Last winter FineScale Modeler received a reader tip that led to Steve Neill, a longtime figure in the movie industry as a visual-effects artist and a fine modeler in his own right — although most of his builds won’t find a place on shelves next to 1/48 scale fighter planes or 1/35 scale armor.
For instance, his starship Enterprise (May 2016 FSM) is 66" long — a 1/2 scale replica of the 11' filming miniature built for the original “Star Trek” TV series and displayed at the Smithsonian Institute's National Air and Space Museum.
Steve’s exhaustive research yielded a replica as close as possible to the TV model, and he doesn't mind telling you so. Of course, to say your Enterprise model is more accurate than most is to invite close scrutiny from fans. But amidst the babble of Internet chatter, Steve can hold his own in any field of aficionados. His firsthand references and master-modeling skills make it so.
Though he has worked in Hollywood for decades, Steve, 64, grew up in Northern California. “Born in San Francisco, just like Sulu," he says with a laugh, citing a line from “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.”
Eventually, Steve’s family moved out to Pacifica, where he graduated from high school. Like most boys his age, Steve built models. “Most of my first models were World War II aircraft, and cars, stock cars. In the ’60s, growing up, my dad was a really good modeler, a fine artist, and an engineer, so he had a fine sense of model building. He used to build the most elaborate plastic models I’ve ever seen. All my friends would just kind of stick them together and not even paint them. But my dad went all the way, the way we see it today, back then.
“So he was very inspiring, and I did a lot of that. But by the time I got to high school I discovered motion pictures and effects and went into that.”
One of his next moves proved pivotal in his career — an internship in San Francisco at American Zoetrope, the film studio founded by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas.
Steve says, “Lucas was there at the time doing his one and only movie that I really consider a piece of art and a really good film, and that was ‘THX 1138.’ So I was around when all that was going on. Francis was a really great human being who helped me a lot. I learned a lot of my filmmaking from him.”
Steve’s longtime fascination with modeling and science fiction helped set his professional direction. He says, “I started picking up makeup prosthetic work because I really loved ‘Planet of the Apes’ and I wanted to re-create that makeup. One thing led to another. I learned how to do that work as best I could in the Bay Area.”
On to LA
Sometime around 1973, Steve moved to Los Angeles. There he soon met famous makeup and effects artists such as Rick Baker (whose credits include “American Werewolf in London” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”), John Chambers (“Planet of the Apes” and TV shows “The Munsters,” “The Outer Limits,” and the original “Star Trek” series, for which he designed Spock’s ears], and Fred Phillips ( “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Outer Limits,” “Star Trek,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”).
Steve says, “I started a career in makeup effects, always planning to go back to filmmaking.
“I did actually make a movie called ‘The Day Time Ended,’ with (producer) Charles Band. I ended up doing a number of pictures with him doing special effects, makeup, props, miniatures, and that kind of stuff. I also produced and wrote the movie.
“After that, it was such a bad experience making that movie, I said, ‘I'm just gonna do this prosthetic stuff and creature work, it’s steady and I’m getting a lot of work.’"
And getting to know people in a business where connections are gold. As Steve got into the swing of things, his network proliferated. An exchange of professional favors brought Steve the thrill of a lifetime — working on the first Star Trek movie, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
“That’s because I had met Fred Phillips,” Steve says. “I was friends with Bob Schiffer, who was the head of the makeup department at Disney studios for, like, an eternity, he had done everything from ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’ to ‘Shaggy Dog.’ He was their main guy.
“There was a job Schiffer had been asked to do for a TV show, and he could not do the job or even create it because he was under contract to Disney. He asked if I would do it and said he would show me how he did it and I could just go from there.
“So I did that, I created the makeup and got the job, but I could not apply the makeup because I wasn’t in the union yet. So I had to get a makeup artist. And Bob said, ‘Well, Fred Phillips is available, and he’s good with prosthetics.’"
That was an understatement. You could say Phillips had been around — since working makeup, though uncredited, for the 1939 “Wizard of Oz,” as a matter of fact. Phillips took the work and remembered the favor.
Later, Steve says, “I get this phone call from Fred and he asked if I wanted to work on ‘Star Trek.’ I thought he was joking, I thought, ‘What ‘Star Trek?’’ It had been off the air for a long time. And he said no, we’re making a movie.
“He said he had all kinds of stuff for me to do, just come down tomorrow. Could I report tomorrow?
“So I went (to Paramount Studios) at 7 in the morning, went to the Gower entrance, and to the main studio where ‘Star Trek’ had been made, and that little makeup lab at the edge of the sound stage, and the first thing Fred brought out was a pair of ears John Chambers had made for Leonard Nimoy for the original TV show. He set them down and said, ‘Can you replicate these exactly?’ and gave me a casting of Leonard's ears.
“I was just blown away. I remember being in high school and reading The Making of Star Trek and thinking wouldn’t it be cool if I could come down to Hollywood and get on the back lot and meet these people and actually be around the crew, and here
I was. And I was being asked to make Spock’s ears. I damn near fainted!”
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