Special effects makeup artist David Willis chats exclusively with F***
By Jedd Jong
Special effects makeup artists: they’re responsible for transforming handsome leading men into hideous beasts, making it look as if someone’s been scalped without hurting a hair on their head and aging up 20-somethings so they look indistinguishable from actual octogenarians. Often as unsung as they are integral to the production, these artists make movie magic happen.
F*** spoke exclusively to David Willis, a special effects makeup artist with nearly 20 years of experience under his belt. David’s handiwork can be seen in films and television shows such as the Matrix trilogy, Star Wars Episodes I and II, Superman Returns, Farscape and the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road.
In addition to working in film and TV, David has done work for advertising campaigns, museums and theme parks and has lectured and given masterclasses around the world. His work has taken him from his native Australia to New Zealand, the United States, Sweden, France, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and China. Those who visited the first two Halloween Horror Nights events at Universal Studios Singapore would have witnessed David’s frightening creations first-hand.
Over coffee, David discussed his childhood turning his sisters into goblins and ghouls, the movie that was “so wrong” it convinced him that this was what he wanted to do for a living and the evolution of special effects makeup techniques and how they can co-exist alongside computer-generated effects work. David also weighed in on the Best Makeup nominees for the 87th Academy Awards, explained the frustrating politics of movie credits, shared what it was like working with A-list celebrities and explained how a certain cephalopod became the bane of his existence for a period.
As a kid, did you have Dick Smith’s Do-It-Yourself Monster Makeup Handbook on your bedside table?
I didn’t, but I had like 50 Fangoria magazines, which also had Dick Smith’s stuff in it. When I started, there was no internet, so it was just the library and the book shop, spending lots of money buying and ordering books in from the U.S. This was way before Amazon, if you wanted to do research on makeup effects, anything to do with creatures or even sculpting, the books are like $110. Fangoria magazine was $24 Australian. Every month, I would be at a place called Comics Kingdom in Sydney, which still exists, and I used to buy all the Cinefex and Fangoria magazines and there was Gorezone, which was really cool. And it just had disgusting blood and guts, that was cool. It had stuff from The Thing, back to the old days it had Dick Smith in it, it had Rick Baker in it, Steve Johnson, it had all the legends of makeup. I did have The Art of Makeup for Film, Television and Theatre and that was the only book I had. It was only 72 pages. This was in the early ‘80s.
Was there a film that you watched growing up that make you decide “I want to become a makeup artist”?
Hellraiser. That was the movie. I watched that when I was 12 years old. Remember, this was the most disgusting movie. It’s scary, it’s a guy with pins in his head. The other movie was A Nightmare on Elm Street. I grew up in the 80s so that’s the slasher time. The other one was The Thing and Alien. I couldn’t watch that until…I watched it when it came on video. I was so spooked. It was so scary. Now I watch it and go [scoffs]. It was so good. I’d say Hellraiser was the #1 film that made me go “I want to do that. It’s so wrong, I want to do that.”
In school, did everyone go to you for help with their Halloween makeup?
Remember in Australia, Halloween is not that popular, but I used to do tricks with my friends, like “Mum, Mum I’ve cut myself!” We didn’t have Halloween, it wasn’t popular, but we still had fun with it. My sisters, I used to turn them into ghouls and goblins with tissue and latex. I used to experiment with very expensive products so every Christmas or birthday, I used to get some sort of makeup effect blood stuff. My mother and father thought I was nuts.
Not the kind of makeup you’d usually associate with sisters!
No. But I would get lipstick and try and do bruises, bit of purple and red. I loved to make model aircraft, planes and trains. I used to be a big train buff; I had this huge train set, it was amazing. I was a nerd. I was a makeup, models and props nerd.
So this is your dream job, what you’re doing right now?
Yeah, I’m doing what I used to do as a hobby.
How did you get your first professional gig?
It’s all about who you know, isn’t it? I was learning makeup. I did work experience, that was like on Babe and also working with some local effects houses and it wasn’t necessarily going in and being paid full-time, it was doing an internship and I was also being a musician, I was cleaning toilets, I was being a waiter, I used to help with an electrician, I had just finished school and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I mean, I knew what I wanted to do, I needed to save money. Makeup is not cheap. Full stop. Opportunity came when some of the effects houses were working on commercials, I actually really started in commercials. That’s through the effects houses where I was first doing internships. Eventually for films, it didn’t come in until I started doing a makeup course in Sydney. It was through that that I got to know the teachers and the teachers were on jobs and you become friends, they like your work and the rest is history. I’d say the first big, known work that I was doing was Farscape. That was with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.
