'Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark' Special FX Artist Norman Cabrera Talks Bringing Harold The Scarecrow To Life [Interview]

Whether you're a hardcore horror fan, a casual moviegoer, or an avid comic book collector who occasionally catches the latest Guillermo del Toro adaptation, chances are you've witnessed some of Norman Cabrera's legendary special effects work. Known mainly for his stunning contributions to del Toro's Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Cabrera has had a hand in countless productions, ranging from John Flynn's cyber thriller Brainscan, to Sam Raimi's wickedly gruesome Drag Me To Hell, all the way to Quentin Tarantino's ferocious femme fatale flick Kill Bill. Now, Cabrera is back on the big screen with his latest artistry in André Øvredal's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a chilling tale of four children who learn the hard way what happens when one reads from an ancient book etched in blood. 

I had the pleasure of chatting with the man himself about his incendiary career, in addition to his work on the new Alvin Schwartz adaptation. In the interview, we discuss Cabrera's early days under the wing of his mentor Rick Baker, his views on the classic practical versus CGI effects debate, and what went down the day when his scarecrow Harold went missing in the corn field. 

I heard that today happens to be the 34th anniversary of your big move to L.A.

Yeah exactly! It's also the day that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark debuted, so it's kind of like a cool coincidence too, you know?

That's wild. Happy anniversary!

Thanks! The other kind of round-about coincidence is that the first movie that I did in Florida, which was a low-budget, straight-to-video VHS back in the '80s called Scarecrows, it was also about killer scarecrows. So, there's Scary Stories where I made a killer scarecrow and then, I also moved out here on the 8th and the movie comes out on the 8th, so there's several weird coincidences there.

I was going to ask about that because I thought it was so fitting that one of the first films you worked on was about killer scarecrows and now you've made Harold the scarecrow in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which is such a crazy coincidence. How would you say that working on the 1988 Scarecrows aided you when it came time to work on Harold?

I actually worked on other scarecrows, which is really weird. My favorite movie creatures are werewolves, I absolutely love werewolves, but I've done a bunch of scarecrows too, which is kind of interesting. You know Stephen King's The Stand? The TV series from the '90s? Well for that film, the character Flag, who's the demon, he turns into a scarecrow, and I made that scarecrow. So, that's another scarecrow that I did, and then also, for Cabin in the Woods, I primarily did the werewolf in that, but I did a bunch of scarecrows for Cabin in the Woods, too, in that scene where there's a ton of monsters all at once, I made a bunch of the scarecrows, oddly enough.

Apparently that's just your thing now!

I must admit it's kind of cool for Scarecrows to have been my very first movie in Florida before I moved out here, and then cut to the year 2019, and I'm driving into Westwood, and there's this massive billboard on the side of a huge bank building with Harold on it, and it's a crazy full circle. To be honest, it's wild.

Yeah! I mean did you ever think that one day you would be driving down the street and you'd see a giant billboard with your creation on it?

I hoped that I would, but you never know if something like that is going to happen. It's impossible to foresee something like that. I look at the road in front of me more than I look at the road that's miles ahead of me. I tackle what's in front of me first, then look at something that might happen ten years or twenty years from now, but I was always focused on making monsters for movies because it was like really my one true love. I was always pretty focused about that. You never anticipate driving through Westwood and seeing a massive billboard that's literally the size of a bank building, and there it is! It's a cool feeling, you know? I think anybody would be lying to you if they didn't think that was cool. Something that you made is a hundred feet wide, on a billboard. It's crazy.

Since you've worked on your fair share of scarecrows in the past on films like Cabin in the Woods, Scarecrows, and in the TV series The Stand, was there anything you picked up that helped inform your portrayal of Harold? Perhaps certain tricks that would make him more menacing?

No, I mean when I approach making a monster, I approach pretty much all of them with the same sort of philosophy. If it's an evil creature that's supposed to be really malevolent or whatever, I just try to pump in as much scariness as I can into it. Sometimes monsters can be sympathetic though, too. I think Harold has a little bit of the sympathetic type, even though he's scary looking. The kids are really mean to Harold, so in a way you do feel a little sympathetic about him too. In the way that the Gammell drawing is, he has a hapless kind of vibe of also just being scary too, so I'm trying to capture that. It's a similar approach for any monster. If it's a scary thing, you want to make it evil and malevolent, but with personality that reads through, because after all, a monster in a movie is another actor in a film. It's a being, it's acting within the context of the story as something that's living, even though it's a fantasy scenario. It has to be treated like an actor, it has to be treated like something that has drama and backstory. The more of that you think about that when you're making a creature, the more I think the creature will have a personality to it.

I know that Guillermo del Toro is very sympathetic towards his monsters, so it seems appropriate that you would find humanity in Harold while working on one of his projects.

