Ciara Barrett takes a wander around Bowsie Workshop, who are blazing trails and blowing minds with their special effects, model-making, costume, props, prosthetics and video production.
The first thing I saw when I entered Bowsie Workshop was a purple-mottled dummy of a dead baby with rotting wounds and bulbous guts; it was casually strewn across a worktop and so realistic as to take my breath away. I was stunned by the sheer clinical skill evident in its construction, as well as slightly suspicious of the methods by which the Bowsie crew had managed to create something so…”life-like” is not the word.
Ben O’Connor, one of Bowsie’s two full-time employees, had anticipated my unspoken question and very quickly put me at ease: he’d sculpted the piece using pictures of sleeping babies as a reference point. Grand so, I thought, and whipped out my camera; at least I’m not complicit in something weird.
But the thing about Bowsie Workshop is that it is so delightfully weird. Tucked away in a warehouse-like building just off Meath Street in The Liberties, you wouldn’t know that just yards away from the butchers, pubs and cut-price clothes shops lies a treasure trove of prosthetic intestines, explodable body parts and, as I discovered after a turn about the place, a residual pool of fake blood. Unfortunately, while I am privy to the reasons behind the accumulation of said pool, I am not at liberty to discuss it; suffice it to say that it is disgusting, and when they told me later I felt both like gagging and skipping with glee.
Bowsie Workshop, established 2011, is work-home to both Ben O’Connor and Aoife Noonan, graduate sculptors from IADT who first got into film doing special effects for music videos. However it wasn’t until the comedy-horror film Stitches (Conor McMahon, 2012) that the Bowsie crew fell into a stream of film work. “I wouldn’t have thought there’d be so much work in horror in Ireland,” Aoife remarked bemusedly to me during my tour of the premises, but horror is finding a foothold in Ireland recently, judging by a spate of releases from Shrooms (Paddy Breathnach, 2007) to The Farm (Dáire McNab, 2009) and Grabbers (Jon Wright, 2012).
Following their work on Stitches, Bowsie Workshop is now wrapping up special effects, both prosthetic and digital, on Ivan Kavanagh’s upcoming horror-thriller The Canal, scheduled for release in 2014. It is for this film that Bowsie’s unholy creations “Zombie Baby” (not its real name or occupation, but how it shall forever be known to me) and the pool of blood were birthed into this world. From what I have seen from Bowsie’s work in The Canal, it promises to be even more truly horrific than the more purposely cartoonish effects seen in Stitches, which included an exploding head and an umbrella through the eye. Tellingly, the realism demanded from The Canal resulted in a model’s lying naked on a table for four hours while Bowsie artists applied wounds to her body.
I asked Aoife and Ben what the most challenging aspects of doing special effects for a film in make-up and prosthetics might be; without a moment’s hesitation, they replied that it would have to be any effect that calls for an object to stick out of someone’s face because, inevitably, “you have humans underneath”. Evidently, onset special effects can be a frustrating, if ultimately rewarding job. From fainting models to prosthetic heads blowing up prematurely off-camera, it is time-and-money consuming and creatively exhausting.
According to Ben and Aoife, make-up and special effects artists are often given very basic ideas for achieving what are intended to be spectacular and often narratively crucial visual effects, which they then have to make financially achievable, temporally feasible, and conceptually satisying to producers and directors alike: as Ben says, “Sometimes you’re given nothing, and you have to come up with something.” To which Aoife adds, “You’re waiting to be laughed off […] You turn up with some material and slime.”
Ben and Aoife at Bowsie have evidently taken all this in their stride and enjoy a job that is both practically and artistically rewarding. In their downtime, they like to create personal sculpture projects, as well as doing non-film design work. They especially favour creating haunted houses at Halloween because, as Aoife says, they “get a reaction straight away” from their audiences – a gratification that can be delayed in cinema.
That said, it looks like Bowsie will be in the special effects department for a long time yet. As Aoife remarked to me, laughingly, “Young people, dead babies, that’s where the money is,” and I don’t think she could be more right. The Bowsie Workshop is deliciously off-beat, just the right mix of darkly comic and sincerely terrifying; let’s hope that spells a bright – dark? – future for horror in Ireland.