Conor McCullagh Talks "Face Off," "Hunger Games," and more

By Jamie Ruby

Conor McCullaghTonight Syfy will air the season two finale of the special effects makeup competition, Face Off, and choose a winner. Conor McCullagh, the winner of last year's competition, who appeared on the series earlier in the season, talked to the digital media recently about his time on Face Off and this years competition, as well as some of his other projects, including Vampire Diaires and The Hunger Games.

Syfy Conference Call
Face Off
Conor McCullagh

March 12, 2012
12:30 pm CT

SCIFI VISION: So I was looking up about you and I did not realize how much work you had done before you were on Face Off. There are a lot of big popular shows that you've worked on. What compelled you to try out for Face Off? How did you think it would help you and your career?

Conor McCullaghCONOR McCULLAGH: Well when I first got involved I had no idea what the competition would be like. I didn't know if it was going to be all professionals or what the case was going to be. I was teaching last year in Florida and the ad for auditions came through our school.

And as soon as I saw it I just figured well that's something I could do and I could certainly use 100 Grand.

SCIFI VISION: Yeah. Couldn't everybody? What's been your favorite design so far this season from the contestants?

CONOR McCULLAGH: I would have to say out of everything I've seen I like Rayce's alien character. It was very almost super garish looking and really clean and beautiful.

SCIFI VISION: When you do a design for a project in general how much leeway are you given - artistic creativity, or are you usually given instead told what to do?

CONOR McCULLAGH: It's really situational. You know, sometimes I can walk into a project and the production designer has taken care of everything and they have a clear idea of what they want. And then sometimes they, the production asks me to come up with something.

It really depends on the project and who I'm working with.

QUESTION: You had mentioned that you liked Rayce's alien. If maybe you could choose another couple of designs from this season that you thought were really great, a few runners up.

CONOR McCULLAGH: Oh, let's see. I liked - in the Tim Burtonesque creations I really liked what RJ came up with. I thought - I really, what he created is - with the - with that bell hop I thought that was really a kind of stroke of genius.

Again, I like Rayce's design too, what he did with the mandolin I think it was. With putting the face - melding the face into it and so on.


QUESTION: Can you describe what it was like winning the first season?

CONOR McCULLAGH: Oh look, I mean winning was fantastic. The competition itself was it was stressful. It was being in competition mode from a month straight was not easy. And getting the victory was fantastic. I couldn't have been happier.

In fact it was one of the best - one of the greatest moments of my life.

QUESTION: What was your most defining moment in the competition while you were doing it?

CONOR McCULLAGH: Well I can't say anything was more defining than being given the victory.

QUESTION: You mentioned teaching in Florida. Is that something that you wanted to do to enhance more of what you do with your artistry or was it just something that came along at the time and would you consider going back teaching?

CONOR McCULLAGH: Well to answer the first part of your question, when I was offered the job I was - I had actually been in Georgia for a year working.

I did the first season of Vampire Diaries and then Big Momma's House 3 and a couple of episodes of [The] Walking Dead and I was really just kind of - I was kind of done with Georgia's not my home and I didn't really - it didn't really suit me.

And when I was offered the chance to go to Florida I jumped at it because I really - I have friends in Orlando and I really like it there.

To answer the second part of your question, I mean I'm no longer teaching. I did it for about eight months and I think the only circumstance under which I would go back to teaching is if it were my own school.

QUESTION: What is your favorite aspect of doing makeup artistry? And if they were to redo let's say The Wizard of Oz would you like to be a part of that production?

CONOR McCULLAGH: Well I actually did work on Oz: the Great and Powerful for three months last year. So that's...

QUESTION: Would you like to describe what that was like?

CONOR McCULLAGH: It was incredible. I was right after I - actually right as I was finishing off Hunger Games I contacted Howard Berger who is the Department Head of Prosthetics for the show and Howard Berger has an extended history in the business. He has an Oscar for Narnia.

And he booked me right away. And I really don't think it's fully - I fully took hold of like what was going on until the first day when I got out and actually saw the sets through the monitor and saw Emerald City and Munchkinland. And at that point I was like oh my god, we're making history here.

This is incredible.

QUESTION: Did you read the trilogy by Suzanne Collins or The Hunger Games? And if so, do you think that the magic was captured well for the movie?

CONOR McCULLAGH: I did not read the trilogy. In fact I read the script first and after reading the script Ve Neill told me that there were some differences between the script and the book that were actually - had her a little confused at times because when we're going through makeup designs and so on sometimes she couldn't remember if it was something she read in the book or something she read in the script.

So I avoided the book intentionally.

QUESTION: How does this season compare to your season do you think in terms of difficulty?

CONOR McCULLAGH: Well it's hard to say because I'm not there in the competition. But it does seem like there has been a lot more focus placed on like full body design whether it be the prosthetics or costumes. I noticed there's a lot more full body work this season than last.

And when you're in the shop and you've only got a certain amount of time to create a makeup it's you're stretching yourself as thin as possible when you have to do a complete body like that - the episode where they had the submersible makeup.

