The name Sandy Collora might not immediately jump out at you as someone whose work you’re familiar with. But even if you don’t know it by heart (yet), chances are that you have definitely seen his work… Unless of course you’ve been living under a rock for the last 30 years. Sandy has an extensive and renowned resume, working on such films as The Abyss, Jurassic Park, Robocop 2, Predator 2, Total Recall, The Crow, Men in Black, and Dogma (just to name a few). While working on all of these films, he has kept up his own portfolio, constantly pumping out his own creations, and making some short films that have gained him wider recognition. Recently, I got a chance to talk to Mr. Collora and ask him some questions about this long career, and learn more about how someone can really make it doing something they love….
Wesley: I know that you started very early as an artist, drawing and painting. What would you say was your biggest inspiration towards wanting to become an artist, and what were your earliest aspirations regarding art before you finally decided to try to get into the film industry?
Sandy: Comic books. That’s actually how I learned to read. I had these cool Planet of the Apes
comics that were popular in the 70’s, that came with a 45 record that you played while you
read the book. Those were super cool. When I got a little bit older, I discovered magazines
like Creepy, Eerie, and Heavy Metal, that all became a huge influence. The artists in there
were doing artwork that was much more painterly and advanced, if you will, than traditional
comic books at that time. Frazetta, Moebius, Richard Corben, Sanjulian, Liberatore, were all
very inspiring to me. I have a huge pile of those magazines in my studio till this day, that I
re-read all the time and flip through for inspiration or when I need a good dose of pure 70’s
art nostalgia and coolness.
There were actually a lot of things that influenced my art when I was young. I was born in 1968,
so that put me at the perfect age bracket during the seventies, which was truly an amazing decade to
be a kid. There was so much inspiration all around you at that time; On Saturday morning television,
in toys like The Micronauts and the Mego superheroes, and of course, in movie theaters, where I
spent most of my childhood, devouring 70’s genre classics like Jaws, CE3K, Alien, Logan’s Run,
all the Planet of the Apes sequels, Rollerball, and of course, Star Wars. I’ve always been a huge
fan of the cinema experience. Sitting in the dark with your popcorn, the movies brought me to
another place, another time. All those movies had characters and adventures that sparked my
imagination and hit my artistic nerve, inspiring me to dream, and create my own.
That’s really when it all changed for me. I mean, the focus from wanting to be an artist to wanting
to be a filmmaker. I knew I’d always draw and be creative in some way, but somehow I had a
feeling it was all going to be part of a much bigger picture, I just didn’t quite know how yet. Back
then, there wasn’t anywhere near the amount of information out there regarding how to make films
or how to even start to think about actually getting into the business. This was before the internet
and DVD’s that have endless hours of “making of” documentaries and so forth. The accessibility
to anything like that was extremely limited back then, so I really didn’t even know where to start.
I had a few issues of Cinemagic magazine and all the Art of Star Wars books, but aside from the
occasional TV special and some film books my parents brought me back from Europe, I really
had no idea what the actual art of filmmaking was all about. I mean, I knew more about it than any
of my friends on my little league team, but by the time the eighties had rolled around, and I started
high school, I pretty much had accepted the fact that if I wanted to chase down my dreams and have
a real shot at catching them, I had to move to LA.
W: You moved out to LA at a very young age, trying to break into the
industry. What was it like moving out to such a big city, and trying
to do something that many people have not been successful at? Were you
ever worried that you wouldn’t be able to “cut it”, and if so, how did
you deal with them?
S: It was daunting. I can’t lie about that. I was young, naive, and somewhat insecure about not only
how I was going to do all this, but who I was inside. At that age, you’re still trying to discover
yourself, find your place in the world, and let me tell you, Hollywood is one strange world. LA, in
and of itself, was somewhat of a culture shock, but the whole movie business thing was something
completely different. I’ve been in it now for over 20 years, and I still don’t know where I fit into it all.
It’s kind of its own animal and is quite different from anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s hard. It
always has been for me, but I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I knew very early on
that I was never going to be happy working in a creature shop, slinging plaster or sculpting monsters
for the rest of my life. I always wanted to be a director and that’s what I always worked towards.
