In 1992, Ultraman flew back into American homes when the series Ultraman: Towards the Future debuted on syndicated television in January of that year. For many years, Ultraman: Towards the Future would become the Ultra-series that a generation of American tokusatsu fans would know best. Model maker Norman Yeend was there, breathing life into the villainous monsters that Ultraman defeated every week. In this December 2020 interview with Brett Homenick, Mr. Yeend recalls his work on Tsuburaya Productions’ first Ultra-series co-produced with a Western country.
Brett Homenick: What can you tell us about your early life? Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Norman Yeend: I primarily grew up in the Blue Mountains, two hours west of Sydney, Australia. I still live there, actually, although I did move to the city for about ten years, mainly because of work.
I first worked for a couple of 2D animation studios, working as a layout artist and an in-betweener, then after that as a model maker at a special effects studio called Mirage FX. I was initially hired there to work on a science fiction movie called The Time Guardian (1987), which starred Carrie Fisher. From there, I went freelance, working on numerous television commercials, along with short films, music videos, and documentaries.
BH: As a youngster, what were you hobbies?
NY: I’ve always been a Monster Kid, I guess. I loved Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and collected every issue from about #113 onwards. I’ve since managed to track down pretty much all the back issues. It was through the magazine that I learned of the work of Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, and some of the other early effects pioneers. I was never really into sports much, though, so at age 14 I started making my own ambitious little stop-motion films on Super 8. Unfortunately, I didn’t really know anything about depth of field at the time, so a lot of my efforts were out of focus. Still, I persevered.
BH: Were you into Godzilla, Ultraman, or Japanese monsters as a kid?
NY: Most definitely! As a kid, I loved dinosaurs, so of course Godzilla was just a natural extension of that. In Australia, though, we didn’t get Ultraman (1966-67) on TV, at least as far as I know of. The closest series that I remember watching was probably Johnny Sokko [and His Flying Robot, 1967-68], which I loved! I do recall watching films like Godzilla vs. the Thing (1964) and Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966) on television, along with probably my favorite Gamera film, War of the Monsters (1966).
I recall going along to see Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) when it premiered at the cinema here. I think it’s about the only Godzilla film shown here that wasn’t relegated to some small, art-house cinemas. From memory, I saw it twice on the big screen.
BH: How did you get involved in the entertainment business?
NY: I got into the entertainment business mainly through perseverance, really. Since making my little animated films, all I wanted to do was to become a stop-motion animator. Of course, I had no idea how to do that, especially since I had no contacts, and I was living a few hours west of Sydney, but I persevered nonetheless.
At one point, I was studying art at an evening college, and another student worked at an animation studio in the city. Through him, I learned that they were after a layout artist. Somehow, I got the job. Even though it wasn’t really what I wanted to do, I saw it as a stepping stone to stop motion. Several months later, the studio went bankrupt, and I was out of a job. However, through a friend, I managed to land a job at Yoram Gross Film Studio, who produced the animated features Dot and the Kangaroo (1977) and Blinky Bill (1992). While I was at the animation studios, any time a scene required a special model or miniature or, on the rare occasion, a bit of stop motion, I’d always put up my hand. From there, it was a matter of honing my craft as best I could, either on the job or in my own time.
BH: What were some of your credits before Ultraman: Towards the Future (1992) came along?
NY: Prior to Ultraman, I mostly worked on making models for local and international TV commercials. I also worked on a few short films, music videos, and documentaries, and models for display for a few museums and theme parks. Some of the music videos I worked on at the time were for such artists as the Hoodoo Gurus, Alice in Chains, and Neil and Tim Finn [a.k.a. Finn Brothers].
BH: Please tell us how you got hired on Ultraman.
NY: I’d worked with the director of photography, Paul Nichola, on a number of special effects projects before — mainly commercials. When Ultraman came to Sydney, Paul was a major component. He pretty much just assembled a crew of model makers that he knew and had worked with before.
BH: What were you told at the beginning about the project?
NY: I wasn’t told too much, really, other than I’d be making models and puppets for a new series of Ultraman. I knew of Ultraman through Famous Monsters and a few other fanzines, but for some reason I didn’t quite appreciate just how popular the show was at the time, especially in Japan and the States.
BH: Describe what you did on the series.
NY: I primarily worked with a small team of sculptors and model makers constructing the monsters used in the show. I also worked on some of the miniature sets and props that were used, along with making a few static models of the Ultraman character in different poses. These were approximately two feet tall and made from fiberglass.
I also had the good fortune to be asked to redesign a few of the creatures, which ended up making it into the final series. The two critters I redesigned were the lower head of the two-headed beastie Bogun and the flying monster Gerukadon, although it was the director’s idea to add the back legs.
BH: How did you make the models and other props?
NY: Once we’d receive the final design of a monster, for example, we’d generally start by sculpting the head and hands and/or feet in Plasticine. These would then be molded in plaster, and a latex rubber casting [was] made. The heads would then be painted and detailed, and fitted with eyes and teeth and any horns or spikes, etc. The rest of the body was usually built up with foam rubber over a metal armature, or framework, and covered with sheets of detailed latex skins. The whole monster was finally detailed and painted.
BH: What was a typical day like for you on Ultraman?
NY: A typical day would be either picking up where I’d left off on the previous day or starting a new task which could be sculpting, molding, or casting one of the many monsters, working on a fiberglass Ultraman figure, or occasionally assisting on the shooting stage.
