Interview with Zelda’s Adventure (Philips CD-i) Model and Prosthetic Maker Jason Bakutis
Hollywood special effects guru Jason Bakutis talked to me about his role in the ambitious and notorious Zelda’s Adventure for the Philips CD-i. He also shared several behind-the-scene photos of the game’s monsters and miniature sets.
Thanks so much for your time, Jason. Before we get to Zelda’s Adventure, could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background as an artist?
I’m just one of those kids who loved monsters so much, I had to learn to make them.
According to IMDB, you are first credited with being a puppeteer on Critters 3 and 4, the former of which stars a young Leonardo DiCaprio. What brought you to Hollywood, and to those deadly alien furballs?
Yes, that was my first gig, but I actually helped make the critters, being able to help with the puppets came later. Since I was 12, my dream was to make movie monsters. So when I was about 21, I finally moved out there, and just kept sending around my little “color copy” of some things I made. Until I got the call from Ed Chiodo, I worked at a movie theater, where I had the honor of once serving popcorn to DeForest “Bones” Kelley.
One time on the set for Critters 4, I was eating at craft service with this guy, and asked him if he was part of the lighting crew. He gave me this weird look, and said, “No, I, um, play the part of..(can’t remember)”. It was Brad Dourif. I didn’t recognize him, I felt like an ass. He was only in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
While in L.A., you joined KNB EFX Group, the well-known special effects company famous for its horror magic on A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child, Halloween 5, Scream, and The Walking Dead. What was it like working there?
Working with KNB was one of the best times in my life. We were all kindred spirits, like “Brothers in Gore.” We had that crazy winged witch with 4 arms (and 4 breasts) from Army of Darkness hanging from the ceiling, a full-sized Pumpkinhead, AND the actual silicone head of Kathy Bates from Misery, you know, for when James Caan smacked her with the ol’ typewriter. I was there when Pulp Fiction was underway, and almost, I stress almost, got to be a part of casting Uma Thurman’s chest for the famous hypodermic full of adrenaline scene. But, alas, they made us go to Del Taco. We did closely examine the fresh life cast afterwards, though.
You were on the effects crew for Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. What exactly were your duties on that movie?
Okay, there’s a scene at the beginning, where a guy who is possessed by the spirit of Jason presses another guy’s face into a grate, and his cheek comes through in square cylinder shapes–kind of like mashed potatoes, but flesh. I also sculpted the body suit for when this cop, well, melts. I did some other gags, too. I remember sculpting an appliance that would allow this actor’s throat to expand to bullfrog-like proportions. Good times.
The last film that you worked on was Casper in 1995 as a mold/lab technician. Could you elaborate on that role?
I actually just worked on a movie called Torture Chamber by Dante Tomaselli. I guess I would have to let IMDB know, but, I’m not too concerned. If you do see it, though, look for my eerie African mask that the evil kid wears.
So the thing with Casper is that it was the very first movie (ever) where main characters were CG and talked with actual people. However, the actors weren’t always able to line their eyes up with the eyes of ghosts that weren’t there yet. So, we had to make full-sized polyfoam and latex ghosts that could act as stand-ins. We used huge popcorn tubs to mix the foam. Messy, but fun.
Sometime after that, you were hired by The Viridis Corporation. What made you transition from movies to games? How did you get involved with Zelda’s Adventure?
A friend of mine, Jim Belcher, called me up and asked if I could make a rubber dinosaur hand for a Draw 50 video game.
I did, and eventually they brought me in to do all the creatures and a lot of the sets, all in miniature, for Zelda. When they offered me a staff position, I took it, because for the most part, FX is all freelance.
Unlike the other two Zelda CD-i games, Zelda’s Adventure uses photographic real-world environments and model props. Conceptually, what inspiration did you draw from to design the characters, creatures, and dioramas? How familiar were you with Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda games?
More than anyone, I was inspired by Ray Harryhausen. I was given a huge book of concept drawings, but they were pretty lame, and I largely ignored them. I’ll poke around and see if I can find some.
Of course I was familiar with Nintendo’s Zelda. My life, and the life of video games, are one in the same. From Atari 2600, to Intellivision, to Colecovision, and all the way up till now. I have always gamed.
In terms of the actual prop making, how did you go about constructing the Zelda’s Adventure props and miniature sets?
Well, the creatures were all sculpted from plasticine clay, molded in ultracal, and cast using a combination of latex and polyfoam. I would put a simple aluminum wire armature in the mold so that the creature could be posed and animated. I then painted them, added fur, or teeth, and sometimes clothes.
