Making it Up As You Go: Learning the Basics of Practical Makeup Will Help Your Horror Movie

Hardly a movie is made today, whether a low-budget indie or big studio feature, without the incorporation of some level of digital visual effects.

It sometimes seems like anything described in a screenplay can be realized with computer-generated imagery. All of which begs the 21st century question: Is movie makeup still relevant, even in the horror genre? Should indie moviemakers still employ special makeup effects, considering the ease and speed of CGI?

In short, yes, says Vincent Guastini, who’s spent more than 20 years working the panoply of makeup effects in L.A. and New York. Now, he has branched out into producing and directing horror films, for which he continues to produce his own effects. “Practical creature effects look real because they are real. CG is a crapshoot.”

CGI Isn’t the Enemy

First things first, though: If a moviemaker has the resources to knock computer-generated effects out of the park, Guastini fully endorses their use in a genre film, alongside practical makeup and creature design. Remember, “CG or practical” is a false dichotomy.

“If it’s engaging and real, that makes for beautiful filmmaking, an art piece coming to life,” Guastini says. “When digital and practical effects are done well in tandem, like in Jurassic Park, it can be wonderful.”

Don’t put the cart before the horse, though: “Make sure story is number one.” Also, hire the best you can. “For practical effects, hire somebody that’s really talented and knows what they are doing.” That’s equally important with CG. “Effects better look good if they are CG.”

A still from Vincent J. Guastini and Michael McQuown's The Dark Tapes

A still from Vincent Guastini and Michael McQuown’s The Dark Tapes anthology film

Makeup as Acting Aid

For Bill Corso, an award-winning artisan for over 25 years, there’s magic in having makeup or creature effects present on the set during principal photography. “There’s something so viable and tangible about putting an actor in a chair and makeup being applied,” he says. “A transformation of self happens. Sometimes the only way for actors to get into a role is to look at themselves in the mirror.”

Corso has, in fact, developed a technique by which makeup shot practically can have an additional digital element, allowing for the consistency of the same artist working on the entire breadth of a character. Even so, he says there is no replacing an actor sitting in a makeup chair, devising a character right there on the spot.

Case in point: Corso won an Oscar for his makeup in 2004’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, for which Jim Carrey’s main character, Count Olaf, was developed after a plethora of makeup and hair tests. “He refined who that was,” says Corso of Carrey, noting that each test informed who Olaf would be. Once, in a careful collaboration between the two, a new character was borne out of thin air the day before a scene was scheduled to be shot.

“Wearing the looks, he came up with a new character. That would never happen if we had done everything in post-production—that’s after the fact,” says Corso. “Even visual effects artists will tell you that the more practical a base you have, the more fascinating it is to watch. You can’t look at an old-fashioned practical makeup effect, created live, and not care. Nothing is better than having something practical.”

Anyone can Makeup

Third-generation makeup legacy Rob Burman has been around makeup, monsters and prosthetics all his life: His father Tom had a 40-year career as a makeup artist and his grandfather Ellis created rubber appliances for Jack Pierce as early as the 1940s.

“I’m pretty good at a lot of different things,” he says. “I’m a craftsman who fits in wherever I need to be.” And more and more monster craftspeople of today, he believes, are mastering a do-everything-yourself philosophy, proving that any moviemaker with a will can learn some fundamental techniques of makeup.

If effects schools and books aren’t a viable option for you, Burman recommends good, old-fashioned fooling around. “Start training yourself with over-the-counter RubberWear [a generic prosthetic appliance],” he says. “Get yourself a makeup kit that you can work with. You’ll spend $500-1,000 putting together a basic makeup kit, but once you do, you can play all the time. Don’t be afraid to try everything. Do it every day for a year.”

His preferred prosthetic material for independent films—and there are many options, including foam latex, silicone and others—is gelatin. “For low-budget stuff, learn gelatin as a material to turn somebody into a zombie. Heat up some of the gelatin materials made with glycerin—I did it in high school in my backyard. That, and a greasepaint palette, and you can do anything.”

Bill Corso and Jim Carrey on the set of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Courtesy of Bill Corso

Bill Corso and Jim Carrey on the set of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Courtesy of Bill Corso

Know Your Sources

So what can the ultra-low-budget moviemaker conjure with makeup effects, without the advantage of professional artists and the breadth of the entire prosthetic fabrication process? For one, inexpensive materials can be purchased from a variety of stores which cater to professionals and upcoming talents alike—items including baldcaps, generic prosthetics, and prosumer makeup materials and colors. RubberWear, for example, manufactures generic appliances in the form of prosthetic foam latex pieces. These can be applied to actors to create everything from scars to broken noses to various alterations in performers’ heads and bodies. At Naimie’s, a hair and makeup pro shop in North Hollywood, and Cinema Secrets Pro Cosmetics in nearby Burbank, you can access a host of basic materials to enhance the palette of creature characters.

Simple Ideas for Practical Effects

Nascent artist Justin Head, making films at The Art Institute of California, fabricated scars to be applied to an actress for his senior-level film, Renaissance, out of consumer-grade toilet paper and liquid latex from Costume Castle in Orange County. Additional scars were created with collodion, an older material which shrinks the skin when applied.

Team member John Aviles aged an actress from 20 to 80 by applying basic consumer makeup—brown cream foundation and bits of powder—to accentuate existing lines on her face and add new wrinkles. The finishing touch was powdering her wig to take the shine off the wig itself.

Head learned the trade by watching documentaries on how effects were accomplished on classic Universal Pictures’ monster movies. Attempting a Wolf Man-esque hairy facial makeup for a short film, he purchased standard pieces of crepe hair in a strand, each rolled up into little balls. He wet the hair and strung it out for a day over a hook or towel rack.

The next day, applying the hair to an actor’s face took him four hours of careful attention to detail. “I would take a strand and stretch it out for the full range. [Then I] put spirit gum at each base—chin, lip area, moustache.” Another classic material, spirit gum has been used for decades in Hollywood as a means of adhering prosthetics, hair and other elements to actors’ skin. The finishing touch was a wig. With multiple werewolf days on the schedule, Head was able to finesse the process down to two hours with repetition.

Head manages to produce effective looks with materials as crude as cardboard, Mortician’s wax, industrial grade syringes and homemade fake blood (“My preference for blood is the classic: corn syrup mixed with chocolate syrup, milk and red food dye.”) Bruises? Easy—he just mixes blue, purple and red cream foundation under a character’s eyes and cheeks. His results, though cheap, deliver fully on camera.

Voilà—moviemaking hyphenates can easily perfect very simple techniques—for results that, sure, might not hold up under lengthy close-ups, but can serve a horror film in a highly functional manner.

Bridging the Uncanny Valley

Makeup, rubber-oriented monsters, all those techniques of yore are likely to remain for the foreseeable future of movies of every scale. It’s a process within moviemaking that, put simply, works. And audiences, for their parts, seem unwilling to accept the total artifice of digital conventions—look at the relative disenchantment that faced Robert Zemeckis’ performance-captured Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. It seems that the collaboration between practical and digital effects will continue—at least until the advent of moviemaking’s next, unimaginable leap. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker’s Fall 2015 issue.

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