The 23-year-old Man Behind The Biggest Piece Of Slime In Hollywood

In updating “The Blob” from Steve McQueen’s 1958 version, probably the most important element was bringing the cult classic into the world of modern special effects.

So naturally, one might assume, the producers turned to one of the top contemporary makeup-effects men, such as Rick Baker (“An American Werewolf in London”) or Tom Savini (“Dawn of the Dead”).

Not quite. They turned to 23-year-old Tony Gardner.

“I lied and said I was 25,” Gardner said. “That seems to be the magic age where people say, ‘He’s young, but maybe he’s old enough that we can trust him with that half-a-million dollars.’ “

Actually, Gardner didn’t do much of the blob itself. That was done by a crew with credits that ranged from “Little Shop of Horrors” to

“Ghostbusters.” Gardner did all the really nasty things, such as half-dissolved bodies floating in the blob. Directing a crew of 33 people, many of them much older than he, he built a total of 41 effects in seven months, a breakneck pace in the meticulous world of special effects.

For those who don’t know, “The Blob” tells the story of a protoplasmic goo that falls to Earth and starts eating people. As it gains strength and size, the townspeople fight back, only to discover that guns and other conventional weapons are useless against it.

Because modern special effects have gotten extremely complicated, Gardner found himself resorting to some Space Age techniques. For instance, to get the scene where a football hero, played by Donovan Leitch, gets swallowed by the blob, Gardner went to a Woodland Hills company called Image Masters to have Leitch programmed into a computer.

“We had Donovan get scanned from the collarbone up,” Gardner said.

“The information was fed into a computer, which operates a lathe, which puts those coordinates back into 3-dimensionality on carving wax, so we ended up with a 6-inch version of Donovan’s bust.” This was put into the blob to get the effect of a body half-consumed.

At that and several other points in the film, Gardner took over the blob effects as well. “We had to redesign the concept for the blob, because at that point it was still young and mobile. We had to get a sense of it pouring out the window with (Leitch) inside it.”

The blob material was made of a fruit additive called methocil (used to thicken gravy), 100 gallons of hexoplasm (sold to kids under the name

“Slime”), as well as vinyl, urethane foam, latex foam and a lot of lycra and silk fabrics.

Despite the sound of relish in his voice as he describes his work, Gardner said he has “tried to keep away from blood-and-guts stuff.” His initial concepts for “The Blob” were less bloody than what ended up on screen.

“The way I saw it, the blob was an acidic type of creature, and things like skin and organic fabrics would start to dissolve and slide off immediately, and things like the skeletal structure and fingernails and hair- dead cells that the blob would have no interest in-it would bleach those out. So in my original concept everything was going to go very pearlescent, almost like crystal sculpture.”

But director Chuck Russell had different ideas. They compromised.

More blood “makes sense at the beginning,” Gardner conceded. “When the bum dies (the first, most gory death), the blob is still a baby organism-it hasn’t eaten its whole meal. When it gets Donovan, it’s stronger, it’s able to consume more, so there’s still a little bit of blood. Later, it’s hitting them and draining them instantly, so you’ve got a scale over the course of the film-a blood scale.”

Gardner got interested in this peculiar line of work at 14. “I was a weird kid in Ohio who was interested in theater,” he said. He made short films and did magic tricks.

In college he got more serious. After a year at Ohio University, he transferred to the USC fine-arts department, doing sculpture and paintings and makeup for student film productions. At that point he met makeup superstar Rick Baker (“a great guy”), who promptly offered him an assistant’s job.

The project: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Gardner was only 19. He even appeared in a documentary on the making of the video.

Soon he quit school and started working as an assistant makeup artist on a string of films, such as “Aliens,” “The Lost Boys” and the forthcoming “Gorillas in the Mist.” At the ripe old age of 20, he did his first solo job for “Return of the Living Dead.” Gardner had only two weeks to finish a job left by someone who had been fired. And the film’s producers heaped a little more pressure on.

“They told me, ‘If you (mess) this up, this is a small town, and we’ll make sure everyone knows.’ “

Not only that, he was working days on “Cocoon.” He worked around the clock to “make them eat their words.” When it was done, they were so happy they gave him a screen credit.

Gardner has just formed his own makeup-effects company and married one of his assistants on “The Blob.” Someday he would like to return to sculpture and painting, but right now he’s happy.