Georgia's Make-Up Effects Artists
Monsters are a great motivator. Generations of movie and comic book monsters have inspired kids to build their own creatures, mold scary masks and devise blood and gore designed to still the hearts of mothers everywhere. Who knew that the rudimentary props, prosthetics and makeup skills they acquired in childhood would lead these Atlanta-based make-up effects artists to successful careers on screens big and small?
Kurtzman Opens Atlanta Studio
Robert Kurtzman, the renowned make-up effects and creature designer who heads Robert Kurtzman MUFX, LLC in Atlanta and Santa Fe, has worked in the field since the age of 19. He grew up in Ohio drawing, sketching and painting; was an avid reader of Famous Monsters of Filmland and Fangoria magazines, and followed the careers of movie monster-makers.
“I was amazed by the old-timers but didn’t even think of creating make-up as a career,” he says. He tried art college for a year then dropped out and moved to L.A. to pursue monster making. He enrolled in a 12-week course at make-up maven Joe Blasco’s studio where he learned the basics of corrective make-up then landed a job at Mechanical and Makeup Imageries (M.M.I.), “a great learning ground” that enabled him to work on half a dozen low budget films a year.
Kurtzman freelanced for a number of years and met his future partners, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, with whom he founded KNB EFX Group Inc. in 1988. One of the most prolific effects studios in Hollywood, KNB has hundreds of feature and television credits, including numerous films with Quentin Tarantino and Wes Craven. Kurtzman left in 2003 to direct and offered special make-up and creature effects through Robert Kurtzman’s Creature Corps in Ohio. He launched Robert Kurtzman MUFX in Atlanta two years ago.
“I’ve been doing this for 35 years, and I’m still learning,” he says. “What excites me are the filmmakers, the projects, the characters and their different looks. Straight up gore is the most boring thing to do: How many times can you see a head pulled off? But what’s exciting is creating an aging makeup or an unusual character with prosthetics.”
Some of Kurtzman’s most challenging work was for season one of The Haunting of Hill House, the Netflix series loosely based on the iconic Shirley Jackson ghost story, which has been filmed a number of times (KNB worked on the 1999 Liam Neeson version). The series debuted last fall.
“The scope of the project was challenging: ten episodes over a nine-month shoot in Georgia. It was scheduled like a ten-hour movie with the same director throughout.”
“The scope of the project was challenging: ten episodes over a nine month shoot in Georgia. It was scheduled like a ten-hour movie with the same director throughout,” he reports. “There were a variety of characters with age make-up and prosthetics; there was even a nine-foot- tall character. It was shot 4K so all the make-up had to be cleaner and more precise, although almost every make-up product is created for HD now and has to hold up to scrutiny. The show was one of the most well received ever on Netflix; fans really liked it. The fact that it was more of a family drama with scary images made it very endearing.”
The now-classic 1996 Dusk Till Dawn, directed by Robert Rodriguez with a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino based on a story by Kurtzman, was also a challenge for “the sheer amount of work. We did everything but the kitchen sink and had ten times more planned,” Kurtzman recalls. “It was at a time when digital effects were just starting to come out, and the physical elements and digital VFX were not blending well."
“At first, us physical effects guys didn’t want anything to do with digital,” he notes. “But when I was directing I had to learn what could best be done practically and digitally. Once I started doing digital, I embraced it. You don’t want to overuse one or the other; you want them to blend perfectly.”
Over the last decade Kurtzman and his colleagues in the industry have seen tools and techniques evolve and change. “The advances in silicone products have been great,” he reports. “We make our own silicone appliances and ProsAide transfers” to apply to the skin to simulate lacerations and scars. “Sometimes we CyberScan a body and mill out body forms to build costumes. And we work with 3D printing houses on prototypes to demo to producers.” Greasepaint has also been phased out in favor of alcohol-based make-up, which “holds up twice as long” and looks better when captured by high resolution cameras, he notes.
Kurtzman’s recent feature film credits include Kevin Smith’s Jay & Silent Bob Reboot, shot in New Orleans, and Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep and the science fiction pilot (Future) Cult Classic, both shot in Georgia. “My crew here has been great,” he says. “People willing to put in the effort and work hard will always find jobs in this business. But you have to eat and sleep this stuff. You have to continue to improve your portfolio.”
Johnson Goes Non- Stop at Lone Wolf
Bill Johnson, owner of Lone Wolf Effects in Lawrenceville, made Super 8 movies, crafted miniatures, worked on student projects at the University of Georgia and took a job in an art store in his run up to a career in make-up effects. He took the Dick Smith mail order make-up course and got his first professional break in 1987 creating “blood and gore” make-up effects on Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers and Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland, which filmed back-to-back in Georgia.
Film work picked up in the 1990s with Johnson earning credits for RoboCop 3, Freejack, Pet Sematary Two and The Patriot, among others. With the new century and increased production incentives in Georgia, Johnson is working steadily with a regular crew. “It’s pretty much non-stop now,” he reports.
