Interview by Jamie RubyWritten by Jamie Ruby
Syfy's reality series Face Off
, which is now in its second season, is a competition between the country's best rising special effects makeup artists. Each episode features Foundation and Spotlight challenges to test their abilities in a variety of techniques, from prosthetics to body painting and more.
The series is judged by three professionals in the field of practical effects, including Glenn Hetrick, Ve Neill, and Patrick Tatopoulos.
Industry veteran and owner of Optic Never Studios, Glenn Hetrick, does not only judge on Face Off
, but he is also a special makeup effects artist and expert in his field. He has worked on television series such as The X-Files
, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
, CSI: NY
, and Heroes
, and films such as Blade II
, and more recently Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
, and the upcoming film, The Hunger Games
. Hetrick has also worked to design costumes and custom props for Lady Gaga.
Hetrick recently sat down with Jamie Ruby of SciFi Vision to discuss not only his work on Syfy's Face Off
, but also his own impressive body of work.
Hetrick's favorite work from contestants during Face Off
came from last year's season finale. "I was really fond of the finale episode. I really liked Conor, Tate, and Gage's work in the finale last year. That's probably my favorite stuff so far."
When he's not judging, Hetrick is working with the members of his studio to create creatures and effects for work of his own. When it comes to the process, he is involved in all aspects. "I do everything...I started as an artist, but as you start supervising shows, you find one of the most important things: [you can] build the best effect in the world, but if it's not exactly what they want, and if that idea was not communicated properly in a production meeting, it's not what's going to fit into the shot selection and it's absolutely useless.
"So the first step is breaking down the script, and then basically directing all of the effects scenes in my head in multiple different ways.
"Then I go into the meeting. What I do is I employ a common visual language with the directors and the producers and writers to discuss these effects as they're written on the page. Because makeup effects are extremely complex, they don't really fit into a script, because a script has to be a page per minute. The amount of words that are necessitated by a screenplay format don't allow for big description of the makeup effect sequences usually.
"So what you find, is you get into a room and everyone thinks that they're on the same page creatively in terms of what they want to see, but what you find out when you open the discussion up, is the director has one idea, the writer has another idea, and the producers have a third idea. And this is very dangerous if you do not synthesize their vision and help them to get to a place where they're agreeing. I'll make whatever it is you want, but you have to get on the same page as to what that one thing is. In physical reality it will be one thing.
"What you end up doing is, if you don't make that step well, you produce something that maybe the director's happy with but the producers and the writers aren't. All of these people are potentially future clients, so you have to try to synthesize their vision, get them to agree on one thing, and then decide how that one thing is going to be shot...
"So if you have an effect that's all over the geography of a performer's body, is that a fake body or is it a series of prosthetics and then insert shots of just the arm? There are so many different ways to shoot it. That's what dictates the budget, because that dictates essentially how much life casting, sculpting, and molding go into creating the piece.
"So I'll do all of that with them - come up with the budget, give them options, figure out what's green lighted, and then take all of that information in a very succinct, detailed manner."
Hetrick then shares that knowledge with his crew. "I have to go back into the shop and work with my crew to explain every single aspect of every single effect. Then we sculpt and mold and paint every thing in the shop and we go to set with it.
"I do as much of it as I can. Sometimes, I sculpt stuff, sometimes I have other sculptors come in and sculpt things for me. I often paint everything myself.
"Then as far as application goes, I generally go and do the first few times of a makeup gag. If it's going to play twenty times, I'll do the first two or three until it's completely figured out and flowing smoothly, then I'll move on to building whatever the next thing is. And I'm often working on multiple projects at once. So in any give day, I might be applying in the morning, and then I'm back at the shop conceptually designing the shot selection for the effects on a different show."
Most of the time when Hetrick is hired, those running the show already have an idea what kind of creature of effect they want for the project. "It really depends on the director. There's a wide range of skill sets when it comes to that. Some directors are really super detailed about what they want in the makeup effects. Other makeup directors are a little less technical when it comes to those aspects and they're a little bit more into the actor performance and the lighting and so they'll say, "I know that our scene and our storytelling necessitates this occurs, but we'll leave it up to you. You tell us how you'd do this."
"And so a lot of times that's the process, they kind of just let you figure out how you want to do it, and you give them options and they pick based on budget, time, and what they want to do."
Hetrick does not only create creatures and special makeup effects. He also sometimes creates costumes and props, though not as often. "That's fairly rare. I mean I think, back in the day if you will, it was more common for effects houses to do custom props, but it just depends on the client. Sometimes you'll get a show and you build the creature and they'll be like, "Won't you do everything?"...Then sometimes we'll get something where we'll do one element and someone else does the other. It really just depends on who the client is already working with, and what aspects they need us to build, but it's mainly prosthetics and creature effects."