Did you have to communicate a lot with the other departments?
Yes, we were doing stuff where the mould department had to talk to the animatronic department because the animatronic had to fit in the mould before you could cast it. From there, you’ll be talking to the costume tech department because the makeup effects for the big prosthetics has to fit into the costume. The makeup, hair, costume and makeup effects department are all very close. Now, those areas are talking to CG, depending on what the director wants. We don’t really talk to sound and lights and all that stuff, [but] the cinematographer, we do. We want to know the colours he uses.
What have been the major advances in makeup technology from when you first started until now?
I’d say silicone. The different products for making prosthetics, the evolution from a standard prosthetic to a silicone prosthetic to a 3D transfer. A 3D transfer is basically like a makeup tattoo. That was introduced during The Passion of the Christ, which [Christien] Tinsley and Brian Sipe created for the back, when Christ is being whipped. It was just so cool. The enhancements with Photoshop for pre-viz, design, 3D programs such as ZBrush, it’s like sculpting for makeup artists in 3D and I think the makeup effects industry has had to evolve and reinvent itself because we’re competing with CG.
That leads into the next question. What are your attitudes with regards to the use of computer-generated imagery to supplement or altogether replace makeup effects? We’ve seen that used to create aging effects in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
With stuff like Benjamin Button, it was all done [first] in physical makeup. Greg Cannom had done all the makeup effects for the pre-viz designs, he literally laid it all out for the 3D guys and girls. My attitude towards it is that it is a tool that can be used effectively but, like makeup, if it is done in a rush, it can look crappy. Another thing is that when it first came out, everyone was like “wow, this is so amazing.” The novelty of it, it’s already worn off. The general public who have no idea about the technical skills or advancements or whatever about CG and makeup, they know what is good and what is not.
So audiences have becoming more discerning?
Yes, exactly. Just because of the internet, YouTube, they know what they like. At the end of the day, it comes down to the story. Why do you need to put so much CG into something? You sit down to be entertained. As soon as you’re entertained, you start to zone out. It loses its “wow” [factor]. Bad CG automatically makes you go “now I’ve lost it.” The same with makeup. I’ll give you an example: I was watching the first Hobbit. Within 30-40 minutes, I was bored. Not because of the story, but you could tell. You could see all the lace wigs!
Again, with the advancement of technology, it has made our job harder; you’ve got all these high-res cameras. Even with 3D renderings and animation, they have to be in line with the camera work and it’s just so advanced. The cameras which they’re using now, the resolution is so big that your eyes can’t even see it, it’s like a lens you put into space. So when they transfer it back to what we see, you can tell the difference – “okay, they’ve put a lot of money and thought into that” and there’s another production “no, that’s crap”, and there’s another one, they used hardly any makeup effects or any major special effects in terms of visual or spectacle, you go “ah, that’s fantastic!”
At the end of the day, it’s about the story. It’s what our jobs are. It’s to enhance the director’s vision of the story that’s being portrayed. CG forgets that, it always forgets it. But I believe in both, if it’s in service of what the director wants to tell the story. We will not have a makeup effect if we do not believe that it will enhance the story. That’s our job, telling the director or producers “yes” or “no”. CG now is more expensive than practical. Practical is usually better because it’s in-camera, it’s physically there. If you ask me, I like both.
What is the experience like working on big movies, and what are celebrities like in the makeup chair?
Actors in the chair…I’m going to refer to The Matrix on this one. We were doing the life cast of Hugo Weaving, we did all the Agent Smiths. We did 120 Agent Smiths then we did all the masks, so we had an extra 80 people wearing the mask of Agent Smith. Tom Hardy, we did the body cast, when he’s on the truck in the movie [Mad Max: Fury Road], that’s not him, it’s a prop. He’s extremely nice, Hugo Weaving is extremely nice, Laurence Fishburne is awesome; we worked with him. We were walking in the Fox studio and he even came out to acknowledge the talent who works on the film, not just with our department but the other departments. On Star Wars, Natalie Portman, we got to do a couple of things with her which was really nice, she’s lovely.
Paris Hilton’s a bit funny, wouldn’t want to be working with her again [laughs], I don’t think she’ll ever do a movie ever again. That was just a slasher, “kill the celebrity” [movie, House of Wax]. It was awesome. On Wolverine, I worked on the first one, we did [work] with Hugh Jackman – he’s awesome. On Moulin Rouge, we did some stuff with Nicole Kidman, she’s lovely – everybody’s lovely! I’ve actually been very blessed to have very nice talents who respected all the crews, everybody’s just very nice. The only time I’ve heard anyone have a complaint was with Tom Cruise, but I’ve never worked on any of his movies.
