Maria Cork works in Creature F/X and Special Make-Up F/X for the film industry. She was the supervisor of the Hair Department in creature effects for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and had the responsibility of looking after Chewbacca. Other film credits include Lost in Space, Hot Fuzz, Sherlock Holmes, and Maleficent. Maria also loves magic and has worked with many magicians over the years, making unusual and specialised props for TV and theatre shows.
Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.
I recently went to see Lebensraum at The Peacock Theatre as part of the London mime festival. It was an amazing physical-theatre production of a Buster Keaton film. There was one particular moment that was in the film, but I’d forgotten, involving a man wearing a cigarette seller’s tray parading around the stage and standing at the back. Suddenly, one of the lead performers runs at him and dives straight through his stomach. It was a brilliant magic effect and so unexpected that I audibly gasped and squeaked with joy. Moments like that stay fresh in my mind for years. I think that a magic effect presented in a theatrical context where you aren’t expecting to see one can be incredibly powerful and disarming to an audience.
What inspires you to be creative?
For me creativity comes through random ideas appearing out of the blue or as inspiration from things I’ve see. And these can stay with me for years until the right time and circumstances arise for me to make them. For example, I saw a cotton top tamarin monkey at Monkey World years ago and at the time thought that they look like little angry punks with their Mohican hair and aggressive expressions. It took years and a break between jobs to finally get round to sculpting and creating the character that had been sat in my head for years.
Do you have any ‘rituals’ or an environment that aids your creativity?
My work life is normally in a workshop with lots of other creature F/X artists, all of whom specialise in different areas. I love a busy workshop with loads of people who are amazing at what they do. That lifts and pushes me to do better. I do some jobs from home, but find it hard after a few weeks to self motivate and I miss the workshop environment. I do make my own personal projects at home when I have time and at that point I enjoy the calmness of my study with an audiobook or music in the background while I work. I also adore brainstorming sessions. They aren’t something I often get to be involved in, but when I do, I love how ideas flow and are added to within a group of people.
What do you love about magic?
I love how varied a magic performance can be and I really enjoy watching live shows and seeing all the different approaches people have to performance and presentation. Some of my favourite performances are those where the magician appears to be experiencing the magic themselves as though they have no idea where the item appeared from themselves. Someone expressing surprise and wonder at the act themselves rather than expecting to see you impressed by their achievement. I also love learning about magic history and all the incredible thinking that went into creating effects and the characters around in the Victorian era. It’s such a rich and fascinating history that we have.
What do you think hinders an audience from experiencing wonder when watching a magician?
As someone who watches a lot of magic shows and other theatre, I can really spot it when someone doesn’t feel the passion for what they are doing when performing. They can be a great magician and actor but something is missing and you know it. There is no passion and they are just going through the motions. Some magicians can come across as very arrogant and smug at their own achievements and this doesn’t warm an audience to them. That’s my experience anyway.
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
I think it’s in most of us as kids and I think you can make a conscious decision to continue to see the world through those eyes. It’s very easy to grow up and just get on with the tasks you are doing or be focussed on your daily routine with no leeway for spontaneity. People stop looking for interesting or odd things around them. It can be really simple things like watching an odd insect that crawls past you (says me, currently sitting in the middle of nowhere on location doing just that while I write) or accepting a last minute invite to an event that you hadn’t planned. If you start looking for these interesting things I think you open yourself up to find more and more wonder in life. I always love to try new activities and skills, not necessarily to become great at them, but just to broaden my horizons. I’m not a very academic person, but tend to learn more by taking lessons or just having a go at new skills.
Tell me about your work and how you ended up working in film special f/x.
