Blood Work

December 1st, 2004 Film, Film Features, Filmink

If you want to make a splash in horror makeup, it takes more than a lipstick and cap gun. Drew Turney asks the experts.

‘Be afraid, be very afraid.’

That’s the advice from Paul Katte, cofounder of Sydney’s Makeup Effects Group, when asked what he says to aspiring makeup effects practitioners in Australia.

Exactly what to be afraid of isn’t entirely clear. It might be the state of the Australian film industry — with so many Aussie films bombing badly, big studio facilities talking of downsizing and productions bypassing us for locations like Prague and Wellington, it seems there’s never been a worse time to enter a specialised production field.

Or maybe Katte was looking at the latest bizarre creation to come out of his Stanmore studio. With credits across TV and film (including Babe, The Matrix and The Island of Dr Moreau), MEG is proof that you can carve a very comfortable niche for yourself.

Listen to DVD commentaries by American directors who had $10m to play with for makeup effects and you’d think it was an extraordinarily detailed science out of the reach of mere mortals.

But remember — the effects executed during the heyday of the splatter genre were created on set and the fly with tomato sauce-filled condoms tied to the back of actors’ heads.

The Twine and Duct Tape Method

On the recent DVD release of zombie classic Dawn of the Dead, makeup maestro Tom Savini describes the scene where the zombie loses the top of his head to a helicopter blade. A guy ripped a prosthetic from the top of an actors head while two guys off camera pumped the blood through pipes up to the top of his head (the helicopter blades were animated in later).

Savini has talked before of fond memories from his teen years raiding his mother’s makeup for materials. So all you need to succeed in makeup effects — it seems — is the imagination and passion to do so. Most of the big, expensive makeup methods are just more elaborate versions of washing up gloves filled with red paint and small pipe bombs.

In fact, many of the technologies that emerged from the splatter years (and indeed, from the days of Lon Chaney Sr. in the early 20th Century) are still widely used simply because a better alternative hasn’t been discovered, and that’s as true in Hollywood as anywhere. In 1968 John Chambers used foam latex for the makeup in Planet of the Apes, and in the 2001 remake, Rick Baker used exactly the same process.

‘Although we now use silicones to create skins that give us a realistic effect, foam latex is still a great material for prosthetics,’ says MEG’s Katte. ‘With a good realistic paint job, it’s indistinguishable from skin.’

Filming Cabin Fever in 2002, director Eli Roth explained how there are different kinds of blood depending on the shot (blood on the body or splattered on walls is different from the stuff you can put in people’s mouths), but admitted the recipe is no more complicated than corn flour and food colouring.

The Digital Divide

Of course, the biggest change to makeup effects is the computer. And like all technologies, it can be misused. If it’s done right (like in the end of Terminator 3 when half of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s head is blown away with wires and hydraulics showing), it’s brilliant. If it’s done poorly — or all semblance of story is swept away in a orgy of computer graphics (no names though, right, Stephen and Hugh?) — it just makes more fans lament the old days of squibs in Monroeville Mall.

To most, CG is a mixed blessing. Brisbane brothers Michael and Peter Spierig took the horror genre by storm last year with the feature debut Undead, a film destined to have a huge DVD following.

And while Michael says that there’s nothing better than ‘going to the butcher’s and buying pigs guts’, it’s surprising to learn that Undead actually has over 300 digital shots, most in the final plane flight sequence.

‘Digital technology’s great,’ Spierig thinks. ‘We did the majority of the digital effects at home on our computers, and even five years ago that would have been impossible.

‘It shouldn’t be the answer to every effects problem; it gets overused and we get so sick of it. [Audiences have] become fairly sophisticated in our ability to spot digital effects, so it’s good to do it for real if you can. But it’s great for low budget filmmakers because you can buy the software to do it on your home computer as good as Hollywood can do it.’

Spierig is quick to point out, however, that the computer won’t do away with red cordial any time soon. ‘I don’t think blood and guts made out of latex and paint will ever change, there’s a certain level of appeal to that technique.

Paul Katte of MEG agrees. ‘Something like The Thing is a benchmark for make-up effects, yet it’s 22 years old and there’s not a digital frame in the whole movie!’

It’s Only a Movie’

Of course, if you’re using makeup effects (particularly gore), they’re likely to be visited upon an actor or extra from a wound inflicted by something nasty, so it’s not advisable to swing real knives or helicopter blades or ask someone to hold a cupful of fake blood in their mouth while you secure a dolly track.

‘Hygiene is very important,’ Katte cautions. ‘As is the safety of any actor or performer on the receiving end of a make-up effect. Fake or blunt weapons are often used where someone’s hit or wounded, and lots of rehearsal with the stunt co-ordinator is paramount to ensure the action is safe and fits the requirements of the script.

Also, fitting makeup effects into the schedule of a movie shoot is very different than drawing wounds on some mates with red textas. When you’re sticking plaster and latex to actors or asking them to be covered in corn syrup, timing is of the essence.

‘People have an interest in makeup based on playing around with lipstick or tomato sauce,’ Michael Spierig thinks, ‘but you need training to do it properly because makeup takes hours to apply, and the last thing you want on set is a makeup artist telling you they can apply ten zombies in an hour and it takes them five hours.

‘Even during shooting, every scene takes a very long time and you have to work with people who know how long these sorts of things take. Experience is always important when it comes to that.’

You See Dead People?

So if just tearing open shirts and practising gashes with red crayon isn’t enough to get you a career in horror makeup, what else do you need?

‘Training,’ according to Spierig. ‘If you want to get into appliances and latex, you need a certain level of experience, and there are plenty of schools out there that teach makeup.’

He cites the great makeup schools in his native Queensland, including courses run by Gold Coast-based Peter Frampton, an Oscar winner for his work in Braveheart, while Katte also advocates taking your own initiative.

‘Trial and error is a good approach, as is going to the library and doing research. Although you probably can’t beat making your girlfriend up as a zombie — that is if she is up to the ordeal!’

Australia has some world-renowned makeup effects artists, some which even the brand name artists in America like Rick Baker look up to. Despite the current state of our industry, companies like MEG seem to be in steady work in feature films and TVCs. So armed with trivia from the crop of recent zombie releases by Umbrella Entertainment and your thirst for blood, there’s nothing stopping you being the next Tom Savini.


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