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Hollywood FX artist shares skills, insights with students in St. Anthony

Arts & Entertainment

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ST> ANTHONY — The staff and students at the Idaho Art Lab in St. Anthony welcomed Hollywood special effects artist Don Lanning this past week.

Lanning was in town as part of the Art Lab’s “Hollywood FX” class series. He taught students techniques for sculpting character busts, taking them from initial concept sketches to shaping the busts out of clay all the way through fine detailing. Along the way, Lanning fired up his students and shared insights he’s accrued over his career in the movie business.

“I’ve been sculpting creatures and monsters since I was ten years old,” Lanning told “So I’ve been sculpting for 47 years, 21 years of it for the movie studios.”

Lanning started his career life in real estate, a job that made him feel out of place and unhappy.

“I was quite sick within my own mind,” he said. “I was in the wrong business. It was a family business and I appreciate that my father brought me into the real estate business. It certainly helped me in many ways and many of those skills are still alive in me. But, like many people, I woke up one day, I was 32 and I was living the wrong life I was doing the wrong thing and it was starting to age me.”

daniel lanning class
Photo by Adam Forsgren

Lanning’s first step into the special effects industry was a television advertisement.

“A man named Doug White invited me to work on a ‘Donkey Kong’ commercial where I turned a girl into an orangutan,” he said. “We went out and filmed it and I just knew at that moment that I had found something in my life that I could do that contained responsibility.”

From there, Lanning worked on the 1998 “X-Files” film and never looked back. He has since worked on a plethora of other projects, from films like “The Avengers,” “Alien vs. Predator” and “Hellboy,” as well as TV series like “Nip/Tuck, “House” and “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.”

“I’m one of the few people who has been blessed and lucky enough to work on ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Lost in Space,’ where I sculpted the robot and also now ‘Star Wars,’” said Lanning. “I have a few characters who have appeared in the ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ show.”

lanning teaches
Photo by Adam Forsgren

Lanning also teaches students who want to learn the art and craft of creature creation, which is what brought him to east Idaho.

“I saw (Art Lab co-founder) Daniel (Hidalgo)’s Ted Talk,” Lanning said. “Sometimes you see someone who has the same beliefs or arrived at the same philosophy about teaching that you’ve come to. He and I come from different fish tanks and have very different lives but we’ve arrived at the same things about teaching.”

“We’re a little opinionated,” he added. “The student comes first, for example. We’re sharing our life experiences with the young so it has even more meaning than it did for us coming out of our kits and filling up our portfolios. Now we’re able to teach somebody else to fish and hopefully, they have a few of our tools and a few of our concepts.”

Lanning said that Art Lab and the east Idaho area have the potential to become an important hotspot for creative fields like film and television. The local talent just needs to be provided the opportunity to acquire the needed skills.

“I believe (east Idaho) is a gem hidden here in God’s country,” he said. “To imagine sitting here sculpting monsters with these beautiful young people looking at the Tetons, you don’t know what you have. This could be like Telluride. This could be like Canne. This could be an epicenter for education that involves people going into the film craft, that involves people going into the Halloween industry, prop-making, makeup-making, toys… There are just soo many applications these days, whether they be digital or practical.”

If you want to learn some special effects makeup skills but missed Don Lanning’s class, you’re in luck. Special effects makeup artist Rob Burman is returning to the Idaho Art Lab in August for his third annual special FX prosthetics class. Click here or here to learn more and sign up.

kara lanning class
Photo by Adam Forsgren