RubberHead Special with Steve Johnson
Emmy Award-winning makeup artist, monster maker, mad scientist and now author, Steve Johnson is renowned for his contribution to the SFX industry throughout the years. His recent book, Rubberhead: Sex, Drugs, and Special FX was published in 2017 and chronicles his legendary career in film and TV. Johnson’s company, XFX, did make-up effects for more than 200 films, countless TV shows, commercials and music videos. His film credits include The Abyss, Ghostbusters, Bicentennial Man, Species and Spider-Man 2. Steve was kind enough to answer a few burning questions we had for him about the upcoming release of the second instalment of the Rubberhead Books.
Tell us about your inspiration for the Rubberhead books
I’ve written the Rubberhead books as a five part series and each book gets released every 12 to 18 months so that the fans can absorb and enjoy each book. The first book covers all about my journey and why I left the Special Effects industry. There were so many rumours circulating – I read the wildest stories; one of the rumours was that I got a sex change in Thailand, which obviously didn’t happen! I wanted to set the record straight and talk about the true reasons why I had to leave it all behind – it was because I was fed up with the rise of CGI and how it changed my love and aspirations for the industry.
When I lost 18 million dollars in an 8 hour period, I thought that it was a clear sign of the Universe that I needed to pack up. So, I went to live in a remote jungle and live in a tree house to write my first book. Let’s be honest – the true story beats the rumour of the sex change, right?
This is all covered in Volume 1. It’s not a ‘how to’ book, but more of a memoir and art book. Of course, it has plenty of pictures in there, but it is also a David Sedaris / Kurt Vonnegut style take on the effects industry, and the rise and fall of that industry throughout the 80s and the early 90s.
Volume 2 – I decided to have more fun with it. It focuses on all the greatest hits of the 80s that I either worked on or was fired from, such as Fright Night, Big Trouble in Little China and Predator. I think the fans will love it. Stylistically, each volume is different and speaks differently to the reader, but all are entertaining, educational and also funny!
Having said that, suicide is also a recurrent theme in Volume 2, because on Fright Night my best friend worked alongside me and he tragically took his own life. We were all doing coke at that time – it was the 80s and it was totally normal. Everyone was doing it – the writers, the producers, the actors – it was totally considered cool back then and had no stigma. The rule was that we didn’t do it on set and we didn’t let it interfere with our work. However, due to his coke habit, my best friend didn’t show up to work when we had a difficult task and I had to let him go. He didn’t take it well; he went home and he killed himself. As you can imagine, I was truly haunted by this and I’ve interweaved this ghost story throughout the different chapters of this book. So, Volume 2 is still funny, entertaining and educational, but it also covers the topic of suicide, which you could say is a good ‘cautionary tale’ because it does happen more regularly than we think. People such as Robin Williams and Anthony Bourdain committed suicide and sadly, a year ago, my father also took his own life.
Writers write either for themselves or they write for other people, and I’m doing both as it’s very therapeutic to write about all this while also focusing on educating my readers. And education through story telling is one of the oldest professions around – and that’s why I had to include suicide in Volume 2.
Why did you get so frustrated with the CGI industry?
Well, the industry was no longer fun for me. We can’t deny it that CGI is the future. I was just in London at IMATS and it was the first time I tried Oculus. It is the absolute cutting edge of virtual reality. You put on these goggles and it puts you in a world that is more real than this world. It’s been around for a while, but now it’s available to the public. There is no doubt that it’s the future of entertainment, medicine and technology – we just can’t deny it! And if you can’t fight it, you can try to join them, but when I did that, I didn’t like it… there is no fun in just pressing buttons. Suddenly, I was the lowest link on the chain, while I used to work closely with the directors and producers. I liked getting dirty, making art.
Do you think that CGI has reduced the need for Special Effects makeup and prosthetics?
My view is that in years to come the need for special effects makeup most likely will reduce.
No need to panic though – for a very long time there will be a need for prosthetic makeup. The demand for old age makeup, character makeup, silicone makeup and the rise of new materials and better cameras has created this amazing renaissance in the effects industry. Also, all the information that is now available on the internet and the availability of these amazing makeup courses like the Stan Winston School of Makeup means it’s easier to learn the required skills. It has created the most amazing talent spring up around the globe. There are people in Germany, France, Switzerland and Norway doing work that I have to say is more realistic than Dick Smith at his best. This will continue for a long while.
Also, there are more live shows happening that require prosthetics, like Walking with Dinosaurs. The company behind it is bringing out different live shows, each one better than the last, which is amazing.
Actually, I got two calls this month about live shows and it excites me more than doing films. I’ve been approached to create living, colour-changing tattoos on runway models for Fashion Week as well as to create animatronics for a museum exhibition on the Future on Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Mankind in Dubai.
So, the industry is just changing but there currently still is a demand for sure. It will never be the same like the past eras, so we need to let that go and embrace the opportunities that are here now. When you go to IMATS, you see more people doing prosthetics and Special Effects than ever, so the industry is alive, but it has gone through a transformation.
Was there a particular film that inspired you to go into SFX?
Well, I’ve always been fascinated by horror and science fiction. When I was young, I was a ferocious reader, picking up books from HG Wells, Jules Verne, Robert C Bradbury, and it got my little mind thinking. Back in the day, films were not available on demand – you had to wait until they were shown on the telly and if you missed it, you missed it. Books on the other hand, they were just easy to get hold of and I loved that! So, that’s what started it.
Then, the special effects industry started to develop during my childhood with films like The Godfather, The Exorcist and Star Wars, but the film that really caught my attention was Little Big Man with Dustin Hoffman. He plays a man who is 122 years old in it and he’s in full prosthetics – I was sitting in the film theatre at 15 years old and I thought ‘this is the most amazing thing in the world’. The details were just on point. It looked ultra-realistic and I just knew that was the thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
I didn’t get into SFX because I wanted money or fame – I got into it because I simply had to create. When Stephen King was asked ‘why do you still write?’, he answered ‘because I can’t NOT write’. That’s exactly how I felt about it when I started out.
What do you consider your biggest achievements during your SFX career?
First of all, Ghost Busters obviously, because it was my first film not working under the umbrella of Greg Cannom, Rob Bottin and Rick Baker – basically, I could do whatever I wanted. It was a magical time of my life.
The second highlight of my career is ‘The Abyss’ - it was one of the most expensive films created at that time by one of the most difficult directors I’ve ever worked with, James Cameron. We were tasked to do something that was virtually impossible, yet we made it happen. You have to remember this - there was no digital fall back. If we didn’t create those under water, self-illuminating, colour changing aliens, it would simply not be part of the film. I’m incredibly proud of that as it was one of the most difficult SFX tasks every achieved in history.
Why did you decide to become a writer?
As I was yearning for a creative outlet, it pushed me towards writing. I feel it’s the most creative thing I’ve ever done. When I write, I’m the director, producer, actor, the wardrobe designer – I’m in control of everything! It’s not healthy to keep doing the same things year in year out – I took a different path and it was the right thing for me. You can’t keep developing or growing as a person when you constantly do the same thing.