While most fans of Tsuburaya Productions are well aware of the made-in-Australia Ultra-series Ultraman: Towards the Future (1992), few know that, just a few years after that show wrapped production, Ultraman made his triumphant return to Australia … sort of. Model maker Lewis Morley worked on Ultraman Zearth (1996), as well as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995), and tells his story in this February 2021 interview with Brett Homenick.
Brett Homenick: Please tell us about your early years. Where did you grow up?
Lewis Morley: I grew up in England in the sixties. I remember the advance publicity for the new Gerry Anderson show Thunderbirds (1965-66)! That show really made me want to do miniature visual effects.
BH: Were you into monster movies as a kid?
LM: I was more into SF [science fiction] like Planet of the Apes (1968) and Fantastic Voyage (1966), but some friends of ours had holidayed in Japan and brought back some fun stuff. I remember looking at a lenticular-animated kaiju postcard with envy. About that time, I saw King Kong Escapes (1967), which really blew my mind! Most of the monster movies were certificate X, meaning I couldn’t see them unless I was 18 — half a lifetime away!
BH: What other hobbies did you have as a youngster?
LM: I loved making models as a kid. Apart from plastic kits, like the Aurora monsters, I made balsa wood models of the Pan Am Orion [from 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey] and Yellow Submarine, and the Proteus from Fantastic Voyage out of cardboard tissue boxes. I also used foil-covered cake boxes to make jointed card models of the Cybermats from Doctor Who (1963-89).
BH: How did you break into the entertainment business?
LM: I started working as an architectural model maker, but I had a lot of self-taught skills, including sculpting rubber masks and monsters. When I discovered that there were companies making special props and animation for television commercials, I quickly slotted in and soon became a freelancer.
I made a set of rubber arms for a Popeye print ad and met Bob McCarron, who was Australia’s foremost special effects make-up artist. He gently told me that I was edging into his territory and massively undercharging, to boot! He followed up by hiring me as part of his team to create the animatronic giant boar for Razorback (1984).
BH: Prior to Ultraman Zearth (1996), what were some of your notable credits?
LM: I did a lot of television commercials, often with visual effects companies like Mirage [VFX], who were the first people in Australia to build a motion-control camera set-up. My film work included Careful, He Might Hear You (1983) where I built a miniature ocean liner [and] The Time Guardian (1987) with miniature city models. With Bob McCarron, I worked on Something is Out There (1988-89), The Blood of Heroes (1989), and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). I also did miniature effects on Cyclone Tracy (1986) and headed up the gizmos and special props department for two seasons of the [1988-90] Mission: Impossible television series. The second season was notable for the expanded role of miniature visual effects that were featured alongside our normal job of making spy gadgets.
BH: How did you to get hired to work on Ultraman Zearth?
LM: Again, Bob McCarron who was tasked with making two kaiju suits suggested me for creating the MYDO Hummers [Sky Fish] which was a thrill because I’d been working on other jobs, so I didn’t get to work on Ultraman: Towards the Future (1992), which had previously filmed in Australia.
BH: Before you got hired, how familiar were you with the character of Ultraman?
LM: I became a big giant robot fan with the release of Mattel’s Shogun Warriors toy range and collected many toys on my overseas holidays. I became aware of a robot called King Joe which turned out to be an Ultra [Seven] opponent. I saw my first Ultraman episodes on Japanese TV in my hotel room, which was great, except that I couldn’t understand Japanese!
BH: What kind of special effects work did you do on the film?
LM: I was purely a sub-contracted worker, so I built, painted, and delivered two models, which were then additionally detailed by the Japanese SFX crew. I had nothing to do with the miniature filming and have only seen the finished footage once. From memory, I think the MYDO Hummer [Sky Fish] was composited into scenes using chroma-key video effects, similar to the miniature effects I worked on for the Australian TV children’s show The Miraculous Mellops (1991-92).
BH: Please talk about the process of building the MYDO vehicles. How were they built?