The sets were literally made from whatever I could find.
The wizard’s tower in the intro was literally made by sawing a wooden yardstick and gluing the 4 pieces together. I then added texture with clay and painted it.
Regarding Gaspra, the ancient wizard who lives in the tower, was he also one of your models? In the game, it looks like a real actor is playing his part.
The makeup I did for Gaspra was a full foam latex prosthesis on the kid who did the sound design. I believe his name was Mark Andrade.
He was around 23–not at all an old, wizened mage.
What sort of budget did the Zelda’s Adventure development team have to work with–were there any monetary concerns during the game’s production?
We had, at the time, the biggest budget ever for a video game. At one point, the owners told me they were talking to this band Echo and the Bunnymen about doing the soundtrack. I heard of them, but never heard them.
You also animated your Zelda’s Adventure creations for the game. Please give some insight into that process.
I would mount the creature in front of this blue screen we built and “grab” a still using a $14,000 broadcast-quality Sony news camera. It was basic stop-motion animation, but we were only allowed very few frames to create walk cycles and fight cycles. We had a special card that converted that video still into digital information. In other words, we were doing digital photography before there was digital photography. I’m sure my phone takes way better pictures now.
Tell me some stories about the making of Zelda’s Adventure, and any high points or pratfalls.
It was really a blast. I had total creative free reign. The downside, and you probably can tell from the pictures that I sent, was the lack of computing power.
Every creature I made, due to memory limitations of the time, and the CD-i, had to be reduced in size, resolution, and color.
Ultimately, until now [laughs], the world never got to see just how cool this game could’ve been. It’s like we took HD 1080 pics and turned them into tiny lo-res thumbnails, but worse. Still, I am proud of all the creatures and props.
I remember we had this big treadmill, and a mirror on the ceiling. The actors (including the girl who played Zelda) would walk on it, and the camera was aimed up at the mirror, so that the footage had that “top down” quality that is associated with so many video games.
I donned more than a few costumes, and played NPCs in the game. I have no idea who, I remember being this guy with black curly hair, and a beard, sitting in some hut made of sticks (another model I made). I’d be curious to play it someday to see if I can find it; it would be kind of weird to see me at 23 stuck inside a video game.
What, if any, involvement did Phillips or Nintendo have with the project?
There was only one time when these high-ranking execs from Japan came to visit. They looked at the rows of shelves in my office filled with creatures, went “AHHHHH,” and bowed to me. They were impressed, and I was psyched.
Do you remember the names of these Japanese executives?
I definitely don’t remember any of the Japanese execs who came through. They looked important, though.
In recent years, the game has gained a certain cult status, but, historically, Zelda’s Adventure has received bad press and ill feelings among many gamers. Why do you think that is? How do you feel the game turned out?
Like I said earlier, the problem was more with the hardware than with the content going into it. The programmers were constantly removing things so that it would run at all. Let’s face it, it was too ambitious of a project for the time. We were trying to get to the moon in horse-drawn buggies. But we tried, fools that we were. [laughs]
Whatever happened to all of your Zelda’s Adventure model making work?
It’s in a huge military warehouse, along with the Ark of the Covenant. I might have some old things in storage, though. I’ll have to look.
Did you contribute to any other games while at Viridis?
After Zelda, we started on a game called Skate Dude, which then got changed to Food Dude (even worse). It was an “educational” game, where you skateboarded around, running over food. If you skated over unhealthy food, a creature that resembled what you would get from eating such food would appear. For example, if you skated over too many sugary foods, an evil-looking “tooth decay” monster would appear. It was really a terrible idea, but I did make some interesting monsters at least.
You left L.A. for New York City. What are you currently doing now?
I recently launched a line of jewelry that I sculpted in Maya and ZBrush, 3D printed, and then cast in precious metal. It’s really cool, and highly detailed. You can see it at http://www.etsy.com/shop/PaganIdolatry.
Tell your friends!
I still sculpt, and sell sculpture. I work as a 3D modeler and designer for Makerbot Industries in Brooklyn. We make 3D printers for the home market, and I design things on the computer that can then be made real. Kind of like what I did for Zelda, but in reverse!
If you’re in the New York City area this holiday season, you can catch Jason doing a demonstration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on December 1, 2012 from 1:00-5:00 PM. Visitors will be able to digitally sculpt 3D meshes of actual Bernini terracottas that will be on display.