Interviewing Michael F. Blake (Special Make-Up Effects)

FILM & TV WORK (Special Make-Up Effects):

Westworld, Mob City, Thor: The Dark World, The Lone Ranger, Max Rose, Lincoln, X-Men: First Class, Thor, Drag Me to Hell, Yes Man, Spider-Man 3, Domino, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, The Last Samurai, Seabiscuit, Ali, Independence Day, Sister Act I & II, Star Treck: Deep Space Nine, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Police Academy II, Magnum P.I., Buffalo Bill, Bonanza, The Addams Family, Bewitched...

Michael F. Blake born in Hollywood, California, comes from a family of entertainment professionals. His own career choices have always been very closely tied to the entertainment industry.

He has successfully accomplished professional careers as an actor, a writer and make-up special effects artist.

In TV, it has been for his outstanding work as a make-up and special make-up effects artist that he won an Emmy for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and received a nomination for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

A long-standing player in the entertainment industry, his incredible curriculum also includes acting roles in series such as:

The Addams Family, Bewitched, Kung Fu, Project U.F.O, Magnum P.I. and Bonanza.

His most recent work for TV as a special make-up effects  artist has been for:

Westworld, and, previously, Mob City, the three-week/six-hour series by Frank Darabont (also creator of The Walking Dead & screenplay writer for The Mist, The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption…) set in 1940s Los Angeles and starring Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead), Milo Ventimiglia (Heroes), Neal McDonough (Justified), Alexa Davalos (Reunion), Jeffrey DeMunn (The Walking Dead), Gregory Itzin (24), Robert Knepper (Prison Break), Jeremy Luke (Don Jon) and Ed Burns (playing Bugsy Siegel).

In film:

Michael F. Blake has worked as a key special make-up effects artist for all of the blockbusters listed in his film work credits above, and has had acting roles in: Carousel, One More Train to Rob and Future Cop.

As a writer, he has published four books to date: Lon Chaney: The Man Behind the Thousand Faces, A Thousand Faces: Lon Chaney’s Unique Artistry in Motion Pictures, The Films of Lon Chaney, Code of Honor: The Making of Three Great American Westerns, one of them having been adapted to film: A Tribute to Lon Chaney.

Nowadays, Mr. Blake combines his work as a key make-up and special make-up effects artist for film and television with master classes at one of the world´s leading cinema make-up and special make-up effects school, the Hollywood Cinema Make-Up School, located in Los Angeles, California.

From its admissions director, the also special make-up effects artist Lee Joyner (Godzilla, Mimic, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Stargate SG1) to its multi-award winning tutors and collaborators such as Michael F. Blake and Joseph C. Pepe (Lead character designer for Avatar and Alien vs. Predator), the Cinema Make-Up School has positioned itself at the forefront of this important artistry field within the entertainment industry, a dream academy gathering the very best masters to prepare professionally the very best talents (national and international, Cinema Make Up School assists with international I-20 form for student visas).

It was thanks to Lee Joyner, from Cinema Make Up School, that I had the pleasure to interview Michael F. Blake on his work as an award-winning make-up and special make-up effects artist.

SRM: Thank you Mr. Blake for taking the time for this interview, I truly appreciate it.
From your books and your collaborations in several documentaries, we know that you are a profound admirer of the silent-film star and special make-up effects artist Lon Chaney. Was his work that inspired you to take the route to specialise in this highly creative field within the entertainment industry?

MICHAEL F. BLAKE: Oh yeah. Chaney was, and still is, my hero. What he created with material we would consider today to be outdated, is amazing.  I am also a big admirer of the old time makeup artists Jack Pierce, Cecil Holland, Jack Dawn and Perc Westmore.

SRM: Which are more fun to design, aliens or vampires?

MICHAEL F. BLAKE: That is a tough decision. I enjoyed doing the vampires on BUFFY, but some of the aliens on STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE 9 were a  lot of fun, too. On DEEP SPACE 9 you had the chance to do different characters. One show you’d be doing Kilgons, the next show you’d be doing something else. So that kept things fresh, it wasn’t the same old, same old.

Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai | Special make-up effects by Michael F. Blake
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. Smith | Special make-up effects by Michael F. Blake
Spider-Man 3 | Special make-up effects by Michael F. Blake

SRM:  Are computer-generated characters competing with traditional special make-up effects and actors or does this comparison come from a narrow perspective on what should be offered the audiences to experience?

MICHAEL F. BLAKE: Definitely the CGI stuff is taking over some of what we would normally do. When the STAR WARS film came out with Jar-Jar Binks character, I said that five years earlier it would have been done with make-up, remote control head and a suit. So, CGI has come into “our territory” somewhat. I think CGI is the “new toy”, like the current 3D films, of the industry. Filmmakers like to play with a new toy until they get bored with it. But I do believe that CGI is here to stay, and each film will determine how much CGI is used relating to a character’s look.

SRM: How many hours of work daily can a special make-up effects artist expect to put in when working in a TV series of success, like the ones you have worked on?

MICHAEL F. BLAKE: Oh boy!  The hours on a TV show or a film is the hardest thing. Doing a TV series is the toughest, as the hours can be VERY long. I remember putting in a 21-hour day on BUFFY once. That was a killer. Generally, on a TV series you can expect to do 60+ hours a week if you’re a regular makeup artist on a show. On films it can vary. I was in Las Vegas for a week on DOMINO and we put it 85 hours in six days!

SRM:  For you, which is the most enjoyable process/moment, the conceptualisation of the character make-up, the process of applying it or seeing the results on camera?

MICHAEL F. BLAKE: Applying the makeup. If you come in on a show like BUFFY or DEEP SPACE 9, the makeup department head has already designed the look of the character. But then you get to apply the pieces, and literally make the character come to life. That was one of the fun things about Kligons for me. You could usually pick a different style head piece and facial hair, so your character wouldn’t look like the other Klingon. Things like that are fun because you get to be creative. You’re not just slapping on a piece of rubber on an actor’s face.

SRM: In your opinion, what are the techniques that a make-up and special make-up effects artist need to master if he/she wants to become professional in this field?

MICHAEL F. BLAKE: I tell EVERYONE who wants to enter the film/TV industry to LEARN EVERYTHING! I have a saying that I firmly believe in: “The more you know, the more you’ll work”. For example, when I started out in the business in 1978, there were about 6 fellas who were the “go-to” makeup artists for appliances. Back then we didn’t have the term “special makeup effects artist,” you were just a makeup artist.  Anyway from 1978 to 1989, I did just one appliance in my career, it was for a episode of BUCK RODGERS TV series.

In 1989, the techniques had changed a lot, and I hadn’t kept up with them. My buddy, Mike Mills, was dept. head on BACK TO THE FUTURE II, and I asked him if I could come in on my own and shadow him so I could learn the new techniques. He called me in one night and, as he said, “threw me to the wolves” by applying a facial piece on an actor with Sonny Burman. So, I just followed Sonny’s lead, and he was very helpful to me. After that, I started doing more and more appliance work.  With the STAR TREK series, my being able to do appliances kept food on the table when things were slow.

I would definitely tell every person who wants to do makeup, LEARN EVERYTHING and be good at it. Learn beauty makeup, learn how to do a beard, learn old age makeup, etc. I know some makeup artists who are great with effects makeup, but cannot — and will not — do beauty makeup. And I know many makeup artists who can do beauty work, but couldn’t pout a beard on or do a Klingon makeup to save their life!

Learn everything. Be able to do a decent job on every aspect in the makeup craft.  “The more you know, the more you’ll work.”

Hollywood Cinema Make-Up School

SRM: Excellent advice.

What are the make-up specialities in which artists can find more possibilities of obtaining work today?

MICHAEL F. BLAKE: It is kind of split. There are those who do beauty primarily, and those who do effects work. Personally, I think if you can “cross that border” – so to speak – you have a greater chance of working more often.

