With the recent passing of the rightly revered Stuart Freeborn, I was put into a saddened and reflective mood. Stuart was one of the original pioneers in makeup, and is mostly known for his creature work in 2001 and Star Wars.
However, looking at his entry in IMDb, and you can see he has credits stretching back to the late 1930’s. He was a master at his craft – the real stuff, not just the ground breaking monster suits and masks which made him popular among the FX community and fans.
I met him only once, back at an early IMATS in London, where both he and Dick Smith were in attendance. It was spectacular, and he spoke candidly and with great energy, even for a man near 90 years of age. (Click here to see a cool little documentary about Stuart Freeborn on William Forsche’s YouTube channel).
I have been lucky enough to have worked for Nick Dudman, who was an apprentice with Mr Freeborn during the original Star Wars trilogy. This leads me to the point of this post, which is the lineage of knowledge, and how this FX stuff gets passed on.
Now, Nick was the first person I ever met who actually did prosthetic makeup for a living. I met him at my college (Wimbledon School of Art) in 1993, not long after the first Tim Burton Batman movie had come out. Nick had of course done Jack Nicholsons’ Joker makeup, and being the nerd I was (and still am) you can imagine my excitement when I learned he would be taking us for our prosthetics module of our course.
To this day I am eternally grateful for this encounter. He had come in a few days before to prep, and I waited around until he was done, and asked him if I could bug him with a few questions.
Bearing in mind:
- I was 19
- this was pre-Google
- I had come from a small town where nobody cared about makeup and I had thus far gotten all my information from Gorezone, Fangoria and Baygans book.
I had so many questions, and so far nobody had understood what I was talking about, let alone offer solutions. Well, Nick heard my questions, and answered each one thus putting out a thousand little fires which had burned away in my head for years.
I wanted to know what a cutting edge was, what plaster did he use, where to get foam latex, what was mould ‘rocking’, what to sculpt with etc, on and on. All the material names and brands I had read about were American, and either had different names or were not easily available here in the UK then.
I left the room feeling so elated, I can’t even begin to describe it. I still get that feeling on occasion when I overcome a long worked obstacle, and it has been my ambition to make other people feel that way when I get a question that I can answer the hell out of.
I know what it is like to want to know and do something, and if I can pass it on then I do. I don’t place myself at the top of the tree by saying this – I know people whose work makes me want to cut my hands off and many of them are friends (which doesn’t help the envy). I simply love what I do, am lucky enough to have worked a lot over the years and I love talking with others who care about it too.
I am also aware that much of what I know was learned from and influenced by the people I have met who shared (either directly or indirectly) their skills and approaches. I realised that there were key people and lessons that I learned working in the industry, and I thought it would be good to share some of these with you. So, below are a few of the people to whom I owe a debt of gratitude, and the lessons I learned from them.
Geoff Portass & Bob Keen were behind Image Animation, probably the biggest FX company after Hensons in the UK at the time. Responsible for the Hellraiser movies and Nightbreed, the rollcall of FX artists which started there reads like a Who’s Who of makeup FX.
I wrote to Image several times to get opinions of foam latex I had ran (I actually stapled samples to the letter!), pictures of my makeup efforts and advice on getting into the industry and each time, it was Geoff who wrote back. Bearing in mind, this was before email, he actually read my letters and wrote back with advice each time to this annoying kid. How cool is that?
I have actually had the chance to work with Geoff since, and told him about it – I still have the letters now. He is a singularly lovely man that taught me about the power of helping people out if you can, and how much it matters to those who take the trouble to ask the right questions the right way.
As mentioned before, Nick was instrumental in helping me at a crucial point. I knew what I wanted to do, and I had technical questions. Nick had answers and I learned, as with Geoff, that a little generosity goes a long way.
I also recall later, working on The Mummy & Potter films, how he managed a large crew – a skill I will never have. Knowing the work from the ground up meant that Nick was a great makeup artist, but had gone to another level by now being able to mastermind an entire department. Not just the makeup FX but animatronics, large scale stuff and working with CG etc.
Looking back I am so impressed with how he did it all, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked alongside the best people on some of the biggest films this country has seen.
Animated Extras (Daniel, Nick Williams and Pauline Fowler) gave me my first break in 1994, and Daniel looked through my portfolio at the interview. Still terrifying to this day, anyone with a portfolio of work knows that those pictures usually bare your soul and people looking always makes you a bit nervous.