LM: Following the reference material closely, I carved out a master shape about 500mm long from balsa wood and sealed it with resin and automotive spray putty. Once I had an acceptably smooth finish, I made a two-part silicone rubber mold with a rigid support shell. Additional details like fins, air intakes, and engine nozzles were made from a laminated styrene sheet, puttied, scribed, and molded with silicone rubber. The main body shells were molded in fiberglass resin with the other parts cast in two part urethane resin. The tail fin tips had pre-wired high intensity LEDs integrally molded to provide navigation lights.
I should point out that the “high intensity” LEDs were nothing like today’s offerings, with modern COB LEDs providing levels of illumination that are actually painful to the eyes!
The windshield was cut out of the cabin area and a clear molded insert glued inside, much like the miniature Learjet I made for the Mission: Impossible TV series that was filmed in Australia. There were a number of concealed mounting points on the fuselage that allowed the finished model to be rigged with wires for suspension. I assume power for the LED navigation lights would either have been sent down the suspension wires or provided by an internal battery pack. The three-color paint scheme was carefully masked and airbrushed on both models, and a clear gloss top coat applied. Any weathering was left up to the Japanese VFX crew.
BH: What about your contributions to the kaiju suits? Please describe what you did.
LM: Bob McCarron and Belinda Villani were responsible for the sculpture and fabrication of the suits, closely following provided references. My only real contribution to the suits was fabricating a translucent fiberglass chest horn for one of the creatures that glowed with internal light bulbs.
BH: How long did you work on Ultraman Zearth?
LM: Probably only a few weeks all [told]. Films in those days rarely went on for more than three months.
BH: Whom did you mostly work with?
LM: I did all of the miniature work on my own, so the Australian contribution was just the three of us, as I remember — although Marea Fowler was a frequent seamstress collaborator with Bob, so she might have had something to do with the suits, too.
BH: Did you have any interactions with the Japanese side? What was that like for you?
LM: I didn’t see the Japanese team very often, but I seemed to have a good relationship with them. They seemed very polite and open to my suggestions. I wanted to produce a product that was as close to their concept art as possible. On the few occasions I had a question or problem, they would say, “Do what you think is best.” The original concept art featured the same markings for the Hummer [Sky Fish], but in three shades of green. I don’t recall now why the finish was changed to yellow, orange, and blue, but it seemed to be the approved scheme.
I heard third-hand after the job was finished that they were unhappy about some ill-defined issues. Supposedly, they complained, “Even the ship is not the color we asked for.” I was somewhat upset, as I thought the job had gone quite well, and everyone was happy. I wondered in retrospect whether their extreme politeness was actually a hindrance to effective communication. I vowed that, if I was ever in the same situation again, I would copy everything down in writing and get them to sign off on it, but I never got that chance.
BH: Who came to Australia from Tsuburaya Productions? Were they creative people or mostly business types?
LM: I suspect they were producers because I had no interactions of an artistic nature; they simply gave me drawings to follow, which I did to the best of my ability.
BH: When you saw the finished film, what did you think of it?
LM: I felt the video effects looked poorer than film effects, and I seem to remember Ultraman falling down in a puddle of mud, which didn’t make him very heroic!
BH: Do you think the work of the Western special effects team blended in well with the work of the Japanese crew?
LM: We simply provided the suits and miniatures as close to the specifications as possible. As I was not present for the filming, I can’t judge. It all seemed to work OK.
BH: Was there any discussion about working on Ultraman Zearth 2 (1997), which was released the following year?
BH: Overall, how would you describe the experience?
LM: For me, it was a real thrill to work on a real Japanese fantasy show. I enjoyed the work and thought I had done a good job. I was upset afterwards to think the clients weren’t happy, but no one contacted me at any time or asked me to change anything. In retrospect, I wonder if blaming me after the fact might have been an easy way to resolve some production politics that I had no connection with. At least the Japanese team had a good holiday in Australia!
BH: Since then, have you followed the Godzilla or Ultraman series?
LM: I’ve seen all the Godzilla films and the new Gamera films, too. I’ve also rediscovered the films like King Kong Escapes that so impressed me as a child. I recently rewatched Shin Godzilla (2016), which was a slightly weird reworking of the original myth. I found the ending truly unsettling, so from that point of view I think it was quite successful. I’m sorry to think they won’t be taking that story any further.
