Creating monsters, rigging disembodied eyeballs and crafting other horror film delights is the only job that effects artist Mark Villalobos has ever had. Before he was 18, he was already learning the trade on sets like A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and Beastmaster 2.
“But I also love working on indie films,” he says. “You get very creative when there’s not a lot of money. Plus all the weirdos end up on low-budget stuff, and they’re the most entertaining part of the business.”
In 2005 he teamed up with fellow effects artist Heather Mages to form Villalobos/Mages Studios. Since then, they’ve worked on hundreds of projects, with horror and sci-fi icons like Crispin Glover and Walter Koenig, creating everything from animatronic alien babies to Val Kilmer’s severed hand.
Atlas Obscura spoke with Mages and Villalobos about what it’s like bringing people’s worst nightmares to cinematic life, all in the name of fun.
How does someone get into the FX field?
Mark: I think it starts when you’re a little kid, and that dinosaur phase lasts a little too long. Then it moves into a comic book or a Frankenstein phase, and then masks and horror movies. There’s a weird pattern that a lot of FX friends from our generation went through.
Heather: It might even have something to do with being scared really bad at a young age by horror movies—like a way to cope, because you know it’s not real if you’re creating it.
Mark: Definitely. You have to be afraid a little bit to be good at it, because you’re tapping into something that’s inside you. You think, “What scares me?” And then you make a journey into your subconscious to cope with whatever it is in your head. Like if you’re afraid of spiders, bugs, worms, or whatever it is.
What are your favorite horror movies?
Heather: A film that stuck with me from childhood is The Exorcist. I was exactly Linda Blair’s age when I watched it.
Mark: Everybody loves that one, but there’s a reason. I snuck into the theater to see it, and I was regretful of doing that because it was scary. I was also very young when I saw the first Alien, and that’s the first movie that really gave me nightmares. Then of course everyone in our business loves The Thing remake. As a kid, I watched it looking through the cracks of my fingers. A lot of us were very influenced by the ingenuity of the effects. They still hold up to this day.
What’s one of your more memorable FX moments on set?
Mark: We were working on a series recently for The CW Network where one of the characters was a phoenix who must break out of his shell. Instead of doing it with digital effects, they wanted it done with practical effects.
Heather: We didn’t say it out loud, but at the time we were thinking, “Shit, how the hell are we going to do this?”
Mark: And once we’d made it, there was no time to test it. It was a night shoot, and we were out in the woods. We fastened the shells to a platform and the actor had to be sort of mummified inside of them. He couldn’t move much, and then we also had to blow smoke inside the shell on him.
Heather: And Mark was drilling these giant screws into the ground around his head to fasten it down. It was so loud, and I was screaming to the actor, “I promise Mark isn’t going to drill you.” He was such a good sport.
Mark: They put four cameras on the scene, because we only had one shot at it. Everyone came to watch, even the producers from the office walked all the way out to where we were shooting to watch this thing, to see it fail. But it worked like a charm. It ended up looking like CGI [digital effects], even though we did it old-school. It was high-fives all the way back to the studio.
What are some of your favorite FX creations?
Mark: Right now we’re creating three characters for our own project, called The Halloweenies. One is a big, black bird, like Big Bird from Sesame Street, but more sinister and with a weird pumpkin thing on his head.
Heather: Then there’s also a spider girl and a monster wearing a cat outfit; together they make an iconic Halloween character trio, but young and with style. They ride around the streets on electric monster scooters. They’re actors, but with prosthetics, FX makeup, and some animatronics.
Mark: They’re some of my favorite creations because it’s rewarding to have the freedom to make whatever we want, with no one telling us it has to be a zombie, or whatever.
Heather: Plus, usually when we create wonderful characters for other people, they’re gone in 30 seconds because they get killed or run into the darkness never to be seen again. But with these, we get to play with them longer, and put our full passion into entertaining people with them.
Where can people see the Halloweenies?
Mark: We’re actually about to launch a horror platform called Gorgazma, which will feature three-minute films with the Halloweenies, plus other characters and plots. And even with three minutes, each story is expansive with high production values. We’re building languages and time travel, but also having fun, like with a pizza party where people get infected with an alien disease that can only be killed with a boombox. I think platforms like this, which share content on TikTok and other social media outlets, are going to be the next way people get their entertainment, especially for the younger generations who are just constantly on their phones. You’re not going to get them to look up at the screen at a movie theater, but you can show them what you want on their phones.
Heather: We’re also developing some interesting merchandizing to go along with them, from T-shirts to flamethrowers.
Mark: We’re trying to create an alternate universe to the current horror world, which right now is either the same old stuff, like Mike Myers and Freddy, or negative, twisted, brutal, dark entertainment. We want to bring fun back into the genre, Gremlins and Ghostbusters style.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.