I mean that - I would have been freaking out, you know. I wouldn't have known what to do.

QUESTION: Sure. Are there any challenges on this season that you would have particularly enjoyed being in last season that you would have liked to have done?

CONOR McCULLAGH: Well I certainly wanted to do an old age makeup and in retrospect I think my opportunity in the first season would have been when we did the character makeup on ourselves.

And the only reason why I didn't do an old age on myself in that episode was because I was convinced that finals were going to be an old age. So I was kind of saving it.

QUESTION: OhWho are your bets on who will win this season?

CONOR McCULLAGH: Well I do have my favorites but I don't want to take away anything from the three finalists because I think they all deserve to be where they are right now. And as a former contestant I know what it's like to hear people say oh I want to - I want so and so to win.

It's I don't want to take anyone's fire. So I'd like to keep that to myself for now.

QUESTION: Do you know if there's any word on a third season yet?

CONOR McCULLAGH: I don't know what I'm allowed to say about that. But I firmly believe that there is a third season.

SCIFI VISION: Can you talk a bit about working on The Hunger Games, just kind of the whole experience?

CONOR McCULLAGH: Sure. I mean Hunger Games was not a prosthetic heavy film. It was most of it was beauty makeup and they're in the woods most of the time. Just a lot of dirt and grime and so on. But the shoot was not easy.

It was - we were shooting in the mountains of North Carolina in the summertime and it was just hot and humid the entire shoot. And when we got back down to Charlotte for the last month it was even hotter. So it was kind of a difficult shoot in that respect.

We were just kind of - just tired and hot the entire time.

SCIFI VISION: You said how that there was more beauty makeup than anything. What kind of makeup is your favorite? I mean do you prefer prosthetics or just more special effects, or maybe gore and wounds? What's kind of just your overall favorite to do and why?

CONOR McCULLAGH: Well I am - I mean I'm a prosthetic makeup artist by definition. I do beauty makeup. I do I try to do a little bit of everything. I think my favorite types of makeups to do are kind of the creative fantasy or sci-fi type characters.

Gore doesn't really do a whole lot for me. Its gore is a lot of times just making someone look nasty, throwing a lot of blood around and so on and I do it.

But I really like when I'm given a chance to be creative and do something that you haven't seen before.

SCIFI VISION: What's been your favorite project since the beginning that you've worked on?

CONOR McCULLAGH: In my own career?


CONOR McCULLAGH: Wow. That's a really tough one to answer. Favorite makeup I've done. I don't - I really don't - I guess I don't have a favorite because I'm always trying to - every time I do - every time I create a makeup as soon as it's finished I see the problems with it, I see what I could be improving.

I'm looking at what I would do better next time and I did get a chance last year to create some makeups for the International Makeup Artist Tradeshow in Los Angeles and I created three distinctly different characters which I really enjoyed the process.

I wasn't bound by any script or anyone else's direction and I created three makeups - an owl, a pug dog and a sea creature. And I think to date those are probably some of the favorite makeups I've created.

QUESTION: In your opinion what's the best test to challenge the ability and the talent of a VFX artist?

CONOR McCULLAGH: I think the true test is a convincing character or old age makeup. You know, when you do creatures and so on there's a certain amount of suspension of disbelief.

But when you're trying to convince the naked eye that what you're looking at is just another person I think that's the most difficult.

Especially like - especially in old age makeup.

QUESTION: For the season finale is there any particular twist or difference that they did this season compared to the last finale?

CONOR McCULLAGH: Well I don't know what they're doing in this season's finale this year. I I'm - since I'm not part of the show I don't know what they have planned. It's going to be a surprise to me too.

QUESTION: I know they did the challenge where they had the audience vote and I wasn't sure if they did that in your season or not. Did they have like a voting thing?

CONOR McCULLAGH: No. There was no voting, no audience participation.

QUESTION: When you were working on The Hunger Games what was the biggest challenge for you when you [and Ve Neill] were working together in that movie? Was there any specific challenges that you had that you hadn't encountered in your previous work?

CONOR McCULLAGH: Certainly. There were a couple of things I had to do in The Hunger Games which were completely new to me. There's - and it's in the book where the character Peeta is - he's wounded and he ends up blending himself to his surroundings to hide from his opponents.

And that became kind of - I was kind of placed in charge of that where we literally took Josh Hutcherson and blended him into these rocks without any actual prosthetics because he had to be pulled out and he had to look like he did everything with organic materials.

So I actually blended him into the rocks with a combination of a water based clay and airbrush makeup.

QUESTION: With all that you do how do you find balance in your life to do all the things that you do?

CONOR McCULLAGH: Oh, easy. I don't have a personal life.

QUESTION: Don't you want one?

CONOR McCULLAGH: I certainly do. I really - I spent the last - a better part of the last three years living out of a suitcase anywhere the work was whether it was LA, Vancouver, Georgia, Orlando. And that it worked fine. That's - I did what I had to do.

I'm back in North Carolina now and I'm actually - I actually just began pre-production on a feature that's going to be shot here. So for the time being I'm trying to make Charlotte my home again. But that could easily change with the next production.