To me, monsters are my friends, like they were when I was a kid in my room with monster masks. I love this stuff. To me, I wasn't scared by monsters in the sense of being terrified by them or anything. I was scared by them like a kid would be thrilled by riding a rollercoaster. You're kind of like, 'Wow, this rollercoaster is freaking me out', and that's what I got out of monster movies. I was never scared to the point of terror, or had nightmares about monsters, for me, it was more about the thrill I got out of watching a horror movie. They were always something that I was attracted to.

Where would you say that attraction began? Back when you were just a kid living in Florida, where did this real love and passion for making monsters originate?

I think it all started with the old creature feature movies type of stuff that they would play on TV. When I was a little kid in the seventies, when I was still really pretty small, like six or seven, they would run creature features on television either late Friday night or sometimes early Saturday morning, and I'd stay up late or wake up early to watch these things. I was just completely absorbed by it. I loved all of the original Universal monster movies, and I saw Famous Monsters on the newsstand, and everything about it was aesthetically pleasing to my developing brain. For whatever reason kids are drawn to a certain thing, I was drawn to that. I just liked the thrill of it.

And then you decided that you wanted to start making monsters yourself?

I did, and that came to be, it was still quite early, maybe around age twelve. I was always an artistically inclined kid, I was drawing and painting from an early age and learning in school and learning on my own, that sort of thing. Then, I saw this mini documentary, it was like a little vignette that played after The Planet of the Apes, it ran on TV in the mid-seventies, maybe '73 or '74, and I saw this vignette and it showed John Chambers making a guy up with foam latex appliances, and he was turning him into an ape for film and it just blew me away. I was like wow, you can stick these pieces on somebody's face and it was like a mask. In my brain, I hadn't figured it out yet, it was like a little mask that was cut into pieces that was flexible and you glue it to a person's face and then it can move. Like, the guy can talk and it makes the lips move. I mean, I was just like wow! I want to know how to do this. So I think the original spark was Planet of the Apes, and watching those original movies on TV, mostly.

How did you go about making this dream a reality?

First and foremost, I love the genre, I read the magazines, and after John Chambers, I discovered that there was this younger guy named Rick Baker. Since I followed what everybody did in the pages of Famous Monsters, I knew about people like Dick Smith and Rick Baker. Rick Baker was a younger guy, he was still in his early twenties, and there was an article in Famous Monsters that was just called 'Rick Baker: Monster Maker' and if memory serves me well, it was issue number 105. I remember getting this thing and I was like, 'Holy shit!' There's this guy and he kind of looks like a rebel in this t-shirt with long hair. He looked like a rock star. He wasn't an old guy with horn rimmed glasses and a lab coat, he was this guy in a t-shirt and jeans and long hair and stuff and I was like, this guy's cool and he's making monsters! So I discovered Rick Baker and then you start delving deeper into it after that.

So then you moved out to L.A. when you were about twenty to work with him?

Yeah, and how that came to be was, at the time of An American Werewolf in London, Rick was doing a lot of press on television because it was being nominated for an Oscar. I was still living in Florida; I was just a fan. So, I saw these shows, one of which was called PM Magazine, and they did a little vignette on Rick, and at the end of the show there was a post office box number in the end credits, and on a fluke I just decided to send fan letter to Rick through PM Magazine with pictures of my mask that I had made as a teenager. I never expected in a million years to get a phone call back from Rick Baker, but that's exactly what happened. I was just a teenager living in Florida and the phone rings on a Saturday afternoon and my mom picks it up, and she's like, 'Rick Baker's on the phone' and I'm like, 'What!?' You know, I thought a friend was playing a prank on me, but no, it was actually Rick Baker. He was very cool and was like, 'Wow, you're sixteen years old and you're doing these cool masks, I just wanted to tell you, keep up the great work and if you ever want to come visit L.A., come visit and you can come and spend an afternoon at the shop and hang out'. He was into encouraging younger people who he thought had talent because the same had been done to him by Dick Smith, the godfather of makeup who worked on The Exorcist. He took Rick under his wing, and Rick became who he was because of Dick Smith. I think Rick was into passing it forward to other people who were enthusiastic and had potential at an early age. So, I developed a relationship with Rick over the phone and I'd send him pictures of my masks, and whenever he could, he would talk to me. So, a little bit of time goes by and I was twenty and had done the movie Scarecrows, and I called Rick and said, 'I'm ready to move to L.A., is there any chance there might be some work for me?' and he's like, 'Give me a call when you get here' and lo and behold, he was hiring. So I landed in L.A. on a Friday, gave him a call, and on Monday I was working at Rick's shop. It was a dream come true.

When did you officially join KNB?

