Immediately upon its release The Thing set new standards for special effects in film. New ground was broken by the talented FX crew. The long hours put in and extreme challenges the special effects team were trying to pull off worked, and worked well. Even today the practical effects of The Thing hold up against the computer graphics imaging that films now use.
Heading up the FX team was 22 year-old Rob Bottin, fresh from working on The Howling and The Fog. He was hired by Carpenter to do the 5 big effects sequences in the film. Bottin worked closely with storyboard artists Mike Ploog and Mentor Huebner. Ploog conjured up incredible storyboards depicting the creatures in the film, encouraged by Bottin to take the monsters to the extreme. Ploog would come up with a walking mouth on legs and Bottin would say, "Put some eyeballs on it!" and Ploog would respond, "You can't put eyeballs on a mouth!"
22 year-old Rob Bottin
Special Makeup FX
The Thing employed pretty much every conceivable and known special effect at the time. A combination of many effects was used. Rob said, "If you named it we used it!" Some techniques that the FX crew utilized: hand puppets, marionettes, reverse filming, radio controls, wires, hydraulics, and pull cables. An extensive ingredient list was concocted to create the gore: heated bubble gum, strawberry jam, mayonnaise, cream corn, gelatin, and food thickener. Some synthetic materials used were metal, urethane, fiberglass, foam latex, rubber and KY Jelly. The "Blair Monster" in the film's finale required 300 pounds of foam rubber alone!
For scenes involving autopsies of the Thing and its victims, Bottin originally planned to use real animal organs purchased from a slaughterhouse. However, this was scrapped after a box of raw meat was absentmindedly forgotten at the back of a soundstage at Universal. It was discovered by one of the studio guys a week later who complained that the entire stage "smelled like shit."
The special effects were a major factor in the script being re-written. As production went on and the FX crew came up with new and outrageous ideas, like the Norris sequence with the chest and spiderhead, the story was re-worked to include these incredible scenes. Almost nothing turned out as originally planned but in the end both Carpenter and Bottin were pleased with the result. Much had to be scrapped for various reasons including an extended Blair Monster stop-motion sequence in which a bizarre Dog-Thing bursts from the Blair Monster to pursue MacReady. Stop-motion animator Ernie Farino spent nearly 2 months constructing the puppet armature for this scene and unfortunately it did not end up being included in the final film. It can be seen on the DVD's Bonus Materials.
The live-action, full-size Blair Monster had 63 technicians operating it. They were pulling cables, manipulating hand puppets, and tugging monofilament line. Says Bottin: "The guys were just outside of the frame. John had to scrap a couple of shots as fingers and elbows would show up in the frame." Bottin himself became the Blair Monster, climbing inside to operate the dog that bursts out of the stomach. Despite being wrapped from head to toe in trash bags Rob came out so covered in slime and goo he could've been the Thing!
Blair Monster sculpt by Henry Alvarez and Brian Wade
Deleted stop-motion sequence of a Dog-Thing leaping from the Blair Monster
The make-up effects budget for The Thing was $750,000. That number quickly swelled to $1.5 million as the production went on. Bottin's crew of illustrators, designers, sculptors. painters, and mechanical effects technicians grew to over 40 members. For Bottin, work on The Thing began in April 1981 and would span the next 57 weeks into late May 1982. (Remember, the film first screened on June 11th!) Rob, pushing himself against an ever diminishing schedule, slept at the Universal lot and lived off of candy bars and cola. Upon completion he had to check himself into a hospital for 2 weeks to recover from extreme fatigue and burnout from the constant stress.
Bottin and Carpenter with the Palmer-Thing sequence FX puppet
Effects wizard Stan Winston was eventually called in to cover of the kennel sequence. Rob Bottin turned this project over to Winston, with much relief. Bottin was sick of dog effects from working on The Howling and was already wrapped up with the film's other huge effects sequences. As it stood now Bottin was already needed in two or three places at once. Winston told Bottin he did not want screen credit so as not to take away from Bottin's show. However, Winston is recognized in the film's end credits with the line, "Special Thanks to Stan Winston."
Stan Winston (1946 - 2008)
Stan Winston Studio
Great video showcasing Bottin's SFX work on THE THING
Norris Transformation & Spider-Head
ABOVE: Henry Alvarez working on the Spider-Head
RIGHT: Willy Whitten sent us these photos of his clay model work on Spider-Head
BELOW: Mike Ploog's sketches of the Norris transformation and Spider-Head
Foam latex Norris heads
Charles Hallahan in the Norris Creature FX sequence
"You gotta be fucking kidding..."