As published in F*** Magazine
Special effects makeup artist David Willis chats
exclusively with F***
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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.
been the major advances in makeup technology from when you first started until
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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
[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.
[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.