Admittedly, I spent more time doing the sculpting and FX stuff than I would have liked. Hell, I even
got sidetracked sculpting toys and action figures for a few years, but you can never predict when the
timing for something is going to be quite right. I was never worried that I’d never be able to “cut it”, but I
knew I was standing, looking up at an enormous mountain in front of me. In a way, it motivated me,
but I also fell off the mountain on the way up, several times. I still fall, but the most important thing is
that I always get back up and keep climbing, because this business will always try to knock you down.
W: You started your filmmaking career in 1988 working on the crew for
the George P. Cosmatos film “Leviathan”, as a member of Stan Winston’s
team. Can you tell us a little about moving out to LA and landing your
position with one of the premiere effects houses in the world, and
what it was like working on your first big production?
S: Leaving home at 17 years old, especially with my parents knowing full well that I had no interest
in really going to college and had stars in my eyes, was no easy feat. In order for them to let me
leave our modest home in Staten Island NY, I had to enroll in college, so I did. It’s no coincidence
that I wound up at California State University Northridge, literally right around the corner from Stan
Winston Studios. I was an industrial design major there for a year and built up a portfolio of drawings
and sculptures, that I then took over to Stan’s and got hired on the spot. Well, needless to say,
college became secondary and I eventually dropped out and went to work there full time.
To this very day, that is still without question, the most magical and special time in my entire
life. What I learned there, from Stan and all of the incredibly talented artists there, was the
foundation that I would build my entire career on, and provided the opportunity for me to grow and
develop, not only as an artist, but as a person. I was literally like a sponge there, soaking up
everything that I could, and asking tons of questions regarding every aspect of the process.
I was deeply saddened by Stan’s untimely passing late last year, and miss him a lot.
Shortly after that, I was fortunate enough to meet the man who would have the biggest influence
on my life and career, and become my mentor. I’d first seen pictures of Henry Alvarez in movie
magazines, he was kind of a legend at that point already and was working for Rob Bottin at the time,
heading up the sculpture department. I got introduced to him through a guy who’d worked with him
there, and after the “let’s see how serious this kid is” trial period, I started working at Alvarez Wax
Models, studying under Henry, eventually going on to work with Bottin as well, and the rest as they
say, is history. I’ve grow very close to Henry, his son Nick, and lovely wife Andrea over the past 20
years. In all of my travels, I have never met a more kind, loving, humble and talented family. The role
each one of them has played in my growth and development as an artist and a human being is truly
W: Can you tell us a little about what you started out doing on the FX Crews on the first few films you worked on?
S: I started cleaning molds, patching foam latex creature suits and other little, menial tasks, like
making acrylic teeth and fingernails. That was on Leviathan and Alien Nation. On subsequent
shows, I worked my way up the ladder, eventually making molds, running foam, and then into the
paint department. Sculpting and designing came soon after that on The Abyss, Little Monsters,
Total Recall, Spaced Invaders, The Crow and The Arrival. I went from shop to shop, show to show,
learning as I went, getting to work with different FX guys and different directors, my favorite being
Jim Cameron. After The Abyss, I went on to do concept paintings for Spider-man, when he was
attached to do that film.
There were tons of little gigs in between, too… I worked on a few of the Nightmare on Elm Street
films, painting a piece here or a piece there. I made some frog masks for the second Frogtown
movie, worked on a bunch of TV shows and commercials, sculpting stuff or making models, even
doing make-up. Back then, there were a lot of these little, lower end shops that either got work farmed
out to them from bigger shops, or got little jobs on really low budget horror flicks. I think everyone who’s
done this type of work has toiled through a few of those shows.
Like I said, at that time, learning all of this stuff and becoming very proficient at all of it, was important.
There always was a much bigger picture inside my head, regarding where I was going to go and what
I was going to do, but I knew I had to crawl before I could walk, especially given the kinds of films
I wanted to make. It was crucial for me to learn and understand every aspect of Special Effects, to
be able to utilize them to their fullest potential when the time came.
W: Most people aren’t aware of really the size of the team behind an
effect that we might see on screen for just a few seconds. Can you
tell us a little about what goes on behind the scenes on a major
effect shot, and about how important it is to have everyone working as
S: That depends on the effect and the budget of the film it’s in, quite honestly. On something like
the Leviathan, that was a very large, very complex, mechanical creature, with a man inside of it,
takes quite the team of people to make work. Things like prosthetic facial make-ups and the
like, take less people on set to apply and maintain, but still need to be designed, sculpted, molded,
cast, trimmed, painted and applied. In most cases, at least in my experience, that’s all done by
different people in different departments of the shop. I always worked because I could do all those
jobs, and coordinate all the people to do them as well.