When working, although not usually directly with Daniel, I did pick up lots of tips and advice. I watched him do a Richard III makeup test on Ian McKellan which – if you haven’t seen it – is a master work of subtlety. He made me understand how to add as much as necessary but as little as possible. Even today, I tell people when painting pieces to match the piece to the skin because the skin is already the right colour – a mindset I attribute to Daniel directly.
The year before, Daniel and the team had done Frankenstein which was nominated for an Academy Award (losing out to Rick Baker for Ed Wood – no small competition!) and there were still lots f De Niro pieces about the workshop. Needles to say I was gratefully examining everything and trying to understand how everything was made.
Daniel made me realise that the makeup isn’t about you and your makeup – it’s about the character and that you do what you need to, and know when to let the character take over. He also taught me that it is better to do what you can with colour, and use appliances as a last resort. Despite making a living by making appliances, I couldn’t agree more.
Watching Pauline sculpt realistic animals and heads was an education, and I saw incredible work by Julian Murray, painting by Marion Appleton and animatronic mechs by Nick Williams and his team. The whole three months was a crash course education in makeup effects for which I got paid and it turned my life around.
I first worked for Neill on a creature movie filmed in The Isle of Man (Breeders, 1996). Neill also has Mortal Combat 2 at the same time, and we also made some armour for that. Then came Saving Private Ryan, and others and I worked for Neill on and off as a freelancer for the next twelve years.
Neill was (and remains) fearless so far as I could tell. I remember him experimenting with various materials for moulds and appliances way back, and he always looked at why things went wrong and never seemed to get rattled like I did by them. He would remain ‘bigger than the problem’, figure it out and try again.
I also learned about how important it is to be creative to a point, and then break it down into tasks and then just do it. Often in makeup FX, it feels like you should agonise continually about something but if you do, it becomes about how you feel rather than the job. And it is a job! So be creative, figure it out and then get on and do it. That is what I learned.
Neill is an amazing sculptor, but he is also incredibly quick. I watched him work, and I came to a conclusion as to how one can become better and quicker – hard work and practice. Knowing him over the years, there is obviously interest and talent, but largely it is about sustained graft and that sets him above most.
To make an analogy, when you learn to speak, you learn first how to make sounds, then you learn words. Gradually you then string sentences together, eventually speaking fluently. You then reach a point when you cease to think about how to speak and focus instead on what you want to say.
This is so with sculpting, painting and other commercial crafts. Being utterly fluent in the hand/eye coordination and how to lay down colours and shapes is crucial and only comes with continued practice. Once you have them down reasonably well, then you can apply it to a brief much more efficiently. As Freeborn would say, ‘Max Factor versus Time Factor’.
David has an impressive range of credits, and heads increasingly large productions, including Captain America, and Thor: The Dark World. He has been working in the industry from the early 80’s (Krull, Lifeforce) and has a great design ethic. What impresses me about David, and which I really enjoy, is that he thinks about the character and effect before thinking about makeup.
There is beautiful mix of logic and creativity, and neither prevents the other from making improvements. I remember making miniscule changes to sculpts at his request, and at the time thinking how unnecessary they were only to realise later how right he was.
He also taught me about how to get value from an effect – that is if you are going to the trouble of sticking a piece of rubber on someone, make it worthwhile. That doesn’t mean make it huge or obvious – but squeeze every last bit of value out of the piece. Really think about what you are adding, and why. That way, you can be certain that everything you have done is truly the best you can do and that little voice whispers away every time I pick up a tool or brush.
So, there is a potted history of my prosthetic lineage. There are others, too many to list here. Martin Rezard sculpts in a way that makes me stare in amazement, the animatronics of Gustav Hoegen and Chris Clarke make me want to buy a lathe. The paint work of Henrik Svensson is incredible and Brian Best has the most incredible mould-making mind I have ever seen.
All of these people are motivated, hard working and damn good at what they do. When I get a chance to find out something new from them, I get that floaty feeling again and I know something good just happened.
So, in conclusion I think it’s great to be interested and inspired but you only get better by doing, failing occasionally, doing again.
If you have any cool stories or recollections about influences, please share them in the comments below or drop me an email. I would love hear what got you fired up.
Thanks, Mr Freeborn for the inspiration. The things you made then made me want to make too, and when I got there I met others who were also inspired by you. Rest in peace.
There is a radio documentary ‘Stuart: A Face Backwards‘ available on BBC iPlayer at the time of writing. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01k2df5