Press > Exclusive Interviews > Rick Lazzarini (Hang Glider Puppets Builder: Escape From L.A.)




How did you end up being a Creature Effects/Animatronics Designer as well as the head of The Character Shop?

I created my first illusion in first grade. I was six years old and was playing Jesus in a school play, so I created my first prosthetics made out of binder paper. I drew the wounds of Jesus: the stigmata for his hand, feet and his side and I taped them to my feet and hands & side. They told me I had to wear socks, and I thought, Jesus wouldn't wear socks!!! So of course the teachers did not let me use my prosthetics, but that was my very first illusion.

There was a magazine called Famous Monsters of Filmland and I discovered it when I was just a kid. My Grandma bought me my first copy of that magazine and I just ate it up. I'd research new monsters, new movies. I loved the Hammer Horror and melodramas on TV and would watch them all the time. In seventh grade I had a date with the hottest girl in school, but I found out that the original King Kong was going to be on TV that night so I cancelled the date. That's how I knew I really loved this stuff!

In 1968 Planet of the Apes came out and an older friend and her boyfriend took me to see it and I was like GAGA! I absolutely loved apes and chimps. I went nuts for the behind the scenes stuff where they showed how the effects were made. I sculpted in Play-Doh and clay, went to the library and read up on stage makeup. In high school I got the reputation as the guy who could make cool stuff. I airbrushed backdrops for plays, cool props for music videos. I made masks and sold them in costume shops in San Jose.

After that, I gravitated towards doing stage makeup for school productions, making super 8 films with monsters in them, and phoning Dick Smith WAAAAAY too late at night. I went down to Rick Baker's house and hung out until he got sick of me ;-)

I got jobs working for Rock Bands (The Tubes, KISS), and then started doing music videos and low budget slasher movies. I got a job at Makeup Effects Labs and worked on such kickass films as Evilspeak and Slumber Party Massacre. Once you're there, you start to meet like-minded and talented people in the same field, and you recommend each other for jobs. Eventually I got hired at Stan Winston Studios where I set up his mechanical department, and worked on Invaders from Mars and Aliens. On Aliens I became an independent contractor, and was chiefly involved in designing the animatronics for the Queen Alien, running facehugger, and the opening egg. After Stan's I worked at Boss Films, Apogee, and out of my garage shop on more music videos, commercials, and films like Spaceballs.

I got offered a huge commercial job, turning people into office workers with animal heads, and spent all of that money on opening up a new shop in Van Nuys. It was the first of several; one in Van Nuys, then in Chatsworth, then Simi Valley, then Santa Clarita, then (FINALLY, I HOPE) to my current shop in Simi Valley, CA.

Over the years, I've built up a reputation as an extremely resourceful guy who cares a LOT about the quality of my FX (Special Effects), and I come up with solutions that are very out of left field. It means I'm tenacious, passionate, and a problem solver, and I think, a damn good puppeteer, so I would just often get very difficult jobs because people knew I was the guy to solve people's X challenges.

How did you get the assignment to do hang glider puppets of Kurt Russell, Pam Grier (Hershe) and Steve Buscemi (Map to the Stars Eddie) for Escape From L.A.?


I had worked previously with Peter Montgomery and Carolyn Soper of Buena Vista Visual FX, making miniature likeness puppets for films such as Wild Hearts Can't be Broken, The Phantom. This was before CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) was de rigueur, so we would make these exquisitely detailed puppets practically. We did similar work on Hocus Pocus creating miniature flying witches for Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker.

How did you prepare for this project and how were the miniature models constructed?

We first of all visited set and took many pictures and measurements of Kurt Russell, Steve Buscemi, and Pam Grier. Then we wanted to stay and take more pictures and measurements of Pam Grier, but maybe we got too creepy about it so she kicked us out. (I'm just joking!)

Once we had detailed appearance and anatomical information, we created armatures, then sculptures, very close likenesses of the 3 actors. We made jointed internal armatures, and foam latex skins, and then detailed and created things like their hair, wardrobe, and accoutrements (hats, eyepatches, etc.)

We then hired James Belanovic to create the miniature hang gliders (he and I had worked on Aliens, albeit in different departments.) His miniature hang gliders were works of genius, exquisite and accurate in detail, made of bent and soldered brass tubing, tiny cables and turnbuckles, and ballistic nylon fabric.




How many people were involved in making the models and how long did they take to make?

Sculptors, Moldmakers, Lab folk, Painters, Wardrobe folks, Mechanics, Model Makers… probably 14 people in all, and they took 4 weeks to make.

Were you involved during the filming of the models?

Absolutely! We always take our creations to set and bring them to life.

How was the experience and the collaboration with Buena Vista Visual Effects?

The experience and collaboration with Buena Vista Visual FX was easy and comfortable. Having worked with them before, we knew the style and approach to shooting that they liked to take. Carolyn Soper is the most pleasant and wonderful VFX (Visual Effects) producer, and Peter Montgomery is whip-smart and witty, so everything went extremely easily, shooting the puppets against green screen (or was it blue? I don't remember!)

According to Bryan Sides who also worked on the models Jay Leno showed up behind the scenes and took the Map to the Stars Eddie puppet out of the box and ran around with it on set goofing around. Do you have any recollection of this?

I do remember Jay Leno being by a craft service or lunch truck, and we were showing off the puppets. I "don't" remember specifically him running around set with it, but that could have happened while I jumped into his Ferrari and did donuts in the lot! :-)

What's your favorite memory or memories of working on the movie?

Meeting and hanging out, even just a little while, with Kurt Russell and Steve Buscemi. Chatting with and measuring Pam Grier. Working with an incredibly talented team of artists and craftspeople. Being close to Pam Grier. Shooting the puppets, with Peter making wisecracks. Did I mention I really liked being around Pam Grier?

What happened to the models after the movie was finished?

I had them in my display room for a very long time. Then, one year, around 2000 or so, I held an auction and… someone bought them. Don't remember who!


What do you think of the movie personally?

Well… to be honest… surfing a lava wave was kind of jump-the-sharky for me, so that took me out of it. But I'll watch anything with Pam Grier in it. And that Kurt guy, what's-his-name.

What are you currently doing and what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Celebrating the release of the Ghostbusters reboot, and our work on it, wherein we created an animatronic puppet/costume of Slimer and his girlfriend. Working on commercials for Geico, Bank of America, and others. Creating installations for the Skirball Museum. Teaching students at the Animatronics Institute, and looking for the next paying gig! When I'm not working, I enjoy relaxing and catching up on great TV series, watching UFC fights, and heading out to the desert or the mountains for off-road riding and camping.

Thank you for your time, Rick

More about Rick Lazzarini here: http://www.character-shop.com/


Photos: Copyright 2016 Rick Lazzarini