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FBFX's first film: Judge Dredd

Original FBFX-made Judge Hunter costume, 2024

The 1995 comic book adaptation of Judge Dredd was designed to be epic. With Sylvester Stallone in the lead role and costumes by Gianni Versace, the futuristic movie had a budget of $90million, matching that of Die Hard with a Vengeance and $30million more than Goldeneye.

Shot almost entirely in the UK, the film had a set so ambitious it would take six months to build. A fired-up Stallone described the production as “unequivocally... the largest scale film I’ve ever done.”

Sadly, Judge Dredd did not find its place in the action movie hall of fame. Critics were unimpressed and even Stallone would later admit the film was a "missed opportunity.” Almost 30 years after its release, Judge Dredd features on Rotten Tomatoes' list of Worst-Reviewed Comic Book Movies with a rating of 22%.

But while this gargantuan production failed to set the box office alight, it would play a pivotal role in the beginnings of FBFX.

“We wanted to blow things up.”

Five miles from Shepperton Studios, where Judge Dredd’s jaw-dropping Mega-City One set was being constructed, FBFX had recently opened for business on a small island in the Thames near Hampton, west London.

Early projects at the 1200 sq ft workshop, a former boatyard, involved creating sets and props for theatres, with 25-year-old founders Andrew Dow and Grant Pearmain planning to branch out into special effects. “We wanted to blow things up,” remembers Andrew.

While the pyrotechnics dream never came to fruition, growing investment in UK filmmaking and FBFX’s proximity to leading studios meant the stage was set for a long future in film. As work began on Judge Dredd, Rob Allsopp, who’d employed Andrew and Grant to create sets for companies including the Royal Ballet and Opera North, was tasked with making some of the armour for the Judges and the Judge Hunters. A specialist in costume props, he brought in FBFX to manufacture the Judge Hunter armour and some components for the Street Judges.

Original FBFX-made Judge Hunter costume, 2024

With creation of the ambitious designs by Gianni Versace and Emma Porteous (Aliens, A View to a Kill, The Jewel of the Nile) overseen by M.B.A Costumes, an offshoot of legendary Berman and Nathan's (Cleopatra, Gandhi, Star Wars), it was a fortuitous start in costume making.

"Rob introduced us to M.B.A,” says Grant. "They were wonderful people and the boss was Noel Howard, who’d helped design the psychedelic soldier suits worn by the Beatles for Sgt. Pepper’s.

"They were the first people who took us seriously. We were invited to all the fittings, they wanted us in the room with their big actors. It’s something we’d later learn not everyone does.

"We were meeting very famous people; Sylvester Stallone, Diane Lane and the director Danny Cannon. Emma Porteous was really good to us. It was incredible to be properly involved right from the beginning; a massive opportunity at such a young age."

It would be Andrew and Grant’s first time on a "big, proper set" at Shepperton Studios, then still in its “somewhat smaller, 1994 form."

Mega-City One from the 2000AD comics took shape on the site of a gravel car park, now the location of some of Shepperton’s newer sound stages.

"The whole area was turned into the exterior of Mega-City One, complete with overpasses, shop fronts and fleets of vehicles driving around that were specially created by Land Rover. It was a huge production.”

Grant Pearmain and Andrew Dow back at Platt's Eyot, Hampton, London, 2023

“If you’re given a break, you’ll work all hours.”

FBFX weren’t the only young hopefuls to get their shot on Judge Dredd. Producer Beau Marks and Cinergi Pictures had chosen to film in the UK over Hollywood, citing the “phenomenal” quality of British crews and purposely employing a young team headed by director Danny Cannon, 26.

The late Joss Williams, who won the Visual Effects Academy Award for Hugo in 2012, was special effects supervisor and robot supervisor on Judge Dredd. In a 1995 interview with the LA Times, he explained, “Beau and Danny wanted professionalism. Yet they also wanted a young crew, young blood, fresh ideas and a lot of confidence.”

Grant remembers: "Stylistically, the whole thing was very impressive. There were some really talented people working on it who went on to be famous in their own right.

“We got to know the guys who built the ABC Warrior, a super cool prop robot running on pneumatics that was based on the Hammerstein war robot from Ro-busters, another 2000AD comic.”

Concept artist Paul Catling was sculpting and building the huge, claw-armed cyborg character Mean Machine. He’d become a friend and collaborator, sculpting the original ‘Tigris of Gaul’ helmet that FBFX made for Ridley Scott’s 2000 epic, Gladiator.

Paul subsequently worked on numerous brilliant movies including Troy, Prometheus, Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Widow, and concept designed the adult dragons for the Harry Potter series.

Nigel Phelps, then 32, got his first production designer title on Judge Dredd. He’d later work on multiple blockbuster movies - most recently Thor: Love and Thunder - and art direct music videos including Guns N’ Roses’ November Rain. He told the LA Times in 1995: “A lot of people have been given a break on this film. It’s a shrewd move by the producers. If you’re given a break like I was, you’ll work all hours.”

