Roger Murray’s been working in props, makeup effects, and practical special effects for more than two decades. His credits include The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 30 Days of Night, the 2013 Evil Dead remake, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend. Murray’s latest gig is designing the prosthetics and rigs for Ash vs Evil Dead, which he seems extremely game to do.
Murray’s ties to Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell go back well before the Evil Dead remake, however. He worked in the props department on both Xena: Warrior Princess and Jack of All Trades (both produced by Raimi, Campbell, and Rob Tapert’s production company Renaissance Pictures) before starting his own effect company, Main Reactor, in 2002.
A native New Zealander, there’s something infectiously enthusiastic about whatever Murray says. During the New York Comic Con roundtable interview, we talked about the tone of Ash vs Evil Dead‘s effects, getting covered in blood, the resurgence of practical effects in a digital age, and total bodily dismemberment.
Having worked on the Evil Dead remake, how does Ash vs Evil Dead compare in terms of the blood and gore and extent of the makeup effect?
Oh man. It’s a lot more intense, basically. I mean, there’s a huge amount of special effects, blood, gore, dismemberment, beheadings. I think it’s just a lot more fun of a ride. It’s just a lot faster paced and crazy fun, really.
When did the series come up after working on the film? Pretty quickly after?
No, it wasn’t. It sort of matured over quite a bit of time before we actually talked about that maybe we should do a series. It took a bit to build it, and I got pulled in about two months before they started pre-production. So there was quite a bit of a time gap between them.
Moving to cable—to Starz—were there any limitations at all on what you could do as far as effect goes?
We haven’t had any limitations yet! They haven’t set any limitations. I think most of it gets set up through the writing, and the writers have been fantastic about building certain effects as we go along. And also as the series evolves, they get an idea of what we’re capable of and the amount of time [required]. That’s been really great. So no, they haven’t set any limitations yet, and I don’t think they will! [laughs]
Can you tell us about one of your favorite effects that you got to work on?
Hmmm… It’s a tricky one without giving too much away. I think just generally we’ve done a lot of character makeups, right? And those have all been really fun. Pretty much every deadite is its own character makeup. So we’ve got a tone for the whole show, but we’ve personalized every one. It’s been quite good. And I think just generally making rigs. Going back to the old school rigs with dummy rigs, dismemberments, beheadings. We’ve made a few puppets!
I can’t say what’s my favorite. It’s like we had a lot of blood on our hands, let’s just say that.
How did the cast react to being constantly covered in blood?
Well, they sort of got used to it. Though Bruce gets a lot of the blood, you know. The whole cast were amazing, really amazing, and really stepped up to it. Because, you know, it’s a fast turnaround TV show, so it’s on. I mean, we do a lot of effects in our turnaround episodically, so there was no downtime from blood. And they just got used to it. It was really good, yeah.
Is there enough of a talent pool in New Zealand now that you can actually pull off this kind of show? There’s been a lot of new productions down there.
That’s a really good question. Look, there’s a huge gravitas with Evil Dead. I was working with two really good makeup artists—Jane O’Kane and Denise Coomb—down there who both share a credit in prosthetic design, because we basically allocated some of the tonal stuff to the on-set makeup artists, the designers. And that was really great.
We’ve had a really good pool of effects makeup artists through the whole Lord of the Rings, and New Zealand ended up getting people from America, we drew people from Australia. Just the tone and the want for people to work on the show was enough to draw people to New Zealand. We’re really lucky. We had some great technicians come down, great makeup artists, great technicians who worked a lot in the States. They love being in New Zealand. It’s quite different down there, you know?
So no, we were really lucky. It is one of those things where we’re a small country so when a lot of different projects get going, it does get quite tight, but I think Evil Dead will always draw people in.
The coolness factor of it?
Yeah, I think it’s the coolness factor, but I think it’s also that we run our workshop so that makeup artists—the special effects makeup artists are usually technicians too—they’ll get the ability to potentially sculpt some of the designs and do the technical side and do the makeups; so it’s quite a holistic sort of way we run it. So for them they feel a little bit more connected to the show, and they really enjoy it. It’s been great fun.
And, you know, they come out of the workshop, get some blood on their hands, come back, wash their hands, go back out. It’s been really good.
When you read a gory set piece in the script, are you allowed to ratchet it up and make suggestions, or do you usually stick to what’s there?
Oh man! It’s always getting ratcheted up, you know what I mean? The thing is trying to contain that so it actually works and is scary and not too over the top, you know what I mean? So it depends on the pace of the gag that we’re doing. Some of the gags we’ll do we’ll go completely berzerk, mostly when Bruce is involved. [laughs]
So in [Sam Raimi’s] episode, it was like, “Let’s really ratchet it up!” because he really loves seeing Bruce covered in blood. “But let’s just ratchet it right up— Let’s go craaaazy!” So we’d barge on set with kegs of blood and blood pumps, and we’re pumping. That’s really fun, but there are times when we want to build the pace of the show; we want it to be scary, a lot more potentially like the remake where there’s a bit more of a sense of impending doom. We’ll sort of tone it down a little bit. So there’s a nice variation, yeah, yeah.