SRM: Are actors and actresses usually patient with the make-up and special make-up effects processes or have you witnessed many tantrums in your years of work?

MICHAEL F. BLAKE: You know, in 36 years of doing this job I have NEVER seen an actor/actress pull a tantrum over the makeup. Most actors will grumble over sitting in the chair for a few hours. But they stop complaining when I suggest that they stand and I will sit down and finish the makeup!

Most actors know what they are in for, and it is up to the makeup artist to help them along. Lots of time we have music playing that is soothing and we talk very little to let them rest. Then again, one morning they may want to chat while they are getting in makeup. It depends on the actor.

SRM: The make-up results you have felt most proud of, the actor/actress who you always loved to work with, and the artistic director you would like to collaborate with would be…

Carolyn Jones as ‘Morticia’

Tom Selleck in Magnum P.I.

MICHAEL F. BLAKE: Many years ago I made up actress Carolyn Jones (best known as Morticia in the TV series The Addams Family) and she was suffering from cancer. She came in looking poorly, and when I finished with her she looked great. I was very proud of that job.

One other one was when I was doing the pilot of MAGNUM, P. I.  In the script, Tom Selleck’s character was to have an entry and exit bullet wound.

Now keep in mind, this was in 1980 and we did not have all the new “toys” that makeup artists have today. I couldn’t do a foam piece, as in one scene Tom swims out of the ocean and you see the wound.

So, the deadline to do it was getting closer and I had no idea what to use. Everything I thought of wouldn’t work. One day I’m looking in my makeup case and I asked myself “What would Chaney have used?”.

There was the answer: rigid collodion!

I tried it on myself, made a bullet wound and then came up with the idea of a scar along the top of the shoulder. I colored it, showed it to the producer and he loved it. That was how I did the bullet wound and scar. Thinking on your feet and “pulling the rabbit out of your hat” is a great feeling.

As far as actors, I would love to work with Robert Duvall and Gary Oldman. I like their work and how they let makeup help “build their character.”

When it comes to directors, I have no preference.

As long as they don’t yell a lot, which I think is rude and unprofessional, I can pretty much work with anyone. My years of doing TV shows taught me that, as you’d have a new director for every episode.

SRM: From your fantastic literary works on the legendary Lon Chaney, which one would you especially recommend to those who are just embarking in this artistic career and where can they purchase it?

MICHAEL F. BLAKE: LON CHANEY: MAN BEHIND THE THOUSAND FACES. It is the first book I did, which was a biography and includes details on how he did his amazing makeups. It is available on Amazon, or check out eBay.

SRM: According to your experience working on Sci-Fi and, of course, from your perspective as an outstanding professional, which sci-fi movie shows the best special make-up effects (regardless of awards) and why?

MICHAEL F. BLAKE: STAR TREK would get my vote. First, the variety of characters, which all were created with makeup, shows just what our craft can do. Secondly, the team on that film worked so terribly hard to make things work.

SRM: Great choice, for all the right reasons. What projects are you working on at the moment or planning to work on and what is the best part of working with Cinema Make-Up School?

MICHAEL F. BLAKE: Right now I am writing a novel, between makeup work. It’s about the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War, told from the perspective of the townspeople who had to endure three days of bloodshed. I am also working on a book of quotes from classic Western Movies.

The thing I like about Cinema Makeup School is that it offers a student a comprehensive education. Like I said before, the more you know, the more you’ll work. At the school, you have the opportunity to learn everything.

For me, the best part of working at the school is when you see a student “get it”. When they finally do a beard correctly, they have hit a home run and they smile. It brings back a warm memory of when I started out and did the same thing.

SRM: They are very lucky to have you, that’s for sure. Mr. Blake, again, such a pleasure, thank you. I am sure both the professionals in this field as well as the non-artistic readers will have enjoyed your interview very much. May even more successes accompany your current and future projects.

MICHAEL F. BLAKE: Thank you!

Lon Chaney: the Man Behind the Thousand Faces >
Cinema Make-Up School >