Whether or not I will have complete stability in my personal life I have no idea.

QUESTION: Do you prefer working on Indie films or do you like the big popcorn blockbusters instead?

CONOR McCULLAGH: Well there are advantages to both. I've always really enjoyed independent filmmaking just because the process is - it's so much more like intimate because I usually deal with the director and producer one-on-one. We talk about the script, we come up with concepts.

And it's much more hands on and it's much more of an individual effort. In contrast, my experience on Oz: the Great and Powerful there were already prosthetic artists on there - on that show. And all the prosthetic pieces were made ahead of time.

All the makeup designs were created ahead of time. So I didn't have really any involvement - I didn't have any say in the look of any of the characters. But having said that it was an amazing experience.

I really enjoyed - it was one of the greatest, most talented group of people I've ever dealt with in my career. And I also made a lot more money. That is one big - that's one big benefit to a big studio picture.

QUESTION: Do you prefer having the makeup done ahead of time personally or do you like doing it as it goes along?

CONOR McCULLAGH: Whenever possible I do like to create makeups myself. I really like to be involved in the process from inception to completion. But that's just not always the case.

QUESTION: As a young kid what were you fascinated about doing this, and what were the standouts for you that you said "Wow, that's really good special effects?"

CONOR McCULLAGH: Oh. Good question. I grew up in the '80s which for special effects makeup artists was really the Golden Age of filmmaking. So it started with Close Encounters. I was - I think I was eight years old when I saw Close - no, I think I was six years old when I saw Close Encounters.

Either way Close Encounters, Star Wars and then later on Poltergeist, The Thing, these were all very influential films to me.

QUESTION: What did you like best about Star Wars and which character was the most captivating to you?

CONOR McCULLAGH: In Star Wars? The first Star Wars movies - well the first one wasn't by today's standards was what's the word I'm looking for here? It's dated. But it was still - I think it was the whole - it was the big picture back then. I didn't know - I was a child, I didn't know good makeup from bad makeup.

Later on in the series there was - like in the third installment I really liked that lobster guy and there was Jabba the Hutt and so on and then any one of his Cantina characters.

And actually going back of course the Cantina scene in the first Star Wars even though there wasn't one particular makeup that really stood out, just seeing that bar room full of aliens from different planets, none of us had ever seen that before.

And as a kid that was just the most amazing thing I'd ever seen in my life.

QUESTION: When you're under pressure applying the makeup and creating, are you more Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader? Truth?

CONOR McCULLAGH: Luke Skywalker.

QUESTION: Good answer.

CONOR McCULLAGH: I pride myself in not cracking under pressure.

SCIFI VISION: You talked about how old age makeup is really hard and everything, but do you have a specific, whether it is old age or not, but a specific character that you can remember doing that gave you the most problems, was the most challenging?

CONOR McCULLAGH: I think some of the biggest challenges I've had have been more along the lines of makeup on set where you're - there's some kind of rigging or performing or articulation involved that's in - something that can easily go wrong or break down or if not operated correctly or stumbled upon can be destroyed in an instant once you're on set.

The effect heavy films like Freddy vs. Jason and a movie I did called Bones which was very much - very kind of Freddy Krugeresque but with Snoop Dogg as the lead character.

There was a lot of stuff in those films where there was just so much that was unpredictable and so much that had to - we had to kind of MacGyver out on set and figure out solutions to problems that just weren't foreseeable when we were in the shop building everything.

SCIFI VISION: What are your favorite and least favorite materials to work with, or do you kind of just do it all and it doesn't matter?

Conor McCullagh, Ve Neill, and McKenzie WestmoreCONOR McCULLAGH: No. I definitely have favorites with everyone pushing the envelope these days in terms of quality and believability. The advent of HD technology and all has really placed a demand on us to make everything more and more realistic.

I'm a big fan of the silicone prosthetics now which are relatively new to our industry. For decades it was foam latex. And foam latex is still a staple in our business and it's still used for a lot of character makeups and zombies and so on.

But again when it comes to photo realistic makeup silicone prosthetics are just - when done right are just amazing.

SCIFI VISION: And looking back for a moment could you talk about what work you did on Vampire Diaries? I'm curious.

CONOR McCULLAGH: Well on Vampire Diaries I was in charge, essentially, of the vampire look - the fangs, the bite wounds and sometimes the airbrush makeups and so on, on the vampires.

Unfortunately later on in the show they switched over to digital vamping because it was just - it was a time saver and a money saver on set. So ultimately my responsibilities were mostly the bite wounds and the fangs and then occasionally there were some prosthetics.

And otherwise I was backing up the beauty department and the straight makeup department in just making sure everyone looked good.

SCIFI VISION: It still sounds like a lot of fun. Now, you mentioned that you're working on something now. Can you talk about that or any other future projects?

CONOR McCULLAGH: Well I just began pre-production on a film in Wilmington. It's a Lionsgate production called Jezebel. And I don't think I'm really at liberty to go into detail right now. But it's a small kind of horror fantasy type picture.

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