Between 1999 and 2009 Lightsabre.co.uk brought news, fanfic, podcasts and much, much more to the masses. Our sixtieth guest was an artist at Kerner Optical, making maquettes, shooting models, sculpts and make-up – Danny Wagner.
Lightsabre – Danny, welcome to Lightsabre.
DW – Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Lightsabre – Your CV is absolutely fantastic, covering almost all of the most beloved and successful films of the last twenty years. How proud does that CV make you feel, and what memories does it evoke?
DW – I’m very proud to be involved in such exciting films and being part of the movie industry was my goal in life. As a movie goer it’s a huge thrill. The memories are timeless, and unforgettable. To start things off, there was seeing the Lucasfilm archives for the first time in ‘88. There was everything you can think of that was in Star Wars at your fingertips!! But of course you couldn’t touch anything. I just stood there with my mouth wide open. I think I felt a tear come to my eye….Then there was my special time working at the ranch in the JAK art department for George Lucas and during a short visit Steven Spielberg came in the help George with the film and we got to meet him. Of Course working at ILM was a dream come true. Going to location as a puppeteer and working with M. Night Shyamalan and Mel Gibson for Signs was a blast. Being able to utilize my skills, and have them all in these fantastic films is a great feeling. I even got on a Mars Attacks! the movie widescreen trading card sculpting a brain! That’s was so cool!
Lightsabre – Tell us something of your career. Where did you begin making monsters and models and what led you to Kerner Optical?
DW – I started making monsters professionally at the age of 17 where my career started. In the very beginning I was doing makeup’s for plays in high school and my local college. Then I hooked up with a man who did a travelling show called Hollywood Halloween (in Reno). Creating makeup appliances and haunted house murals. After that I went to Chicago to demonstrate a new gelatine makeup called GoreFX gels. Then I went to visit San Francisco and came across a small studio called Magic Vista Studios.
I sculpted a dragon for something. Mmmmm I actually can’t remember what it was for, sorry. I also did a cute troll type character for the company for their mascot. We also did the special effects for Look Who’s Talking way back then. I wouldn’t consider it monsters but I sculpted the sperm in 3 different sizes and created the uterus walls for the scene we needed to shoot. From there It let to ILM, I was hired through Tim Lawrence, Rick Baker’s right hand man at the time. I do remember getting the first phone call to come to work at ILM I was so excited that I saved the message machine tape for my family and couldn’t sleep that night.
I was hired as a Slime Wrangler. I took the job just to get in the door hoping to go on to more creative positions. There I meet some very nice friendly people, that had become very close friends to this day. Among these friends were Slimer and Boba Fett some humans too. Early in my career when I was young and didn’t have seniority, when I was laid off from ILM I worked at another creature shop called Chris Walas Inc (CWI). Where they did The Fly and Enemy Mine in the 80’s. Here I worked as a creature builder for films such as Arachnophobia, RoboCop 2, Naked Lunch and others. When I went back to ILM, I was able to continue my model making skills as well as creature skills.
One thing I must say, I would have never become as good as a model maker as I am today if I had never stayed at ILM. So now I’m very proud to say I’m a model and creature maker. With such luck since I was a creature person at ILM I was able to work on such great projects as a sculptor, makeup artist and puppeteer. When Star Wars came along, my god, things got interesting for me, the opportunities were wide open. Models, Creatures and Make-up. I never knew when I was a 9 year old kid watching Star Wars for the first time, I was going to be able to get an opportunity to do everything that I love for a movie like that, not even thinking it was going to be a Star Wars movie!
After years of service working at ILM, The model shop was informed Lucas decided to focus on his newly built ILM in San Francisco which offers digital effects for the movie industry. To sell the model shop to a 18 year veteran named Mark Anderson. This newly formed company is now called Kerner Optical, Mark is wonderful and wide open for all types of work to keep us busy. As a sub-contractor we will still continue to do work for ILM and also work on other effects for films. Mark is interested in going after creature work too, so I’m all for that.
The future looks great and I’m happy that Mark decided to take this challenge. We are behind him all the way and strive to continue to break barriers and create new cutting edge effects.
Lightsabre – What is it like to be a part of the Star Wars phenomenon?
