How to Become a Special Effects Makeup Artist
In the creative arts, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more interesting and varied career than special effects makeup artist. Working in diverse mediums, from film, television, to theatre, you’ll utilize your skills as an artist to create realistic and surrealistic models and monsters. We sat down with Eric Zapata to learn more about what it takes to make it in the industry, and the rewards of working on your first film.
Eric Zapata grew up loving art, and knew right away after trying makeup FX that he had found his lifelong career. He did everything he could to learn more, from making molds in his garage to attending the Tom Savini school. Following his graduation, Eric landed a job at Precinct 13 working with Bob Kurtzman. A contestant on SyFy’s Face Off, Eric has worked on films including John Dies in the End.
What skills and qualifications do you need to succeed in the special effect makeup business?
Really the most basic skills in art—a really great understanding of human anatomy, basic sculpting techniques, and painting color theory. All the most basic forms of any art field is a fantastic tool. They are priceless tools to have as far as being in any kind of industry, but in film industry especially. You use them every day, no matter what you’re doing. We’re always painting, sculpting and drawing, and coming up with conceptual designs—you use them every single day.
There were times when I would start a project I couldn’t finish. I didn’t start by learning those basic things. I had to go back and learn them because I was a little too over my head. Eventually I went back and learned anatomy and color theory, and those are the things that help you become a better problem solver. Problem solving is 90% of the jobs. So just learning those basic things is the best you can do as an artist in general.
How did you get started as a special effects makeup artist? What inspired the career choice?
I got started doing special effects makeup on my own, actually. In middle school and high school I would just make things. I’ve always been an artist, and my parents saw that in me and always nurtured it. So I was always drawing, painting or doing stuff like that.
I’ve always loved movies, too. One of my first jobs was in a movie store. One of the last surviving mom-and-pop video stores. I would watch movies over and over again and would get paid to watch movies, which was a lot of fun. I would watch the behind the scenes features and special effects and how they would come together. Then I realized it was a field, an actual career I could get into: creating art for film.
Ever since I found that out, it was my goal to do it. Eventually I signed up for a school in Pennsylvania, it was called Tom Savini’s Special Make-Up Program, because I found out there was schooling for such a field. As soon as I signed up for that I moved away after graduating high school and it was all kind of history after that.
What advice could you offer someone interested in the field to start a career?
Make sure it is something you’re in love with, and that you will do anything to keep doing. It can get pretty stressful at times, and it’s very challenging to keep your head down and keep going. Even though it’s a very specialized field, it’s a very competitive one as well. It’s really difficult for some artists to see what other artists are doing and want to keep doing it because there are so many talented people out there.
Art is one of those fields where you don’t do it for the money, you do it because you have a passion to do it. And if that passion isn’t there, there’s no reason to do it, so make sure you love it before you start.
Where do the ideas for your own designs come from?
Ideas from my own designs come from being inspired from other artists. A lot of things I’m working on now are inspired by a makeup artist named Rob Bottin. He doesn’t do special effects anymore, but he used to. He did movies like The Thing and worked with another artist named Greg Cannom. Greg Cannom became famous doing special effects for old-age makeups. Really, my art comes from looking up to other artists and trying to recreate what they do. In doing that, I’ve really come to find my own voice and my own style. And I realized it isn’t about recreating what they do—it’s about creating my own art.
How would you compare the special effects makeup industry from when you started to today, and what do you think it will be in the future?
Well, really, it hasn’t changed a whole lot since I started. I’ve been doing it for about six years now—four of those years have been professionally. It’s been pretty steady. A lot of what people need, at least in my field now in Austin, Texas, are special effects for horror-based films. They need a lot of gore, blood, and guts and stuff, and that’s all great, but my passion is creating characters, prosthetics, and makeup. So I know how to do the gore and I’ll do it for a nice paycheck.
However, that really isn’t where my heart or passion lies. I do more of the character-based things, prosthetics like sculpting, molding, creating the actual prosthetics from latex and silicone. I did it a lot on the show, Face Off, I was a featured contestant on for two seasons, for the SyFy channel. That’s really where I got my bearings. I was like, okay, what am I here to do, what is my forte in this industry? And it really is sculpting and creating characters.
The film industry in LA loves special effect makeup, and they’re trying to bring it back to film. Lately, a lot of what we see is CGI, digital characters, things that aren’t real or in the frame, and a lot of filmmakers are trying to bring that back. What’s happening is producers and production houses, no matter how many practical effects they end up putting in or filming for the movie, the actual production houses will take all of the effects back out of the film and replace them all with CG effects. They think that’s what audiences want to see, and it’s kind of a sad thing, because there’s a lot of brilliant work but it’s not being seen.
That’s where the industry is changing right now. There wasn’t any makeup or practical effects made for film, they were just skipping over that in general, just putting digital effects in. Now they’re getting those things made and the artists are getting work, but it’s still, at the end of the day, not ending up in the film. That’s a problem, too. It’s great to be paid to do your art and all, but artists really want exposure, they want their art to be seen and to have people appreciate it. That’s still not quite happening like back in the day, back in the 80s and early 90s when makeup effect artists were kind of rock stars.
