An SFX masterclass with Wonder Woman’s Paul McGuinness

The special effects whizz discusses crafting Wonder Woman’s shield and exploding Paddington’s oven.

As told to

Caroline Stacey

“There’s a dead baby in one corner of the garden and a head and a few other bits knocking around. The neighbours all know me now though, so it’s okay.” Upon meeting Paul McGuinness you quickly realise that his working day is anything but ordinary. A special effects expert with an impressive body of work spanning 30 years, McGuinness spent the early part of his career in editorial illustration before moving into film and television, setting up the BBC’s visual effects department after a 13-year stint with the company. Here, he tells the behind-the-scenes tales of six of his weirdest and most wonderful creations.

Revelation (2001)

“I had to make a prosthetic dummy of Terence Stamp. He was one of the main characters in it so I did a full body cast of him which is an expensive business. If you came to me and said ‘I want a complete dummy of me, one that I can have cut open and all the guts taken out of it’, that’s going to set you back about £25,000. It’s an awful lot of work, even just punching all the hair in. I had to resculpt Terence’s body without any skin on it, so all the muscles and bones and gory bits were exposed. We made his skin separately and that was nailed to a wall in the castle that he lived in, which was interesting. Terence refused to look at it on set. He was a really lovely guy but he would not look at this body I’d made of him, never mind the body-less skin.”

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

“There’s a scene at the end where Rachel McAdams hangs from a conveyor belt contraption. It’s the cliff-hanger scene set in an abattoir, with Robert Downey Jr busily trying to save them. She’s heading towards this massive rotating saw – the teeth were about an inch and a half long and it’s rotating at an incredible rate – and it’s sawing whole pigs clean in half. We’d bought in a load of pig carcasses from Smithfields, the big meat market in London, but little did we know they’d already been gutted. We wanted them to look whole, so I spent a couple of days stitching pigs up. That was an interesting weekend.”

Wonder Woman (2017)

“The props department made Wonder Woman’s shield, which was beautiful but very heavy. The stunt woman had to do a lot of diving around with this shield, so they came to me and asked if there was any way I can make this lighter. So I reproduced an identical version made out of very lightweight carbon fibre. Which of course is fine until Gal Gadot picked one of the stunt shields up and said, ‘Hang on, how come this is so light? I want mine to be this light!’ So I ended up having to make one for her too. Before I knew it I was making lots of carbon fibre shields, lightweight swords and all sorts. It’s often these almost hidden things that I’ll spend my time on.”

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

“It was a lengthy and all-encompassing shoot. We converted a studio into a vast tank made out of shipping containers. It was two metres high by bout eight or nine metres long, and then the whole of the inside was lined with rubber and filled with water. This was where the cast were supposed to be adrift at sea for months being chased by this whale. It was a really long tough shoot and the humidity in there was something else. The cast were on horrendous diets, only consuming something like 500 calories a day, so they were very grumpy. Cillian Murphy reckoned he could smell chocolate at 200 yards by the end of it.”

Dementamania (2013)

“The story is about a guy who got stung by a wasp. The opening sequence is him having to cut his wrist because the wasp is still inside him. So I made a silicon replica of the actor’s arm and a hard mechanical wasp shape on a rod which we could manipulate under the skin until it popped out and flew away. One of the scenes featured the birth of The Skinny, which was this really tall character. I did a body cast of the actor and then sculpted this complete silicon suit which he wore. It had a really weird rippled skin and a mouth that wouldn’t open. The actor wasn’t around at the time so I did the fitting. We had this great idea of covering it all in maggots, which was great except that the maggots – real maggots, we had gallons of them – got inside the silicon. They were in between my skin and the other skin and they were nibbling on me for bloody hours. I was like a pin cushion when I came out, covered in little red blotches. The things you do for art!”

Paddington (2014)

“I was only on Paddington for a few days, we did loads of snow and snowball fights outside Paddington’s house. But I was mainly there for an oven explosion. It was Nicole Kidman’s stunt double getting blown up in this oven. We had a real oven and we cut the back out of it. We rigged up the whole thing with a funnel and a pressurised hose which would allow in a certain amount of gas. Then you can regulate it, to get the same sized fireball every time. You have the stunt person at a set distance so that the fireball won’t actually hit her It’s all very very controllable. That’s the whole point of my job, to make something dangerous – or something that looks really dangerous – safe.”

Published 29 May 2017

Tags: Paul McGuinness SFX VFX Wonder Woman

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