I’d say that from Star Wars, Matrix, House of Wax, Superman [Returns], even the Farscape crew, everyone’s been awesome. In terms of how it feels to be on set and what the experience of being on set is, it’s like “go go go go” and then all of a sudden you’re standing around for 5 hours not doing anything. There’s a lot of waiting; it gets very boring. But it does get exciting especially if you’re in the makeup department because that’s where everybody goes. Everybody wants to know what’s happening in the makeup department. That’s where everybody hangs out. It’s really funny, like on the makeup truck, there’s always the ones that are very well-received by the majority of the crew, but are not respected by the directors and producers. We are the first ones on set with the grips and the lighting and we are the last people to go. We’re always there and we’re always around. It’s funny when I’m on there doing makeup because the majority of the makeup people are female and they’ll go “where are the makeup girls?” and I’ll go “ah, I’m not the girl,” because they’re so used to it being all girls.
You just worked on Mad Max: Fury Road. How were you affected by the production delays on that film?
The whole movie shut down for a year. It rained and the whole of the outback of Australia, for the first time in over 150 years, it flowered. They relocated to Namibia, just above South Africa. I didn’t do it because I had a contract with Universal, so I couldn’t go.
I’m originally from Australia and I moved to Los Angeles. From there, I was doing stuff with KNB, just inside the shop, working around inside the workshops and then I came back here, went around the planet, depends on where the job is. At the time, Australia went through a full renaissance with filmmaking because of the dollar. For nearly 12 years, all the movies came to Australia, all the big ones. And then, I was fortunate that I was able to part of that, because I was there. If I wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be where I am [today].
Around the time of Dark City, The Matrix…
Dark City, that was my very first movie. I was 15 years old, being an assistant coffee runner. I was part of the effects atmospherics department. I was still in school, I used to ditch school to go and work on production, calling it work experience. Just being there and seeing how it all works. I mean, it’s completely boring, sitting around waiting between each take, all the set-ups, but it was just fascinating. Then the next movie was The Matrix. I was working for a company called MEG, the Makeup Effects Group, I was still learning. They did the baby in the first Matrix, they did the torso of Keanu Reeves, when that little robot goes in, in the taxi. That was the only thing I did on the first Matrix.
For Matrix 2 and 3, that was a 2 and a half year project, back to back. That was when the Australian dollar was 50 cents to the US dollar, so they doubled the money. I ended up going in there as part of mould shop, part of the art department. Then I got moved to models and props, and then from models and props I moved to the makeup effects department. So it was 2 and a half years in 3 departments which you never, ever, ever get anymore, those days are over. There were some people in there that would be credited for something that they never were in. It would be like “why am I ‘scenic painter’ when I was never even scenic?” I was a “plasterer”. That’s how it works. You’re in the makeup department but you’re in the hair design department, and I was like “what?” Because they didn’t have any more space. Or they run out of money, because every credit costs money. If there’s not enough money for that, then they go “I don’t need that person, I don’t need that person”. Or they shift you to the bottom. It’s like “what am I going to be this time?” It’s always a surprise. Every time we walk out of the theatre, it’s like “huh? Why are you there man?”
That’s a shame, because I think a lot of times, people behind the scenes in special effects or makeup don’t get their due credit.
We get credited within the industry ourselves, because everybody knows, the circle of people, everybody knows who did what, it’s not just one person that did it, there was a team inside that. If we’re not credited on something we were working on, whether it was for 2 weeks or 6 months or a year, [shrugs]. The only time it becomes a real problem is if we really put blood and sweat and tears into the movie, then you just get rejected, not even being acknowledged in the credits, and that’s when we get pissed off, because that’s a real slap in the face.
How many times has that happened to you?
All the time, all the time. On House of Wax, it ended up that ¾ of the makeup department and the wax department weren’t even credited. Only the wax technician, which is my good friend Keith, and some of the KNB boys, which were like 4 [were credited], and then there’s 30 of us. What sucks is that some of the people who were credited were only on there for 2-3 weeks and for us, we were on there for 8 months, working 12 hour days, 7 days a week, the studio burnt down, it was so much fun but at the same time it’s like “hey! Here’s our photo, here we are with everybody on the team, where’s our credit?” So that’s why we don’t care about it. The circle of people in the industry, they know about it.
