Master of the Macabre

A self-taught special effects guru, A.S. Hamilton has crafted everything from severed heads to exploded organs with chilling perfection. But his greatest big-screen challenge was bringing one of human history’s most gruesome chapters back to life.

Master of the Macabre

The bodies were everywhere: piled in charred heaps on the side of the road, clustered in shallow water under bridges and sprawled across lush fields and dusty city streets. Above the carnage, flocks of crows flew in dizzying patterns, their raucous cawing and insistent beating wings searing the stillness of the African sky. Occasionally, some of the birds would swoop down towards the bodies, near the faces of the dead, who wore expressions that told a tale of something vast and incomprehensible, something that many would later refer to only as “pure evil.” As the camera panned out and more images of shattered bodies appeared on the screen in Roger Spottiswoode’s film Shake Hands with the Devil, most of the audience was probably not thinking that these bodies were rubber cadavers. That fact matters only to a handful of people. A.S. Hamilton, the artisan behind crafting many of the bodies and body parts, is chief among them.

At forty-four, Hamilton is a slender six foot four inches with cobalt blue eyes, a copper blonde goatee and a rugged voice that rises and falls as quickly as his thoughts. Conversations with him are a bit like falling down the rabbit hole: Ideas move quickly and an element of the fantastic lurks on the periphery—his stories about middle school teachers seamlessly morph into tales of searching for a glass eye or a bloody finger. But despite the wild verbal meanderings and almost otherworldly sensation drummed up by his anecdotes of growing up on Nova Scotia’s foggy shores, when it comes to his job—anatomical trauma simulation—Hamilton is all business.

A.S. Hamilton touches up his work on the set of Roger Spottiswoode's film "Shake Hands with the Devil."
A.S. Hamilton touches up his work on the set of Roger Spottiswoode’s film “Shake Hands with the Devil.”

In an industry saturated with special effects artists who are focused on science fiction and fantasy, Hamilton is one of the few who specializes in trauma simulation, the art of authentically reproducing reality. “All films have special effects artists, but not all have trauma simulators,” he says. “My job begins when the transformation in the actor or element is too radical for the on-set make-up team to undertake because they don’t have the necessary gear or skills.” Blending a background in forensics, mold making and polymer chemistry with a love of storytelling, Hamilton’s work stands out for its individual realism. “No two bodies are alike, even if there are a hundred bodies that died in the same way,” he says.

Hamilton’s approach comes from his philosophy about the role of art, particularly the creation and representation of violence in film. “A big problem with a lot of movies is that there is superfluous violence, and that violence becomes the story. People start going just to watch people get hurt or killed. It’s like a form of pornography—torture porn—and it’s done for shock value, nothing else,” he says. “Me, I don’t take violence lightly. I never have and never will, and I don’t want the audience to take it lightly either.”

In the case of Shake Hands, Hamilton’s handiwork represented the murdered victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, an event that rattled his humanist sensibilities. He had followed the genocide, a mass murder of 800,000 people in just 100 days, from afar and was left confounded. “I couldn’t believe what was happening. We [the Canadians] had peacekeepers there and it was getting worse and worse. Why was no one doing anything?”

In 2006, Hamilton heard whispers in the Canadian film industry that Roger Spottiswoode was planning to turn Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire’s memoir, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, into a film, and he knew he wanted in. “There was no question about it. I had read the story of General Dallaire, and I knew that no one could render this work with the same creativity and respect for authenticity that I could,” he says with confidence.

Wasting no time, he contacted the executive producer and production designer and “rather aggressively petitioned the designer with a series of phone calls saying, ‘You’re going to need X numbers of stunt machetes in plastic, and you’ll need X number of bodies, which you can’t make on people laying in the sun for hours.” His persistence paid off, and soon he had the job. “Honestly, until I opened my big yap, I don’t think they had initially intended to find several hundred thousand dollars for rubber bodies,” he says. “It was more me creating the position.”

Hamilton had decades of experience simulating wounded and dead bodies for television and film, including for the award winning mini-series Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion about the 1917 cargo ship explosion that occurred off the coast of Halifax, killing thousands. For the series, he fashioned more than sixty bodies, replicating people with severed limbs, shrapnel injuries, exposed internal organs and a particularly harrowing image of a frozen twelve-year-old girl holding an infant.

Despite his accolades and experience, the scope, scale and mind-numbing historical reality demanded by Shake Hands was new to him. Making one realistic dead body is no small task, but making more than thirty-five that would represent one of the worst systematic atrocities since the Holocaust was a heavy responsibility. “Very early on, my team came to identify with the film not as crew members, but as people being entrusted to do an honest and accurate portrayal about a true epochal event in the lives of very real people,” he says.