Johnson has been make-up effects department head for Ozark’s three seasons creating prop bodies, gore effects and prop animals. He has worked on Stranger Things as a makeup effects supplier and recently as make-up effects designer/department head on The Outsider, the Stephen King miniseries that airs next year on HBO.
Currently, Johnson coordinates with make-up department head Travis Pates on Doom Patrol, which debuted last February on the DC UNIVERSE streaming platform. Season two begins in November with the superhero series returning to DC UNIVERSE and launching on HBO Max.
“It's odd to say, but we did a very pretty scar make-up for Matt Bomer's Negative Man character. It's a challenge to make something that's normally horrific actually beautiful in its own way.”
“It’s not easy but real creative and lots of fun,” says Johnson of the series, which shoots in Conyers. “It’s odd to say but we did a very pretty scar make-up for Matt Bomer’s Negative Man character. It’s a challenge to make something that’s normally horrific actually beautiful in its own way. Travis wanted a crystal skull look with purple marbling but painting to make something glassy looking is tricky. So, I created a tattoo with a purple marbled look, laid it over clear pieces and airbrushed and painted over them to get an iridescence.”
Johnson also created more than two dozen prosthetics for Negative Man’s full-body burn make-up. He’s worked on most of the show’s characters, including Crazy Jane’s more extreme multiple personalities.
With the advent of HD and UHD camera capture, new materials and techniques are employed “to make sure what we do works with that kind of clarity of image,” Johnson explains. The application of new silicone products creates seamless prosthetics, and spattering techniques done with a specialty airbrush add realism.
Johnson also uses digital tools like Adobe Photoshop and Pixologic’s Zbrush. “I’ll take a photo of an actor and create a bruise in the computer, do an overlay and show the director what it looks like before I create a tattoo that looks exactly the same,” he explains. “As the bruise progressively heals I can change its shape and color. I did this with a character on The Outsider.”
Johnson still enjoys designing, sculpting and painting in his shop. He encourages his crew members to “gravitate to their strong suits” but also “learn all the other areas until you’re proficient in them.”
While 13 seasons of the science fiction series Face Off “sparked a lot of interest in make-up effects and helped sell the resurgence of practical effects,” Johnson wonders if the field is overrun at the moment. “I would never discourage anyone from following their passion, but in terms of creating make-up effects you can learn the techniques end of things, but you have to have an artistic background too.”
Morton's Silver Scream Makes Noise
Shane Morton, owner of Atlanta’s artists collective Silver Scream FX LAB, has been doing special effects for 25 years with make-up effects a big part of his repertoire.
Watching the original King Kong on this third birthday “blew my baby mind. I wanted to make monsters!” he reveals (Morton got to meet King Kong’s Ray Harryhausen years later when the master monster-maker complimented Morton’s work.) He qualified for enrichment classes in school where he saw many classic films, attended the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) on a full scholarship, then got into music and touring for a decade. He had been doing Halloween and haunted house make-up when Rob Zombie, with whom he’d toured, asked him to do the hair, wardrobe and make-up for the extras in Halloween II (2009). For one scene “my team of eight did 275 make-ups in under four hours,” he recalls.
After focusing on making monsters full time, Morton landed the Adult Swim series, Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell, serving as the art director of Hell and supplying special effects and make-up. The show is shot in Georgia; season four debuted last spring.
“That show helped catapult me. Since I’m in on the design I’m able to give it my personal sort of wacky, low-brow, rock ’n roll look, the kind of thing that inspired me as a kid,” Morton explains. “While I’m known for gross stuff…I’ve done so many decapitations and eye gougings…I really prefer more silly and fun stuff.” He notes that, “quite a few shows have challenges. Even if you have time to do test make-up, the conditions may be different on the set.” For an episode of Your Pretty Face Morton found himself “doing make-up change-ups hanging on the side of a mountain: The character had fallen into a crevice. It took 30 minutes to climb up to the location, and there was no electricity to power the airbrush I needed to give a cartoon look. So, I had to fake an airbrushed look without the tool.”
"While I'm known for gross stuff I've done so many decapitations and eye gougings,
I really prefer more silly and fun stuff”
Morton is now charged with creating “live in-camera people disintegration effects” for the show. He’s employing “all kinds of stage magic ideas” using “make-up effects with digital effects applied to it for a Pepper’s ghost type of solution.” Using “digital VFX on top of make-up to arrive at the best solution is an exciting thing,” he says. A few years ago, a Starbenders music video required a nose removal and mouth enlargement for an alien character. Morton “painted the real nose blue so it could be removed in post; then we scanned a nose we made. They applied it to the face and removed it digitally. The mouth enlargement was done digitally too.”
Morton is proud of his 20,000-square foot FX LAB where he not only works but also offers make-up classes for kids and adults “based on the Dick Smith monster manual method. We keep the classes to 13-16 people, and they accomplish a surprisingly nice zombie, werewolf or swamp thing make-up by the end of the day. We want to branch out and do more.”
