Make-up FX artist Dave Elsey talks to Joe Nazzaro about creating a universe of aliens for Farscape

One of Eisey's strangest Farscape assignments was creating a prosthetic belly for a heavily pregnant Aeryn, seen in the fourth-season opener, Crichton Kicks, "It was originally written in that she was going to be pregnant, and then she was going to be on the beach pregnant, which meant we couldn't use clothing to cover it, or take it on and off pretty quickly. Instead, she was going to be in this very elaborate make-up, and we had to make it kick as well, although I don't know if it ever showed-maybe we'll see it on the DVD. Claudia wasn't feeling too well at the time, so it was a big deal for her to go through hours of make-up and then go back to the beach wearing a bikini.

"The foam latex appliance had quite a large bladder in d there that could be inflated, so you could really make it show if you wanted to, or tone it down and hope for the best. We chose to play it o down not knowing what would come out on screen, but unfortunately, I don't think anything does. That particular make-up was glued on by Damian Martin and [Eisey's wife] Lou, Claudia wasn't too happy with us for getting her pregnant, so we tried to stay out of her way!"

The Creature Shop's crowning achievement on Farscape could well be the creation of Scorpius, a Scarran/Sebacean hybrid played by Wayne Pygram. "I think we had something like two weeks to come up with that character," recalls Elsey, "from the first painting to the finished make-up. The description was along the lines of 'Scorpius, kind of like an evil Mr. Spock,' but I wanted to make him more evil than that, so the moment he walked on set, there was no doubt that this was the bad guy.

"I was looking at images of the Grim Reaper and Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein and every bad guy I could think of. He was originally going to be played by Bruce Spence, who played the helicopter captain in Mad Max, which would have been interesting, but they changed their minds and got Wayne Pygram. I didn't know who Wayne was, so I thought we'd better meet to talk about what we were planning to do. So after taking the casts of his head, we sat down and I told him about what I had planned. He totally got it and told me how he was thinking of playing Scorpius.

I've since heard that he didn't actually know what I was talking about; he just nodded, but as far as I was concerned, he seemed to get it."

"I knew that we were going to have to do this eccentric old witch, which is the way she was described, and that we had to alien-ize her in some way, and it was my idea to give her three eyes. I thought the writers might be able to write that in and get some use out of it, so I designed it on Melissa Jaffer's life cast [the actress had appeared as a Luxan in a previous episode] because it was a handy life cast to work on. I read some stuff on the Internet from people who really hated it and said it's the worst thing we've ever done, and I wanted to say, 'Hold on and see what she does with it!' because Melissa is a fantastic actress and I'm actually quite proud of that make-up.

"Noranti is one of the characters that arrived almost fully formed on the show. Nobody was more confused to find her on board last season than me, but I thought she was a good character, and I'm really fond of that make-up. It's one giant foam latex piece, with a remote control eye on the forehead that changes colour and glows and can blink, and the rest of it is just make-up."

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TVZ51Creature01.jpg (22842 bytes)When Dave Elsey moved to Australia with his wife Lou and long-time partner Colin Ware to set up the Farscape creature shop, the job didn’t seem terribly exciting. After all, the main animatronic characters had already been built and shipped down from London, and the producers didn’t think the series would require an awful lot of aliens.

Until Elsey attended his first production meeting that is. That’s when somebody happened to mention a scene in which the characters visited a commerce planet, and that meant aliens, maybe lots of them. The creature shop was up and running and for four seasons, it never slowed down.

“We were always trying it do things bigger, better, and more,” claims Elsey, “but also trying to do better quality work within the time. I know everyone says that, but we really did. I can barely watch Season One now, because all I can see is how difficult it was as we were trying to find our feet. We were setting up a new shop in a different country, with new materials and a new crew, so it’s pretty hard for me to watch it.

TVZ51Creature05.jpg (19755 bytes)“I think the work got better towards the end, but it was really a matter of trying to stay afloat in the first season. The second season was a little more comfortable, and the third season more comfortable still and Season Four was the most comfortable of all. Having said that, it was only comfortable in terms of being familiar with our surroundings an dour materials and the crew. Because we kept trying to be bigger and better, it also became more and more difficult. Sometimes we’d come up with what we thought was a great solution to a problem only to find that the directors or directors or writers saw it another way. We still had a 10-day schedule to come up with stuff and do it, so there we were still having the same problems. While we were building, we’d also be arguing with a producer or a director about the way it had to be, but still knowing that in 10 days’ time, you had to be standing on set with the finished result. That could be anything from a false nose tip to a full Scarran suit and costume, so it could get quite tricky.”

