Name: Keith Robson
Primary Skill(s): Director / Practical Effects / Costume / Props / Acting
Wormit-based Keith Robson entered filmmaking by applying his technical skills to special effects. Now, Keith is hooked – his first film directed and with a passion for bringing monstrous creatures to life.
How did you first get involved in the world of filmmaking, and what made you want to stick with it?
I was introduced to the filmmaking scene by cinematographer and childhood best friend, Gavin Robertson. Gavin was at high school and college with Lawrie Brewster of Hex Media, and in 2016 they were in the process of making their second studio movie The Unkindness Of Ravens. Gavin asked if I’d like to come and help out on set for a day and I quickly fell in love with the entire movie making experience.
First and foremost it was the feeling of comradery among the crew, with everyone working towards the same goal that I really enjoyed. Everyone was there to work, but really, it just felt like a day out with your friends having an absolute laugh most of the time. For the first time I got to see how special effects make-up was done on a movie set and this was something that really struck a chord with my creative side.
You work outside of the filmmaking realm, too. Tell us a bit about your other life, and the different cultures in those worlds.
[Ugh!] My other, non-filmmaking life is boring [haha]. But the same as most other people’s I guess – get up, go to work, come home and collapse, then get up and do it all again. Nowhere near as interesting or exciting as making movies anyway.
I started working in the building trade after finishing school and worked for a family business for the best part of 13 years. I started my own business about 6 years ago and as tough as it can often be running a business yourself, it’s also given me some flexibility to have more time for my creative projects.
What were your first experiences on a set like?
On the set of The Unkindness of Ravens, I was pretty much just thrown in the deep end from day one (in true Lawrie Brewster fashion!). I thought I was just coming along to help carry camera bags and make people cups of tea, but no. I was told to strip down to my waist so I could be body-painted to look like a corpse! I then had to act out shooting up heroin for a flashback scene in the movie.
As if that wasn’t unnaturally uncomfortable enough for a first-timer on set, I was then asked (convinced) to play the part of Jaimie Scott Gordon’s body double. They needed a close-up shot of Jamie’s character in the bath, having his stomach slashed open by a Raven warrior and seeing as Jamie wasn’t on set that day, I had to do the honours. This involved me having to strip off again, have a rather elaborate prosthetic applied to my stomach and then lie in Lawrie’s bath for upwards of three hours. Fun day!
Your technical skills in costume and practical effects are quite unique in the Fife film scene. How have you developed these?
I owe a lot of my creativity to family, growing up. My mum, who always went to such great efforts to make us homemade Halloween costumes and the likes when we were kids. My dad, who was a self-taught master of DIY and generally just a very practical man. And of course, my Grandad, whose resourcefulness and ingenuity was a constant source of inspiration to us all.
In hindsight, I just wish when I was growing up that I’d payed closer attention to how things were actually made in the movie industry and what materials were used to create them. It wasn’t until my first time on set that I got to see latex and silicone prosthetics used for the first time and I guess I hadn’t ever really appreciated that these things were sculpted by hand. I must’ve annoyed the make-up department something awful on that shoot with all my incessant questioning!
I pretty much got straight onto YouTube after that, trying to find out more about latex and silicone, what they could be used for and what their limitations were etc. Once I learned the fundamentals on how movie monsters were made I became very interested in the idea of sculpting and latex mask making. I joined various mask making groups on Facebook (whose guidance and support is invaluable!) and joined Pinterest and Instagram, where there’s no shortage of inspiration.
Over recent years I’ve paid close attention to how props and special effects are being created in the world today and with such a wealth of information and support online, there really isn’t anything you can’t learn how to do.
You recently directed your first short film, Creek. Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind that project.
Creek transpired through a chain of events that I can never quite remember the order of. Years ago, a good friend of mine shared a really cool picture online of a silhouetted creature stalking a young damsel and I just thought the imagery was so striking. I only recently found out that the picture was the front cover of an EC horror comic from 1955!
Fast forward a few years and I was nearing the end of finishing my very first latex monster mask. I’d shown some progress pics to Lawrie Brewster and he thought it had great potential and encouraged me to get it in front of the camera. This also coincided with me stumbling across a really cool location that I thought would work really well for a final scene in a monster movie. That picture from the EC horror comic sprung to mind and I started to realise if I designed a monster suit to go with my finished latex mask, I could actually create a real character and come up with a premise that could utilize the cool location that I discovered previously.