Not everyone shared the same moral sentiment. Hamilton still recoils a bit when he remembers a phone conversation that ensued the first time he sent an image of a face slashed by a machete to the production executive, already on-site in Africa.

A scene from a Kigali morgue in Roger Spottiswoode's film "Shake Hands with the Devil."
A scene from a Kigali morgue in Roger Spottiswoode’s film “Shake Hands with the Devil.”

“Oh no, that’s way too heavy and gross and awful!” the production executive told him.

“But that’s real, even mild,” Hamilton said.

“Mild? What do you mean? It’s terrible!”

“It takes an average of eight to twenty-one strikes to kill someone with a machete,” Hamilton replied. “This image illustrates only five wounds. This would be a light version of the real thing.”

“No, I don’t think they’ll ever show anything like this.”

“Then maybe we shouldn’t be making this movie if we can’t show even the most basic truth of a machete massacre,” Hamilton snapped.

With that, he ended the conversation. Refusing to compromise his vision and his values, he continued to create the bodies as he saw fit, with uncompromisingly realistic machete wounds. Some three months later, during a production meeting, the on-set UN representative, a quiet and reserved gentleman who witnessed the genocide, took out “a top-secret collection of photos wrapped in a brown paper bag that he passed to us like contraband,” recalls Hamilton. He gloats a bit as he remembers the production team pulling the images out of the bag, their faces wincing, turning paler and paler, until they fell silent. “They never said anything to me again.”

Leaning back in his chair and shaking his head, Hamilton admits, “This job is definitely not for the faint of heart.” But a strong stomach is only a fraction of what’s required. His line of work calls for immense patience, a keen eye for detail and a profound understanding of medical forensics, a field Hamilton was introduced to at thirteen. Back then, a hospital administrator who was cast in a school production of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, for which Hamilton was doing the makeup, noticed the young man would spend his rehearsal breaks creating wounds on people, and the administrator invited him to see the “real thing” at the hospital morgue. Hamilton’s first encounter with the dead was “a guy having a brain autopsy,” an experience that left him feeing “fascination and awe at the science of it.”

“I felt at home in the environment,” he says, shushing his cat.

Hamilton’s early years were spent in a small house by the woods in the former shipbuilding town of Tatamagouche. Located on the mouth of two rivers in Northern Nova Scotia, with a population hovering around 700, Hamilton recalls Tatamagouche in the 1970s as a bucolic place decorously laid out, with an iron bridge, ladling curves and willow trees that brushed the river and draped themselves over cabin rooftops. During the long, startlingly cold winters, the town retained a magical, fantastic feeling, with roads and fields blanketed by endless snow.

Behind its dreaminess and long, winding roads lurked the peculiarities that “are true and cliché about very small towns”—local drunks, perverse bums, infidelity, abuse and gossip. “Basically, it was a demented rural circus with one gas station, one hospital, one cop car that rarely moved from the station, and a kaleidoscope of characters who wandered its streets,” Hamilton says, adding that much of his eleven years there were spent “in a half-conscious dream state watching these people and imagining all sorts of things.”

The town also boasted the famous Sunrise Trail Museum where Hamilton whiled away days studying its odd selection of items, including a two-headed calf, a stuffed mountain goat and a human skeleton. When bored of that, he would explore the misty coastline and collect old iron nails and rusted chains along the decayed remnants of wharfs. On weekend family trips to the local beach, he encountered caravans of Volkswagen micro-buses full of pot-smoking, Vietnam draft-dodging hippies blasting Steppenwolf and sitting around naked. For Hamilton, all these lurid details of daily life were fodder for slipping into the wilds of imagination.

Both his parents were socially conscious individuals who eventually gave up their careers to help the downtrodden—his mother was a writer-turned-government employment counselor, and his father an inventor/lawyer who established a food bank. Their own civic sensibility—combined with having had five kids before Hamilton—lent them a follow-your-passion approach to parenting. “You could say their edges were pretty well worn off, and they were tolerant of almost anything when I came along,” Hamilton says, letting out one of his characteristically drawn-out laughs.

That tolerance granted Hamilton an almost unbridled creative freedom to explore his interest in the macabre. Inspired by his father’s “kooky inventions and constant tinkering,” he began experimenting with different ways to create the things that he read or saw—mostly monsters, vampires, aliens and crime scenes. “As a boy, I loved spooky and scary and gore,” he says. He parents grew accustomed to living in a home that often resembled a CSI crime scene, whether returning from work and finding Hamilton simulating a self-decapitation in the living room, or baking biscuits and tripping over a severed leg on the floor.

Lifecast of a hand rendered in translucent urethane.
Lifecast of a hand rendered in translucent urethane.