I actually remember very early on, Alec Gillis, who was running Stan Winston’s at the time, told me
that even though I didn’t want to make molds or like doing it, that it was good for me to learn, so when
there was no sculpting left to do, I could stay employed and mold what I had sculpted, instead of being
laid off until the next sculpting job. He impressed upon me the fact that being well rounded, and having
a working knowledge of all aspects of the effects process, would make me a very valuable asset to
an FX shop. Well, I took that advice to heart, and also more importantly, to the next level. I applied it
not only to doing FX work, but to every aspect of the filmmaking process.
I starting literally consuming information about how movies were made. I even offered to go and help out
on set for free on some shows I worked on. Sometimes, I would even sneak on to sets and just tell the
DP or AD that I was a PA, and ask what I should do. They’d just tell me what to do, and I’d work on the
movie until someone eventually, sometimes after weeks, would finally say; “Hey, who the hell is that guy?”
Getting first hand experience with all different kinds of directors and crew people, I saw how a filmmaking
team works and operates. How they went about their jobs, how they interacted and worked with each other,
and how one person’s job affected another’s.
That hands on experience is something you absolutely cannot get any other way. I don’t care what film
school you went to, or how many “making of” or behind the scenes features you watch on DVD. If you
want to make a real contribution to this business and be part of its creative upper echelon, you’ve got to
pay your dues and work up the ladder. You need to work with good people, talented people and learn from
them and the crews they surround themselves with. Knowledge of the craft and of the process is essential
in making something real and that people will notice. This isn’t “Days of Thunder”… You can’t learn it by
watching it on television.
W: You eventually moved from working on effects crews, to also working
as a Conceptual and Storyboard artist. What is the work of a Concept
or Storyboard artist like, and how did you get your (I believe) first
job as a Concept Artist, working on the James Cameron film “The
S: Honestly, I really don’t remember what my first design job was, but it wasn’t The Abyss. I was a
sculptor on that show, for two different shops actually, Steve Johnson’s and Don Penningtons.
I worked on the NTI creature and the interior of the NTI ship. I think the first design gig might have
been for Tim Lawrence, designing giant lizards for some TV show or something he was doing
there at the time.
If I was going to work on a movie, I’ve always preferred to draw and design stuff as opposed to being
in “the shop”, breathing in all those chemicals and stuff. So much of that stuff is toxic; The paints,
urethanes, etc, that were in use at that time, were super hazardous to breathe if they’re not used in
places with proper ventilation. Whenever I did have to paint or work with the toxic stuff, I always wore
a respirator. The design and story boarding jobs also entailed working one on one with the director,
which I liked. I started learning more about directing by doing that. It gave me a feel for different
director’s styles, preferences, and sensibilities.
I really looked up to Cameron. He was an FX guy and art director who came from the Roger Corman
school of filmmaking, so he knew how to do a lot with a little. I’d seen his drawings from Terminator and
Aliens, and was completely blown away. The guys at Stan’s raved about how good of a director he was.
This was a guy who could draw, sculpt, build models, operate the camera, etc… The short time I spent
with him on The Abyss was by far, the greatest influence and education I’ve ever had as a director.
I don’t know if he ever noticed that really, as I wasn’t someone of any real importance on that film,
but I just remember being so damn impressed by the man. He knew everything about every aspect
of filmmaking and struck me as hyper intelligent as well. With the exception of the actors, he could do
everyone’s job on that set better than they could, and they all knew it. I wanted to be like him.
W: As a member of a larger Conceptual team, how do you first begin to
formulate how a creature you’re working on is going to look like, are
you given the descriptions straight from the script, or are you given
an outline and given some leeway to work in?
S: I’d like to be able to give you this long, elaborate answer about how I go about that whole process, but
to be honest, I just start drawing. Whatever comes out, is what I turn in. It’s a very spontaneous thing for
me. Always has been, I think the first thought that manifests itself on paper, after reading the script or
talking to the director, is the most pure the design will ever get. What happens after that, can go either way.
It depends on the concept and even more so, on the director.
