November 5th, 2013
*PLEASE NOTE – due to the nature of Paul’s work, some of the images of post mortem prostheses are graphic*
You can hardly turn on the TV without tripping over bodies – whether they’re set in the here and now or Victorian London, the UK or the US, the work of crazed killers or the pathologists who study them.
And there’s one man whose name keep popping up; the man who created the first on-screen autopsy and the creative force behind Silent Witness. Warpaint talks to Paul McGuinness, the one they call The Body Man.
WP: You began your career as a designer, where you had to pay close attention to detail. Has that experience been beneficial in your later work?
PMcG: The Devil is in the detail as they say and I have always been a Devil for it! I have always striven for total realism in every effect I create, be it in the field of SFX, VFX or prosthetics. I am fairly unique in that I frequently combine many disciplines in my work, in order to create a reality to match the writer’s vision.
WP: Many of the effects you create are gory and gruesome. What first drew you to darker projects?
PMcG: Gore is in the eye of the beholder. I’m not a particular fan of horror. I am however, and always have been, interested in the sciences and how everything works. The gore is usually a by-product of the story, though I often tone things down in order to bring things in line with the reality of situations in question. However some times I have had to ramp things up to match a character. For instance in the first series of Above Suspicion I persuaded the director Chris Menaul that the character of the murderer would not chose to kill himself by cutting his wrists, as this would be too slow and indecisive for him. I thought that the character would decisively cut his throat. We did not let Linda La Plant know about the change until it was shot. Luckily she loved the change.
WP: How much research went into recreating human pathology in Silent Witness? Did you attend real autopsies?
PMcG: I’m fairly rigorous in my research. I have always been interested in the human body all the way back to my school days. Back then I had to attend night school in order to study Anatomy Physiology and Health, as the school curriculum meant I could not study this and Art at the same time. I have attended several autopsies and assisted at a few as a student.
WP: How do you stay inspired when working on the same show for a long period of time, such as Silent Witness?
PMcG: I started working on Silent Witness from day one of the show when I was still staff at the BBC Visual Effects Department. In 1995 I took on the creation of the autopsy bodies as an integral part of the roster of effects which included large pyrotechnic and physical effects sequences. Luckily the show has always had a fantastic array of writers with great stories to tell, so it’s easy to stay inspired as each show would bring a new challenge.
WP: You work in many genres of TV and film including period drama, science fiction and comedy. Do you have a favourite?
PMcG: I’m a bit of an eclectic, I enjoy all aspects of my work. The diversity is what gets me out of bed in the morning. I find I need to be challenged constantly, as I get bored far too easily.
WP: You were instrumental in setting up the 3D unit in the BBC Special Effects Department. How have the demands of film make-up artists and special effect artists changed since the arrival of HD and re-emergence of 3D?
PMcG: There is now a bit of confusion when we talk about 3D. The 3D unit was a 3D CGI animation and Compositing unit, not 3D as in stereoscopic 3D. The 3D unit I set up at the BBC was in response to a growing demand for 3D CG in the industry. The BBC had been forced to move into the free market in the 1990s by the government bringing in Producer’s Choice. So we suddenly had to compete to work on every BBC program with the outside world. I always looked at CGI as just another tool in my tool box, and the more tools I have the better. I didn’t do much differently for the medium at the press launch for Silent Witness in HD, which was at the Empire in Leicester Square. I always strive to make everything I do stand up to close up inspection and handling, so an HD camera is not much of a threat.
WP: What has been the most challenging look, effect or creature you have ever created?
PMcG: Probably the most challenging thing I have done was in a horror film last year where I played the part of a monster (again)! This time I had decided that as the creature was being born, it would be covered in maggots. Once in the silicone suit my team loaded eight pints of maggots onto me and sealed me into the belly of the beast. Unfortunately for me the maggots found every small opening in the suit and snuck inside with me! As I wriggled out the Director was ecstatic with my acting, wriggling and twitching slick with slime and maggots. My spasms were actually because the vast majority of the maggots were sandwiched between my skin and the silicone and were hungrily biting me all over!
WP: You work in special effects, makeup effects and visual effects. Can you pick a favourite?
PMcG: No not really I need the challenge of all these aspects of my work, it’s all art to me.
WP: Prosthetics have been prominent in your work over the years. How much has the process, equipment, and what is achievable, changed during that time?
PMcG: When I started making prosthetics, latex ruled the world. I was always unhappy with the unreality of latex; bouncy, springy not remotely like flesh. When I did the first British on-screen autopsy in Degrees of Error the year before Silent Witness started, I used gelatine. This material to me was much more flesh-like. I continued using gelatine until silicone finally came of age about 6-7 years ago. Up till then it was a very unforgiving plasticky material which took 10-15 hours to set. It would some times would not set and remain like chewing gum in the mould – not ideal when you are working to very tight deadlines! It was also a real palaver to colour and finish. Now however with very soft flesh-like platinum cure silicones and deadeners, I can create the look and feel of flesh and even very soft internal organs like lungs and brains.
WP: In your incredibly busy career you have earned some acting credits. How were you first approached to play the role of the monster in Red Dwarf?
PMcG: You make it, you wear it! I guess that you refer to the Mutton Vindaloo Monster, which was half man, half extra hot curry. That was the normal – make it in five days with a straight 70 odd hour finish, then get to the studio and get super glued in. One of my first jobs at the BBC SFX dept was to play the role of Drathro, a huge robot in the Colin Baker era of Doctor Who. Being 6’ 5” and skinny as a rake made me a perfect monster base. Since then I have been various monsters, Cyber Men, etc in Doctor Who, Red Dwarf and several films. Though they are getting a bit fatter now!
WP: When working on film and TV you often have to collaborate with other creators. On which project were you given the most creative freedom?
PMcG: I did a TV film back in 2001 called Impact directed by John Strickland for ITV. It was about a terrorist bombing of an aircraft. Unfortunately it has never been shown in this country, as 911 happened during filming and there was quite a furore about it. I was given a huge amount of freedom by the producer Chrissy Skins. I provided all the effects of the plane coming down, large scale pyro, collapsing buildings, debris raining down. We had a Boeing 757 chopped up in a huge field on fire with prosthetic bodies strewn everywhere. I also provided around 120 VFX shots and screen animations. I was in the process of animating the plane breaking up when the news came over the radio that a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers, which was a very odd experience.
WP: Do you have any advice for make-up artists/prosthetic artists trying to break into the film and TV industry?
PMcG: I know it’s not easy to get in, but keep playing at it and enjoy what you do. If you really want it you will get it.
WP: Tell us about the projects you are working on at the moment.
PMcG: I have recently finished work on 1864, an epic Danish film, and TV series making lots of people die. Presently I’m working on Ron Howard’s Heart of The Sea which entails lots of water and weather effects, no make up for me, just lots of heavy work and long very wet hours. I am also in the process of raising money for my own film Hitler’s Brain which funnily enough has a few effects in it.