At thirteen, the family moved to Bible Hill, Nova Scotia, a suburban town with a population ten times the size of Tatamagouche and also home to two double-screen cinemas – Tatamagouche had none. There, Hamilton’s world exploded, beginning with Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man. “Until I saw that movie, I had no idea that special effects was actually a real job. It was exciting and inspiring,” he says. “I wanted to make more realistic-looking things that had depth and texture, like body parts with bones and muscles.” But with Nova Scotia over 3,000 miles from any special effects school or Hollywood studio, Hamilton understood that if he wanted to learn the artistry of special effects, he would need to do it himself.

During high school, which he found boring (he eventually dropped out midway through the eleventh grade), he teased the shelves of his local library for books on theatrical effects and monsters in movies, reading the few he found cover to cover. “I remember the images of the effects blowing me away. They were so real and full of these tiny details that gave them texture and depth. I had to learn how to do it,” he says. “And so I found Sid.”

An old retiree living on a nearby farm, Sid had been the trauma simulator for the local Emergency Measures Organization (EMO), which trained fire and ambulance responders in wound care and triage. Initially Sid found Hamilton’s interest in trauma simulation weird. “He called my father and asked him if it was okay to teach me ‘this stuff,’” says Hamilton. His father had no objection, so young Hamilton telephoned Sid regularly for instructions on how to simulate “bodies in distress”—severed hands, crushed legs and whatever else he conjured. Old Sid responded in his methodical way, walking him through each minute detail as if he were sharing a cake recipe.

Hamilton foraged for materials at home, outside and even at his doctor’s office, where he would occasionally ask for parts from the hanging plastic skeleton. Then he would return home and, like a young Frankenstein, cut, paste and construct twisted hands, arms, faces and bodies. “Once I created a terrific rotten skull entirely out of plasticine, clear nail polish, gloss slime and whatever other old cosmetics were lying around,” Hamilton says, chuckling at the memory. Two years later, a picture of that skull led to his first paying trauma simulation gig with the Emergency Measures Organization, which tasked him with creating “a tipped-over military truck with burn victims and really dreadful injuries.” From there things moved quickly.

At eighteen, Hamilton moved to Halifax, a vibrant cultural city with a growing film industry. There, he enrolled in courses on gathering and preserving forensic evidence, which led to a job as an evidence collector. “I basically rode around in an ambulance guarding crime-scene evidence and assisting domestic violence victims in accessing services,” Hamilton says. “In my first week, I found a hair that put a guy away for twenty-five years for killing his wife.”

Later that year he landed his first movie job, assisting the special effects crew for a children’s feature film about pirate ghosts, George’s Island, and putting his considerable skills to use creating beheaded pirate heads. After the film, Hamilton was on his way to a career in trauma simulation and special effects. Far from the glitz of Hollywood, he has worked primarily in a small, unmarked studio shop in Toronto’s West End, designing effects for films such as Cube Zero, in which he simulated human beings melting into puddles, and Saw III, in which he simulated the bodies of rotten, eviscerated pigs with live maggots stuck to their carcasses. While those films veer towards the “torture porn” genre Hamilton now shuns, at the time, he says, “they were an homage to the excess of the ’80s and a chance to do fun, insane and creative multi-stage mechanical effects.” But it’s Shake Hands with the Devil that he considers his most important and intense work to date. “Everything we created for that film was done earnestly and respectfully, with an eye to letting the rest of the world have some understanding of what really happened in Rwanda.”

A pig created for the movie "Saw III."
A pig created for the movie “Saw III.”

Despite Hamilton’s far-reaching experience with the gruesome, he quickly points out, “Nothing could really prepare you for looking at or reading about those bodies.” In order to give voice to the dead and create a believable narrative, Hamilton needed to know the subtle details that set this massacre apart from others—how did the victims fall after being struck? What were the positions of their arms and legs as they lay on the ground, heaped on top of each other? What were the expressions on their faces, and the rate of bodily decomposition? Based on the crime scene, Hamilton strived to recreate “a physical narrative that would tap into the audience’s empathy and reach that place inside them where they were no longer watching a film, but beholding a moment, an event. They were in Rwanda bearing witness.”

“Simulating reality is not done to shock, but to authenticate an experience, and to do that, you need to understand it fully,” Hamilton explains. For Shake Hands, that meant spending hours pouring over historical footage, documents, images and newspaper reports, such as this 1994 New York Times article on the Nyarubuye church massacre, describing an apocalyptic scene:

“A frenzy of killing was evident at the rear of the compound…so many [bodies] that it is impossible to walk through without treading on them…some no more than pieces of flesh and skeletons dressed in clothes. One woman was hacked to death as she ran away. She lies face down, one arm outstretched, the other clutching her small child, decapitated.”