Now with shows like Face Off, and with more directors wanting to put more practical effects in films, like JJ Abrams—there’s a big rumor he’s putting more practical effects in the new Star Wars and kind of removing that CG feel—there’s a big renaissance, and a lot of us feel audiences are fighting to see that again. That’s really what made film fans fall in love with those kinds of movies to begin with. That feeling that they can exist, these worlds, even though they’re fantasy—they exist in real life because they see something real on the screen, and that had been taken away for a while.
Do you think a lot of that has to do with people of our generation growing up, watching movies like the Thing, then seeing Star Wars Episode One, how quickly that was dated, and now being the ones who are making those decisions?
Oh yeah, absolutely, I would say that’s a big factor. The people who grew up loving and admiring those movies are the making films now. I know the great director Guillermo del Toro, he’s one of those guys who loves monsters, loves fantasy, loves all those things.
Movies capture our imagination, and we naturally go towards film as a way to get away from our lives, to go to other worlds and believe these other worlds can exist. When movies were saturated with CGI it didn’t feel like those worlds were real. No matter how many great actors you had in it, no matter the writing, it just didn’t feel real enough. Guillermo del Toro and JJ Abrams, they’re the kind of guys who I think caught on to that, and no matter what the big studio was buying, trying to cram as much CGI in there, they were the guys who were like, “no, that’s not what film is about, and we’re going to make it what it used to be again.” Absolutely that is a big factor.
It’s always surprising; you get Avatar, almost entirely CGI, and how quickly that movie looked dated. But then you get Blade Runner, which uses scale models, and most of those you can’t even tell what’s real and what’s not.
Oh yeah, you can definitely tell from the first batch of the Lord of The Ring films and The Hobbit, it’s day and night. The Hobbit is a lot of CGI. The old Lord of The Rings films, there was a pretty good amount of CGI in those as well, but Peter Jackson still had a lot of say over whether there was real work or CGI. If you look at them side by side, they’re day and night. It’s because those studios, they’re the real reason the movie is being made, and they get the real say at the end of the day, no matter how creative and awesome the director. Sometimes they’re the ones, studios, that say, “that’s great, you made a really fun and creative movie, but we want to make our money back and people want to see 3D Creature Features.” They just put in what they think people want to see and it just so happens they’re wrong most of the time.
What’s the longest you’ve spent applying prosthetics or makeup to a person, and what’s the average time required to finish a job?
Well, to create the piece, a general character makeup can take up to 2-3 weeks to design. And when it is time to apply, it can take anywhere from 3-6 hours to have it done correctly.
You mentioned Face Off earlier. Do you feel you gained an educational experience from your time on the show?
Absolutely. One of the great things about the show, actually, I saw it as a big play date. A lot of people saw it as “I’m going to win this competition.” That would have been great to win and all, but I was one of the youngest guys there. When I stepped in and saw the competition, I just told myself I was going to have a blast and do the best that I could. And use the materials to my advantage.
Really, we’re just let loose in a big playground to do whatever we want, and that was extremely educational. I got to use materials I’ve never used before, and I got to use them in situations I would probably never use them in again. The time crunch we have is an incredible one, and we’re doing some really fantastic characters in no time whatsoever. So I learned a lot about the way I pace myself as an artist, how creative I can be under pressure, and used new materials I’ve never used before.
Has the show at all affected your career success?
Absolutely, yes. I always tell people most artists just want exposure, and that was the best way to get my foot in the door. It was the best calling card I could ask for to show people. I’m here, whether it’s in Austin or somewhere else, if I’m around and you hear my name, this is what I do. Give me a call. It helps greatly. I do a lot of conventions now and hand out my cards, some of them are trade shows, some are comic-cons. Work has picked up exponentially since the show.
Let’s say someone in film, television, and theatre wants to book you on the same day. Which are you more likely to commit to?
That’s a good one; let me think. I would have to say film, because film is where my love for this began. There was a film I worked on not that long ago called John Dies at the End, I worked in a shop in Ohio at the time so I was a part of a very large team. When I got to see the premiere of it at South by Southwest, and when the credits rolled up and I saw my name, I got a little emotional. It was the first time I had seen my name on a credits roll. There is nothing else that can bring that feeling back other than working on a movie, being on a movie set and seeing your name in the credits like that.
Looking back on your past projects, which of them stands out to you as being a particular favorite?
I just mentioned it, but I would have to say John Dies at The End, which is a movie based on a book that came out not very long ago. Paul Giamatti helped produced the film. I only got to work in the shop to bring to life some of the creatures. There’s a creature made of meat in the movie who comes together. He’s made from pieces of frozen meat. I got to work on the team who made that character and it was a lot of fun.
I worked on another music video not that long ago for a band in Las Vegas. Our production company here did a music video for her and they gave us full range over what we wanted to do. We gave them a basic idea; this is what we want to do, a creature and this and that. We wanted to do a creature because we haven’t done one in a while. And they let us roll with it, so we got to design our own creatures. There were hardly any limitations over what we could do. The band just trusted us completely. We had a lot of fun with that one. We made a really cool monster.