What do the feature films American Mary, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Star Trek: First Contact, The Haunting in Connecticut and Slither as well as such TV series as True Blood, Six Feet Under, Fringe and Stargate SG-1 all have in common? If you said Todd Masters, you are correct. Over the years, this multi-talented and always busy artist, designer and FX (effects) creator has lent his considerable skills to numerous projects on the big and small screens.
Currently celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, his company, MASTERSFX, has studios in Los Angeles, California and Vancouver, British Columbia, both of which Masters spends a great deal of time at overseeing the design and creation of all creatures great and small. From a young age, such imaginative expression fascinated him, and he was determined to become part of that creative outlet.
“As far back as I can recall, I enjoyed entertaining in one form or another,” says Masters. “I’ve been told that as a child, I did some outlandish ‘effects,’ from a plate of noodles on my head to talking to the neighbors’ dog, that kind of stuff, and like the fat kid in [the 2011 feature film] Super 8, I took my dad’s camera and filmed the neighbors. I did my own stunts – and forced the other kids to do them, too – and shot, edited and created basic gags, including making squibs out of fireworks. I loved filmmaking and from the time I knew what the term meant, I’ve loved FX as well.
“I eventually learned that I could animate my actors, probably since the day that my neighbors stopped showing up at my door to do my ‘bidding,’” he jokes. “Being a fan of the old Rankin/Bass animated shows, like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy, I realized that these types of stories required no actors, or so I thought, and was mesmerized by how it was done.
“Later I discovered Ray Harryhausen, Jim Danforth, Frank Frazetta, Bradford Obie, Tom Savini, Craig Reardon, Rick Baker, Steve Johnson, Will Vinton, Barney Burman, and, of course, Dick Smith. I was so eager to learn from these modern-day Frankensteins that I ended up contacting each of them, and, fortunately, some of them replied back. It turned out there were legions of kids like me around the country, writing letters and sending images of our basement monsters. Some of these former kids are now my colleagues and associates in the business.”
Spurred on by the careers and interest of those who he strived to emulate, Masters began to make inroads towards what would one day become his livelihood. “I was an eager and highly-motivated Seattle kid, and somehow found time in-between school, homework, chores and my parents’ boat trips, to be a graphic designer,” he recalls. “I ran print shops as well as edited the school newspaper and annual. Somehow I think there was more time back then. I also began sharing the movies that I’d made as a kid to local film companies, and eventually was hired by a little animation house in a crummy part of town. Fortunately I was a big kid with a deep voice, so no one bothered me, and my employers even thought I was in college.
“My gig at this place along with a few other local shops gave me a look into the business, and a resume. Eventually after showing people enough of my semi-OK quality work, a few of my Los Angeles contacts said. ‘Well, if you were in town, we’d probably hire you.’ With a little luck, and not being accepted into art schools, I made the move to Los Angeles and started working almost immediately on Big Trouble in Little China and Poltergeist II.
“When I rolled into town in the midst of the 80’s, it was really busy with genre classics. My eyeballs were sucking up everything I could. Everywhere I looked there were amazing artists, many of whom really influenced me. Some of my earliest gigs included Predator, Night of the Creeps, Lost Boys and Dead Heat. My boss at the time, Steve Johnson, gave me Women on Death Row [from the producers of Faces of Death] to do, as he was too busy. Talk about on-the-job gore training. Funnily enough, one of the first projects I worked on in my own shop, Return of the Swamp Thing, was something that Steve Neill subbed out to me. We had an amazing crew and made some fun stuff, including most of that show’s lab monsters. We really haven’t stopped since then.”
In 1987, Masters made the leap and founded the aforementioned company MASTERSFX. Like all new business endeavors, this one had a few kinks that needed to be ironed out. “Some of the initial hurdles had to do with learning business 101, although my earlier experiences helped me there,” he notes. “Otherwise, there have been many other challenges as far as growth, and the balancing of art and commerce. Traditionally, artists are more right-brained and the biz is more of a left-brain thing. Keeping both lobes firing at the same time, keeping clients satisfied, creating unique, consistent art and keeping talented artists steadily employed is my life’s challenge.