TVZ51Creature06.jpg (39626 bytes)By the time Farscape got to Season Four, Elsey’s team found themselves pushed even harder in order to top what they had done in previous seasons, making their job even more difficult. “We were always trying to push the envelope and what our capabilities were in terms of getting things ready on time. The time scale was shrinking and the demands of the show were getting larger, and in order to stay interested, we were also trying to top ourselves with each episode really. Each season started out slowly, but by the time we got past Episode Four, things started to speed up. There was a gradual climb in work to the end of the season, but Season Four seemed to be the reverse, with the beginning of the season being quite creature-heave. But ht end of the season was absolutely enormous creature-wise too.”

One would think that the shop was able to build up an inventory of moulds and characters over time that they could fall back on by Season Four, but that wasn’t the case. “You’d think it would, wouldn’t you?” It didn’t work out that way at all so far. If the producers asked for a new Scarran for example, we usually approached it from the point of view that we should come up with a new Scarran. We re-used the new Scarran head a couple of times, but we remechanized it each time to improve it, and almost always came up with a new costume or new body or updated the hands. Also, very little of it survived, because while we had an adequate budget, it still wasn’t a movie budget, so we tended to cannibalize things, which meant that nothing survived. At the end of an episode, we’d cannibalize what we made, rip out all the servos and throw away the skins. You’d think we had an entire stock room full of Scarrans and other characters, but we really didn’t re-use anything.

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“To be honest,” continues Elsey, “part of the way we worked is whenever they brought back a character that we’d seen before, it was a  great opportunity to improve it. Maybe we’d make the moulds differently or colour it differently or use different hair, so the temptation was always to go back and do everything all over again — which created a whole new batch of new problems! The first thing we said when we stepped off the plane was, ‘We’re not going to do any aliens that you might see on other TV shows!’ That was the best and worst decision I ever made because it turns out that there are reasons why other shows have aliens walking around with just foreheads on. It’s actually a really good idea, and to do it the way we do it doesn’t make any sense at all. To be honest, it was a real pain in the ass for all of us, but I think what ended up on screen was worth the extra trouble.”

TVZ51Creature09.jpg (41743 bytes)There was also the small matter of continuing to improve the aforementioned main characters, many of which were originally built in London before Season One began. “The puppets were the things that jumped out at me, but once you’ve established them, you can only tweak them very slowly as the season progresses, which is what we did in the first season. In Season Two, that was a big priority, and Brian Henson’s priority too. Brian was unhappy with how light D'Argo was, and wanted to make him much darker and more tanned, because he felt it looked a little bit too much like foam latex, and I agreed.

“Pilot didn’t need a lot, because it was a very good puppet, so there wasn’t a lot you could improve, so we more or less left Pilot as he was. Rygel, we definitely wanted to improve. There are first-season stills that I can’t even look at, so we improved the hair and the paint job and basically improved everything about it. We also rebuilt the mechanisms, because although I loved the performance by the puppeteer I didn’t like the way the puppet itself moved. It looked like a puppet to me, so I wanted to improve the mechanisms, and we completely rebuilt that puppet.

TVZ51Creature10.jpg (29577 bytes)“There was also a problem with Scorpius, because we lost the original Scorpy moulds we had made. When we moved from Fox Studios to Homebush, the moulds somehow disappeared, and we didn’t have a sculpture any more. So I had to re-sculpt that, and I re-sculpted D'Argo as well, making his pieces a little thinner so I could get more movement out of them. So we sort of hit the ground running, and it got more and more frantic and the ideas got  more and more outlandish as the season progressed. But by then of course, I was familiar with the materials and the people, who are some of the best people I ever worked with, and everything suddenly gelled and we suddenly hit our stride.

TVZ51Creature16.jpg (50244 bytes)“Because the show had taken this darker turn when Scorpy arrived, the writers started to reflect that in their writing, and the show got darker, and I’m generally happier with SF when things get darker. I’m not too good at the cute stuff, so my preference, the stuff I want to see when I watch television is the darker end of the spectrum. So we started to get darker with our designs and came up with what I felt were much more the kind of things that I wanted to see on television.”

With four seasons of Farscape under his belt, Elsey was ready to move on to even bigger challenges. He recently returned to Sydney where he brought his former team together to begin work on Star Wars: Episode III — without a doubt, the dream job for any make-up FX artist.  “I’m waiting for the aliens to dry up,” he jokes, “because every time you sit in front of a  life cast with a bag of clay, you think, ‘Is there going to be another alien in there?’ But so far, there has been!”

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