Sometimes there’d be leeway. Sometimes not. Sometimes my design got so bastardized and re-worked,
it was pretty much unrecognizable, and sometimes it made it to the screen pretty much untouched. Each
show was different. Men in Black, for example, had so many designers working on it, that I really don’t
think that anyone’s designs really made it to the final film unscathed. I personally did a ton of sketches
for the Edgar cockroach, as did other artists working at Rick Bakers, but the whole creature wound up
being CG, and was re-designed completely by the ILM guys. Stuff like that happens all the time.
Then, there’s always the “Oh my God, what did the CG guys do to my monster?” situation. Case in point;
The Arrival. I worked very closely with the director David Twohy, and designed this very elegant, almost
fragile looking alien for the film. When I saw it in the theater, I could not believe how different the design
was, and how the CG department just kind of did their own thing with it. I never spoke to David about it,
but I guess that’s why my credit got knocked down to “additional alien design”. That was a new one for
me. Hell, at least I got a screen credit on that one. I can’t even tell you how many movies I worked on
and didn’t get credit.
W: Your job required a lot of skill, having to take a creature built
from words, form that into a visual concept, and then have other
artists take your work and create something, solid and “real”. What
are the steps that the art would generally take as you got feedback
from the rest of the crew, and the team developed a creative consensus
for how the final characters and creatures are going to look?
S: Like I said in the last answer, it was always different. Each movie was a different experience and a
different group of people. Remember, I was never really solely in charge of what a particular creature
or monster was going to be. The project supervisors and eventually the director, always had the last word.
I did a lot of designs of different shows that were never even presented to the director. I have stacks of
drawings I did for Predator 2 and many others, that people to this day, have never seen. On other shows,
directors specifically asked for me to design stuff for them. It’s always up to the director. He’s the boss,
you do what he says, and that’s that.
W: Looking at your body of work, you seem to have an intense love for
the Alien and the Monstrous, have you always had this love for the
fantastical, or is it something that you developed out of necessity
for the kinds of jobs you had to undertake?
S: I’ve always been an alien and monster guy. Always will be. At this point in my career, I really don’t
have any interest in making films about things that don’t involve the fantastical. I’m not really a “neat
little slice of life” kind of guy. I like making movies about things that only exist in the imagination
of the filmmaker.
W: Having had so many jobs, Artist, Design, sculpture, all steps of
the effects process, writer, director, etc. What would you say is the
hardest job you’ve had to undertake, and why?
S: Director, no question. It’s a lot of responsibility and requires incredible focus. You also need to be a
leader. There’s so much more involved in directing a motion picture, than anything I’ve ever done.
You’re responsible for so many things, everything really. It’s a very interesting thing, directing. It’s
both very complex and very simple… Very hard, but but aspects of it come very easy and very
naturally to me. I like the challenge of it all and being in charge. I definitely enjoy shooting much more
than any other part of the directing process, but it’s all an incredible adventure. A creative journey
that is quite rewarding. I think being a feature film director is the bee’s knees. There’s nothing better.
W: Your Directorial debut occurred in 1999, with your film “Solomon
Bernstein’s Bathroom”. What was it like moving from an artistic and
conceptual role to the position of Director, and how did you deal with
moving from a position where your were interpreting someone else’s
ideas and vision, to one where you had to forge your own?
S: That all came very naturally. Of course I hadn’t ever directed before, but with all my experience in
different aspects of the process, and having worked with directors like Cameron on set, I was very
comfortable and had a good working knowledge of how to handle things. No one on the crew could
believe I had never directed before. As a matter of fact, I remember Henry Alvarez asking me; “How
do you know all this stuff? The camera, lenses, the lights, how to work with the actors?” I was kinda
like “I dunno, I just know…”
Granted, I was nowhere even near the filmmaker I am today, as I’m sure I’m not the filmmaker now,
that I’ll be in another 10 years, but like I said, it came very naturally and I was never overwhelmed or
uncomfortable. I learned a lot on that movie and continue to learn as I direct more and more. It’s all a
big adventure to me, one of growth, change and discovery.
W: Perhaps one of your most well known undertakings (at least to the
internet audience at large) is your 2003 Short film, “Batman: Dead
End”, as a Batman fan it was one of the first fan films that just
shocked me with it’s quality. The film got heavy praise from the likes
of Writer/Director Kevin Smith, and famed comic artist Alex Ross. Can
you talk a little about the creation of the film, some of the reaction
too it, and why you choose the Batman character as a demonstration for
your Directing skills?