“As always, there’s the practical time for something to be built compared with a clients’ constant need for it ASAP. That’s the bane of the commercial artists’ essence. I once asked Steve Johnson what makes for a long-lasting career as opposed to just one-job, and he simply said,’ Don’t screw up.’ That’s basic yet necessary mantra, and our mantra of ‘better and different’ keeps us focused. That sounds like a Macintosh ad, but we really try to make everything unique in some way and push the work to be as good as possible. That’s not always easy, but we’ve been very fortunate to have the best people on our team.
“Artists who just seem to become their best in the thick of it is really what it’s all about. A lot of artists can make good looking make-up effects art, but few can do it with a smile and within the challenges of movie-making life. Another thing I had to learn was how to respect time. I think I woke up this year and realized that I’ve been near the same pace for around 30 years, working on several projects at once, with many artists, clients and challenges. Strangely enough, though, I’m more into it than ever before. Our teams keep evolving as well as our techniques, and I’m still thrilled to produce something that makes people react.
“It’s a fascinating challenge when your beloved hobby becomes your career. You can easily watch your personal art expression slip away doing someone else’s ideas, unless you continue to evolve, Nowadays it’s difficult to stop everything, pick up a tool and sculpt. Running the studios of several creative alchemists and this amazing art is the best gig. I’ve been very fortunate to keep it going for so long, but really it’s a blip. We’re just getting interesting, and growing up. We have digital labs to augment our practical [effects] with compositing and integrating CG [computer-generated image], etc. It’s amazing how far we’ve come.
“There are always challenges, though, that’s why it’s called ‘special’ effects. You’ve got the schedules, the communications, the task of creating something that’s believable, organic and often a large part of the story and doing that under studio demands and constraints. It’s never truly easy, and each project has its challenges. Again, though, we have an incredible group of artists that really know how to pull it off, and should be saluted more often. Dan Rebert supervises our LA shop, Mark Viniello is our amazing coordinator, Kim Harmon and Stacy Scofield run the works…in Vancouver, Sarah Pickersgill and Werner Pretorius supervise the art, and Nicholas Podbrey is our chief coordinator. Lori Sandnes and Jason Ward coordinate, and we have great artists in both facilities.”
Looking back on all the TV shows and movies he has worked on, what are some of the standout ones for Masters? “Tales from the Crypt always sticks out for me and the many crazy years trying to make those little movies,” he says. “People still ask me about that HBO series. It was a wonderful training ground for me and many members of our team. There were ridiculous demands and horrible hours, but somehow it was a great accomplishment and fun to watch on occasion.
“It also taught us some essentials as far as doing the mad television pace – prepping/shooting/wrapping at the same time – and cemented some terrific relationships with incredible artists and filmmakers, many of whom still work with us today. When I bump into TFTC alumni, we immediately go into an odd kinship, like comrades of the crypt or sharing a foxhole in a fantastic battle. Ah, the good old days.
“As for other films and shows that really stick out for me over the years, there’s Look Who’s Talking, Dan O’Bannon’s The Resurrected, Star Trek: First Contact, Demon Knight, Six Feet Under and, of course, our more recent work, like from Slither on, including True Blood, Fringe and Falling Skies. We’re also looking forward to the forthcoming American Mary with the Soska sisters [producers/writers/directors Jen and Sylvia], Scott Derrickson’s Sinister, and our Look Who’s Talking bud, Amy Heckerling’s new comedy Vamps, all due this fall.
“Our Vancouver studio is in process of delivering a few aliens for season three of Falling Skies, while also working on some other television shows including Arrow and Rogue as well as another feature film. On top of that, we’re moving to a bigger shop – yikes! The Los Angeles shop recently wrapped The Munsters pilot and the fifth season of True Blood. Currently they’re working on Fringe as well as starting on season six of True Blood in addition to some other stuff that I can’t discuss at the moment.”
The best effect is always one that does not take over a story, but rather helps tell it. When an audience is laughing out loud, scared out of its wits or just caught up in the moment, Masters knows that he and his team have done their job.
“This really is the best art form in my opinion,” he says. “Aggressively, our art connects with the audiences’ emotions. Unlike nearly everything else, it combines the greatest challenge of creative skills: painting, sculpting, performing, graphics, model-making, filmmaking and visual effects, all of which keeps me very engaged and buzzing along. Replicating life and making imaginary characters seem believable – it’s like being a Doctor Frankenstein, but with a better kit. Thank you, I’ll have another 25 years,” enthuses Masters.
Please note, all photos above courtesy/copyright of MASTERSFX, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!