Roger Dicken is the man behind many cinematic beasts: he sculpted some of the stop-motion prehistoric creatures for Hammer’s WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970), turned Wanda Ventham into a giant Death’s Head Moth in THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR (1968), constructed the big, blood-dribbling bats for SCARS OF DRACULA (1970), and for Amicus he provided the rod puppet dinosaurs for THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT (1974). He gave us a variety of mutant monsters in WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS (1978) and then, in 1979, he created the famous, groundbreaking facehugger and chestburster lifeforms for ALIEN.
I was lucky enough to chat about movie monsters with Roger back in 1992. The interview was featured in issue #2 of FILM EXTREMES magazine.
In 1993 Roger was one of the guests at a Film Extremes Film Festival I co-hosted with Ricky Baker (editor of EASTERN HEROES magazine) at London’s Scala Cinema. I was very pleased when Roger arrived at the festival with several of his sizeable rod-puppet movie critters. They looked amazing ‘in the flesh’!
This is the interview I did with Roger in 1992. Enjoy…
Monster Zone: Could you tell me a little about your background?
Roger Dicken: I was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire and grew up on a diet of old horror, fantasy and swashbuckler films – and was also an avid comic reader, which were also rich in fantasy. As a young schoolboy I latched onto MIGHTY JOE YOUNG and Boris Karloff’s FRANKENSTEIN, and these movies made a permanent impression upon me. I also saw KING KONG (1933) and loved the old gorilla suits in the 1940s films. I always wanted to make one of these but only got as far as creating an overhead ape mask with fur and papier-mâché with which I scared the life out of a couple of local girls returning home from a dance late at night.
MZ: Did you do any sculpting courses?
RD: No – I never had any formal artistic training, just what I picked up at school. Basically, I was always very creative and an old clairvoyant once told me I was born with something of a ‘gift’, and if this is so it is what has enabled me to produce my efforts on the screen and various other spheres to date. In the early 60s I rented the space over the top of an old garage and used to spend time there creating masks, unusual items and experimenting with 8mm dinosaur animation, etc. With a bunch of chums from Portsmouth ‘The Doctor Lugani Horror Show’ was formed, which was a comedy/horror routine. I made most of the props and played ‘Lugani’ the Master of ‘Cemeteries’. We performed at small clubs, etc, and I introduced an assortment of ghosts and ghouls such as The Hunchback, Dracula and The Wolfman. I would do a quick change towards the end and play the Frankenstein Monster, which went down very well in those days, carrying off a girl planted in the audience to finish off the show.
By this time I was also a huge fan of Ray Harryhausen’s other superb animated monster films. He came to the UK to work on MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and, on contacting him, he invited a chum and I up to Shepperton Studios at the tail end of the film. He showed us the model air balloon and puppet squid from the Nemo sequences. Ray’s friendliness and the trip to the studios in general so inspired me (I recall seeing a huge fibreglass foot from the film GORGO on the backlot) that I decided I would like to take a crack at working in the movies.
After moving to London I eventually secured a job with the BBC, assisting in the scenic studios and kept in contact with Ray, who was by then residing in the UK. From the BBC I joined the studio producing THUNDERBIRDS in the special effects section as they were looking for creative people. This outfit was like a little factory in those days in Slough, tucked away at the end of a trading estate. A chance came to work on Kubrick’s 2001 and so I left the security of 9-5 and went freelance, making miniature moon terrains for this production, which had a terrific amount of people working on it.
MZ: Can you tell me something about THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR (originally titled THE DEATH’S HEAD VAMPIRE)?
RD: Tigon Films announced they were going to make this movie and I contacted its head Tony Tenser, who, after seeing my portfolio, gave me a break to helm the effects on it.
MZ: The film was about a girl who mutates into a giant Death’s Head Moth! The creature seems to be basically a person in a suit…
RD: Yes – the Moth was actress Wanda Ventham in a suit, which I partly constructed from a number of angora wool sweaters as I recall. These were fixed over a leotard.
MZ: Had there been plans to create the moth monster via any other method, such as animation?
RD: It was a low budget production with not too much time available. There never was any intention to use anything other than a suit and Wanda Ventham was very patient during her sittings, having her face cast for the rubber overhead mask I made of the Moth’s head. I did, however, create a small 18 inch tall semi-articulated winged Moth woman for some long shots flying in the night sky. After the production was finished it was rigged up by the director in a studio somewhere, just to make a couple of extra quickie shots for the demise of the monster. Evidently, after it was set alight, the camera screwed up and they didn’t shoot a frame. Thus it was never seen in the production.