One such rare opportunity was creating costumes and props for Grammy award-winning artist Lady Gaga. "When I was first introduced to her, her art director I think it was at the time, came to me and explained that they wanted some sort of techno futuristic armor built for her, and that we were going to do different versions of it for different performances.
"We had this long meeting in my office and he told me who the artist was, and I'd never heard of her. And he sort of went, very assuredly, "It's okay, no one has yet, but she's about to get huge." Now that's something you hear in the industry a lot, and often it's a pitch, like "Hey do this for me, because..." and that's not where they were at all. They were just saying, "We're here, we want these designs done, we've got the budget to do it." And it was really freaky for us, because she wasn't on the map yet, and we started building this stuff, and by the time we completed the armor, she had the number one song in the world. So it was like we were right there when that happened, which is very exciting.
"We built her several suits of this armor. We did an all black metallic version of it, we did a clear see-through version of it, we did a really cool sort of china teacup version where even though it was sort of a roboty looking future armor, it was white with this sort of blue flowering all over it like china has, and each one had like a very avant-garde type of hat that went with it, and for each set of armor it was different.
"Then not long after that, the next thing we built was her disco stick. She had a metal one and the one that she uses now is this sort of this crystal looking thing with internal lighting. So we built her iconic disco stick for her, and then we also got into building her custom instruments.
"So a lot of things you see, for instance, she has multiple versions of this really giant, almost M.C. Escheresque, it's a pyramid that has a keyboard built into it, so it's like a keytar pyramid thing. And we did a clear version with internal blacklighting and we did a purple version of that.
"And then we built something she used extensively on the Monster tour. The next instrument was a giant custom hybrid instrument that uses a base, a synthesizer, and a digital recording drum machine that we put all together into one instrument and I made it sort of very antique Victorian. It's all rosewood with lots of brass inlays and hand-etched items all over it as decoration, and she calls that "Emma." And it's what she plays - it comes up out of the stage - it's sort of like a standup base – we even built her a bow, so she sometimes strings it like a cello.
"...The instruments were a completely new experiment for us. We hadn't built actual instruments, so that presented its own challenges, making sure that the materials we were using didn't have a quality that created extra resonance so that when she strung it the sound wouldn't bounce around inside the fiberglass body so that the pickups would hear extra sound. That was very difficult to work out."
Hetrick also worked with Lady Gaga on designing tattoos. "She did a video, the song is called "Telephone," where she's in a prison and there's tons of makeups and tattoos and stuff, and we did that as well.
"So they call us for whatever, you never know, which is what's so exciting about working with her: when the phone rings you just don't know."
Hetrick works in both film and on television, and thinks that there are a lot less differences between working on the two then there used to be. "There used to be more of a difference today and that gap is changing...The difference used to be much bigger, because it was fairly common to have a year to six months to prep for a film and today this is very much the result of visual effects being such a huge part of the film industry today. So many big aspects that used to be considered so far out from the beginning of principle photography are now sort of relegated to a spreadsheet that goes into postproduction. So they'll just plan from the beginning, moneywise, schedulewise, to go, "Well that will be shot against green and we'll deal with it later." And it's unfortunate because there're many things digital effects can do well, but there're still a lot of things that it cannot do well. And often times, things that should not be done digitally are put there because they were not prepared for or budgeted for in principle photography.
"That being said, the difference between television and film is not that big anymore. The amount of work that we do on say two or three episodes of CSI: NY
, which is basically a new episode every two weeks, is about the same as we would do on a light to medium sized feature. So on the feature, we do more prep. We might have a six week build and shoot of the CSI
where we're doing it every two weeks. On the films we might have eight to twelve weeks before everything starts shooting and we'll start prepping it, but a lot of that time allows us on film to actually design a little bit, and at least do maquettes and sculpt the appliances, and allow the directors and producers to look at them and give us feedback and make changes before we mold things, where on television we don't have that, but we certainly don't have as much time as we used to. I mean, you used to build two different heads, all the way through, and they'd make notes on those, and then you'd start over and make a third one.
"And that's not there today; you can't do it, time or moneywise...So for us, it's a good thing, because that's one of the realities of the demands of the parameters of feature filmmaking today. We are specifically well suited to that, because we've done so much episodic television. We've learned how to work, to get the exact same quality with truncated processes where we only have a couple weeks to build stuff.
