Technical effects artist Andy Fordham, of East Effects, has worked on some of Hollywood’s biggest productions. Although the world-building of motion pictures is so often achieved via CGI today, we find out how there is still a place for the expert craft of prop making to bring a film to life
A giant croissant costume for a Nestle commercial. A Jeremy Corbyn caricature mask, featured in an episode of Eastenders. A grotesque prosthetic hand, worn by Ralph Fiennes in his portrayal of Richard III.
All of these creations – and many, many more – are the handiwork of Andy Fordham, a UK-based technical effects artist who crafts props, costumes and characters for the entertainment industry.
“I love all different types of making – I tend to get itchy feet,” says Fordham. “I love to be able to sometimes do a bit of TV, sometimes a bit of film, sometimes a bit of theatre, because although there’s a lot of crossover, they’re all relatively different disciplines. I enjoy keeping my hand in lots of things.”
Fordham is speaking to me over the phone while on his break at work – a job he, tantalisingly, can’t say too much about.
“All I can say is that it’s a big superhero film, and I’m in the costume effects department,” he tells me. “We’re basically making superhero suits, which is one for the bucket list and a childhood dream.”
Speaking about his work with unfettered enthusiasm, Fordham certainly has the air of someone living out his early ambitions. As an imaginative kid who loved to draw and devise characters, he was blown away by the Steven Spielberg blockbuster Jurassic Park.
“I was probably about eight, and I knew dinosaurs weren’t real, but I wasn’t sure how they were on the screen,” he recalls. “I remember seeing a documentary about how they made the dinosaurs, and that was just fascinating. So from that point on, I had it in my mind that I’d like to do this as a job.”
A decade later, Fordham embarked on a university degree in model-making, and the rest, he says, is history – he has been producing work for a wide range of clients since 2004, under the moniker East Effects. Although there are no dinosaurs on his professional résumé to date, his childhood self would likely be thrilled by how things turned out.
I ask Fordham to run me through any projects he’s particularly proud of, and he mentions two: a TV show called Foundation, which airs this September, and ongoing work for the West End show Phantom of the Opera.
“Foundation is based on Isaac Asimov’s influential book series of the same name – Apple TV have adapted it as a TV series,” says Fordham. “We made things like weapons, and other sci-fi gadgets. That was quite exciting, taking what is considered quite an important piece of literature, and having a very small part in bringing those worlds to life on the small screen.”
In the case of Phantom of the Opera, it was a case of staying true to Maria Bjornson’s iconic 1980s designs. While Bjornson’s props and costume pieces have been crafted dozens of times before, the makers add their own personal touch with each new iteration.
“As well as lots of other masks and headpieces, I got to make a version of the ‘Red Death’ mask, which Phantom wears when he dresses up for a masquerade ball,” says Fordham. “That was in 2011, for the 25th anniversary of the musical that they put on at the Royal Albert Hall.”
Theatre work, he says, means creating pieces that are bold and bright, with a strong silhouette, ensuring they can be seen from some distance away. The pieces in question also need to be durable, as they are often used night after night for the entire run of a production.
I was probably about eight, and I knew dinosaurs weren’t real, but I wasn’t sure how they were on the screen
Conversely, film and TV work calls for more finely detailed pieces, with a focus on minutiae as opposed to broad strokes. Budgets may be slightly more accommodating, and longevity is less important, as the prop might only be used for a single scene, shot over a single day.
Another factor in the mix when it comes to film is the potential involvement of CGI. While CGI has been around for years (including some effects in Jurassic Park), it is now almost a given that a costume or prop may be tweaked in post-production.
“We might make the basis for a prop, but when it gets to the realm of being literally physically impossible, the CGI guys can add to it,” says Fordham. “For instance, if it’s got some sort of laser beam coming out of it, that’s not possible generally for us to do in real life, especially in a short timescale. So we can make something really beautiful, and then, after the shot, it can be enhanced in CGI.”
The same applies to costumes and prosthetics. Whereas makers are constrained by the actor’s physical build, CGI can change that actor’s proportions to something beyond the realm of the strictly human.
“Sometimes the design will call for something looking more alien or creature-like, or more emaciated,” says Fordham. “We build the basis of a costume that has a lot of the necessary elements on it, but then the CGI guys might judiciously erase part of the performer in the costume, and add in digital enhancements like extra limbs.”