S: Ya know, there have been a lot of things written and said about that little short film; About why I made it, how I made it, what the budget was, where I got the costumes, etc… So right here, right now, I’ll tell you a few things, directly from the director, so to speak…
First of all, more than anything, Batman Dead End was an experiment. I wanted to see if the Batman I grew up with and loved from the comics, would work if literally translated on film. If you really think about it, that had never been done before, and I needed to see if the reality and the human element of the character could work on film.
The dark, gritty, vulnerable, hero without a clunky rubber suit or foam muscles. A real, brooding, complex creature of the night, who could turn his head, and I wanted to do it without separating the neck from the cowl, so his head doesn’t look like a light bulb. Even simple things like the white eyes, Batman disguising his voice, or even the rain for instance, had never ever been done in a Batman movie, so I put it up there on the screen and made that dark, gritty, tougher version of the character, come alive.
Another myth about Batman Dead End, is that I got the Predator and Alien costumes from Stan Winston. Because of my extensive FX background and people I know in the industry, a few costume pieces here and there, were donated to the film, but we made all that stuff. I personally sculpted the predator suit with Nick Damon, and hand painted each one myself. So, although Stan was supportive of my endeavor, he did not give me a bunch of predator and alien suits. Endless hours of hard work from my talented cast and crew, made those suits come to life.
Regarding the reaction and what that film has become… Well, I think the millions of downloads, the feedback on all the message boards and the literally hundreds of articles and interviews that were done on and about the film, speak for themselves. People still come up to me and say it’s the best version of the character ever put to film. Even people that work at DC and at WB, have told me very similar things. That’s enough for me.
W: Your latest work is your feature debut, “Hunter Prey”, can you
tell us a little about the film, and what it’s been like transitioning
from shorts to this effects laden Sci-Fi feature?
S: Hunter Prey has been quite the adventure. It was a hard shoot and just rough in general, but the only real difference, or transition I had to make, was that everything was just longer. It took longer to write, to prep, to shoot, and to finish.
There’s just a lot more involved, time wise on a feature, than a short. It’s much more of a commitment. Honestly, the level of the work was consistent with what I had done on my shorts, especially because a lot of the same crew were involved, there was just so much more of it to do. It’s harder when you don’t have a lot of money or a big crew, you wind up doing a lot of the work yourself, but it’s all worth it. Everyone winds up wearing several hats and doing more than one job, it’s just the way a lot of these low budget, genre films get made.
W: “Hunter Prey” seems to have been incubating within you for a very
long time, can you talk about how you first came up with the idea, and
the tribulations you’ve had with taking your idea and finally forming
it into the film you now have?
S: I’d say a low budget, genre feature had been incubating for quite a while, no question, but the original concept for this film, was brought to me in August of 2007 by my writing partner, Nick Damon. It just clicked. He had this great idea for a sci-fi flick that could be made on a low budget. After a few brainstorming sessions, we had it all figured out and Nick started writing and I started drawing. It was a long prep time and getting all the costumes, props, creature stuff and models, done for the money we had, was a challenge. I’m very hands on with all that stuff, so that was a crazy busy time for me. I’d be sculpting a maquette in the morning, then after lunch, I’d be on the phone with the prop guys in NY, going over emailed photos and doing sketches. Then at night, I would write and talk with Nick. All this while doing storyboards, meeting with the DP a few times a week, and making the schedule.
Producers Simon Tams and Daren Hicks got involved as that stuff was all being finished, and started making all the arrangements for shooting in Mexico and so forth. There were issues that needed to be worked out with SAG and other stuff, so by the time I had everything storyboarded, built and made the schedule, we were pretty much ready to go. We shot for 17 days and did 3 pick up days here in LA, including a pretty extensive miniature shoot. There were compromises I had to make here and there, mostly because of budgetary reasons, and I had to think on my feet a lot to make the days, but I’d say the film I wound up with, is very close to my original vision. I’m very proud of it, and of my extraordinary cast and crew.
W: You decided to shoot “Hunter Prey” with the Red One system, can
you talk a little about why you shot the film digitally, and the Pros
and Cons of utilizing a digital system compared to shooting with film?
