Heads will roll!

Back in 1999 I got the opportunity to work on Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. I was working for Creature Effects legend Kevin Yagher who had done such great films as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Starship Troopers, Face Off and the iconic Chucky dolls. I worked in the workshop for the first 3 months then when it came to the shooting I was promoted to On Set FX Co-ordinator.

Kevin was well known for doing photo-realistic fake heads back in the USA and this was the first time he worked over in the UK. (I remember Kevin turning up at Leavesden Studios with only a black silk shirt on freezing cold (we had to go out and buy him a sweatshirt!). I worked with Kevin before in the USA on Hellraiser 4: Bloodline where I worked for Gary J. Tunnicliffe, Kevin Directed the 4th installment of the Hellraiser series.

Interestingly the workshop we used on Sleepy Hollow became the Harry Potter creature workshop 2 years later…

The majority of what we built in the film were the super realistic fake heads and because they needed to match into the actors as close as possible, the production made sure that every actor went through the life casting process and we would have them sit in the workshop next to the heads as we finished them off.

Tim Burton wanted the heads to look as real as possible but he didn’t want the neck stump to look like real decapitations as he thought that the cinema going public wouldn’t know what a decapitated head stump would look like. We actually never sculpted any neck stumps in the film, they were all fabricated using latex gloves (!!!) and silicone which was mixed into a thickened paste and artistically ‘sculpted’ into the neck cavity.

We also attached tiny curtain weights into the end of the stumps so they would flop about in a realistic fashion.

Each actor went though 2 head casts, the initial look of being decapitated then the ‘relaxed dead head’ when they were found in the tree of the dead.

Tim Burton wanted every decapitation to be different than the last so we worked out ingenious ways of chopping heads off,  the only decap that was totally shoot as an ‘in camera effects’ was the Richard Griffiths scene where his head spins around on his shoulder and flipping over before rolling down the hill to land in between Johnny Depp’s legs. We worked a lot in conjunction with the VFX people to blend our fake heads from the real actor’s heads (if you watch the Masbeth chase scene, that decapitation was a combination of real actor’s head, cgi head and our fake silicone head all shot without a cut away!)

The headless bodies were a much simpler effect to achieve as we didn’t need to life cast the actors bodies for these as they were fully dressed. The only things exposed were the arms and neck stump.

Outside of making the bodies, we also made a fake mechanical horse for Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman to ride on,  the mechanism that Special Effects supervisor Joss Williams used was the one from the Elizabeth Taylor movie, National Velvet.

We also built a small mechanical bird for a cut away scene in the movie a flapping bat that needed to have its head chopped off, and we also supplied a few prosthetic make up gags in the film…

The witch that we see in the movie was originally to be played by Miranda Richardson but ended up being played by a great stunt girl (who I’ve worked with many times since, her name was Kelly Dent)

During the filming of the tree of the dead scene I actually got to direct a little part of it, as I was the only crew member left in the prosthetics dept I was left to re-rig the opening of the tree of the dead and the heads had to be released in a certain way as Icabod Crane hacks it open. So Tim Burton and his producer, Larry Franco let me call the shots as it was a one take affair and everything had to come apart smoothly….And it did! (Thank god!)

Sleepy Hollow was one of the best on set experiences I’ve ever had, the set design was incredible and every set was built with a forced perceptive background to it, both Tim Burton and his amazing cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki wanted that gothic look and they nailed it so well.

And I think that the Fake heads still stand up today as some of the most realistic heads ever put on screen and that’s all down to Kevin Yagher’s incredible eye for detail and pushing the crew to do their absolute best work, and I think we did!

Til next time…