Nightmares Made Real

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My first special effects job for a feature film occurred in 1986 at Image Engineering, a mechanical effects company owned by Peter Chesney. The movie was A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS, and Image Engineering was responsible for many of the imaginative ways that the maniacal Freddy Krueger disposed of his victims in the dream world. Unlike the computer generated visual effects of today which are accomplished in post-production, this was a pre-production project that required a performance with the actors during the live action shooting. Lets take a look at how we seemingly made a bathroom sink and a television come to life as the personification of the evil Freddy.

Various components used to create a faucet knob
Molds and castings used to create the faucet knob, based on Anton Tremblay's drawing.

While most of the crew focused on the inner mechanisms, my task was to make the visible exterior of the transforming props. I worked under the guidance of the brilliant Anton Tremblay, who designed the look of the specialty props for this project. The transforming faucet knobs were scratch-built, which I sculpted out of Bondo, styrene plastic, and wood from Anton's drawings. Molds were made from the original master, then many castings were produced for use in the various transformation stages. The casting materials depended on the function of each prop: rock hard fast-cast, stretchy Smooth-On rubber, flexible urethane rubber, or breakable stearin wax. One knob turned into a grabbing hand, the other morphed into the obligatory Krueger claw. Later on during the films principal photography, I also puppeteered the transforming faucet knobs. Basically, I was hidden away under the sink, struggling to perform using a video monitor to see what I was doing while interacting with Patricia Arquette!

Inner mechanism of the nightmare faucet knob
The inner mechanism designed to pop blades out of the handle and bend upward.

Scary claw pops out of a bathroom sink
Plumbing mutated into a skeletal Freddy claw; the mechanical prop posed on set.

The Freddy Krueger television
The final stage of the transforming television, with dummies of Jennifer and Freddy's head.

Anton's design for the Krueger television also was fabricated from scratch. There needed to be a watchable functioning TV, several transforming versions that housed all the mechanics, as well as one to fit actor Robert Englund. I don't know much about how the mechanics were built as that is not my expertise, however the mechanical departments work was amazing! I modeled the components on the face of the TV separately: speaker grills, screen bezel, knobs, and decorative doodads. Multiple castings of the parts were made and applied to each television, all of them carefully painted to look the same. Image Engineering did not have a ventilated spray booth, so the casting and painting process was conducted in the alley outside since the vapors were very nasty and toxic. Nevertheless, I had a fair amount of exposure to noxious fumes on this job! The mechanical arms were dressed with real electronic components including tubes that were wired to glow. As fans of the Elm Street series know, Freddy Krueger became a wise-cracking comedian in this movie. The television sequence became iconic, due to Freddy's famous line, "This is it Jennifer. Your big break in TV. Welcome to prime time bitch!"

Artist working on the TV from Nightmare on Elm Street 3
Joel Fletcher details the mechanical arm of the transforming television.

Mechanical arm
The robotic arm for the breakout version of the TV.

Special effects artists pose by the Freddy TV
Joel Fletcher, Joe Starr, Phillip Hartman, Ralph Miller, and Ron MacInnes

Three artists goofing around
Visiting artist Bruce Lau, technician Kelly Mann, and designer Anton Tremblay ham it up.

The collaborative efforts of the Image Engineering team resulted in some really impressive special effects. I'm proud of the work we did, even though it was all for a gruesome horror movie. I love sculpting and model making, bringing something into existence from raw materials. I learned a tremendous amount about the fabrication process on this job; however I urge caution to anyone considering this sort of art form as a profession. The materials, glues, paints, and exotic chemicals that are routinely used by model makers can be hazardous to your health, and even deadly in the long run! Fortunately most of my work in the film business has been in animation. If I continued to do a lot of prop and model making jobs, maybe I would be an unintentional victim of Freddy Krueger by now!
Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors ©1987 New Line Cinema


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