Keith Short obituary

Ryan Gilbey
·4-min read

Even hardened movie buffs may not know the connection between the sleek, sinister Batmobile in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), the cobra that goes nose-to-nose with a terrified Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and the throne of Emperor Palpatine, with its hint of the Mastermind chair, in Return of the Jedi (1983). The figure who linked these objects is the sculptor and modeller Keith Short, who has died aged 79 from a stroke. In an era when hands rather than computers generated the spectacle on screen, he sculpted those pivotal props and many more besides.

His work on Raiders of the Lost Ark extended to the winged figures on the Ark of the Covenant, which is at the centre of the spectacular supernatural climax. He also helped to build parts of the scene’s rock faces from polystyrene. “All the surrounding cliffs were made of polystyrene too,” says his daughter Chloe, who often visited him on set, “so you did have to be a bit careful where you stepped.”

The Batmobile was fashioned from the same material, then cast into fibreglass and its shell mounted onto a Chevy chassis. Short worked for Burton on two further occasions: on the gothic horror Sleepy Hollow (1999), where he was responsible for making the imposing Tree of the Dead, also in polystyrene, with its dramatically twisted trunk and its posture suggesting a whirling dervish frozen in mid-dance, and on the comedy Dark Shadows (2012). He sculpted in clay the life-sized carcass of a female elephant for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), the Ministry of Information statue in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) and the giant stonefish in Gilliam’s next film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988).

Short was born and raised in Penn Common, Wolverhampton. His father, George Short, was a railway clerk who later served in the navy, his mother Dorothy (nee Beddow) a secretary. Keith was educated at Wolverhampton grammar school and graduated from Wolverhampton College of Art in 1961 with a National Diploma in Design, specialising in modelling and sculpture.

In 1963, he married Jennifer Price and later they moved to London, where he worked as a stone carver and lettering artist. Among his duties was carving decorative finials in Portland stone for the restoration of the Henry VII chapel at Westminster Abbey. Other works included a relief panel for the Greater London council showing the former Waterloo Bridge, gargoyle heads and heraldic shields for Ashridge House in Hertfordshire, and a life-sized elephant for the display of Indian armour at the Tower of London.

His entry into the film industry coincided with what has become known as a golden period of set-building in this country. “After George Lucas brought the first Star Wars to the UK in 1976,” says Short’s colleague, the art director Tom Brown, “he inadvertently started a series of productions that freed the craft talent base in the industry here. It transformed the country into a desirable place in which to make large-scale productions, not only due to the tax benefits but the fact that the technical and craft grades were some of the best in the world, and Keith’s career reflected this.”

His first film job was on the influential science-fiction horror hit Alien (1979), working from HR Giger’s designs on the atmospheric scene in which astronauts explore a landscape littered with oversized eggs; inside them lurk the creatures that later came to be known to fans as face-huggers. Short followed this by going on location in Tunisia for the Monty Python team’s controversial comedy Life of Brian (also 1979).

Other credits included The Dark Crystal (1982), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Little Shop of Horrors (1986), The Princess Bride (1987) and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011). He worked on the James Bond films GoldenEye (1995), Die Another Day (2002) and Quantum of Solace (2008) as well as on several instalments of the Harry Potter series. He was the head of the sculpting department on Willow (1988), The Fifth Element (1997), The Mummy (1999) and Oliver Stone’s historical epic Alexander (2004). He was supervising sculptor at Disneyland Paris and for London’s Olympic bid. “I always felt I was in the company of an extraordinary talent,” said Brown, “with an incredible ability to turn the sketched designs of production designers into a 3D reality.”

One of Short’s final film jobs brought him back to where his cinema work had begun: he was a sculptor on Prometheus (2012), the Alien prequel directed by Ridley Scott, who made the original movie.

Short is survived by Jennifer and their four children, Julien, Toby, Chloe and Amy.

• Keith Short, sculptor, born 8 March 1941; died 11 September 2020