Looking Horrific

Production / October 25, 2016

Exclusive Special Effects Makeup Tips from a Hollywood Pro.

Special effects makeup is the key to any good horror movie, and the film industry has a long list of artists who have left indelible marks on our imaginations.

Jack Pierce (1889-1968) gave us the iconic monster looks in Frankenstein and The Wolfman. Dick Smith (1922-2014) made heads turn with his work in The Exorcist. Tom Savini (1946-Present) has been carried to fame thanks to his work on Friday the 13th, Dawn of the Dead, and Maniac. These special effects artists have brought our nightmares to life, and we mean that in a good way. The question is how do they do that? And what tips can you get from them?

A look back at special effects makeup

(Left) Jack Pierce working on the iconic look for Frankenstein, 1931. (Right) Dick Smith creating the demonic character for The Exorcist, 1967.

We’ve talked about breaking into the SFX industry, now we’ll discuss what it takes to become a pro. Today, special effects makeup artist Vanessa Bentley shares some insights on what it takes to become a master of this craft. Her work has been featured in several films: she’s been the makeup department head for films like Shaman, Audacity, and Uploaded; she’s also done special effects work for films like Linger and Night Trap. She’s also working on a few high-profile projects that are so top secret, we can’t even discuss them.

With several years of working in the special effects and beauty makeup industry under her belt, she has plenty of tips and tricks to teach beginner special effects artists. We had the privilege of sitting down with her this week. We learned about her journey in the industry and got some special effects makeup tips along the way.

What’s your experience with monster and horror make-up been like? How did you get to where you are now?

I have had an incredible experience working in the industry. I’ve worked in film and television, doing both beauty and SFX, and am part of the Local 706 Makeup & Hair Stylist Guild. I started my career in makeup because I had always been an artsy type, and wanted to be an artist.

Gruesome special effects

Some of Vanessa Bentley’s handiwork.

I just completely dove into the craft. I took whatever job I had to and did personal photoshoots to build my portfolio. I made makeup my life. I had the greatest support from my family and husband, who never questioned the work schedule, birthday, or holiday I missed. I am where I am today because of my amazing family and all the work and dedication I’ve put into my career.

How much training does it take to become a special effects make-up artist?

Being a special effects makeup artist is a constant training and learning process. I went to Makeup Designory (MUD) in Burbank and took the Master Program, which teaches you the basics in a little bit under a year. A lot of learning comes hands on in a lab or on set, where you can observe and get plenty of tips and tricks from people who are geniuses in the craft. There’s also no better learning experience than being in the middle of the woods, shooting a low budget show, and whipping something up from whatever you have in your kit.

Did you start with beauty make-up or special effects make-up? Aside from the outcomes, what’s the difference between the two?

I have always done beauty and SFX, but I wasn’t very interested in the beauty side before going to school. Monster makeup always seemed more creative. Once I actually learned beauty makeup, though, I realized the importance of being able to do great beauty makeup on camera. Now I love both equally.

With monster makeup, I feel like I have a bit more creative freedom, whereas beauty requires very clean faces for the most part (which is just as difficult with such high definition cameras). I do love doing period makeups for beauty!

When you started out with horror make-up, how much creative freedom did you get? Were you able to take the reins with a project, or did you have to follow a reference image?

When I had just started, I did a lot of low-budget films. A lot of the time, that meant I was the only person doing beauty, SFX, and hair! That is an insane amount of work for one person, but when I first started I didn’t know any better.

When I worked on low-budget films, I had 100% creative freedom as long as it fit what the producers and directors wanted. Coming from an artsy background, I would create the characters in my head and just draw them out. When actually making prosthetics, reference photos were my best friends. I would print out body part pictures and images to get the exact look I wanted when sculpting. Now that I’m working on big budget SFX projects, I usually have a department head who calls the shots. Now I just follow their instructions.

Scary character special effects

(Top) Vanessa does patchwork with prosthetics. (Bottom) Vanessa uses SFX makeup to create an insane effect.

Are there any horror make-up examples that you’ve really tried to emulate? In your opinion, what makes a piece worth emulating?

Any special effects makeup idea is worth emulating if it has any kind of significance to you. The first full head prosthetic I had ever done was actually a look I tried to recreate. I wanted create one psychopathic, weird character based on Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs and Leather Face from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It definitely didn’t look 100% perfect, but it was my first time, so I thought, “If this will be the worst I ever do, that’s ok.”

I wish I had more chances to recreate iconic makeups. I do feel like that is a heavy load to take on, but if I’m ever given the honor to recreate a classic Hollywood monster, I’d definitely do my best to do justice to the character (after a few panic attacks, of course).

What’s the most amazing transformation you’ve achieved for an actor?

I once did a successful aging makeup! That might not sound like much, but aging is such a process. I’ve always felt more nervous doing aging than I have anything else. With monsters, you can throw in five eyes, ten arms, neon skin, and no one will question it because no one has ever actually seen that monster you’re putting on screen. Its only other appearance is in ink on a script. Aging a well-known face is a whole different story. Everyone knows what elderly people look like, and throwing that in with a famous face means you have your work cut out for you.

What are your three biggest tips for special effects makeup artists who are just starting out?

The biggest special effects makeup tips I can give are super simple:

  • When you’re a beginner and only know the foundation of SFX, go into every lab and set with a completely open mind. That’s the only way you’ll learn and improve. Actually, this tip applies no matter how far along you are. I have friends who have been in the industry for years and continue to learn something new every day.
  • Teach yourself basic art skills! Knowing your color wheel and what colors work with what will save you a lot of time when it comes to painting your prosthetics.
  • When posting your SFX work online, never ever ever post photos that have been incredibly enhanced by Photoshop. People want to see your actual work, not something that was cleaned up. When people see that you can’t deliver what you’ve posted, your career is basically sunk.
  • Don’t hide behind fake blood and gore. Showing that you can do an excellent special effects makeup piece without too much blood speaks volumes about your skill as an artist.

Let’s say you’ve got a tight budget. Where would you go to get good quality special effects materials and products?

I always shop at Nigel’s and Frends! They both have great deals and a huge selection of products. Frends also has a big FX section, and there’s always someone there to give advice. Seriously, never feel shy about asking questions. They’re always willing to help you out!

Vanessa Bentley and her scary creation

Vanessa Bentley (right) with one of her “creations.”

What will you be dressed as for Halloween? Will you be using special effects make-up?

Usually by the time Halloween rolls around, I am pretty SFX’d out. March through October are crazy months for work, whether it’s beauty or SFX. Once Halloween comes, I focus on getting my nieces ready! They’re both in elementary school and are very into the Halloween spirit. So I do get the chance to buy them all the makeup they’re going to use for their costumes.

This year, one will be Evie from the Descendants Disney channel movie, and the other will be Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad. The only SFX I’ll be doing is Harley Quinn’s tattoos, but nothing crazy. I’ll be doing a Day of the Dead makeup for myself, so it’s all beauty makeup this year. Mine was very last minute, but hopefully I can plan a cooler costume for next year!

If you love special effects makeup as much as Vanessa does, keep your eyes peeled. There are some great horror films coming out next year, including Friday the 13th 2017, The Bye Bye Man, and Jeepers Creepers 3: Cathedral.

Want more? There’s plenty more exclusive info coming up. Sign up for our Email List to stay updated on everything happening on our lot and get pro-tips from experts like Vanessa.

LACS life
LACS life
Contributing writers from the Los Angeles Center Studios come from all facets of the film and television industry bringing fresh insight and innovation. From screenwriters, to crew, to makeup artists and location scouts, we’ve got contributors from every corner of creativity.

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