It’s worked really well, it’s really fun. And… [laughs] You guys are gonna love it! It’s crazy. It’s a crazy half hour. It’s one of those shows that I, personally, would love to go and see. Like when I get home from work, I just want to sit down and watch it. It’s really fun.
Could you talk a little bit about what’s the aesthetic, the look, the tone of the—
The tone, yeah.
That’s another great question. Of course, that’s one of the things because the tone changes in the movies from the first Evil Dead to the second one to Army of Darkness. There’s sort of an overriding feeling to it, but the actual makeup and the look of the makeup changes quite a bit. So what we’ve done is we’ve kind of gone back to look mostly at Evil Dead 2 and get the tone from there, and sort of lifted a little bit for the TV show.
We always wanted to make Ash vs Evil Dead our own sort of thing. We didn’t want to copy [previous movies] outright because I think [the movies] had their time and place then. So we’re drawing on that, we’re drawing on the palette and different hues of what they’ve used initially. And I love [Evil Dead 2]. I love that movie, it’s great. So to be able to go over and deconstruct it, talk with Sam about where they sort of started and what the background was; just sort of change it and work with him and get a feeling of what the deadites were going to look like. It’s just pushed a little bit, pushed a little bit toward the modern.
How do you do Evil Dead 2-esque makeup effects when [back then] they were doing things with peanut butter? Now you’ve got fantastic technology and amazing materials. How do you dial it back?
Well, that’s the thing. We didn’t want to dial it right back to then. We actually wanted to enhance it for the show. We’ve actually taken all the appliances we make—they’re silicone appliances… There’s more of a naturalism. That’s probably the best way I can describe it. We didn’t want it to look too theatrical, we wanted you to actually feel like the characters had gone through a transformation. There’s definitely a harkening back to Evil Dead movies, but I think it’s its own thing too.
It’s just a natural progression of makeup effects, generally. We’re taking our own riff on it.
How does it feel working in the industry now with the resurgence of practical effects? You’re seeing a lot of films and TV shows going back to practical and going away from digital.
I’m extremely happy about it. [laughs] My company, Main Reactor, is extremely happy about it. It really is a bit of a dream come true because, look, there was a point when we all thought that lots more things would be digital.
We still work with a great visual effects company in New Zealand, Pacific Renaissance Pictures effects (PRPVFX). Our approach is we’re not going to discard our visual effects, we’re going to work together, and we’re going to make effects that you don’t know where the practical-effects and visual-effects sides begin and end. Marrying both of those together is hugely effective. Most of it’s practical, but there’s some tweaks with visual effects, things you can do easily now like wire removal and all those sort of things, enhancement of blood. It helps storytellers tell their story.
We’re making Evil Dead as a TV series in 2015. It’s insane. I couldn’t be happier. The producers are up for as many practical effects as possible, and it’s just going to be a nice combination of tweaks so you’re not sure how we did it. It’s the veneer, you know?
The polish on the—
Yeah! Yeah, yeah yeah. And you’ll see it. Most of the effects are practical. [laughs] Yeah, but I don’t want to dismiss the fact that working with visual effects artist and working in that medium is a really fantastic way to go too. It’s a great marriage.
You probably run into this a lot in recent years where you’ll be sitting at a production meeting and the visual effects guys say “We’ll take that” or “We’ll do that,” and you’re sort of left with the scraps. So now this seems like this is the opposite.
Well, I think there’s a mentality initially that’s starting to change where visual effects supervisors and stuff would try to pick up lots of effects in pre-production meetings. But what we’ve found was that—[Let’s take the show] Spartacus. I think Spartacus is a great example because when you start birthing a show, everyone starts trying to figure out what jigsaw piece they are and what’s going to be best for the show. I definitely know that there’s a big gravitas on Spartacus with the visual effects to actually do stuff as practically as possible because the turnaround on television is really fast. You know, the post-production side is really fast because it’s matching where you are in the shooting schedule. They don’t seem to be putting their hands up as much now saying “I’ll take that.” They’re being a lot more clever about it.
I think for [visual effects artists], it’s great. If they can get something in-camera and we’ve got a plan from the start, we can come up with a great product.
We’re doing Evil Dead, so there’s a lo-fi aspect to some things. If you’re got dummies being chopped up with chainsaws, and you’ve got dismembered arms, or we’ve got some really lovely silicone bodies, you know, all that stuff. We don’t have to hide that with visual effects, and the visual effects people don’t have to clean it up. It just is what it is, and you’re carried by the story and carried by the characters.