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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
The biggest special effects makeup tips I can give are super simple:
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!
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.
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