Heads Up

Special effects and the modern zombie go hand in hand. If makeup legends like Tom Savini had decided to use their skills on romantic comedies instead of horror flicks, the entrail gobbling ghouls that we all know and love probably wouldn’t exist. Thanks to the creativity of these FX pioneers, a whole new genre was born, and generations of gorehounds were thrilled by their work. Some fans didn’t stop at just admiring the creations of the masters; they were inspired to make effects of their own.

Tim Shea is one of those guys.

I saw Tim’s work for the first time a few months back. He’d spotted one of our fan art posts and decided to send in pictures of a zombie head that he had made in his spare time. As a die-hard makeup fiend myself, I immediately bombarded him with questions and discovered that his passion for this stuff runs really, really deep. So deep, in fact, that he decided to surprise us with a mounted zed head for the Lab.

The world of special effects is really fascinating, especially when you dive into how props and prosthetics are actually created. To give you guys some insight into how it’s done, I decided to interview Tim about his sculpting hobby, his inspirations, and more. Read on to check out what he had to say!

Tell us a little bit about yourself! How did you get into special effects?

Well, my name’s Tim. I’m a firefighter with an amazing family, and I like long walks on the beach, puppies, and kittens. (I’m especially partial to kittens.) I’m also looking forward to the eventual zombie apocalypse. Until that happens, I enjoy spending some of my spare time creating zombies, robots, aliens, and anything else I deem “awesome”.

I got interested in special effects when I was a kid. I’d spend my Saturdays watching a TV series called Creature Double Feature, which played tons of old horror movies, including all of the classics. I always wondered how all those amazing creatures were made.

One day, my dad bought me a magazine called Cinemagic, and I was officially hooked.

I picked up a copy of Tom Savini’s Grande Illusions next, and read that thing until it fell apart. My first gag was actually inspired by his book. When he did the effects for George Romero’s Martin, he came up with a way to imitate realistic slashing — he’d have actors hold a dulled razor blade between their thumb and forefinger and blood-filled bulb syringe in their palm. When they pretended to slice their victim, they’d squeeze the blood out of the syringe, which left a super realistic trail of blood on the fresh “wound”. My mother loved that one.

As I got older, I read as much about special effects as I could. When I graduated high school, I moved to Pittsburgh and enrolled in the Art Institute of Pittsburgh’s industrial design program, where I had some wonderful instructors and learned a lot.

Now I fight fires, which is a different route from the world of professional SFX, but I really dig what I do.

What inspired you to start making zed heads?

The head I sent to you guys was actually inspired by Mike Mignola’s art work. I love the way he draws his corpses: teeth exposed and completely wasting away.

How do you make your zombie heads?

I start with an armature, which I usually make out of foam covered in foil and tape. When that’s ready, I stick it on a wooden base and cover it with an oil based clay called Roma Plastilina, (or whatever I have on hand). From there, it’s just a matter of building up and taking away chunks of clay to form the head.

After I rough out the features, smooth the clay, and add texture it’s time to make a mold. To prepare the sculpt, I take a water based clay and build walls to separate two or three parts of the head — these will act like containment barriers for the cement I’ll be pouring into my mold. When that’s done, I start the actual molding process.

I cover the head with a gypsum cement called Ultra-cal 30, then reinforce it with burlap. When it’s dry, I flip the head over, remove the wet clay walls, and Vaseline the exposed cement. Then I repeat the process. When the head has completely dried a second time,  I pry my mold apart, remove all of the leftover clay from the halves, and thoroughly clean the inside.

Now it’s time for me to put the halves of my mold back together and cast the head in latex.

When I’m casting, I usually fill my mold to the top, wait about 15 minutes, and pour any remaining latex back into the bottle. After the latex has set, I’ll wait about two days before I move onto my next step — filling the head with foam. Lately I’ve been using Great Stuff, which is the canned stuff you can pick up at any hardware store. (In the past I’ve used a cold foam kit, but for my needs I really like the effect I get from Great Stuff — it tends to shrink the cast a bit, which leads to the shriveled look I really like.)

After the foam is dry, I carefully remove the plaster cast from my mold and smooth out any seams with a dremel. Then it’s on to painting.

For my sculpts, I like to apply thin washes of acrylic paints, layering them until I get the depth and color that I’m looking for. When that’s done, I’ll sometimes add wool for hair and a clear gloss coat for the teeth, eyes, and gore.

How long does it take to make one of these heads from start to finish?

The casting, molding, and painting process generally takes me about a week, mostly due to the the time it takes for my foam filler to dry. (When I use a two part urethane foam, it cuts that time substantially.)

Since sculpting is my hobby, I make the heads on my free time. With my work schedule, complete heads (from sculpt to cast) take about a month to build.

What’s your favorite zombie movie? What zombie movie do you think has the coolest special effects?

My favorite zombie movie is the original Dawn of the Dead, hands down! I think I’ve seen it at least twenty times, probably more.

As far as my pick for best special effects, I’m gonna have to go with Dead Alive. Seriously — that movie has a kung-fu preacher throwing roundhouse kicks and a mild mannered fella using a lawnmower to take out zombies. How can you get more visually impressive than that?

What other types of SFX projects do you do?

I have experience working with foam latex and bladders that shoot out pus and blood (which are always fun). I’ve also dabbled with some cable control effects, but I’m old school — I’m not so big on electronics. If I can’t use a ball-peen hammer on my project, it’s too delicate for me.

What’s the most challenging part of creating props/masks/etc?

Having the time to start and complete them. I have so many ideas, but I need to work on a limited budget and schedule.

What makeup/SFX artist has been the most influential for you?

Tom Savini! He was the first artist that I started following. Then you have people like Rob Bottin, Greg Nicotero (a zombie god for sure), Steve Johnson, and, of course, Dick Smith. I really love Jordu Schell’s sculpting style as well — he’s amazing!

Do all of your friends ask you to make them Halloween costumes? 

Occasionally. I’ve been known to do a project or two (or three) for friends and family. I don’t consider it work, so it’s rarely a bother. I love this stuff.

Do you have any advice for aspiring effects artists?

The most important thing for an artist is drive and motivation. Read everything that you can and keep practicing! There are so many forums out there with real professionals who are extremely helpful — I’m talking men and women who are actually in the business and are willing to share information and constructive advice. I wish I had the internet when I was in my teens…there’s so much free information out there that it’s crazy.

Thanks for sharing all of these details with us, Tim! Now I’m even more antsy for Halloween… 😀

Now it’s your turn to help us name our new undead friend (shown below)! If you have an idea, post a comment and let us know! I’ll gather up all of your suggestions and ask the team to vote for their favorite.

Have an awesome weekend!


PS: If you’d like to check out more of Tim’s work (and read some sweet tutorials that he wrote), head over to his website.