Interview and article by Caroline Stephenson.
Like many children growing up in the 1960s, Kenneth Hall loved monsters. Ever since he was a toddler, his mother — who was an especially big fan of Vincent Price — took him and his brother to see films like THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM. And that was all it took. At age 10, Hall discovered Famous Monsters of Filmland, and with the help of the trusty TV Guide, he and his brother made a point to watch as many of the films they read about as they could, even if it meant sneaking out of bed and staying up late to catch a showing of THE DEADLY MANTIS. Like many Monster Kids of his time, there was a now-or-never mentality that came with a lack of home video, but growing up in Jacksonville, FL did give Hall an extra advantage. It was the hub of all the sub-distributors for motion picture films, which meant he not only had access to all the films that were coming out, but he was able to see many of the classics years later from prints that distributors had kept on-hand. “I grew up with Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Godzilla on the big screen. At the time, I had no idea how lucky I was.”
Eventually the exposure to so many great monster flicks inspired Hall and his brother to create their own monsters, and even the limitations of their bedroom couldn’t stop their creativity. While they couldn’t use things like clay and plaster, they instead experimented with sheet foam, the material that would ultimately be the focal point of Hall’s work in special effects. The chance to show of their creations and the possibility of meeting Forry led the boys to Texas, which was home to some of the best genre conventions. There they met similarly passioned individuals like Ernest D. Farino (TERMINATOR, THE ABYSS, THE THING) and Bret (TERMINATOR, TRUE LIES, MORTAL COMBAT) and Bart Mixon (STAR TREK, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR). Their interests bonded them together, and the gang would frequently attend cons together to enter costume contests and listen to talks by industry professionals.
Before Rick Baker was a household name and Oscar winner, he was an idol to the FM youth. In 1977, he was making an appearance at convention in Texas, so Hall and his brother packed up their best monster suits and hit the road. “I had made a Metaluna mutant costume with my brother. It was funny because it was the year that STAR WARS came out, and I was probably the only non-STAR WARS character in the whole contest. Someone asked me if I was one of the aliens from the Cantina, and I took my pincher and whacked him with it! But Rick knew who I was. He saw my brother and our friends in our other creature suits and approached us and said, “I know you were at my talk today, which was kind of general fan stuff, but I know you’re probably interested in getting some technical stuff. If you guys want to come up to the hotel room where I’m staying, I’ll give you some technical info.” Baker shared sources and tips, but most importantly he fueled their dreams and encouraged their creativity. “Rick was the inspiration for all of us to come out here. Growing up in a town like Jacksonville, FL, saying you wanted to go out to Hollywood and work in any capacity on movies, was saying like I want to walk on the moon or be the president. Everybody was really kind of negative. And even though I never presumed then or now to have a fraction of the talent that Rick had, the fact that he was probably the first fan to become a professional meant something. We started realizing, ‘hey, we can go out there and do this.'”
To put his passion to good use, Hall got involved in theater early on as an actor, writer, and makeup/visual effects creator. He designed animatronics and wrote and produced live shows and promotional events in the Jacksonville area, before heading out to LA in 1982. Although he had experience writing and directing, Hall knew it wasn’t enough to impress the Hollywood bigwigs, so he instead looked for special effects work. Lucky for him, Tom Burman of Burman Studios just happened to be looking for someone who could do foam fabrication, and Hall was in. Over the next decade, he freelanced at half a dozen visual effect studios, working on projects like TERMINATOR, GREMLINS II, CRITTERS, STAR TREK VI, and more, and established himself as a reputable visual effects creator. But Hall still looked for opportunities to write. He partnered up with Fred Olen Ray to write the script for THE TOMB (1986), a horror flick starring Cameron Mitchell, John Carradine, and Sybil Danning. He then teamed up with Ted Newsom to take over Ray’s WASP WOMAN remake, which eventually turned into EVIL SPAWN (1987). Hall would go on to write and/or direct a handful of films, including the original screenplay for PUPPETMASTER (1989), GHOST WRITER (1989), and THE CLOWN AT MIDNIGHT (1999), and in 2004, he wrote and directed his own independent film, THE HALFWAY HOUSE.
“Somebody asked me do I miss film now that everything is digital, and I said I don’t miss it in the sense that I never really had big budgets to work with, so it was a lot harder and a lot more expensive; however, I am really pleased that I had that opportunity, to work with film, because it taught me discipline. Nowadays people just leave the camera rolling because it’s digital; it’s basically free. People can’t make a decision on set, so they make it later in post. We didn’t have that luxury; we couldn’t cut a scene six different ways because by the time you chopped up your work print that much it was unusable. So that’s the kind of thing that I treasure, the fact that I did have that.”
In 1995, Hall established Total Fabrications, a foam fabrication studio that has since catered to a variety of clients including Blizzard Entertainment, Sony Playstation, and Disneyland; and worked on titles like JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK (2001), THE STRANGERS (2008), and MY SOUL TO TAKE (2010). He’s built everything from dinosaurs to giant squids to full suits of armor, and was even nominated for an Emmy for his costume design on the Nickelodeon show YO GABBA GABBA. See more of his work at www.totalfab.com.
“For me it was never about being scared, frankly I don’t like being scared. It was about monsters and things like that being cool. It was something different, it was something outside the norm.”