DW – Pretty amazing! I had no idea I was going to have such a big part of contributions towards this trilogy. I went to the Celebration 3 for Sith and felt so special . It was a blast to share the stories and pictures with the fans. I know how they feel because I am still a fan myself. I wouldn’t have worked so hard and long at this career if I wasn’t a fan. My passion for the art of all of it Is a powerful force, a force I will always carry around with me. I guess you can say the force is strong with me….
Lightsabre – Looking back on your tour through the Star Wars galaxy, what is your proudest moment, and your best work?
DW – WOW! That’s a hard one. Mmmm, I would pick the environment maquettes I did for Jak films art department on Revenge of the Sith. I total loved it. I was working at Jak and every Friday met with George to discuss the maquettes and get feedback. It was so amazing to be there, contributing my ideas with George and Eric Tiemens and Ryan Church. Coming up with new and really interesting worlds for the last film. On top of all that I was pleasing George so much I was receiving Fabulouso stamps on my maquettes all the time. Which I learned was a rarity. Most people got the work stamped with an OK. For a while people were called me Mr. Fabulouso was very proud to be apart of the Art department for Episode 3. I feel that my work was really a strong contribution at that time.
Last year during the Oscars, the makeup for Sith received a nomination and my good friends Dave and Lou Elsey got a nomination for this category. I got an email from a good friend and this is what it said.
OSCAR NOMS: There is one unsung hero in this nomination – Danny Wagner of the model shop. He was responsible for all Makeup shot here at ILM for pick ups (of which there were many), including the makeup done on George Lucas for his cameo. Unfortunately, Danny probably won’t be recognized in any formal way, but I think everyone here should be aware of his achievements and contributions.
That was very nice to him to send out. I was very proud of this. This was a great moment for me. In a sense I was included is this nomination and was greatly honored.
Another proud moment was receiving a VES award or the best miniatures in a motion picture for War of the Worlds. Steve Gawley was our supervisor, and we received this in LA and all took a picture with it because it was a group effort. It really boosted moral in the shop.
Lightsabre – What has the transition been like moving away from being a part of ILM to becoming an independent unit at Kerner Optical?
DW – We were all sad to see this happen. I loved being a part of ILM. The history of the company was a topic that always sparked an interest in people. People, family and friends were always impressed.
As time went on, and now since this new company is born and everybody is working, it seems nothing has changed. Just more work, which is a great thing. Since Mark is going to bid on creature projects that’s even better. I think people who are interested in using this type of work for there films, should realize all the model makers from the ILM model shop are at Kerner Optical now and the excellence of the work and talent that they all have will pour out of KO the same way that ILM model shop did.
I personally feel like I really didn’t leave ILM, in a sense as a whole company now we are all working for ILM on certain projects. There still is a connection.
Lightsabre – There is a marriage between CGI and traditional models that ILM balanced particularly well. Do you think this is still the way to go, or will physical models eventually make way for pixels and digital?
DW – I think It’s the very best way to execute filmmaking and a story. I think the time has pasts where CG feels like it is going to take over. Producers and directors know when it’s a good time to go with a model. Sometimes it’s faster and cheaper to go practical. Use the right tool for the right reason. That makes real magic.
Lightsabre – You have a huge list of past productions, including the fantastic Galaxy Quest. For many Star Trek fans this was ‘the best Trek film since First Contact’. How interesting a show was that to work on?
DW – Galaxy Quest was a blast. I worked on this amazing creature type ship called the Sarris ship. It was constructed to look like a real living creature. Its organics, texture and body form was a lot of fun but a challenge. We had to develop a sinister evil embodiment into this character that had a soul which was going to be a major part of the final film. Then we painted it with UV paints, so it would emulate an eerie glow on its body, giving the ship a essence of life.
Lightsabre – You must have interacted with some special people, working on Clint Eastwood’s Bird and War of the Worlds for Steven Spielberg. In that working environment, how do you approach working with such legendary people? Is it overwhelming, or does that pass into a working relationship?
DW – Well, it’s interesting. It’s part of the job. Meeting these people and working with them. Sometimes you just meet them because they’re either on the set when your there too or they’re present to visit to give input for the production. There is a lot of politics in every business, and I tend to stay professional and not buddy up with any one. I want to do my job and make them happy. Sometime you tend to get bad vibes from co-workers if you try to become close friends with these directors. Your there to do a job and do it well, not to be social and become friends. I only worked with Clint once on Bird, which was an amazing experience but made me a little nervous. I was only 19 then and I wanted to impress anyone who I was working for. I was lucky that the crew was helpful and nurturing. Maybe they had pity on me because I was so young.