S: I didn’t “decide” to shoot Hunter Prey on Red. I was kinda forced into it. That’s just what was available to me and for the budget we had, was the best option. If I had the money and the choice, I would have shot 35mm anamorphic. Hell, I would have rather shot 3 perf, super 35 or even super 16, over digital, but sadly, shooting
film on this project was just not realistic. The producers of the picture, Simon Tams and Daren Hicks, had just purchased a Red Camera and were very, very excited about using it for Hunter Prey. They took me to a Red user group, where I could play with the most recent build of the camera and check out some footage, meet
some DP’s and directors that had shot with it, and drink some red kool aid.
Turns out I wound up meeting the DP who would go on to shoot Hunter Prey, Ed Gutentag, that very day.
He was very knowledgeable about the camera and did a great job on the film. I can’t say I didn’t like the
red camera. I liked it and I think the movie looks really good. All in all, it was a great experience and I’d shoot
with that camera again if the situation and project were right, but I still prefer film. To me, there’s just something very romantic about the texture and physical process of film. I like to hear the film moving through the magazine when I’m operating. I like the weight of a 35mm camera on my shoulder with a full, 1,000 foot mag on the top.
Film is alive. It lives and breathes. I like the way it smells, the way it feels in my hands when I’m loading. It’s
emulsion, it exists in real time and space. The whole digital thing to me, is just… I dunno… Cold.
Pros; In most cases, cheaper and faster. Cons; Doesn’t, and will never look as good, or have the warmth and texture of film, and is a bitch to color balance and light correctly if you want it to look good. A camera is like any other tool used in making a movie, it’s a chunk of metal with a lens on it. If you don’t know how to use it, or putsomething really cool in front of it, it’s useless.
W: You’ve had a long career, over 20 years in the industry, working
on some amazing films with some huge names, and have finally completed
a task that many young filmmakers only dream about, shooting their own
feature-length film. Looking back in reflection, what do you feel is
the most important piece of advice that you have to offer to many of
the Young Filmmakers that are now in the same position that you were
almost 2 decades ago?
S: That is a really, really hard question to answer. The industry is so different now, than it was when
I started, in so many different ways. I think technology and the and accessibility of filmmaking tools to
younger guys now, has changed the playing field quite a bit. In some ways, it’s much easier now to
physically go and make something, but I think it’s actually harder to “break in” though, as a result of it.
Everyone’s got a digital camera now. Everyone’s got editing software and pro tools on their laptop. We’re
in the midst of a technological revolution of sorts, but what people have a tendency to forget, is that no
matter how advanced or affordable the technology becomes, you still need to be talented to make a good
movie with all that stuff.
The bottom line here is, I don’t really feel I’m in a position to give advice to anyone. Each person and each
situation is different. I can’t predict what a studio, independent investor or production company is going to do,
or how they’ll react to a filmmaker’s work or lack thereof. No one can. All you can do is make the best film
you can, with the money and resources available to you, and work with good people. Talented people who can help bring your vision to life and make your movie the best it can be. Just remember two things; You’ll never be able to please everybody, and If you try to please everybody, you’ll fail.
W: And finally, where will we be able to see “Hunter Prey” when it’s
released, and what other projects do you have coming up that we can
keep our eyes open for in the future?
S: Regarding the first part of the question, the answer is simply that I do not know yet. The film should be done by the end of June. After that, we’ll have to see how everything plays out. Once I deliver the film, I’m not responsible for when or how it’s going to get released. There’s so much involved in all that stuff, its all the business end of things and I don’t get involved in that stuff. I know the initial response to the film on line, has been incredible. Everyone seems to be digging it, but marketing and selling a film to buyers, from what I’m told, is quite different from selling a film to it’s audience. Go figure… I dunno, I just work here.
Moviehouse in London, an international sales group has already picked us up, so we’ll see how things go at Cannes.
As far as other projects, I’ve already had a few options present themselves, just as result of all the buzz Hunter Prey is getting. I’ve got a couple of things up my sleeve… Stay tuned.
Thank you for talking to us today Mr. Collora, and we all can’t wait to see what you have planned next.
To keep up with Collora’s Future Work, and to stay on top of when Hunter Prey when it’s released, check out Sandy’s Website’s below…