Well, I knew those guys right from the get-go. When I moved here, you know you start meeting people in the business, that sort of thing, and I got to meet them and become friends with them, but I didn't work with them for quite a while. The first official film I did with them was From Dusk Till Dawn, and then quite a few things from there, like The Walking Dead. I worked on Django Unchained and Kill Bill and a lot of other stuff for those guys. When I first met those guys they didn't have a shop, they were working for other people. We were all in our early twenties. We had this crash pad in Reseda and people would go there on Friday nights to drink beer and watch monster movies and horse around. They were just trying to get things happening. Then, when they did finally get a shop and started getting higher profile movies, From Dusk Till Dawn came about and Howard [Berger] called me and was like, 'Do you want to work on this movie?' It had Quentin Tarantino, which I was a fan of, so I was already friends with them, but I started a working relationship with them.

I know most people associate you with your collaborations with Guillermo del Toro on Hellboy and Hellboy II, and rightfully so, but I was actually introduced to your work with the film Wishmaster. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like working on Robert Kurtzman's 1997 cult classic?

Probably the thing that you would recognize the most that I worked on in Wishmaster was that I was the Jack the Ripper guy that comes out of the painting in the film. That was me and the makeup I did on myself. You know when they go into the museum, and they see that painting of the Jack the Ripper guy with the top hat and everything, and he comes out of the painting? That was me! It was a little cameo I did.

Oh my god that's so great. That movie gave me nightmares; it was one of the first horror films I ever saw.

That's so cool!

scary stories to tell in the dark trailer

So how did you come on board for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark?

It all ties back to Spectral Motion, Guillermo and having worked on Hellboy I and II. On Hellboy I I did that Ivan Kilmatovich thing that rides around on Hellboy's back, that was the primary thing I handled on that show. Then, for Hellboy II, I designed the Angel of Death, so Guillermo liked working with Spectral Motion, he liked working with me, and he loved the Angel of Death, so it was all kind of symbiotic. Scary Stories came along and we had talked about it like years before it was even a thought that it was gonna be a movie, because we were just fans of the art. I think even on Hellboy II was probably when we first talked about Scary Stories. We went and hung out at Guillermo's house, and he's got this amazing monster man cave, and he's got all these original paintings from the Scary Stories books. I was like, 'Wow, this would be really cool if it was made into a film' and he was like, 'Well, if I ever get a chance, I'm gonna make this movie'. I said, 'Well if you ever get a chance to make this movie, I want to work on it!' So it came to be and he requested me to handle two of the characters in the film and then he got Mike Hill to handle two of the other monsters. I got to handle the scarecrow and the toeless corpse and then Mike Hill handled the Pale Lady and the Jangly Man.

So then you were already familiar with the material, you had read the Scary Stories books before?

Oh yeah, I'm an avid collector and reader of books and horror related literature and horror related anything, so I have a whole library in my house of horror and monster books. When I saw those on the newsstands, I wasn't a kid. In the late eighties and early nineties, I wasn't really a kid anymore, I was in my early twenties, but something about that art was so creepy and cool and inspiring. I wasn't a kid when I picked them up, but it still struck me, so I was very familiar with the books and particularly blown away by the style of the art. I read the books years and years before I even met Guillermo.

I mean I think that speaks to the power of the books, that they could reach out to somebody who might not be the target audience, but the imagery is so strong that it still catches your eye.

Oh yeah, because they're not childish. The stories are very simple, they're kind of like campfire tales. It's basically like the tale of the hook, or the tale of the headlights, all those stories you've heard, the ones kids have been telling for years around campfires, or at sleepovers, since forever. But those illustrations were just so darn creepy! They're really like liquid ink-y, just such a great vibe. The stories are fun too, but the art was what grabbed me first, more than anything else.

And because these stories are so beloved by so many people, did you feel a certain pressure to bring forward and deliver specific expectations of these monsters?

Well, really the pressure was all internal, within us, because we wanted to do justice to them. I know we have to live up to fan expectations, and that's completely understood, but we're the fans too, so we want to make ourselves happy. For me, this wasn't just a job. For me, this was like, I get to bring something to life that was inspiring to me. So really, we wanted to be true to the material because we love it. I don't like when designs get changed too drastically from the original source. I like when stuff stays as true to the source as your possibly can.

I guess it's not your first time adapting popular literature either, because you worked on Hellboy and Hellboy II.

Yeah I worked on Hellboy and Hellboy II and with that, you have to get the vibe of Mike Mignola, the creator of those graphic novels. You want to interpret the vibe of the artist, and with Mike Mignola, his style is loose and open for interpretation because it's very graphic. It's very black and white, and he uses a lot of long black shadows and shapes, so there is room for interpretation, and it's the same with the Gammell stuff in Scary Stories, but you want to take that and stay true to it. Keep the vibe of what it is – it still has to feel like it, look like it, and taste like it.

Do you and Guillermo del Toro have a shorthand by this point?