It was certainly the case over on the island. Says Andrew, “I can’t believe how much we fit into that first year. But we did work seven days a week, and we didn’t sleep!”

“Learning as we went”

Armour for the 15 Judge Hunters, a task force dispatched to capture Judge Dredd in the film, was FBFX’s main responsibility. They also made vambraces, elbow and knee pads, belts and adornments for Stallone and the regular Street Judges.

Danny Cannon told the team that the Judge Hunters should be the “Mercedes of the Judges.” Described by costume designer Emma Porteous as “all in black with black rubber armour and black helmets... really quite awe-inspiring,” bringing the Judge Hunters to life would take some innovation.

"Back then FBFX was about six people, and probably a few more who turned up to help," remembers Andrew.

Who were the experts? "Oh, there were no experts! Technically it was supposed to be us. We were trying new things, learning as we went... and making some of it up as we went along."

Adds Grant, "There are some techniques we used back then that we’re still using today, like starting off by sculpting a piece in clay. It’s a great way to get a really good feel for whether something looks right; you can see if it's going to fit properly or not far more easily than you can if it's on a computer screen.”

Clay was sculpted directly onto mannequins, the creation of which, says Grant, was “a pretty arduous process for actors and stunt performers to go through.”

While actors these days pose for a few seconds in a photogrammetry rig so mannequins made of tooling board can be milled by a CNC robot, back in ‘94 a full-body lifecast was required.

“They’d start off covered in Nivea and stand holding two posts,” explains Grant. “You’d cover the back of them in plaster, including the head, then do the front up to the neckline as the back set.

“Then came what was arguably the worst part, covering the face in alginate with a plaster backing, letting it set, then taking it all off. The plaster got really hot as it set and most people found they were then very cold when the plaster came off. It’s really not a fun experience.

Work in progress: Judge Hunter costume at FBFX, 1994

“But once we had the mannequin, we could clay sculpt the costume piece onto it to refine and adjust with the costume designer. We’d then mould the piece with fibreglass or silicone and cast a fibreglass piece to be worked on with car body filler to smooth and sharpen details. It was then cut up into individual master pieces.

"Various people would take a fibreglass piece, clean it up on the bench, make it all lovely, and then remould it in silicone. It was very time-consuming, not to mention a complete nightmare if you had to change anything because the only way to do it was going right back to square one.”

“The trick was making moulds that didn't blow apart”

Creation of the Judge Hunter’s black rubber body armour was an exercise in R&D, with an element of explosive physics.

“We used expanding soft polyurethane foam and made crazy, complicated moulds,” says Andrew. “It was a pretty ridiculous process because when you put foam in, it creates a huge amount of pressure in the mould. They used to explode and go everywhere, so the trick was making moulds that didn't blow apart. You could feel them vibrating.

Whirls in the foam have become visible as pigmentation breaks down after 30 years

“We used matrix moulds for the helmets and it was our first time using them. We didn't realise you have to screw it down to the bench, so we filled it up with silicone and went to the pub. When we came back, it had risen, slid off and was halfway down the workshop.

“It was also really difficult to get hold of the foam in the first place because there was no internet to find out where to get it, and no instructions on how to use it when you did. Nobody else was using the foam in the same way so we had to guess. It was quite groundbreaking stuff.”

After experimenting with carbon fibre and epoxy resin, fibreglass was decided on for the helmets.

There was also an early foray into vac-forming, a process that involves creating a tool out of fibreglass and heating up a sheet of plastic “until it’s wobbly.” The mould then rises into the plastic and a pump sucks out air to create the piece of armour.

“Back then, it was a far more modern way to do it while a lot of other people were still using fibreglass,” says Andrew. “For years we had massive vac form machines - we still have a couple of little ones. We used to do a lot of armour that way.”

Not every experiment, however, paid off.

“We did try putting a carbon fibre helmet in a kiln but ended up setting fire to it. I can still smell it to this day.”

Details: Judge Hunter costume at FBFX, 2024

“We must have been doing something right!”

Despite explosions, kiln fires and escaping moulds, the costumes came together in five months and passed muster with M.B.A.

“We went to see the film with the M.B.A people in Leicester Square at our first ever cast and crew showing, which was very cool,” says Grant. “It was also our first experience of being left off the credits, something we’ve experienced many, many times since.

“We’ve still got a Judge Hunter costume we made. The latex collar is disintegrating, unfortunately latex does degrade, but amazingly the rest of the suit hasn’t turned to dust just yet. It’s still in pretty good shape, so we must have been doing something right!”

Did they think at the time that Judge Dredd would launch FBFX on the path to three decades of special FX costume making?

“Maybe we didn’t quite think it was the next 30 years, but we certainly hoped it would be,” says Andrew. “If you look at the amount we achieved in that first year with only six of us, from saying, ‘Let’s start a company’ to doing Judge Dredd… it wasn’t bad!”

Then and now: The FBFX team modelling Judge Hunter costumes in 1994 / Andrew Dow and Grant Pearmain outside the old workshop three decades later


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