Manimal premiered as a 90-minute pilot that aired on September 30, 1983. The series featured the story of Dr. Jonathan Chase, a shape-shifter who could turn himself into any animal he chose, and used this ability to help fight crime. Only two people were aware of Jonathan’s secret, his friend Ty Earl and Police Detective Brooke Mackenzie. Jonathan and Ty would assist Brooke with a case she was working on, with Jonathan transforming himself into an animal when it became useful.
While Jonathan had the ability to change himself into any animal, he would transform into a hawk and a black panther in nearly every episode. In some episodes, he would transform into a third animal, such as a horse, dolphin, bear, or bull, with the transformation taking place off screen, though once he was shown becoming a snake. The transformation sequences were designed and created by the Academy Award-winning SFX artist Stan Winston. Another aspect of the transformations that added to the show’s camp factor involved Dr. Chase’s clothing during a transformation: He was depicted generally wearing a three-piece suit and tie, and the viewer would see it rip off him as he shape-shifted into an animal, though once the transformation was complete there would be no sign of his discarded clothing. A bit later, he would transform back into human form with all of his clothing perfectly restored upon his person, even if he was unconscious. In one episode, he was shown to be able to assume the aspect of various animals simultaneously, rather than adopt their forms, such as the agility and speed of a panther or the suppleness and fast strikes of a snake.
Winston’s involvement in the Manimal pilot began earlier this year, in the spring, and he estimates that the total time developing all the effects was about 15 weeks. “We were fortunate to have so much time in pre- production for this,” comments Winston, who designed, and with his crew, sculpted and completed the intricate, individual stages of Chase’s transformation from a man to an enormous black panther, and from man to a hawk. Winston’s effects were prepared primarily for the pilot film, but since the series calls for frequent scenes of Chase becoming the hawk or the panther, these were shot in front of a blue screen from every conceivable camera angle, with various wardrobe changes. In the future, the blue screen footage will be combined with background footage appropriate to each particular episode, saving time and money for the series’ producers, and making the most of Winston’s four months of work on these sequences.
Other animal transformations are also being considered for future episodes. One such newcomer may be a reptile, possibly to be created by Mike McCracken. Winston will most likely not be involved.
Winston is understandably quite excited about his creations for Manimal. He has run the gamut of methods for cinematically restructuring a human being into an animal. Winston has adopted every technique, from the historic lap dissolve employed in The Wolf Man (1941), to the high-tech, totally articulated puppetry used so convincingly in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), to simple reverse photography. “For instance,” says Winston, “when Johathan Chase goes from human to cat, we see his face changing, his whiskers growing, the eyes pulsate. There’s an armature inside the head that stretches the ears to shape, which is the same technique used in American Werewolf in London.” When Chase changes into a hawk, the audience is treated to growing feathers, talons and beak, as well as other startling contrivances. ‘The human transitional stuff” referring to the actor’s makeup “was done with bladders and appliances, then camera cuts and dissolves,” explains Winston.
Both transformations have as many as nine complete stages. Each stage features a head in transition from the likeness of Simon MacCorkindale to the animals’ features. Says Winston, “When I sculpted them, I lined them all up and did them all at once, so that I could see how to do the transition from man to animal as accurately as possible.” Each of these sculptures was then used to create the molds from which the final latex foam shells were cast.
Some heads have bladders hooked up to a pneumatic pressure box which itself is connected to an air compressor. The pressure box regulates the air flow to the bladders by means of a sophisticated lever system, designed by Ellis “Sonny” Burman, Jr. The direction the lever is pushed determines which bladders or set of bladders will inflate, and how much air is used. Shot with locked down cameras, the footage of the transforming heads is combined in a series of dissolves (overlapping of the picture, fading one image out as the next comes up}, with occasional cuts from one head to another to show specific facial actions (i.e., bladders, pulsating eyes, etc.}
Also included among the effects scenes is the change from human hand to panther paw, done in seven stages (each sculpted by assistant Greg Figgle) with dissolves and cuts. Cables and pneumatics are used to make the claws grow. The hawk’s talons are similar to the panther paws in structure and function, and were also sculpted by Figgle.
“I think I’ve gotten away from trickery,” Winston says of his approach to these scenes. He feels that audiences are more interested in being entertained than in being fooled by the camera. “I used to put a great deal of energy and time into making things so no one could tell how It’s done,” he goes on. “Well, by now, everyone knows. They know what bladders are about; they know about stretch- ing faces and articulated puppets. So I’ve put more energy on this project into just making it interesting and fun to look at. The audience is sophisticated enough to know what’s real and what’s not. I just want them to be entertained.”
Winston has gotten back to basics with his designs. Everything has been carried out in what he considers the simplest, most organic form of special effects makeup. It is neither special effects, nor makeup, he says, but a very sophisticated form of puppetry, “All the technology had led to puppeteering,” comments Winston, “I simplified it down to its purest elements, and refined it by using state- of-the-art technology that I’ve learned from being a makeup artist and getting into articulating and animating feces and bodies over the years, and as a painter and a sculptor.” Winston’s abilities have enabled him to make the puppet effects technically perfect and as totally animated as they can possibly be. ‘The most organic thing on film that isn’t actually a person interacting with another person is puppeteering” he goes on, “It’s basic Puppeteering acting, human performance. Not makeup or special effects, and the people who work the puppets are SAG [Screen Actors Guild] or SAG waivers.”
For the puppets to fulfill the potential of their design, it’s important for them to be lit and photographed properly. Winston directed everything involved with the transformations so everything went according to his wishes. Another helping factor was the video assist used in shooting Winston’s works. The system is a video camera, moved in tandem with the film camera so that the video monitor shows a close approximation of what was captured on film. This allows the videotaped results of the shot to be seen immediately, instead of days later in the editing room.
“I had a marvelous crew,” says Winston. ‘They were terrific and hard-working.” The group at the Stan Winston Studio included Michael Mills, who has been on the show from the beginning and contributed, among other things, set time, teeth and moldmaking; John Rosengrant, who did all of the meticulous feather work on the hawk puppets as well as set work; and Frank Carrisosa, who helped with molds. Shane Mahan worked on the set and did foam work on the cats; Greg Figgie sculpted the paws and talons; and Brian Wade painted them. Stan also put to work a visiting Canadian makeup artist, Gilliam Chambers. ‘The pneumatics, bladder work and all of the mechanics turned out so well largely due to the assistance of Ellis Burman, Jr,,” adds Winston. It should also be mentioned that Winston’s creations were photographed by cinematographer Chuck Barber, himself a master in his own right, well-versed in effects photography.
As for NBC’s Manimal, the network has been very “high on the show,” according to supervising producer Boyle. “It was one of the hottest items at the International Syndication Convention this summer that was held for world-wide television buyers,” he says. It was this response, as well as the track record of series creator Larson, that convinced NBC to order 12 series episodes before the pilot had even started filming. Certainly, if the effort and spirit that Stan Winston and crew have poured into the show’s effects sequences are matched by those responsible for the dramatic elements of the series, Friday nights just might turn us into a nation of Manimal animals!