The general public, they don’t even look at the credits. As soon as it finishes, if you’re not in the intro, no one, I don’t know anybody that sits [through] after the lights go on. It’s very rare. I’ll give you an example: my dad was watching Star Wars II, and then my younger sister went “oh, there’s David’s name” while the credits were still rolling. My Dad went “what?” My Dad didn’t even know. He rang me up, at 3 o’clock in the morning because I’m on Los Angeles time, and goes “I just saw your name in the credits, my God, my son’s in the credits of Star Wars!” and I went “yeah? That was 7 years ago!” But he doesn’t watch those kinds of movies.
What’s the most fun you’ve had on a job?
After-parties! Not so much now, but before, they used to be really, really good. That’s when everybody gets together to say thank you, the directors and the producers all come and hang out and everybody gets drunk and we celebrate the fact that we’ve finished. Long, crazy hours dealing with people’s egos and good friends become enemies, enemies become friends, all within the span of 2-3 months, and then you move on to the next job. It’s not easy, to work in the movie or television industry, the entertainment industry overall, it is a roller-coaster ride. You have to expect the unexpected. If you’re not that inclined or not ready for that, you won’t last 5 minutes. That’s a wild ride.
How do you find that sweet spot for horror makeup to be scary but not over-the-top and make someone say “pfft, that’s just makeup”?
Less is more. That’s an easy question [chuckles]. What happens is people overdo it. A good makeup effect is something that is subtle. You think it’s real, and you go “that’s so real” then you go back and go “oh my god, that’s a prop, that’s a prosthetic”. They’re the ones that win Oscars. It’s not the big, over-the-top makeup effects, aliens, whatever – they don’t win Oscars. It’s the old age or the character makeups. Character makeups are one of the hardest makeups to do. That’s why old age makeups are always seen as the pinnacle of a good makeup artist, because they’re difficult. It’s got to be real.
Everyone knows what an elderly person looks like, nobody knows what an alien looks like.
Exactly. And also diseases, deformities, if there’s some sort of makeup effect that’s been executed well, respect. It’s not just starting from the application of the makeup, it goes all the way back to the beginning, from the life cast, to the sculpting, to the moulding, to the casting, to the painting, and then there’s application. There could be 6 people involved in that whole process right up until that application. That’s why the people who do get the awards, it’s usually the head of makeup who’s there to receive the award. But it is the team. And majority of the time, they thank their team, they say the names and stuff. If they don’t, then they’re a bit arrogant, because they didn’t do it all by themselves.
Speaking of awards, what are your thoughts on the Oscar nominations? They are Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Guardians of the Galaxy. (Since this interview, The Grand Budapest Hotel has won the Oscar)
You know what? Budapest Hotel. It is so good. I watched that recently and it is such a character-driven film. In terms of the Galaxy one, I didn’t even bother going and watching it, I said “this looks like crap”. And the makeups look like stuff from Farscape. My head of makeup department even mentioned “you know what’s funny? Half the characters all look like they’re being copied from Farscape”. The bright colours, there’s the red-green striped…
The Drax. Is he meant to be a paddle pop? It doesn’t work for me and it hasn’t worked for a few makeup artists who have actually gone “you know what? Good movie for kids” but in terms of the makeup, I think “nah”.
Some people have been saying that Maleficent was snubbed this year, what do you think about that film?
Good movie, I liked it. The makeup was great, they’re just transfers. In terms of makeup, there’s nothing fancy about it. In terms of the story and Angelina Jolie, I mean Angelina Jolie’s the one that pulled it off, she’s just got the look for the character. Overall, it’s designed for children. It did have that dark side to it but I’d say overall, the movie did quite well, I enjoyed it. But the makeup? Eh.
Looking through your Facebook page, you’ve done a lot of work in many different media, including stuff for museums. What’s the weirdest assignment you’ve had to accomplish?
[Laughs] Things that are not shown! Yeah, I’ve done some weird stuff. I love doing museum work because you get asked to do an exhibition and it’s land, sea or air creatures, it’s really interesting because it used to exist or it still exists and you can’t put the real thing in the exhibit because it would shrivel up and die. This was just mind-boggling - they wanted a Blue-Ringed Octopus to be put in a glass bottle. I said “how am I going to do that? How am I going to get the damn thing through that hole?” They said “oh, just cut the bottom off and we’ll just stick it back on”. I said “I’ll see what I can do” and it didn’t work. You still see the ring. So I made it out of silicone, but made it really, really like “sproing” [makes stretching gesture]. Then I just poked it in and “bloop!” it worked. But it took me 3 months to figure it out [laughs]. A lot of trial and error and it was always on my bench. It was the first task I was asked to do and it was the last one I finished. Eventually it was just trial and error. The museum lets me experiment a lot more than the films, because you have the time to do it.
