A Bedford High School graduate who has had an indelible impact on American culture is best known for what has been described as “a large, obese, white humanoid figure made of conjoined marshmallows.”
Millions of fans of the 1984 movie Ghostbusters will recognize that portrayal of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, the most iconic among hundreds of special effects in cinema designed by Billy Bryan, Class of 1972.
Bryan is described by one website as a “master creature fabricator and special-effects artist.” According to Wikipedia, his “memorable creative contributions to movies can be seen in Men in Black, Jackass Forever, The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, Child’s Play, Curse of Chucky, The Village, The Cat in the Hat, Bicentennial Man, Species 1 & 2, Army of Darkness, Pet Sematary II and Tenacious D In the Pick of Destiny, to name just a few.”
After more than 45 years of creative work, Bryan isn’t slowing down. His latest project supports a Ghostbusters sequel, with release targeted for June 2024. (He said he can’t provide details, under the terms of a non-disclosure agreement.)
And even after more than a half-century, Bryan says emphatically that the foundation for this volcanic creativity was established in Bedford.
“The fact that my dad (C. Ray Bryan) was an engineer and an artist and an opera singer set me up for knowing that various opportunities existed,” Bryan said in a recent telephone interview. “And mom (Marion Bryan) taught me how to sew, which involves the creation of a pattern, to make a three-dimensional object from two-dimensional pieces.”
“And she taught me to smile – I pride myself on being friendly, and people tend to like me.”
During his high school years, “I learned to make Muppets. Jim Henson and Frank Oz had put together a little show, and the last section of it included how to make a Muppet. There was just enough information to show me where to go from there.”
Bryan was enveloped in the fine and performing arts during his student career at BHS. As a senior, he played French horn in the band and sang in the choir and madrigals. He took two periods of art a day, plus ceramics and photography during the year, as well as appearing in several plays, winning the “best actor” award in the Tournament of Plays. His English requirement was met in a special class called humanities, combining art, music, and English.
He praised the faculty for “just the willingness to let us explore.” For example, once in a BHS storage room he found a piece of mahogany. “I spent a couple of weeks or more chiseling out a sculpture and I sold it to a guidance counselor.”
There are memories of applying a creative touch during various acts of harmless vandalism, some of it focused at the corner of Concord and Hartwell roads. There was a white circle painted on the pavement for the traffic-control officer, and “on Saturday nights we would go out and paint a flower on the dot and giggle behind our hands.”
On the Hartwell Road asphalt, the letters S T O P were painted right at the corner; “We added the word THAT with an exclamation point,” Bryan recalled, adding that a photo of that embellishment made it into The Bedford Minuteman.
“I wasn’t even thinking of applying to any college,” Bryan said, until receiving encouragement from one of his art teachers, Bill Mietzner. Bryan matriculated at Syracuse University because he could major in metalsmithing there as part of the School of Visual and Performing Arts. His mother, who later became a legendary substitute teacher in Bedford, mentioned that at Syracuse, “There’s a good chance he will meet people that will advance him in life.”
That’s basically what happened, although not by design. Bryan said that after fabricating a plant costume for some communications students making a commercial, the actor Richard Tufeld (whose most famous role was as the voice of the robot in the television series Lost in Space) spotted it, remarking that “there’s a place in Hollywood” for its creator.
Bryan said that was a turning point. He sent Tufeld a picture of the costume for confirmation, and the actor told him, “You can probably make a living.” So, “As soon as I graduated, I hitchhiked across the country to Los Angeles.”
As Wikipedia reports, “Within two weeks of arriving in Hollywood, he was building a banana costume for Elton John’s tour, and he’s been working steadily ever since.”
That included, the website says, five years in the NBC Wardrobe Department, as well as Boss Films, FX studios, Ruckus Inc., the special-effects artist Steve Johnson’s XFX (later Edge FX) for over 15 years, All Effects Co., Optic Nerve Studios, Proteus FX, MastersFX, KNB EFX, Alterian, Rick Baker’s Cinovation Studios, and nearly a year at Stan Winston Studio.
In summary: “Billy has shared his boundless imagination, problem-solving skills, and innovative fabrication talents with many of Hollywood’s leading character creators and FX shops.”
The most practical way to get a sense of the breadth of Bryan’s vast imagination and bold implementation is to spend two minutes with his “resume rap” on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zj8iINA5bYQ.
The creation and role that have been his trademark for the past four decades is the Stay-Puft marshmallow man. It first appeared in Ghostbusters as a logo on a bag of marshmallows, then on an advertisement on a building, and finally as the physical manifestation – a giant, lumbering, and paranormal marshmallow monster. He wears a white sailor cap with a red ribbon attached on top
, and a blue hatband.
Stay-Puft, has been incorporated into many other types of Ghostbusters media, including an animated series, comic books, a stage show, and video games. It has become a part of Bryan’s identity. “I go to conventions and sign autographs – it’s nice to know that it’s available if I need it.”
Although the marshmallow man continues to be renowned, Bryan said he is proudest of his involvement with the 1997 movie Men In Black, “because I did everything.” He not only invented and built the alien slug who shows up at an airport concourse near the beginning of the film that Tommie Lee Jones labels “grouchy;” he also did the acting in his costume.
Through his career, Bryan said, the opportunities to produce special effects for movies followed each other like falling dominoes. “It has all been dovetailing – this one works into that one works into the next one.”
“When a job is assigned, there is usually a drawing of the intended final look,” he explained. “From that we can derive the best way to execute the design, whether from sheet foam or possibly inflated plastic bags.”
“Then patterns are drawn to achieve the shape, and the material is cut and seamed for the final assembly. It often takes more than one draft to satisfy the client, but with perseverance we manage to make them happy.”
His creatures’ movements are powered by devices, by air pressure, pieces from random sources (“a rotating wheel redirecting air from a vacuum cleaner”). Bryan noted that at Syracuse, “there was a class in ‘art and engineering.’ They taught us about a lot of different materials, and that came in handy.” He credited “a lot of mechanics who do the work better than I do.”
Technology has changed over the years, and Bryan said he not only has been able to adapt, but also “I have been really lucky. The marshmallow man has such a strong cachet. People in the industry know me and they know I am an innovator.”
“We were all worried,” he acknowledged. “Jurassic Park (1993) was the scariest movie, because in it, we thought we saw the end of practical effects.”
“However, computer generation doesn’t only replace practical effects. It can also help them,” he related. “Instead of an elaborate, invisible mechanism, hidden within the creature, by simply adding a green puppeteer rod that can be removed digitally, you can get a really delicate performance without months of aluminum work.” He added, laughing, “But the closer I get to 70, the less I’m worrying about it.”
Bryan said he still feels inspired to create: “I have said many times that I would never retire.” Then he added, “But I’m starting to think there are plenty of things I could do for me.” Bryan, who has four children, is a member of the Screen Actors Guild, with benefits that include a pension.
He has been working on a Bedford-based graphic novel – “right now I have 70 canvases of pages” with three to as many as eight frames per page of black-and-white paintings. “A lot of this is based on stuff we either thought of or did,” he explained. There’s a supernatural character, an American Revolution component, and an appearance by the President of the United States. He hopes the book is finished before summer.