MZ: What came after the Peter Cushing Moth movie?
RD: Next for Tigon I did the effects for WITCHFINDER GENERAL; hanging and burning witches, etc, on location in Suffolk. Vincent Price was fun to work with, I recall.
Around that time, out of the blue, I was contacted by producer Aida Young, who was going to make WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH for Hammer. Some time in the past I had shown a reel of 8mm dinosaur animation to Anthony Hinds and I can only presume she had heard about it. Jim Danforth, the American animator, was coming over to work on the picture and, as there was nobody around here in the UK at that time interested in animated monsters, I ended up as his assistant on the production (partly also to keep the unions happy, my being English.) We had a lot of fun on the picture, working at Bray Studios before Hammer finally sold it.
MZ: Which creatures did you sculpt?
RD: I sculpted the Pterosaur, the Plesiosaur, the Tylosaur, model men and girls and a full sized pair of prop clawed pterodactyl feet for the close up shots of the hero being carried off. There was to be a sequence in the film with giant ants and armatures were made for the proposed animation puppets, again in the States. I created a large, dog-sized, articulated ant model that was shipped to Spain, strapped to extras as they rolled around, and I activated the head as they were being attacked. These were filmed for the close action shots, etc. Due to lack of time, the whole ants sequence was scrapped from the film and, therefore, no animation was ever done. It was Jim’s concept on the dinosaurs – he did the sculpting format and it was a situation where he would produce some detail and texture, etc, on, say, one side of a model and I would reproduce it to match on the other, whilst he was animating, for example. Further, I was responsible for all the plaster mould making and foam rubber work on the puppets.
Also, of course, there were model sets to be made, backgrounds, foliage, figures on rafts, etc, and I produced the miniature flames for the burning oil sequence when Jim animated the Plesiosaur. The metal armatures came from the States. Dave Allen, one of Jim Danforth’s chums, made the crab puppet and sent it over from the USA. It was built around a real crab shell. However, we decided it was too plain and I made it look more fanciful by adding extra horns and spikes, etc.
Dave Allen eventually came over and did some animation for the production, a sequence with the Ceratosaur outside the cave. Jim and I became good friends and I, in fact, resided at his house for a while in California when I lived there. I am not sure what he is doing today, but he was an excellent animator and painted beautiful pictures.
MZ: Did you do anything else for Hammer?
RD: I went on to do SCARS OF DRACULA with Hammer – not a big production and we got what time and money allowed.
MZ: Do you know if Hammer ever intended to put dinosaurs in their monster-less prehistoric adventure CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT?
RD: I have no idea if Hammer originally planned to put dinosaurs of any description into CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT.
MZ: Amicus’ THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT featured loads of dinosaurs. Though the rod puppets are more restricted in what they can do (compared to animated models) they’re FAR superior to enlarged lizards and look like dinosaurs (unlike men in suits). Who came up with the idea of using rod puppets?
RD: Producer John Dark contacted me as he was planning THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT. He definitely did not want to use animation and so I came up with the activated puppet technique for the film. The models are, of course, restricted in what they can do compared with animation, but the effects are quick compared to stop frame work and they do have the advantage of being able to crash through live undergrowth with fog, mist, water effects, etc. This activated puppet system is now used extensively in today’s big fantasy pics (like ALIEN 3), but with a lot of people creating and operating each puppet and far bigger budgets than I had – but I think my stuff started this trend off.
MZ: Did you actually operate the dinosaurs?
RD: It took myself and a number of assistants on the legs, etc, to operate these beasts physically in front of the cameras.
MZ: Did Derek Meddings’ FX unit film your dinosaur scenes?
RD: On LAND, after some months of creating them in my studio, they were taken into the studios and we got these beasts to do their stuff with Derek Meddings’ effects unit filming the scenes.
MZ: How large were the dinosaur puppets in LAND? For instance; were the Allosaurus models larger than the Styracosaurus models?
RD: The puppets were quite large; dog-size, and the Allosaurus and Styracosaurus were about the same size in scale.
MZ: Did you build the full scale props, such as the plesiosaurus head?
RD: I did not build the full sized Plesiosaur head for the film; it was made in the plasterer’s shop based on my small model, nor the horrendous fibreglass Pterodactyls, which were swung about on a crane, much to my displeasure. These were constructed whilst I was creating my stuff and were eventually filmed at Maidenhead.
MZ: Why didn’t you work on either of Amicus’ next two fantasy adventures: AT THE EARTH’S CORE and THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT?
RD: After THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT, because of a certain lack of co-operation and aggravation I received while bringing these ‘beasts to life’, I declined to do EARTH’S CORE or THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT, which the company produced.
