Studio Plant Scott Essman on the set of Monster Mutt

monstermuttPress Photo - Monster Mutt 1

Our resident (or is it former now?) studio plant Scott Essman recently visited the set of the indie horror film Monster Mutt. This movie is notable because it’s being independently financed and will include make up and creature effects by Drac Studios – the folks who did the make up on Watchmen, The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons, and Night at the Museum.  Scott is currently working on a book about Tim Burton. Without further props, here’s Scott’s ruminations on his day with a Monster Mutt.

On a sweltering mid-July day in the Santa Clarita Valley, about 25 miles north of Los Angeles, a cadre of busy workers are wholly unconcerned with the upcoming events of Comic-Con, which normally detract and occupy the minds of everyone notable in the science-fiction and fantasy filmmaking genre.  Instead, inside a semi-abandoned industrial building nestled just below the Magic Mountain amusement park, a team of movie veterans is efficiently constructing a totally new franchise in the genre, akin to the heralded properties of similar studios such as Disney and DreamWorks.  Culled from an original story, Monster Mutt is alive and well on this set, using many time-honored fantasy techniques such as special makeup effects, creature suits, and animatronics.

Helming the effort is writer-director Todd Tucker, an expert craftsman with 20 years in the business.  Notable for creating his own fantasy films with a youth-orientation, Tucker imagined a tale in which a lovable family dog turns into a less friendly although still cuddly human-sized canine thanks to some mixture of seemingly benign chemicals in the form of an energy serum.  Putting Monster Mutt together with a combination of private investment and crafts from his Drac Studios’ creature shop, Tucker is bringing the feature in an extremely small amount of money, especially by fantasy film standards, mandating an economizing of time on set.  “We spent four hours filming this morning, starting at 7AM,” Tucker explained about their 20-day slot for principal photography, “for what will be two minutes of screen time.”

monstermuttPress Photo - Monster Mutt 2

Across the hall from the set, Monster Mutt producer Harvey Lowry of Green Pictures and co-owner of Drac Studios discussed the film’s target family audience. “We wanted to do something that our kids could see,” said Lowry, himself a longtime Drac supervisor.  For 15 years, Lowry has been combining his skills in producing effects and feature films, describing Monster Mutt as “a family comedy that is effects-driven.”  Lowry’s plan included making the film’s surprises 99% practically created, meaning using techniques that can be executed on-camera in real-time, not on a computer in post-production, though this film will have some computer-generated enhancements.

It’s now lunchtime, but in the afternoon, Tucker will shoot a rampage by the titular character, a combination of oversize realistic dog suit with an animatronic mask-type head, all custom built by Drac, late of Academy Award-winning effects work on such projects as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mrs. Doubtfire, plus the recent The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  It takes five puppeteers to control the dog’s numerous expressions and movements, creating a character that Tucker described as “E.T. meets The Mask.”  The crew will shoot the dog, Max, tearing through a chemical lab, destroying all manners of equipment, “hoping to get it in the first take,” Tucker said, to limit the need to continuously redress the set.


This crew won’t wrap until 7pm, fulfilling a 12-hour day, which needs to be carefully coordinated as there are child actors in the film who are strictly regulated by Screen Actors Guild rules.  Tucker is creatively in control of his set, shooting efficiently, but always striving to maximize the full entertainment value of his shots.  Other recent production days have involved changing the lead antagonist, Sirus, played by genre regular Zack Ward, into an uber-villain courtesy of Drac’s prosthetic mutations, manifested in a full makeup, teeth, feet and hands.  Drac technicians will also realize a monster puppy and evil bunny rabbit.  “We try to use all of our resources with cast and crew to go above and beyond our budget,” Tucker said. “These family-friendly films bring us into a bigger market.  Kids movies can play any time of the day.”

Following Monster Mutt, which is in post-production in late summer with an anticipated late 2009 release date, Lowry is looking to expand Green Pictures into a variety of films, much like aforementioned studio models.  On a break in the production office trailer during the midst of their hectic schedule, Lowry noted of future films, “if it’s a unique project, looks like it has legs, and is original, we’re interested.”

EM Interview by
Scott Essman
Originally Posted 9.11.09