I was young teenager watching far too many horror films and I became of obsessed with the blood guts and gore side of our industry. This was before DVD ‘making of’ featurettes so I had to find books on the subject (Tom Savini’s Grande Illusions book about making F/X for films had a huge influence on me and started me making things at home) and make do with a few behind the scenes videos that had been made (I was utterly obsessed with the making of Nightmare on Elm St 4, video which I watched so many times that I destroyed the tape). I also started doing horror make up on friends at school. I knew this was what I wanted to do for a living and I spent my teens sculpting prosthetic make up, making odd creatures and writing to every F/X company I could find the address for asking for advice. I did work experience at The Magic Camera Company at Shepperton studios at 16 and landed a job as the runner in the Creature F/X department on Jerry Andersons Space Precinct when I was 18. I then became the runner at Jim Henson’s Creatureshop in Camden and worked my way into more practical positions over the years. I’m now quite specialised within the Creature F/X industry, I largely do the hair, fur or feather work on Creatures, but I love other aspects of the job too when I get the chance to make things from start to finish. I especially love sculpting and painting creatures and applying prosthetic make up.
What are the links between magic and special f/x? Do the two fields borrow techniques from each other?
I often feel like some of the gags we make for film are magic effects just presented in a different way. We were working on Oliver Stone’s Alexander years ago and a lot of the effects we were making for the battle scene were very similar to magic effects. For example, we were looking at ways of making it look like people were being impaled on swords by using a mixture of fake bodies, fake swords and prosthetics. We’ve also used techniques that would be familiar to magicians to alter the human form into a creature or robot, so that you aren’t quite sure what you are looking at or how a person is inside or moving around. Something that really inspired me as a teenager was Alice Cooper being beheaded on stage (I now know that the executioner for that effect was The Amazing Randi). He also impaled a cameraman with a mic stand during his live shows, which I watched and rewound on my VHS tons of times until I thought I had figured out the method. Alongside that were the Special Make Up Effects in Friday 13th, specifically an effect where Kevin Bacon’s character gets an arrow pushed up through his neck whilst lying in bed. Both these things inspired me in a very similar way when I started trying to figure out how effects were achieved, but one would be considered magic and the other a Special Effect.
You’ve worked on the Chewbacca costume from the Star Wars, can you tell me more about that?
The Chewie suit has been a real challenge for all departments in CF/X. The suit is made of Lycra and the hair is all double knotted a few hairs at a time into it. This is the most time consuming part of the process and there was a large team in the hair department all working on this for months. The face is made of silicone and the hairs are punched individually into the skin. Using this process you can fully control the density and direction of the hair and the colour blends. The cutting and styling is very important and it’s been really interesting to see how tiny changes affect how he looks. If the hair around his head puffs out too much he loses his character very quickly.
For every day that Chewie shoots, we spend a day back in the workshop restyling the suit and head. We’ve found there are no shortcuts to keep him looking good. It is a hot suit for the performer to wear, but the fact that the base is Lycra means that the performer can feel cold air through it, so we keep air conditioning units in our dressing tents on set. Joonas who now plays Chewbacca has spent a lot of time in the suit over the last few years and is great at letting us know when he needs breaks and when he is OK to keep the head on if they need more time to get a shot. Our job on set is a mix of making sure the suit looks right and looking after the performer once they are wearing it.
What would be your dream project?
I love the fact that this job can vary so much and you don’t know what you could be making next. One day you are making a hyper realistic severed head for a period drama and then a cute puppet for an advert or a creepy creature suit. I would love to work on a proper blood and guts horror film with loads of great effects for everyone’s death. I worked on Edgar Wright’s film The Worlds End before starting on Star Wars and I really enjoyed the kinds of gags we were making for that film, it was a lot of fun in the workshop.
Hearing you talk about the effort to make some of the props and costumes, you obviously feel it’s worth it but what motivates you?
I love adding the really tiny final details to pieces, it’s a really satisfying feeling. Working in the hair department we are often the last department to get a character so you get to put the final touches in before it goes to set. There have been a lot of films recently where the Creature F/X department largely makes reference pieces for the Visual Effects department which can be a bit disheartening at times, but the Star Wars franchise has really given practical F/X a chance to shine and give us a chance to push what can be made practically using performers mixed with animatronics or puppets.
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