Arts

Irishwoman Kate making her mark on special effects

Jenny Lee gets an insight into the world of special effects from Irish producer Kate Walshe, whose alien creatures have appeared on shows such as Doctor Who and the forthcoming movie Victor Frankenstein

Special effects creator Kate Walshe with her alien head creations Rusty and Fred

HAVING grown up watching films such as Edward Scissorhands, Batman and Alien on repeat, Kildare girl Kate Walshe is "living a dream" as a special effects producer, where she surrounds herself with werewolves and aliens.

The 33-year-old who received a degree in film from the Dublin Institute of Technology, worked first as a film editor before returning to her studies, earning a post grad diploma in VFX and SFX from the National Film and Television School. She is now a part owner of Millennium FX, one of the leading prosthetics and creature-effects companies in Europe.

Based in Aylesbury, outside London, Millennium FX's range of work include prosthetic character make-ups, animatronics, speciality costumes and puppets, and prosthetic medical and gore effects for film, television and theatre. Kate's credits include creating numerous aliens for Doctor Who, The Wolfman, comedy projects such as The Catherine Tate Show, music videos and commericals for Cadbury's and Playstation.

So what attracted her into the world of sci-fi and horror? "I was always drawn to horror and weird films but I never in my wildest dreams believed it was possible to make a career out of my passion," says Kate who will be sharing her experience of working in the SFX industry in Belfast this weekend as part of the Cinemagic festival.

"One of the exciting things about doing talks for kids is being able to give them an insight into an industry I would have loved to have known about as a teenager. I will be showing them some interesting behind-the-scenes snippets of various shows we've worked on and bringing some interesting models for them to play with."

They will also be treated to a sneak preview of the Doctor Who Christmas special. "We work on Doctor Who constantly and it's so much fun. Every episode is different and they give us such fun challenges and creatures to create. We've just wrapped on the Christmas project and the evening before I visit Cinemagic, Doctor Who will have unveiled one of our creatures that will be in the Christmas special, so I should be able to talk about that."

Kate didn't shock her parents with her career direction. "They were used to me making fake lungs out of seaweed in the kitchen when I was a teenager," she laughs, explaining it was for a short film project she made as a student. "One of the first I made was two people's faces getting stuck together. It's fantastic to have ended up here doing such colourful and strange work. I feel quite lucky."

Continuing with the gory theme, the project Kate is most proud of was Sky One's Critical series, which was screened earlier this year and is available through Sky On Demand. Set in a real-time major-trauma operating theatre, the drama took realism to genre-defining levels, transporting the viewer to the inner space of the human body.

"While it wasn't the most in trailblazing in terms of aliens and big anamatronic fluffy monsters, it was by far the most challenging and satisfying because we had to learn how the human body worked and replicate it in minute detail," Kate says.

"It was one of the most graphic medical dramas that was ever produced and a real labour of love for us. I was holding my own in conversation with neurosurgeons, who provided us with hands-on advice. It was fantastic to be part of that world and to spend time with people who save people's lives was really inspiring."

On a daily basis Kate could find herself designing, sculpting clay, moulding polyester resin or milling metal. She agrees that creativity, teamwork and technical skills, such as understanding chemicals and machinery, are the necessary skills needed to work in the SFX industry, where the biggest challenge is ever-shortening deadlines.

"What we would have gotten six weeks to do five years ago we are being asked to build in just three weeks, which is crazy."

Some of the fastest work Millennium FX did was for Lady Gaga's Born This Way videos, featuring the singer with prosthetics for her pinched cheeks and forehead look.

"As she was based out of the country most negotiations were done over the phone. We were up against very tight schedules and I would get a brief and have to design something in under an hour. Often I would email over some pictures and concepts for proof and her manager would show her them before she went on stage and then give us the go ahead to start building," she explains.

With ever-advancing technologies, is the film industry turning towards CGI digital monsters instead?

"There is a risk you get involved in a project and offer to build physical monsters and prosthetics and they will pull out half way through and it will go digital," says Kate. "But it doesn't really happen. At the moment trends are for physical effects and often we end up working alongside the VFX department to come with solutions that are best for the audience."

Kate's most recent work can be seen in the forthcoming horror film Victor Frankenstein, starring Daniel Radcliffe and James McEvoy. "We have been biting our nails waiting for it to come out. The script is such good fun; it's an absolutely brilliant cast, the set is insane and the work we did was fantastic."

:: Kate Walshe will be hosting a Prosthetics and Creature Effects workshop as part Cinemagic Film and Television Festival for Young People on Sunday at Belfast's Crescent Arts Centre for 12-to-14-year-olds. For full festival details and booking visit www.cinemagic.org.uk.

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