I loved the EC comic picture so much in fact, there’s a virtually identical scene in the Creek film.
What was it like to direct for the first time?
I had a very specific vision in mind for Creek, and the only way I could see of achieving that vision was to direct it myself. It probably wasn’t the best idea playing the Creek monster and trying to direct a crew of people at the same time; but even thinking back now, I wouldn’t have done it differently as it was just such a blast. Exhausting (!), but an absolute blast. I really enjoyed directing and I think I would consider doing it again; particularly if it was something featuring one of my monsters.
Creek utilised many of your skills, particularly with costume design and practical effects work. How did it feel to bring all those elements together in your own project?
I was so used to seeing the Creek monster prior to shooting as I’d been working on it for so long and I always had the concern that it just wouldn’t look the part when it was finally on location and in front of the camera. At the end of the day it is just a man in a rubber suit! So I was worried that our cast would feel a bit silly trying to react to something that looked unconvincing. But when we finally got it to the location and I was able to watch back some of the early footage of it jumping out the water and crawling up the bank, I was just so blown away by how good it looked on camera. Seeing all that work had paid off was just the best feeling ever.
How difficult can it be to make a full-sized monster costume? Is it time-consuming? Is it expensive?
Perseverance is key! I’m sure it’s the same for many creatives – when you get that idea in your head and are excited to get started, you are just full of energy and enthusiasm. As the days pass and you’re still doing the same thing, over and over and not really covering much ground, it can be hard to maintain that enthusiasm. This is why I think so many artists can suffer quite badly from procrastination; myself included! It’s far more exciting to just start something new than chip away at the same thing you’ve been doing for weeks.
When it came to making the monster suit, I knew we obviously couldn’t start shooting the movie until it was all finished and that was purely down to me. The sooner I got finished, the sooner we could shoot!
The suit is made up of 10 individual pieces, so I knew I had my work cut out for me at the very beginning; but as tedious as it was at times, I had to persevere. Some days if I wanted a break from say painting the body suit, I would work on the monster hands or feet that I’d sculpted separately. There was enough variation in all the different stages to keep me interested throughout the process anyway; but it did take over 10 months to complete. Bearing in mind, this was only something I was doing part time in the evenings or weekends.
There was quite a few different materials involved in making this creature – Clay, Plaster, Latex, Paint, Foam, Fibreglass and then all the extra bits like hair and fabric etc. If you only need to make one mask or even one full monster costume, you don’t actually need industrial amounts of all of this though. The latex can be expensive if you buy smaller kits, whereas if you search online for manufacturers then you can get much larger quantities for significantly less. Instead of paying expensive postage costs on sculpting clay, chances are you’ll have a local distributor or even pottery shop near you already that has everything you need; so there’s money to be saved when doing things like this and you don’t always have to buy the most expensive, fancy materials that are used at the top level of the industry.
Try being resourceful; especially if you are trying it out for the first time and don’t want to be throwing money away.
You’ve played a lot of monsters on film. What’s it like to be on set in costume? Do you enjoy it? Is it tiring?
When I was growing up it was the creature-feature/monster movies I loved the most and as is often the case with these movies, you tend to root for the bad guy; which in this case was always the really cool monster or alien, etc. So it feels amazing to actually get a chance to portray creatures like this on-screen myself. It’d be safe to say I’ve got a very good idea (from watching these type of films) that I know what works well and what doesn’t for certain character types. You’re not going to have a character like the Owlman [from Hex Studios] prancing about like a ballerina, as it would just look ridiculous! Those types of character are far more terrifying with very subtle movements.
It’s always great fun trying to establish a personality for each of these creatures. Some of them I get first time and whatever I’m doing just works. Other times, like playing the Owlman, I had to replicate the character and movement from the preceding film, Lord of Tears. This took me a little while to grasp, but eventually I started to get it.