"So the gap is closing; they're becoming more and more similar. And the business model that I run here is becoming more of a necessity, which is, instead of having ten different departments, that you crew up and crew down constantly that are very compartmentalized and only do one aspect, I rely on a core group of artists that switch back and forth and are multidisciplined. What they don't know, I'll teach them or someone else here will share their knowledge so that one group can work on everything from start to finish."
One of the television series that Hetrick worked on was the fan favorite The X-Files
– all those shows went through multiple shops. Buffy and Angel we had earlier and lost later as the budgets restricted they went to different shops. On The X-Files
, they filmed it in Canada first, then came down here to us, and we did several seasons, but not all. I don't think we finished, I think there's some at the end of the series that we didn't do.
"... When I was working here it was as an artist, I did not own a shop at that time, there was an ex-owner and he was still involved when we were doing X-Files
. There was an episode where we did all of these mutant babies that I thought was super cool. There was a beat - and I'm a huge X-Files
fan too - when Scully was trying to get pregnant She went to a fertility clinic and she realizes at some point there's something wrong, and she ends up going into a room, and there's sort of this wall of just hundreds of mutated babies, like different twisted fetuses, some of them have two heads, some of them three arms, and that was an awesome episode, because as many of them as there are there, I think we only had time to do five different sculptures.
"So out of those whatever there's two hundred of them, we were just pulling them out of a mold while they were still soft and like contorting them or adding pieces to them to try to come up with as many different in the time that we had. And then we had to go down and fill all of those tanks up and dress them into the tanks and put sort of the floaty placenta kind of stuff. A very, very quick turn around. Those are fun things. They were huge gags that were done on a very very small amount of time and those challenges are exactly what built the shop into what it is today."
A current series that Hetrick works on is also the hardest for him, and it has nothing to do with creatures, but rather, science. "On CSI: NY
we have a lot of effects where it will be multiple stages because we'll see the cause of death occur, and that's prosthetics and an actor often. Then we'll see the dead body and them starting to examine the forensic evidence, cutting the body open, going inside, looking at intestines. So that's the secondary level of the effect where we've replicated the actor in full hyper realistic silicone, with the organs, and the skin that you can cut it and close it and recut it. Then the third, the tertiary aspect of the effect - on CSI
they have these, they literally call them CSI: NY
shots, and they're bulleted that way in the screenplay - they'll pick up a liver that's had a fragment of a bullet go through it and will zoom in past extreme close-up to where we're inside the kidney or the liver or whatever. So then we have to develop effects that are oversized versions of the interior of something, and show the science.
"For instance we did an episode, we've done it several times, where people have inhaled or ingested something and the camera will go down the trachea and into one of the lungs and will examine the effects of the gas on the alveoli inside of the lung sac. So we have to come up with not only what the inside of a lung sac looks like, but shotwise, how do we do that, how do we transition, how do we go down a tube and end up inside, how do we light that, are we using a tiny little camera or are we building something for the normal camera that's just super oversized? And are the effects transitions that help us to pop from one thing to another?
"So those are extremely difficult, not only to build, but they're difficult to conceptualize, because we'll sit in a room and talk about it for hours. You have to completely decide the entire sequence of shots and how they transition into one another and what you're ultimately seeing and from what angle."
People might assume that many of the medical effects are digital, but that's not the case. "It's almost all physical with CG transitions to push the camera from one place to the other. So they'll do CG camera moves or we'll lock off...Let's say we're talking about the lung and we decide the way we're going to show it is we'll show the whole torso from the chin to the sternum down, and we'll watch the person ingest whatever they're ingesting, then we'll build a torso that has the skin and they'll shoot a couple frames of that, lock off, the skin will be removable. So they'll take the skin off, continue to film and we see the lungs breathing and the heart beating. And then we're going to eventually push in to see the inside of the lungs. So the lung itself will have two pieces to it so we can remove the top part of the lung, always the camera locked off. So we'll film those multiple stages and then CG will transition with white flashes or they'll fade the top skin away when we've taken away, it will match those two shots up and have the skin sort of fade as we go into the inside of the body."
One of Hetrick's latest projects is working on the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games
. "I can tell you that it was an absolute pleasure to work on that show; it went really smoothly. It's always difficult when you're building and you have everyone on location in North Carolina. The reason it went so well for us, I think, is because Ve and I work really well together, and having her on set as a department head, and interfacing with her directly, made the whole process very seamless. Of course, it's a film. Things are going to change, weather's going to push days, and then all of a sudden there's more stuff, or they want to change stuff. So those things that can make productions difficult with our dynamic, Ve and I, we were able to overcome those obstacles in a very smooth way with no yelling no screaming, no cursing. It was a really good show to work on."