BH: What led to your involvement in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995)?
LM: I had previously worked with [production designer] Colin Gibson on Badlands 2005 (1988) and would again on Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). He gave me the opportunity to do a whole bunch of different things in a lot of different areas — concept art and sculpture, special props, [and] scenic work. I loved the old days where stuff was a lot less compartmentalized and regimented than it is today.
BH: What work did you do?
LM: I was a concept artist and special props maker for the art department. I made a number of hand props, including the Stega Stinger, Raptor Ribbon [also known as the Pterodactyl Thunder Whip], Rita’s snow globe and staff, [and] mini sand sculptures of the Ranger spirit animals. I carved giant skulls out of semi-rigid foam for the bone yard, did a bit of work on Ivan’s egg and the full-sized lower leg of the evil robot, and designed and built the dead alien on the Phaedos beach.
I had to make a stunt version of the supplied White Ranger’s sword, and here’s the finished item. Next to it is the Blue Ranger’s Stega Stinger. Like the other hand props I made for the Rangers, it was cobbled together out of whatever I could find at Toys R Us and the local shops! It featured reflective car door edge guards and a blinking badge under a clear dome. I made several identical versions for different effects. We were working in some sheds in an industrial cluster in Alexandria, Sydney. I put some components outside the roller door in the nature strip [a grassy area next to a street] while the paint dried, then noticed some school kids walking past. I dashed outside, but sure enough the bits were gone! I had to start again from scratch and learned a lesson that day!
The Pink Ranger’s Raptor Ribbon. Again, [it was] kluged together from two bicycle handgrips, some toy robot shoulders, and a clear red yo-yo!
On the bottom of the yo-yo is a vacuum-plated coin. The idea was to try and make the stuff look as much like the Japanese original props as possible. Incidentally, I learned the word “kluge” on the Power Rangers film! Craig Stearns’ construction plans for Zordon’s console had panels with “kluge” labeled to indicate the set dressers should “widget up” the details.
I really enjoyed making Rita’s staff. I sculpted it in clay and pulled fiberglass copies. I even got to sneak a few in jokes into the details while still making it look like the Japanese original.
My pièce de résistance was the dead alien on the beach at Phaedos. The head was a creature I’d built previously as a masquerade costume for the 1985 World Science Fiction Convention, but the rest of the body was built out of chicken wire and fiberglass with PVC pipe limbs, EVA foam fingers, and tissue paper and latex skin over the whole thing. I also used the EVA foam cable for rib detailing, by slicing it in half and gluing it onto the body shape. Here it is in my living room with my wife for scale!
It had various accessories like a headset made out of tape dispensers, a furry waistcoat, and a ridged rubber harness with more tape dispenser cases for ammunition pouches. It also had a pretty beefy blaster built out of a toy pistol with PVC pipe barrels and a burned-out belt sander for the main body!
Here it is, delivered to the studio, and sleeping in the standby props area.
Here’s a publicity photo of it on location with the cast. Today, it spends its retirement hanging from the roof in my garage!
I also carved a number of giant skulls and bones out of high-density soft urethane foam for set dressing. I usually worked with Styrofoam, and I found the stiffer grade a real struggle to work with and ended up getting RSI [repetitive strain injury] in my wrist from all the heavy-duty hacking I needed to do. Studio Kite, with Vikki Kite and Steve Rosewell, provided the full-sized animated skeleton for the scene, as I recall.
BH: Who were the other crew members you worked with?
LM: Colin was great, production designer Craig Stearns was great to work for, and Warren Beaton did the makeup for Ivan Ooze. Greg Hajdu, Tim Ferrier, and Brandon Hendroff were all great art department people I have worked with before [and] since.
BH: How long did you work on the Power Rangers movie?
LM: I seem to think, back in those days, productions usually wound up within three months, unlike stuff like The Matrix or Star Wars.
BH: Between the two projects, which was more enjoyable to work on?
LM: Power Rangers was much nicer to work on; it was a family feeling with a lot of fellow workers, as opposed to basically just providing some models. Plus, my contributions were really valued, as opposed to finding out afterwards they didn’t like something but were too polite to tell me!