Without a shadow of a doubt the most exhausting of all the monsters I’ve played has to be the Raven Warriors. Part of the design was that these ancient warriors wore heavy leather body armour and chainmail. Real chainmail! This stuff just weighed an absolute ton and I seem to remember somewhere around the 7 hour mark was the longest you could physically tolerate wearing it. After wearing those costumes for a full day’s shooting you were in pain, and if you had to wear it the next day as well it was just unbearable sometimes. What an amazing character to play though! We all had such great fun on Ravens and that’s really where this whole journey started for me.
You’ve also acted out of costume, too, most notably in The Devil’s Machine. How does that compare, and do you enjoy it?
I am so out of my comfort zone if I’m not in some sort of monster costume! Giving a good performance in a monster costume basically comes down to good physical movement and giving the character some kind of personality through that. Being on-screen without the costume is obviously completely different and as much as I’ve enjoyed the experience in hindsight, at the time it felt quite unnatural or sometimes uncomfortable.
My role in The Devil’s Machine came about after being tricked into an audition from director, Lawrie Brewster. He asked if I would do a makeshift table-read of the script with him, just for giggles. Little did I know he was actually recording it and auditioning me for the role. He somehow managed to convince me (over several weeks) to take the part and once again I was thrown in the deep end.
I had scenes with Jonathan Hansler, who is an absolute powerhouse of an actor, then several romantic scenes with the lovely Alexandra Hulme. I was never convinced by my acting, despite positive feedback from the cast and director. It’s just not something that felt natural to me at all. It didn’t help of course that most of my scenes were largely improvised; something that Jonathan and Alexandra excelled in! But basically I just felt like a bit of a fanny most of the time if I’m honest [haha]. I still cringe watching myself in that movie.
Do you have a creative or technical skill that you enjoy most?
I’ve always enjoyed making things. Being creative is an itch that I have to scratch or I’d just end up going mad and I’m pretty much always working on something.
Admittedly, usually down to being exhausted from work, it can be difficult to find motivation sometimes to start or finish a project I’m working on. I tend to work on multiple things at once so that I can do whatever I’m in the mood for at that given time. I do think though that you can get creative fatigue. This is basically when you’ve pushed yourself past the point of forcing progress on a particular project and you end up losing all interest. Then you get creative block and it can be very difficult to get yourself back into it again.
My favourite thing to do in recent years though is definitely sculpting. I can lose myself for hours and hours moving clay around and refining details and I’m looking forward to doing much more of that in the future.
Do you prefer to have full creative freedom or a detailed brief?
It depends what the project is and who it’s for. If it’s my own project, then I always like to have full creative control over pretty much everything. I’m basically a total control freak. With Creek, I could have made things so much easier for myself if I’d just asked for more help, but I was determined to do as much as humanly possible myself.
However, if I’m given a brief for a commission or by a director, then I’m quite happy to stick to a brief – as long as it is detailed! I like to know in advance all the parameters I’m working within and a crystal clear design brief – ie. Size, colour, shape, texture, movement, etc. I can imagine there’s nothing worse than handing over a completed piece and it’s not what the director or customer had in mind.
Effects, props and costume design can all vary from subtle to the exaggerated. Which style do you prefer?
Would The Evil Dead have worked quite so well if they’d held back on the gore and given it a PG13 rating? Not likely. I also think the ‘less is more’ approach can work extremely well – like in the original Alien movie; If they’d shown the full alien creature in broad daylight in the first five minutes, it kinda would’ve killed the entire atmosphere of the film. I think it’s just important to not over expose something that actually works better in the shadows and this is what I tried to do with the Creek monster. But if it’s a splatter-fest style movie, then the more the better!
What is your favourite thing about being on set and how important do you think team chemistry is?
I’ve been so lucky with my time on set and have never actually had a bad experience. And from what I understand, some shoots can have an awful atmosphere. My favourite thing has to be the comradery and banter.
If you’re on a location shoot for several weeks, it’s so important that you have a crew that gels and works well together. There’s so much excitement at the start of a shoot, whereas towards the end everyone is starting to get tired or homesick and you need the support of your crew members to help get each other through that.
Sometimes the schedule can be brutal and it’s so important everyone is empathetic to each other. I’ve always had an absolute blast with everyone I’ve been fortunate enough to work with and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much as I have on the Hex shoots.
Do you have a piece of work that you’re proudest of?
