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

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.”

It’s a good example of the ways CGI is used, not to displace, but to augment, conventional prop and costume design. In most cases, says Fordham, the process is strongly collaborative – he will know what kind of CGI overlay to expect at the time he makes the prop – although a lot depends on the quality of the communication on the show.

In fact, the biggest threat to traditional model-making comes not from CGI but from the rate of change within the profession itself. Since Fordham started out, techniques have changed dramatically, and the shift towards ever greater digitisation shows no sign of abating.

“There is an element of some traditional skills getting slightly lost in the professional environment just because of timescale reasons and efficiency,” he says. “So it’s kind of bittersweet, in the sense that some skills that I love to use aren’t used in a professional capacity as much anymore.”

Fifteen years ago, prop and costume- makers would start by sculpting their model in clay, before making moulds from materials like fibreglass and silicon. These days, the clay sculpting part is generally replaced with computer modelling. And while some key techniques, like CNC machining and laser cutting, have been common practice for years, others have taken off only recently.

CGI is used, not to displace, but to augment, conventional prop and costume design

“3D printers are becoming very affordable, and the technology is growing at an incredible pace,” says Fordham. “There are some really amazing digital tools that have only really started being used in a mainstream way in the last ten years or so.”

The upside here is that makers are able to accomplish a lot more, and to do so more quickly. 3D printing enables rapid prototyping and mould making, while computer modelling enables makers to use less material and achieve perfect symmetry. Fordham thinks it’s an exciting time to be in the business – if you’re a maker who wants to bring your idea to fruition, the world is very much your oyster.

However, he does have concerns about how artificial intelligence and robotics may influence design in the future. Might there be a time in which you input specifications into an AI, which crafts the perfect object for the task, rendering human makers all but redundant?

“I do see that sort of thing coming to be honest, with the software getting more and more intuitive and easy to use,” he says. “But I do hope that the human element will never quite be taken away, because obviously that’s what I love and enjoy, and I don’t want to do myself out of a job.”

Recently, Fordham worked with an artist collaborator who was creating art via an AI. The artist inputted the reference photos into a computer, which turned them into sculptural art. Fordham took this computer-generated art, 3D printed it and cast it in traditional art materials.

“That was an interesting crossover between AI and traditional craftsmanship and art, and I think that’s where I see it going,” he says. “At the same time, human creativity is a very hard thing to replicate, so I think humans will be making the creative decisions for a long time.”

It’s a speculative line of discussion, albeit a fitting one from someone who has always loved sci-fi and is working on an Isaac Asimov adaptation. In the more immediate future, Fordham simply hopes to keep going down his current path – working on as many inspiring projects as possible, and continuing to blend traditional techniques with modern technologies.

“I want to keep making for as long as I’m enjoying it,” he says. “I don’t really want to namedrop films, but there are probably a few franchises I’d like to work in. If I can make a few more superhero suits, I’d be happy with that.”

Beyond that, who knows what the next few years might hold in terms of dinosaurs.

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