Even though it may seem hard to believe, it has now been 30 years since Joe Dante first introduced us to the world of Kingston Falls and an adorable little Mogwai, named Gizmo, who would forever change it after being gifted to one of its residents as a Christmas present in Gremlins.
Daily Dead recently chatted with special effects pioneer Chris Walas to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Gremlins, which took place over the weekend. Walas is the mastermind behind Gizmo and his Gremlin counterparts, and was also tasked with the various puppetry and f/x approaches that Dante would need in order to sell the authenticity of the Mogwai running amok.
In this second part of our interview with Walas, he discusses the challenges he faced using some of the more inventive puppetry he created for the film, what his favorite Gremlin is and gives us a rundown of two of Gremlins’ more challenging scenes- the one where Kate (Phoebe Cates) is being terrorized at Dory’s Tavern and the Snow White sequence from inside the movie theater.
And if you happened to miss part one of our interview with Walas, you can find it right here.
Had you guys always planned from the beginning to use oversized puppets/puppet suits for Gremlins or did that happen out of necessity because of the regular puppets not being as articulate as some of the scenes had required of them?
Chris Walas: The oversized Mogwai puppets were definitely not part of the original plan on Gremlins. Remember, there was no Gizmo at first, so there were no sequences of Gizmo watching TV, no Gizmo driving the toy car, etc. Those were the scenes that really called for the close-up puppets. Once Gizmo’s character came into being, the whole project shifted gears for us and we wound up making twice the number of puppets to accommodate all that he had to do throughout the film.
As a fan of practical effects work, the two scenes from Gremlins that I thought were absolutely incredible were the scene at Dory’s when Kate’s being harassed and the Snow White sequence in the movie theater because there’s such an immense amount of detail that went into creating all the puppets. How challenging was it for you to pull those off and were there any creature gags planned that we didn’t end up seeing in the film?
Chris Walas: There is quite a lot of stuff that we attempted that never made it into the film. There were a lot of Mogwai rigs that never really worked well enough or we didn’t have the time to film properly. There were also walking and tip-toeing rigs for Gizmo and Stripe that were just too time consuming to film properly. There was a jumping Gremlin Stripe marionette that I liked, but it really only worked from one angle. But the majority of unseen stuff from the movie ended up being from the bar scene.
The bar scene and the theater scene were the two most challenging scenes in the film simply because of all the puppets doing different things. We had to build a lot of special rigs and there was even a rig built for three Gremlins dancing against the wall that ended up not being used. There were all kinds of gags we did in the bar that were cut from the film. Joe had put up a list on the set so that anyone who had a funny idea could add it to the already overwhelming amount of work to do, if you can believe that. I think the original bar scene ran twenty minutes long and Joe cut it down to ten, so there’s a lot of missing Gremlins in there. I don’t remember many specifics as I was burnt to a cinder by that time in the production, but it was a week in the bar just shooting Gremlin gags over and over again.
The theater scene, while much more ambitious in terms of numbers of puppets, was actually much easier and straightforward. We had the seat backs to hide behind and that was simply wonderful. It was a little bit of a challenge twisting into operating position sometimes, but we weren’t drilling holes in walls and floors for that scene.
Can you walk us through what went into the scenes where you guys had to work from the sub-floors in order to pull off the puppetry? I can’t even begin to imagine how hectic those days on set must have been for you guys.
Chris Walas: We were never able to have the sets built up on raised platforms like most puppet films, as I don’t think there was enough money in the budget for that, so Jim Spencer, the production designer, came up with the affordable answer. He chose one of the Warner Bros. stages that had a pool in it and built the sets over the existing flooring there. So the puppeteers had to go down into the cement flooring of the pool and work their way through the maze of floor supports. It wasn’t the ideal situation, but it worked.
Typically, when working from beneath the set, my crew would be down below and I would be on set with the same video feed from camera that the puppeteers were watching. Joe would essentially direct me and I would interpret that into specifics for the operators. At first, it was as technical as it was artistic direction. I would give each operator exact instructions on how far to tilt the head, how much to close the eyes, etc., as well as giving the operators general “acting” directions. As the production progressed and we all got a sense of what Joe was looking for and what the puppets were capable of, it all got much easier.
Were there any of the Gremlins in particular that became your personal favorites?
Chris Walas: I have to say that I think I hated almost all of the Mogwai puppets. They were just so small and the animatronics were so delicate that they were nothing but problems. But I loved the Gremlin puppets. They were a good size for puppeteering, rigging and just handling in general. There were a number of styles of Gremlin puppets, each with a varying degree of complexity of facial and head movement. They ranged from simple open/close mouth puppets to the Super Gremlin which had a slave system for the arms and hands and a full range of facial and head movement as well as two tubes for bladder effects. That one had sixty four cables coming out of it and weighed a ton, but was the most versatile. Of course it was also the most time consuming, so it wasn’t used all that much in the film.
My favorite was a midrange puppet that had brow, eye, ear and lip movement. It was easy to set up and use and wasn’t that heavy. My favorite rig was the skateboard rig because it was so well designed and built by Eben Stromquist. It didn’t do much, but it did it well with no problems and, on a picture like Gremlins, I was always thankful for the simpler rigs.
Was it surreal to watch Gizmo and the other Gremlins become hugely popular licensed toys after the success of the film? Was that something that dawned on you at all during the creative process at all when you were designing them?
Chris Walas: We had a Puppet Production phase of the shoot after the main unit finished. This was just to film puppet stuff and it was doing that phase when Mike Finnell started coming to me on the set with prototypes for Gremlins toys and games. I had no idea there was going to be merchandising until that point and it came as a surprise to me to see how much stuff there was. The whole success of Gremlins was overwhelming and I found myself running into images and merchandising from the film almost everywhere I went. It was bizarre to say the least.
How much fun did you guys have doing the Gremlin in the microwave gag? I think that’s still one of my favorite gross-out moments from the movie just because it was so nasty, in concept and in execution.
Chris Walas: The Gremlin in the microwave was one of those shots we never thought would make it into the film because it was so over the top. We shot it twice. I think the first attempt was too gruesome because you saw too much of the Gremlin exploding. The second take just obliterates the window in goo. It was a crowd pleaser on set and we all groaned in disgust and laughed as well.