How about theme parks?
[Chuckles] I first did makeup for Halloween Horror Nights in Los Angeles, for Universal [Studios theme park]. That was a one-month-of-a-year job and I did it for like 5 years. Then I stopped doing it because I came back to Australia and was doing other projects. It doesn’t necessarily pay a lot of money, but it’s fun, blood and guts!
When I was teaching around the planet, I ended up in Southeast Asia and my ex-girlfriend introduced me to Universal Studios Singapore. I was more or less going “where is that?” because where do you put it?! I thought it was going underground! She told me it was on Sentosa, I’d never heard of it. It had not even officially opened yet. I went in there and saw the makeups that were being done and said “why on earth are they doing this in 40° heat!?” I rang Resorts World and asked for the entertainment clerk and the next day I had an interview and 2 days later, I had a job. It was all just because I was in town.
First, I ended up being the consultant for Universal Studios Singapore, then I ended up being the head of makeup and then getting ready for the first Halloween, so I was the main guy giving them information on what to do, how to do it. There was a designer who’s now living in Norway, he used to work for Universal Studios Orlando. He didn’t end up winning the bid, but he helped with some of the designs. It was the first one, Singapore had never seen a Halloween Horror Nights ever and it was huge.
Working with Universal, it was interesting, definitely a struggle because it’s so difficult to get product. Sometimes it’s like “why are we using this product? We shouldn’t be using a commercial brand, we should be using professional brands.” But that’s a deal that gets done with suppliers. So I was in Singapore for 2 and a half years, I did the opening, then I did Halloween Horror Nights…my role was to help the locals to do the job at Universal, all the foreigners leave, that’s how they start up. Train the locals, “now it’s your turn to take care of it”. I did 2 Halloween Horror Nights. Possibly again for Halloween this year, I don’t know. Then I opened up my own horror park in Manila, Scream Park, which will be reopened again at the end of this year. Theme parks are fun but they’re not a full time [job]. You just go in, have fun, and pull out. I’d rather do productions in TV and film.
What are some of the considerations with regards to doing makeup in Southeast Asia because of the heat and humidity?
Wherever you go, no matter where you are in the world, first thing you need to do is determine what the weather is doing. Then you understand “okay, we’re going to be using a particular product or method to balance out what’s going on with the weather.” Now – humidity hates everything. It’s extremely difficult because you sweat, everybody’s different. When it comes to makeup, especially if it needs to last longer, you need to use less, not more.
Now the industry here and the culture here, it’s very thick where it should be going the other way around. It’s funny because in the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere, it’s quite light. But then the more northern you get, the thicker it gets, maybe it’s due to the cold weather. But when you get to the equator areas around the planet, it’s very thick. I don’t know why! But it’s cultural as well. If you go to Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Cambodia, the history of makeup is more theatrical. It’s an indigenous culture. Even going into China, Japan, it’s more of a theatrical style of makeup, not the typical style of what we see as makeup. That sort of thing transcended over time into normal everyday makeup. Weddings are seen as something that is very theatrical, whereas to western eyes, it’s meant to be very natural. That’s a cultural thing.
The makeup industry has grown so much over the many, many years it’s been around. For me, when I’m here, I’m always asking the makeup artists “what’s the biggest problem?” they say “it’s the heat. The makeup always runs.” I say “why don’t you use…not necessarily a better product, but understand your product. It might not be something that’s superior, it might be something that’s cheaper but lasts longer.” Less is more, but less should have enough pigment such that it stands out, and that’s the point. Does that make sense?
Yes, it does. The last question I’d like to ask is, is there anything you’d like to do personally or professionally that you haven’t done yet?
What I’d like to do are my own productions. I want to do more film, but either if it’s independent or if I’m producing it or co-producing it. I wish I could do more personal projects, but I don’t get time, because personal projects don’t pay the bills. It’s evolved, if you ask me this question next year, it keeps changing. That’s what makeup effects is, it’s constantly evolving. An elderly artist might see their early work and go “oh, that’s crap!” It’s a journey, it’s a personal one. I guess you could say that I want to do everything that I possibly can that I haven’t done, then I want to go back to what I’ve done before and do it again, and revamp it.