Against the rise of red, dusty rocks standing in for Mars in a small corner of a Saugus warehouse, post-production scenes were in progress on Paul Verhoeven’s “Total Recall.” As the cameras rolled, the crew huddled around the star of the scene--writhing and twisting as she was slammed against the rocks by unseen forces. Her forehead seemed to wrinkle with pain, her hands clutched at her neck as she gasped for air. Then suddenly, her eyes popped from her head and her tongue lashed out toward her collarbone.
“Keep the chin up so we can see the eyes and the tongue come out,” makeup effects artist Rob Bottin yelled over the noise to his crew of puppet operators. “More mouth! Eyes open! Chin up!”
The star? A mechanized puppet so closely resembling actress Rachel Ticotin that a casual observer could have mistaken the puppet for the real person. It was designed by Bottin, the 30-year-old wizard of illusion whose credits include “The Howling,” “The Thing,” “Legend,” “Inner Space,” “The Witches of Eastwick” and “RoboCop.”
“People think that guys like me take a little wad of nose putty out of our pockets and slap it on somebody’s face and we can do anything,” said Bottin, relaxing amid the debris of plaster and latex corpses in his studio. “What happens here is an incredible amount of scientific experimentation.”
Weeks of planning were needed before Bottin’s crew could begin building the Rachel Ticotin puppet. Since the script called for Ticotin’s character to decompress in the vacuum of Mars’ atmosphere, Bottin and Verhoeven first discussed exactly how they wanted that to look.
Smarting from criticism about the violence in “RoboCop,” which Verhoeven also directed, they decided against using gory bursts of blood from collapsing arteries and went instead for a transformation of flesh stretching and malforming. The scene with ejected eyeballs was just the beginning.
Before they could begin, Bottin said there were a host of questions to be raised and answered.
“If the eyes are going to come out and the tongue is going to come out, how does it come out? Does it come out and fall down? Does it come out and move? Does it twist? Does it go up and lick the eyebrows? Does it fall down to the stomach? How does the neck move if the tongue is doing that? What are we going to do with the eyes if the tongue and neck are in the way?”
Once these questions were answered, the crew studied videos of the actor’s face, walk and whatever else had to be duplicated by the mechanical devices in order to map each precise element. Then they assembled the miniature motors, the little rubber muscles, cables, wire springs, tiny inflatable balloons and flexible skin needed to simulate life.
Bottin started his career at 14, the protege of special effects artist Rick Baker who, impressed by a carefully rendered drawing enclosed with a fan’s autograph request, invited the boy over to talk monsters.
Every time he tells this story, Bottin said, he receives a deluge of drawings from aspiring junior makeup effects artists. “Back when that happened, it was like being in the right place at the right time. No one knew who Rick was; this stuff (special effects) wasn’t celebrated. The thing that changed all that was ‘Star Wars.’ ”
After assisting Baker with the celebrated cantina scene in “Star Wars,” Bottin--working in his parents’s El Monte garage--did a stint with New World Pictures and then did a dazzling solo in creating the werewolf transformations for “The Howling.”
At 21, while filming “The Thing,” Bottin was hospitalized with exhaustion, double pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer--all the result of taking on too much too soon.
“I would hoard the work,” he said. “I didn’t want to take a job and give somebody else the pleasure of making it. But unfortunately, I like extravagant projects with a lot of stuff going on. So you become more of a director and you learn to enjoy the work of others rather than to feed your own ego constantly. You convince yourself that by hiring all those people, you’re just a bigger octopus with more arms strapped on.”
“There’s some spark of madness that sets him apart,” said Joe Dante, director of “The Howling” and “Inner Space.” “His great strength is in what he imagines he can do. Sometimes he imagines things that just can’t be done, even by him. But he’s always the first one to want to do something that’s different, that has never been done before.”
When the “RoboCop” script called for the robot policeman to carry a gun in a holster, Bottin couldn’t believe that something high-tech enough to be resurrected from the dead would slap on a pistol like a Western gunslinger. Instead, he made the weapon of RoboCop’s metal body.
“I thought it would be real neat if he meets the bad guys and tells them, ‘Stop or I’ll shoot,’ and they’re all laughing because he looks like something out of Marvel Comics and he doesn’t even have a gun. Then, all of a sudden, his leg opens up and transforms and out shoots this big, big gun. Kids don’t expect it; adults don’t expect it. My father didn’t expect it and he’s 80 years old.”
Bottin, an imposing 6-foot-6 man whose dark beard and long hair make him a bit of a fright himself, is more than a special effects expert, said Verhoeven.
“Just from a dramatic point of view, he was extremely creative,” Verhoeven said of Bottin’s input on both “RoboCop” and “Total Recall.” We were looking for a device to get (Arnold Schwarzenegger) out of a difficult situation and he found a way to have that character sort of split open. From a script point of view and from the execution of how it was done, it was his conception.”
In another instance, Bottin and Verhoeven created a robotic cab driver--Johnny Cab, in honor of Johnny Cat cat litter. It was designed to resemble an all-American gas station attendant circa 1950 and its every delicate moving part was hooked into a computer that manipulated its mouth and head movements in coordination with the voice of an actor.
“Arnold is a big prankster and he knew how protective I was of the robot,” Bottin says. “I warned him not to bump into the thing and he said, ‘You mean you don’t want me to do this?’ And he gets the thing in a headlock. He did it in a careful way but I decided to furnish a couple of Johnny Cabs that would be used simply for Arnold to do his thing.”
A fan of the Universal horror films of the ‘40s, Bottin started as a makeup apprentice, a talent that has grown along with his interest in robotics. “Rob realizes that in order for makeup to work an actor has to be able to act in it,” Dante said. “For ‘Explorers,’ he managed to come up with a costume that not only was funny and original on its own but allowed the actor inside to be very expressive.”
The mutants who populate the mining planet Mars promise to top the variety and weirdness of the “Star Wars” bar scene. Typically, Bottin staged the effects carefully, starting with traditional prosthetic makeup and progressing to mechanical devices and heavier makeup until the appearance near the end of a spectacular alien mutant that he says was created with a combination of everything he had learned during his career. “I like to turn effects into a little orchestrated magic trick that builds to a higher point and . . . boom! That gets the audience awake, makes them happy that they’re seeing these amazing things.”
Not surprisingly, emotional effect is extremely important to Bottin. “I’m a real avid fan of creepy, scary horrible things. When I was a little kid I loved scary comic books, but I also loved movies. I am very much an observer of how W. C. Fields works, or Charlie Chaplin, or monster movies and why they’re effective, why a joke is funny, why you cry about something.”
To this end, Bottin said he strives to make his effects realistic and logical as well as fit into the context of the movie. “When they’re doing science fiction and fantasy, a lot of people have a tendency to disregard reality and say, ‘Who’s going to take this seriously? Let’s just have fun.’ Unfortunately, you’re not moving an audience that way.”
With two of this summer’s highest profile films behind him (“Total Recall” opens Friday, “RoboCop 2" follows June 22), Bottin is looking ahead to the prospect of directing his own pictures.
“I feel like I’ve been going to college and now I’m totally graduated,” he said. “It’s time now to go on to become a real adult instead of playing with my toys for the rest of my life.”