Morton praises Atlanta’s “great horror community of creative artists” whose principles of “solidarity and inclusion make the horror scene here better and stronger.” Morton’s Live Silver Scream Spook Show has been running almost 15 years bringing artists and fans together to share their mutual love for monsters.
Diversity Keeps Freitas Busy
Andre Freitas opened AFX Studios Inc. in Marietta in 1991 and credits the diversity of his special effects offerings and the markets he serves with his longevity. As he describes it “old age, trauma, creatures, fake animals, unique characters and surreal images are part of our day-to-day operations.”
As a kid growing up in a creative household, Freitas liked to watch and draw superheroes and monsters. In the days before the Internet, a fellow high school student showed him his collection of masks and horror magazines and the rudimentary special effects he was trying to do. “It was so cool; it was what I wanted to do,” he recalls. Freitas saved his money to buy kits and materials, but school art classes were not accepting of his work and “nobody saw this as a career path.”
A trip to Washington, D.C. and a Smithsonian introduction landed the teenager a coveted four-month apprenticeship in the museum’s office of exhibits based on the impressive portfolio of creatures he’d built in his bedroom. When the apprenticeship ended he visited a friend in L.A., and on his third day in town, he was hired by noted makeup effects artist Michael Burnett. That experience “showed me how to turn out high-quality work fast to meet movie schedules,” Freitas says.
Back home he enrolled at Georgia State, was awarded prop work on Pet Sematary Two and got his own studio space. He won sculpture commissions and did his first make-up effects for the film, Kalifornia, creating “blood-pumping murder molds of Brad Pitt and David Duchovny.” Freitas gained more credits for Stephen King’s Thinner and for Space Truckers.
He diversified with work for pro wrestling and Ringling Bros. Then, film and TV returned to Georgia with Zombieland and Teen Wolf, and he was back working on productions. Freitas supplied prosthetics for the Crossbones character in Captain America: Civil War and applied The Vision’s make-up effects for actor Paul Bettany. He re teamed with the actor in Avengers: Infinity War.
He’s particularly proud of his work on the Georgia-lensed Tonya Harding film, I, Tonya. He applied star Margot Robbie’s older looks as well as aging make-up for Oscar-winner Allison Janney, who played Harding’s mother. “I think the realism of the make-up helped with her character development,” Freitas says.
Freitas is now lead special effects make-up artist on the Zombieland: Double Tap sequel. He did Marlon Wayans’s Netflix movie, Sextuplets, and he created a full mummy body and a narwhal that impaled Bruce Campbell for the AMC series, Lodge 49. This year he has provided prosthetics design and manufacture for Harriet, the Harriet Tubman biopic, and the upcoming Underground Railroad series for Amazon.
New technologies such as ProsAide transfers and directs mold transfers as well as gel-filled silicone appliances help reduce build times and meet the faster turnarounds required today, he points out. Freitas collaborates with make-up effects artists whom he followed growing up with on a daily basis. “That they have become good friends and colleagues is a dream come true,” he says..
Greg Solomon and his wife Sandra, who moved to Georgia in 2016, have just launched FXetc in Carrollton, a school specializing in the art of make-up effects. Solomon did makeup for community theater for two decades, went to cosmetology and makeup schools in L.A. with the goal of working on movies and television, and plied his trade in town creating prosthetics and make-up effects. His first feature, Alien Nation (1987), found him building a burned alien skeleton for Stan Winston Studios.
Although he recently did make-up effects for the film Reckoning, which shot in Georgia, Solomon is phasing out his on-set work and focusing more on his school. “I want to share my knowledge with the next generation of makeup artists,” he says. “FXetc will start by offering make-up classes for people of all ages and experiences; some established artists who do beauty work want to learn make-up effects, too. Next year we plan to add effects shop classes.”
While some colleges in Georgia offer makeup training as part of their film and television curriculum, FXetc may be the state’s only full-time school dedicated to make-up effects. “Students aren’t taught at this level in university courses,” Solomon notes. “A lot of them are very interested in learning more.”
FXetc takes students on a deep dive into wounds and injuries, aging make-up, tattoos, facial hair, bald caps, airbrushing and blood effects. Lab skills will include lifecasting, sculpting, mold making, casting silicone appliances, and pre-painting and airbrushing large pieces.
Different types of silicone and their applications have been developed, too, including “platinum-based silicone that’s 100 percent safe for skin,” he notes. Solomon has his own formula for creating flaky, shedding skin, which he used on aliens in the 1999 TV series Roswell.
“A lot of new materials and techniques have been introduced,” says Solomon. “People doing beauty make-up may not know about the alcohol-based makeup palettes used in the effects world. And there are a lot of things we can do right in the trailer now. For example, I created a 3D transfer for a scar on 50 Cent’s chin for the movie Den of Thieves right there in the make-up trailer.”