A look around Valek Syke’s Mandeville workshop, and you would think he celebrates Halloween all year long. Next to his computer is a bloody gent with his face bashed in, while the window shelf is lined with amputated heads so real you swear one just winked at you.
Proprietor and CEO of Tech Works FX Studios, Syke is a master at creating everything from animal puppets and animatronic creatures to killer robots, walking zombies and what he calls jaw-dropping mutilated corpses. He has worked with Hollywood’s iconic actors and directors like Steven Spielberg on “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” and “Minority Report.”
Syke grew up in Philadelphia, and up until his teens, it was just he and his mom. The movies were his best friend, especially horror and sci-fi movies from the ’80s.
At 11 years old, he snuck into “An American Werewolf in London,” one of his all-time favorite movies. Later, he saw “The Terminator,” and it was both movies that inspired him to seek a career in special effects.
“As a kid, I built many ‘Star Wars’ spaceships from scratch to be in scale with my action figures,” he said. “I also built countless weapons and robots, which now I see as my foundation for all of this crazy stuff I do.”
After his enlistment in the U.S. Marines, he graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree from Temple University. He says it was his time in the Marines that gave him the drive to push forward in what he called a difficult industry.
He worked as a sculptor at a toy prototype company in Philadelphia. It was there that he learned many of the skills he uses today such as machining and designing.
“I started doing whole projects from start to finish,” he said, commenting he asked for a huge raise, got it and then quit. “I just wanted to know I was worth it, and they understood, they knew my heart was in the movies.”
He moved to Los Angeles weeks later.
“I worked with Mike Myers while shooting ‘The Cat in the Hat,’ ” Sykes said, adding that he enjoyed working with Adam Sandler as well. “I’ve been told I have the coolest job on the planet and I can’t argue.”
One of his favorite movies was “Men in Black II.”
“I worked on five animatronic aliens and was the puppeteer for one of the crazy worm guys,” he said. “I also acted in the movie ‘Garfield’ since we made all of the puppets, and my kids loved seeing their dad in a movie.”
After 18 years in Los Angeles, Skye, his wife and three children moved to St. Tammany in the spring. They wanted to find a more family-friendly atmosphere and were drawn to New Orleans’ Hollywood South.
“My wife wanted great schools for the kids, and I like the quiet non-city life, so we found the great town of Mandeville,” Syke said. “We packed up several trucks and drove across the country to our new 2-acre house in the quiet woods of Mandeville.”
Since moving here, Syke has worked on a number of projects, including a new creature for a horror film, and a new Saints robot he wants to show off soon. Some of the latest movies to include his work are “Kidnapped” and “By Way of Helena.” A few more movies will be out before the end of the year.
“We do a wide range of things here, animatronics and robotics, makeup special effects, costumes, creatures and animal puppets and props,” he said balancing an amputated head on his shoulder. “This is Frank; we actually modeled him after my neighbor in L.A.”
Surrounded by ghoulish zombies and man-eating aliens, Syke has some interesting dreams.
“Sometimes my creations pop into them, but usually it’s my crazy dreams and nightmares that give me some creative ideas for a new creature,” Syke said with a smile, admitting he doesn’t sleep much. “I seem to figure out most projects at about 3 or 4 in the morning.”
Deborah Burst writes about people behind the scenes of organizations and events in St. Tammany Parish. To reach her, email deborah firstname.lastname@example.org.