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Almost Human: From Beneath They Devour

HOLLYWOOD (Zap2it.com) - - Tucked away in a light-industrial section of Culver City, Calif., is an unassuming shop from which come some of the most terrifying and gruesome creatures seen on television.

Off-camera, it's just as scary to see special-effects makeup artist Robert Hall with fake rotting teeth.

After threatening to do the entire interview wearing them (and being firmly dissuaded), Hall starts off by leading a tour of his busy enterprise, called Almost Human. The company is in charge of the monsters and special-effects makeup for the trio of shows from Joss Whedon's Mutant Enemy production company: UPN's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," The WB Network's "Angel" and FOX's "Firefly." Hall also has been working on ABC's midseason drama "Miracles," executive produced by "Angel" co-creator David Greenwalt.

Prone on the floor is a full-body creature cast, along with a pile of dead bodies created for "Firefly." There are lopped-off hands and heads, including the noggin of evil Wolfram & Hart top lawyer Linwood Murrow from "Angel."

There's also a design for new "Buffy" foes, a master race of vampires, but as Hall says, waving his hand in front of the unfinished mask, "You didn't see this."

Even ickier than the heads and hands is the fake belly worn by "Buffy" actress Alyson Hannigan in the Oct. 8 episode "Same Time, Same Place," in which a demon called Gnarl peels away strips of her skin and nibbles on them.

By the way, don't mention the ring-obsessed creature Gollum from "The Lord of the Rings" when you're talking about Gnarl, a hook-nosed, bony, toothy demon with elongated fingernails expertly clicked and clacked by actor Camden Toy, who borrowed them and his teeth for a week's practice.

"No one actually said Gollum," says Hall, settling down in his office with coffee and a cigarette. "Joss actually told us to reference the artwork of Arthur Rackham, who illustrated Grimm's fairy tales. Then someone mentions something Gollum-esque, and that gets subconsciously in there."

"For instance, they will say something like that, and that will give us a jumping-off point. Sometimes it's misinterpreted, or it's too literal, and that gives us a problem, because it's too much like Gollum, or it's too much like this or that, and we're like, 'But that's what you asked for. We've got three days; you're killing me.'"

Which brings us to the creature-designer's dilemma: how to give producers what they want, which may or may not be what they asked for.

"It's true," Hall says. "It's actually, really true. We do that all the time. We give them what they want, whether they know they want it or not."

Hall must be doing something right. Almost Human was previously working only on "Angel" -- where the deadpan demon Skip, played under much latex and large protuberances by David Denman, was a particular hit -- when the call came in for Hall to design a demon for the "Buffy" musical episode "Once More With Feeling."

The result was the lobster-red, elegant Sweet, played and sung by Broadway star Hinton Battle. That was such a hit that Almost Human eventually took over the whole Mutant Enemy universe.

However, success comes with its own set of problems. In the "Buffy" episode called "Help" Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) fought a demon many people thought bore a familial resemblance to Skip.

"People did say," Hall recalls, "when we were originally doing designs for that guy, 'Oh, that looks kind of like Skip.' What's funny with that, with six years of monster after monster on 'Buffy' with a big brow and two horns right here, no one said, 'That kind of looks like the other one.'"

"If you can have six years of a Buffy-verse with all these demons totally being related and that's why they look alike, and you get two out of 24 episodes that kind of look alike -- that's a bad thing? I don't know."

Asked if he admired any earlier "Buffy" creatures, Hall goes right to a fourth-season episode called "Hush" and The Gentlemen, floating, heart-stealing demons that looked like bald, bleached undertakers with rictus grins and elongated fingers -- one of which was played by Toy.

"The Gentlemen were classic," Hall says. "That's a prime example of a great makeup design and a great actor bringing it to life. You can only do so much with a big stunt guy in a monster suit lumbering towards the camera. They wonder why he's not so eloquent and creepy and scary as The Gentlemen."

"Well, of course not. He's a stunt guy lumbering towards the camera, and that's what he was directed to do."

A particular challenge this season was The Beast on "Angel." Introduced in a brief flash in episode "Spin the Bottle," then revealed in "Apocalypse, Nowish," the creature has risen from the center of the Earth, bringing earthquakes and a rain of fire.

Hall reveals "Angel" producer Jeff Bell called him early on, giving him more than a month to design The Beast, far longer than Almost Human normally gets. "They came down as I was painting the suits," he says. "Normally, they just trust me, and it shows up. This guy, they were really specific. I'll give you a sneak peek."

Hall offers a photo of The Beast and asks what it looks like. Told "cooling molten lava," Hall smiles. "That's what he's supposed to look like. That's one of the things we were trying to nail with this character."

"He's supposed to look like he's coming from the center of the Earth. He is one bad mother f***er. He's not messing around. I think people will respond to this character well."

CYBERSPATIAL ANOMALIES: Visit the Almost Humans's home page at www.almosthuman.net.

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