I did see Clint on Space Cowboys, but I never got close enough, so I didn’t get the chance to say ‘hello, remember me?’
As for Spielberg, I was lucky enough to be a part of the JAK art department when they announce that George was going to bring in a guest director so he could add some creative input on the film and work with the crew on Sith. We all were guessing which one would it be. I was hoping it was Steven! I won! I said that would be sooo cool to meet Spielberg. The Friday meeting went very well and he (Steven) was very open and nice. He was telling us about a helicopter ride he took over a volcano in Hawaii and he had to pay this pilot a lot of money to fly as close as he could to get the best reference he could. This was of course for Mustafar. I gasped and he looked at me and said this was a amazing tour of a volcano and could have been dangerous if they came too close. He said more technical things and was so understanding of the people in the room. He didn’t just focus on Lucas, he was there for all of us. Which was heavenly!
On War of the Worlds I didn’t get to meet Steven again but had a great time working on the film and got a chance to work close with Dennis Muren. Conceptualizing a paint scheme for a tripod a couple days before he have to leave to LA to show Steven.
Lightsabre – Tell us something of your other interests outside of Star Wars?
DW – What do you mean??! There is none!!….ok, ok….just Kidding. Gee! That’s a first. Well I love going to movies I’m sure that not a surprise.
I do like documentaries on true crime and profilers. CSI is a good show and Dayle Hinman and Body of Evidence on Court TV is a entertaining show. I know that’s a total switch and change to what I do, but it just one of those things that grew on me while watching some of those drama / horror movies like Silence on the Lambs. It was interesting stuff. Other than that I pretty much do the same thing at home when I have free time to myself. Sculpt, draw or computer art such as zbrush. When I sculpt something, I sometimes turn it into a resin kit to sell. Known as the garage kit. I love collecting also. My house is one big Museum. Full of Sideshow Collectables and of course Star Wars toys. Some from my childhood that I saved and some are new. I do have other action figures that I need to sell. I got all the Master Replica FX lightsaber’s, they’re awesome. Legends Darkness and Predators and some stuff that I sculpted are displayed around. Since I’m currently single I pretty much do what I want and make my own plans daily, that’s if I’m not working.
Lightsabre – You had the daunting job of turning George Lucas into Baron Papanoida. Tell us something of the day’s events. Were you calm and cool, or were you palms sweating at the thought of Lucas being in your hands?
DW – That’s a good question, It all started when Brian Gernand came into the spray booth where I was painting something. He grabbed a chair and told me to set down. I said to myself oh shit, I’m fired?? He said that something came up in production that concerns George Lucas, I’m thinking ‘Oh dear.’ Hmmmm. ‘What’s Up?” I ask. Brian said George is going to have a first-time cameo in this episode and he gets makeup on his face and they want you to do it. I said Oh man! are you serious!! Yes!! I scrambled in my chair with excitement and Brian started laughing. He said I wanted to give you a chair because he was afraid I would faint. I’m glad he did. I might have.
The night before, I was on pins and needles. Making sure everything was set up and going smoothly. I actually called my mom to calm me down. She was a good listener. The morning off I started to set up and get ready for George. When he came in he was told, Danny is going to do your makeup ok, I’m sure you remember him, from the Art Department.? He replied yeah, sure. He was with his daughter Katie who I was also going to makeup. It was nice not having Georges entourage because he was so down to earth and more approachable. Even making jokes and laughing. I applied Katies makeup first, which was a big help because she said my Dad doesn’t like anything poked on his face, special his eyes. Mmmm nice tip? Thanks! I replied. Her makeup only took an hour and she said that’s was faster than last time in Australia. I said thanks! She was done and left for wardrobe, then George was next. He came in and sat down in the chair.
I had something on my mind I wanted to ask the man so I figure what the hell, I’ll ask, Have you ever got your face casted before, as in a life cast done on you? He looked at me and thought for a moment and replied “No”, I said oh, if you ever want it done I will be happy to do it. He said ok. A George Lucas life cast does not exist! Maybe someday I’ll do it.