In his Toronto studio, Hamilton embarked on the lengthy and arduous procedure of making the bodies, a skill that brings together elements of science, art, storytelling and technology. He decided that all thirty-five bodies would come from three real people serving as models: a man, a woman and a child who would be laid out in different postures. Each individual needed to have a three-dimensional mold made of their body by applying petroleum jelly and then wrapping them in plaster, a process known as “lifecasting.”

“The person is wrapped from head to foot in plaster and can’t move, until the casting agent dries, which can take three to four hours,” says Hamilton. “But the end result is worth it because the realism you get is unsurpassable.”

From each lifecast, Hamilton made two more molds, finally arriving at what is called the “production mold,” crafted from a combination of silicone rubber and a hard plastic shell. “You can use this mold to make as many bodies as you want by filling it with rubber and painting it the color of the person. The rubber then gets filled with a kind of soft foam, and in some cases, we put in bones,” Hamilton explains. The final result is a pliable, lifelike corpse made from a synthetic rubber compound.

With the cadavers finished, Hamilton began the final phase of what he calls “shredding the bodies,” an exacting job with no margin for error. “An axe wound will split the skin very differently than a machete wound,” he says. “Machetes create big effing oval wounds—wounds where the skin pops open in a way that says one thing: big, fat, curved blade. If you get the shape wrong, it doesn’t look like a machete wound and your body becomes historically inaccurate.” The wounds themselves were not made from a machete; instead, he hand-sculpted them using an X-Acto knife. With the precision of a surgeon, Hamilton traced the lines of the wound over and over, until the cadaver popped open, revealing a hollow inside that he filled with simulated bones, tendons, muscles, internal organs, meat and fat. “Then,” he says. “You’ve got a body.”

Cadavers placed on a truck during a scene in Roger Spottiswoode's film "Shake Hands with the Devil."
Cadavers placed on a truck during a scene in Roger Spottiswoode’s film “Shake Hands with the Devil.”

Where the bodies were wounded—head, back, legs—and how many wounds each body had was up to Hamilton, who chose his marks carefully. “In the end,” he says, “my job is to create images that will rattle you”—one reason he settled on including a pregnant woman, which he selected to represent extermination, to illustrate how far things had gone. “These men wanted to wipe not only individuals but entire offspring, and her laying there said just that.”

After completing the bodies, Hamilton traveled to Rwanda to join the rest of the crew. In Rwanda, he says, there is an intensity of light in the way the sun rests on the equatorial horizon that makes everything richer, more layered, more complex. He recalls the way in which the sunlight caught the red of the blood and the white of the bone when his bodies were finally laid out. The authenticity was startling, even to him. That was the very thing Hamilton had spent months hoping to achieve, and he felt a sense of accomplishment. At the same time, the mangled bodies confronted him with the sheer enormity of what took place, its meaninglessness and its incomprehensibility. “It was hard to look at them without thinking that we were simulating a very real event,” he says, “and these bodies were representing very real people who died a violent and painful death.”

No one remembers those people better than Dallaire, who, in the documentary “Ghosts of Rwanda” laments for the inhumanity he witnessed. “My soul is in those hills, my spirit is with the spirit of all those people who were slaughtered and killed,” said Dallaire. “Those eyes still haunt me, angry eyes, innocent eyes, but the worst eyes that haunt me are the eyes of those people who are totally bewildered, who are asking ‘How come I’m dying here?’”

Comprehending that such brutality took place amid the spectacular beauty of eucalyptus leaves shimmering like silver dollars against a liquid blue sky, and mists draping themselves around volcanic peaks that jut toward the heavens, was difficult for Hamilton, leaving him profoundly altered by his experience. “After recreating one of the worst atrocities in human history in the place it occurred, everything else film-based diminishes in importance,” he says.

A.S. Hamilton applies makeup to an actor on set in Rwanda.
A.S. Hamilton applies makeup to an actor on set in Rwanda.

Feeling he had reached a “professional pinnacle” with Shake Hands, Hamilton decided to move away from big film productions. With his company, Grand Unified Theories, he has branched out into new directions with projects that include making Egyptian mummies and miniature towns for the Canadian detective series, “The Murdoch Mysteries.” But the project he finds most exciting actually has little to do with movies. Having grown somewhat bored with simulating tragic moments, Hamilton wanted to delve into a field that has always captivated him: casting materials. “I wanted to expand my knowledge base of the different casting materials, so I began collaborating with civil engineers and chemists on formulations for artistic concrete casting.” One day, Hamilton hopes to create a new material that will allow him to “make anything he wants.”

When asked about the bodies from Shake Hands, Hamilton sighs deeply and says that sometime in the near future he will put them up for sale. Until then, they will remain tucked away in his Toronto studio, a reminder of man’s ability to create and destroy.