MZ: The drop in quality with regard to the monsters (though I’ve a soft spot for the ‘Bos’ creatures in EARTH’S CORE) is very obvious in these two films.
RD: It is a fact they used huge mechanical models and men in suits which, I understand, were not too well received by the fans of such fantasy flicks.
MZ: You worked with John Dark again on 1978’s WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS. I especially liked the Mogdaan (a sort of giant, finned eel beast) which lurks in a murky swamp. Who was responsible for the look of the creatures?
RD: Time heals they say, and I was finally persuaded by producer John Dark to create monsters again for WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS. He told me to come up with any creations that looked weird, that would fit the script and so there followed a number of months creating monsters again in my own studio.
MZ: Was the giant octopus particularly hard to articulate in WARLORDS?
RD: There were three octopi in fact; a large one with about 8 foot long tentacles and two small ones for long shots on the model set with the diving bell. The large one we took to Malta and it was shot in a huge tank attacking the large model ship – the tentacles being operated by wires with half a dozen guys above each appendage. Unfortunately, I experienced aggravation yet again working on this picture, including, for example; while on location I picked up the Sunday newspapers to see a huge photo-spread on the film, with the head of the physical effects team on the production given credit for creating the monsters.
MZ: On ALIEN you built the famous Chestburster. Is it true that you would’ve liked to have constructed the chestburster with clawed arms so that it could rip its way out of John Hurt’s body, rather than burst out like a bullet?
RD: Sometime after WARLORDS I was called in on the ALIEN film, originally with the possibility of producing the big creature, the chestburster and the facehugger for the film. Yes, I would have liked the chestburster to have come out of John Hurt in a different fashion to that which it did in the film. However, this is totally the director’s prerogative. Sad to say, I endured interference again on this production. It took so long for them to decide what they wanted, by the time they had finalised the design of the chestburster and the facehugger, which I was creating, I could see the film’s commencement date getting dangerously close, so I declined to do the ‘big fellow’. In the same amount of time it had taken me to produce these two small beasts, for example, I produced all the models for WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS. Whilst working in my studio, the production company badgered me into allowing the resident effects studio to create a solid version of my chestburster to be worked on a cantilever affair as a ‘backup’. On the day of shooting, this unnecessary and expensive paraphernalia was rigged up and, on the word ‘action’, it jack-hammered up and down through the hollow chest built around John Hurt… without bursting through the T-shirt as expected and was, as I anticipated, a total waste of time. After the mess was cleared up, and Hurt and chest were ready for filming again, I got underneath the set with my activated hand-operated alien and it was this, of course, that ended up appearing revoltingly through his body and pausing momentarily to twitch and breath, etc, before zipping off the table. Two assistants, holding simple squeeze bubbles fixed to plastic tubes, made the small sacs in the body pulsate, etc. The monster’s exit was accomplished by pulling me along under the table, laying on a trolley with my arm holding the puppet, working it through a slot as it knocked off strategically placed utensils in the process of disappearing. What finally transpired was that, whilst I was living in California, Mr Nick Allder (in charge of floor effects) was quite happy to walk off with an Academy Award for special effects on the production where the appearance of the chestburster and the loathsome facehugger, which I had created and activated, were, I am led to believe, highlights of the film. I am not particularly enamoured with the production, however, I do object to others taking credit for work which I produce. I don’t think the big beast/man in a suit they finally used could have worked satisfactorily in front of the camera, as in the first ALIEN film he was hardly seen, I think you will agree. Therefore, there was an awful lot of time and effort wasted on this production.
MZ: Have you watched James Cameron’s ALIENS?
RD: I have not seen any of the other ALIEN films to date.
MZ: Do you have a favourite creature amongst the menagerie of monsters that you’ve created?
RD: I think the old Zaargs from WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS are the creatures I have a soft spot for, although I wish they had had better sets to perform on, with more vegetation, etc. The model walls created for them to climb up were far too smooth for creatures of this nature and, therefore, as far as I am concerned, it spoiled the sequence, but you have to use what you are given.
MZ: So what of Roger Dicken nowadays (in 1992)?
RD: Today I am somewhat disenchanted with actually working in the industry, although I still enjoy watching films, especially old, quality productions. I have absolutely no time whatsoever for maniacs with chainsaws, cutting people up. I prefer fantasy to horror. Possibly I may, one of these days, do some more effects for a picture, but for now the ‘renegade special effects man’ (which, to my amusement, I understand I have been referred to at times) is happy to reside in self-imposed exile in the wilds of North Wales, doing his own thing, engaged in a number of creative enterprises.