crystal [premiere], I think it was, and as we walked in we were greeted by Jim Henson. And Tristan said, ‘He sounds just like Kermit the Frog!’ And of course, he did. It was a loss to the world, really, losing him.

“We went to the St Paul’s memorial. It was amazing. Then they started singing and all the puppets came out – there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

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You can find out more about John Schoonraad’s work at his Lifecast website. You can find out more about Elstree Studios here.

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