BH: What were some of your biggest challenges?
NY: Some of the biggest challenges were realizing the two-dimensional designs into three-dimensional, fully functional puppets and miniatures. They not only had to look good, [but] they had to perform properly, as well.
BH: What was your favorite thing about working on the show?
NY: To be working on a Japanese monster show such as Ultraman, and all that that entailed, was a fabulous experience, especially for someone who loved monsters, models, and all the wonderful old Godzilla/Gamera films, etc. Most of us working on the show had grown up on much the same films, and had much the same influences, and so working with a bunch of talented, like-minded people on such a fun project was a terrific experience!
Another highlight, although I didn’t really fully comprehend the significance at the time, was meeting a very friendly Japanese fellow who spoke to us through his interpreter. He was always smiling and quite enthusiastic about what we were doing. His name was Koichi Takano. I only learned later just how important he was to the Ultraman franchise; otherwise, I would have liked to have spoken to him more and asked him more questions.
BH: Did you get to interact with the cast, such as Dore Kraus [who played Ultraman’s alter ego, Jack Shindo]?
NY: No, not really. Few of the model makers interacted much with the actors. That was primarily because we were mostly concerned with the puppet monsters and miniatures, while the live action was filmed in South Australia. A few of the model makers went to South Australia for the live action shoot, but I wasn’t among them, unfortunately.
BH: How about director Andrew Prowse?
NY: I really only met David once or twice, but he seemed nice enough and easy to get along with. He was always enthusiastic when visiting the model shop, from memory. To be honest, though, I was a bit disappointed at the time that he saw fit to change my design for Gerukadon. I initially had it with only four limbs that were joined by a web of skin, sort of like a bat. I imagined it flitting though the air, a bit like a jellyfish. It was his idea to include the back legs, as well. I’m sure he had his reasons, so I guess, if nothing else, those legs help the Bandai figures stand up better.
BH: Whom did you work with most on the show?
NY: I primarily worked with the other model makers on the show. While some of us would be working mainly on the monsters, others might be making some of the more man-made items, such as miniature buildings, vehicles, and spacecraft. I also interacted with the photography department, and Paul, the director of photography.
BH: Steve Apps and Robert Simper are both credited as playing Ultraman. Do you have any memories of them?
NY: To be honest, I really only met Steve Apps on a few occasions, but he was quite a nice, friendly guy. I recall him going through the motions in his Ultraman gear, just prior to filming, and sitting down to lunch at his table afterwards. He seemed to be enjoying the whole experience.
BH: Could you share any interesting or funny anecdotes from the set?
NY: There’s really not one funny anecdote in particular that springs to mind. The entire job was a lot of fun, really. I do recall my friend Steve Newman, who was the miniatures cameraman and cameraman for the Adelaide shoot, I think it was, telling me that he suggested the monster Gazebo’s name from the hotel he was staying at at the time — the Gazebo Hotel.
BH: Did you watch any of the special effects filming?
NY: Yes. I watched the filming a few times, but was mostly in the workshop next door. Often, we’d be working away and hear Paul, the DOP [director of photography], call out “Speed!” followed by “Firing!” This was always followed by the sound of a loud explosion, and we knew that the model that some go us had been laboring over for past several days or even weeks had just been blown to pieces.
BH: How well do you think Tsuburaya Productions worked with the Australian side of the production?
NY: To the best of my knowledge, the co-production went relatively smoothly. I was not really privy to much of the business side of things at the time, but, from my dealings with Mr. Takano and his interpreter, they were quite happy with what they saw.
BH: How long did you work on the series?
NY: To be honest, I don’t really recall the precise time I started and finished on the project. I think it was something like four or five months or so. This would have been back in 1989.
BH: What do you think about the finished product?
NY: I think Ultraman: Towards the Future is a worthy addition to the franchise. Many people have said it’s the Ultraman they grew up with and remember the most, so it’s gratifying to know that I helped contribute to their enjoyment, in a small way.
BH: From a special-effects standpoint, what do you think is the most impressive part of the entire series?
NY: I think there are quite a few impressive moments from the show, not the least of which are the imaginative monster designs, and the way in the which they were realized. Unlike almost all other kaiju films or series at the time, our monsters were realized as cable- and rod-controlled puppets. These were mostly used for scenes that took place in the cities and other miniature environments, while the fight scenes employed the more traditional suitmation process. The miniatures work was also impressive, especially given the limited time and budget.
BH: After Ultraman, what other projects did you go on to do?
NY: While working on Ultraman, my friend Graham [Binding], who also worked on the show, and I came up with the idea of making a stop-motion dinosaur film. For the next three years, we tried to secure funding to have the show produced, which it finally was, through ABC Television and Screen Australia. That was our film Muttaburrasaurus: Life in Gondwana (1995).
In the meantime, though, I went back to working on making props and miniatures and providing stop-motion animation for television commercials. Since then, I’ve gone on to direct a number of international award-winning commercials, along with some short films. Several years ago, I was tasked with recreating the company logo of James Wan [of Saw, Aquaman, and The Nun fame] using stop motion and miniatures.
BH: Would you like to make any closing remarks?
NY: I think that, although working on Ultraman Great [a.k.a. Ultraman: Towards the Future] was at the time just another job — albeit an amazing one! — I’ve since come to appreciate just how important the show was and still is to many fans around the world. The fact that, in a small way, I helped contribute to their enjoyment is, I find, a source of enjoyment.