We just have an overall love of monster movies. It's one of those things, I can go months without seeing Guillermo and the second I see him, it's a big bear hug and the whole thing. He's a very gregarious, big loving guy, and he brings out the best in artists because he knows how to unleash the abilities of an artist. He doesn't put a stranglehold on the creativity of an artist. There are directors and people that you work with that micro manage where you don't feel like there's any wiggle room, but Guillermo is the opposite of that. Guillermo, even though he's very focused and knows exactly what he wants, he also wants the artist to reach their fullest potential. 

As much as you can, please tell me how you made Harold. What materials did you use to bring this iconic scarecrow to life?

It's all foam latex, and latex rubber, and bits of burlap, and hay and straw. Materials-wise, it's all the stuff you can either find at a hardware store or at a building supply place, or a dental supply place. Some of the stuff we use does come from the medical field, but there's places in L.A., like the motion picture effects company, where you can walk in there and get those materials. The idea with Harold was, I had seen this picture in this book of farm images that I had, it was like these pastoral images, and there were these scarecrows sitting in the field that had rotten rubber masks on and I thought that was really cool. Instead of it being a bag like you've seen a million times, like oh, it's a burlap bag filled with straw and it's got buttons for eyes, I didn't want to do that, it was too whimsical, like The Wizard of Oz. But I saw these scarecrows that had been rotting and decaying in the sun and the masks looked distorted, like they had been sitting in the sun for years. That was kind of the idea behind Harold, I wanted him to look like one of those handmade scarecrows. It couldn't look too contrived, it had to be real. It couldn't be too stylized because it had to be believable as a thing that was hanging out in a field.

Did you make several Harolds or just the one?

We made a backup one just in case, just two different masks and two sets of costumes. One hung out on the sticks most of the time. It was really funny, the grips, the guys that were moving props around on set, Harold kind of became their mascot. It became like a person that was on set! It was like this thing that was hanging on a cross and they'd bring him everywhere. And Harold got stolen one day too! He actually disappeared, and everyone was like where the fuck is Harold?

Did Harold get up and walk away?

Everyone was a little creeped out! We were shooting all night and the sun's just barely starting to rise, the sky's still black, there's just a little sliver of sunlight coming through some clouds and then Harold's suddenly gone! He's not on his sticks, and we're all like, 'Oh my god Harold actually got up and walked away!' I don't know why, but somebody grabbed him and moved him and we couldn't find him for a while.

That's so creepy.

I know! It was so weird. It was just pre-dawn creepiness and then Harold's missing. We're shooting in a corn field and it's near freezing, even though it's supposed to be October in the movie, but there were parts where it would start sprinkling snow in the middle of a take. It was cold, it was frigid out there. But that's what makes for a good story later.

I'm curious where you stand on the big CGI versus practical effects debate. I know that some people think that CGI has become the death of practical effects and other people think there's room for both, but what is your opinion?

I actually don't like the term practical effects, that's not really like a proper description of what we do, and I'd love for you to put that in print. People overuse the term practical effects, but what we do is really special makeup effects. I think people now just use the term 'practical effects' to differentiate between computer generated effects. 

People have been saying that it was all over back when the first Jurassic Park came out, and what year did the first Jurassic Park come out? 1993? So, people have been crying the sky is falling since 1993. People were like, that's it! Pack up your bags, pack up your sculpting tools, you're never going to sculpt again, everything's going to be digital. And you know what? It hasn't happened. Yeah, it has taken a lot of chunks out of a lot of stuff, but here we are in the year 2019 and we're doing stuff like Scary Stories. The best approach now is to try to figure out the practical way to do it and shoot it in camera, and then if certain things need to be enhanced, or whatever it takes, then by all means, do a hybrid of the two. That's what I think, it's entirely dictated by what the creature has to do. If you can pull it off with prosthetics, that's great. If it requires other things, that's okay too. 

I'll give you a good example. I did the werewolf in Cabin in the Woods and we wanted to have the skinny dog legs, so what we did was we green-screened out the actor's legs and then we built the puppet legs, the skinny dog legs over the actor's legs, and just erased out the actor's legs. So when you see it, it looks like an upright wolf who is walking on his hind legs. I think it would be silly to be entirely anti CGI, but I also think CGI has gotten so overused, and it's become an easy go-to for a lot of filmmakers, that now it's getting a backlash from the audience. People are just getting tired of the look of CGI. When you see a makeup effect or a creature effect in a film, you're seeing a magic trick happen in front of your eyes, it's something that someone made with their hands and there's an appeal to that. I think people are attracted to that, I think people are yearning for the physical things that look real to them instead of just pixels. If you can do a hybrid and that's the best solution, then do it. I'm certainly not anti-CGI if it's used the right way, I'm just anti overuse of CGI for no good reason.