I continue to explain what I was going to do. This is an airbrush technique and I was going to have the pressure on 15 to 20 pounds. I thought it might help to be soothing on the face instead of stipple or brushed on. I had a small fan in my hand to blow off any excess makeup. I did have a big fan behind him. Faced outwards to such the paint away. I used Reel Creations Body Art Inks for the makeup and some grey and white highlight for his beard. He was pretty adamant about his beard not being covered up. After painting him blue I had to highlight the beard because it changed the color on his normal hair. For his tribal markings I had a laser cut stencil made for this design. It was pretty simple two yellow lines on both of his checks and 3 on his forehead. I did give him highlight’s and shadow for his face, and slightly eyelid makeup. The design itself was really simple, and not that striking but the whole exciting thing was, it was going to be applied on Lucas.
This was the first time George ever had makeup on his face, and I did it, that’s cool! When I was done He stood up and looked straight in the mirror and said good job, I like it…I replied Thank you. That was the best compliment. I told him he was one of the best subjects I have ever worked with. He said thanks.
After his shoot I took it off. It was kind of nice, He sat down and I used makeup remover and warm towels to open up his pours on his skin and loosen up the makeup so it will come off a lot faster. I was standing there explaining this to George, massaging his face around losing up the makeup. It was a neat moment.
I felt like George’s personal massage therapist for a short while. It was wild! The makeup came off quick and easy. He was pleased.
Months later they even made Baron Papanoida action figures from that. That was a must have. I should do a Danny Wagner makeup artist action figure to go along with that. One of my personal items that I kept for posterity was the stencil I used on him.
Lightsabre – Looking back to your earliest influences of Harryhausen, Rick Baker and Rob Bottin, which of their works still holds up today?
DW – In my opinion for The animation of Harryhausen, everything the man did was ahead of his time. I especially love the Medusa from Clash of the Titans, the 7-headed Hydra was amazing. The skeleton fight scene in Jason and the Argonauts was mind-blowing. As for Rick Baker, his shop is constantly pushing the envelope and producing cutting-edge techniques with makeup design and characters. Everything that comes out of that shop is just phenomenal. If I would have to pick his work from the past would be Gorillas in the Mist, Greystoke and Mighty Joe Young, in that case most of his gorillas. Of course, American Werewolf In London still looks great today. His character makeup as in Coming to America to Nutty Professor to Click are amazing real.
Mr. Bottin’s work is so bizarre and original I can’t think of anything I’ve seen that come close to The Thing, and Legend’s Darkness character, including Meg Mucklebones. Even Robocop looks great still to this day. I do like to mention effects that were brilliantly executed, that you didn’t get so see that much of it in the final film. Which was the Daryl Van Horne character from Witches of Eastwick.
Those Jack Nicholson evil devil puppets were amazing! Call me old school but I just love that stuff. I grew up on it and still love it. I will never get tired of it.
Lightsabre – What lies ahead for you in the future?
DW – Good question, I hope a lot more work. It would be nice to be able to supervise more projects. I’m getting a website up soon hopefully it will be up and ready next year. It’s called www.dannywagner.com.
Lightsabre – A quick question about our site. Any comments?
DW – It’s a great site. A lot of interesting components. It’s nice that you share the art work of fan in there too. There’s a lot of different things to read, it’s interesting. It’s nice being able to read about the other people. I do appreciate the site wanting me featured in there too!
Lightsabre – It’s been a great interview, and thanks for being our guest. Just one final question. Marty McFly from Back to the Future appears in your back garden and beckons you inside. 88 mph later and you are flying through time. Marty turns to you and asks you a question. “Danny, I can take you through time to one of three films in movie history, and you can head the model team. Those films are the original King Kong, Seventh Voyage of Sinbad or Star Wars. Which will it be?”
DW – Star Wars!! Only because It had so many different effects in it. And it really changed a lot of peoples lives after it hit the big screen. King Kong and Seventh Voyage were wonderful pictures but it’s a lot of animation that I wasn’t focusing on. Although I did do stop motion in the beginning and it was one of my inspirations. I wasn’t going to be a animator I wanted to be a creator of models, makeup and creatures.
It’s funny you mention Marty and Back to the Future, I loved those films and dreamed of turning my Toyota MR2 into a flying car. I actually had dreams of that scenario. It was quite beautiful flying over the mountains on Marin. I even took a model kit of a Toyota MR2 and turned it into a flying car from a Back to the Future Delorean kit that was the same scale. My good friend Don has a Delorean – he owes me a ride in it. I also got the pleasure of working on Part 2 and even got a credit!
Thanks for your interest, it’s always a pleasure.
This interview was originally posted on lightsabre.co.uk on 14th January 2007.