My Creek monster is and always will be my baby. The amount of time and effort I put into making it is just inexpressible. It basically consumed every thought and spare minute I had for almost a year and many months afterwards when I started to develop the short film.
Sometimes the original vision and the end result don’t exactly turn out the same, but with the Creek monster it far surpassed anything I could have hoped for. Despite the exhausting amount of work, I would absolutely love to make something like this again – and plan to!
Many people say there aren’t enough opportunities for creative people in Fife. What are your own thoughts?
I heard a quote years ago that I feel sums up this mentality perfectly: “If opportunity doesn’t knock; build a door”.
If someone is finding there are no opportunities then ultimately they need to create some themselves. Opportunities are often disguised as hard work, so unfortunately most people don’t even recognize or acknowledge them.
If you really want something badly enough then just get out there and start making it happen.
Have you been working on anything recently?
Towards the end of last year, I started work on a new latex mask design/sculpture. I wanted to do something completely different to anything I’d done before and quite fancied making something light-hearted and fun.
I tend not to come up with a full design concept before I start the sculpting process, as I quite like being able to make something up as I go along; but I did like the idea of trying to make an almost cartoon-like character – like something out of Monsters Inc or Futurama. I knew I wanted to make a cyclops character, though, and my intention was to paint them in very bright, striking colours.
It’s been a fun little project to work on and I think they’re quite eye catching considering their minimalist design.
What projects are you hoping to do next?
I’ve got about 5 or 6 creative projects on the go just now. There are also a couple of new monster concepts brewing in the lab and if they work out as well as I hope they do, then I’ll be looking to produce another short film or two to showcase them. As I mentioned before, the biggest problem is finding the time to work on these and maintain the enthusiasm to see them through to the end; but I’m quite determined with these particular ideas because I think they’d make for really fun short films.
I’ve been invited back to contribute to For We Are Many 2 this year. This time around the theme is the works of H.P. Lovecraft; so there’s some great opportunities to bring some of his awesome monsters to life. Whether I can find the time to put something together for that this year is yet to be seen really; but I certainly am interested in contributing again.
I also launched Shady Scarecow FX last year; which is like my hobby business and social media platform to showcase all the various things I’m working on. It’s also a great way to meet and collaborate with like-minded artists online. I’d like to expand on this over time and possibly start a YouTube channel with tutorials and insights for anyone looking to give it a go themselves.
The biggest project I hope to start work on in the near future is developing Creek into a feature length movie. The short film always was just a proof of concept really and the feedback and reception I’ve had from that have been really great. I’d love to work with writers on a good script or even hear someone else’s take on the concept and what they think they could do with it. The ultimate goal is to be able to approach studios or independent investors with a solid pitch for a feature film adaption of the short. Trying to find funding for this is going to be time consuming for sure; but I just think there’s a lot of potential in the monster character that’d make for a really fun creature-feature.
What advice would you give to someone interested in your work, but doesn’t know how to get started?
Getting started may seem a bit daunting, but the reality is you have every conceivable tool at your disposal to make that happen – i.e. the internet! There is virtually no part of the practical FX/props/monster making industry that you won’t find detailed answers or tutorials for online. There are some fantastic channels on YouTube that cover the fundamental basics of FX work and they can guide you through every step of the process in the beginning. There are also Hollywood special effects studios that do web courses and subscription services and their content is just incredible.
Facebook has several groups dedicated to sculpting, mask making, special effects, make-up and everything else in between, and the advice and support you get from these groups is superb. Gone are the days of industry secrets and keeping that sketch-pad close to your chest. Likeminded people are there to help you when you need some advice and hey, if there’s anything you think I could help with then you can reach me on my social media pages or email.
Your favourite film and why.
John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is probably one of my favourite films of all time. I saw parts of this movie for the first time when I was probably only 8 years old or so and the visuals and terrifying sound design stuck with me vividly until several years later when I was able to watch the full movie properly. I just think it’s an absolute masterclass in suspense and paranoia and the practical effects work done by Rob Bottin, which was revolutionary at the time, still holds up fantastically well to this day. An absolute must-see for every sci-fi/horror fan.
Get in touch with Keith directly by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keith is also on Instagram at @shadyscarecrowfx.