Interviewing Doug Jones (Creature Actor)

DOUG JONES (©Doug Jones)

Some of DOUG JONES’ acting credits include: The Shape of WaterCrimson Peak, Falling Skies, Hellboy I & II, John Dies at the End, My Name Is Jerry, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Pan’s Labyrinth, Men in Black II, Mimic, Hocus Pocus, Batman Returns… amongst many others.

A tall actor and I just don’t mean physically, Doug Jones, or “Dougie“, as he’s mostly known for his iconic work under prosthetics, but who has also performed as ‘himself’ in highly-rated films, is one of Guillermo Del Toro’s favourite actors.

A spiritual man and a generous professional, Doug, along with his wife Laurie, mentors young people who wish to work in the medium of film and are beginning their careers in the business.

SRM: Doug, many thanks for participating in this interview, I’m thrilled. I know you pursued a career in Telecommunications, together with Theatre, in your university years. Telecommunications because communication is what matters, or because deep down you can’t help a geeky curiosity for technology?

DOUG JONES: I loathe technology, largely because I feel stupid using it. I long for the rotary-dial phone!  I majored in Telecommunications (Radio & TV Broadcasting) because my parents refused to let me major in Theatre. “You need a field you can actually get a job in, dear,” was their sensible Indiana parental reasoning. So Telecommunications was the closest thing that would satisfy both them and me, while I was able to minor in Theatre.

SRM: Typical parent’s ‘sensible’ advice, and not just in Indiana (laughing). You learned miming at school but you have also worked as a contortionist. Where did you learn this discipline and, is there any specific physical requirement to start learning? Can you remember one anecdote when your contortionist skills came in particularly handy?

DOUG JONES:  I think one has to be born a slight freak of nature, like me.  I’m not sure you can learn contortionism, as your body will allow being twisted or it won’t. My long, lanky, and I’ll add “sexy” legs lend themselves to bending behind my head, as I found out while trying to gross out my older brothers as a kid.  But it was at an early-career, TV commercial audition for Midas Mufflers in 1987 that I found the magic of BOTH legs getting behind my head at the same time. I had no idea I could, as I’d never tried it.  The director of the spot was explaining that my character was coming to the gym for a massage from a big Swede named Olie.

This large, blond man was lost in thought while telling me of the bad muffler job he’d just gotten somewhere else, and without knowing it, tied me in a knot.  So the director explained, “Then Olie will put your second leg behind your head,” which I’d never done!  So what would any young, hungry actor say? “Sure!,” even though I was secretly terrified it wouldn’t go. I remember quietly thinking to myself, “IT WORKS!” when Olie casually yanked my second leg into place.

I booked the job, and from that day forward, I used that trick to get sight gags in many more commercials, and TV sit-com guest roles, including THE WEIRD AL SHOW, UNHAPPILY EVER AFTER, and GET A LIFE.

SRM: One of the first roles you had was in the cult award-winning TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayerand in fact, your episode, ‘Hush’, got two Emmy nominations.

Was this your very first role in television, Doug? How do you remember the experience working with that team?

DOUG JONES:  Ah, my very first television guest role was on a sit-com that I actually was a fan of, IT’S A LIVING, centering around a bunch of sassy waitresses working in a fancy restaurant, high atop a swanky hotel. 

Sheryl Lee Ralph’s character had been talking through the episode about how she had a blind date coming to work to pick her up that night, and she was so excited because on the phone, he had a deep, sexy voice.  Then when tall, skinny, fuzzy-haired me walks in and asks for her, she turns to her co-workers and says, “Ew, he’s a dweeb,” then quickly pushes Crystal Bernard (later of WINGS fame) in my face, saying, “This is her!”. And the young, innocent Crystal was stuck with me. I could have easily grown a complex over this, couldn’t I! But I have to say these beautiful ladies were so sweet to me, constantly telling me the entire time off camera, “You’re way too cute to be a dweeb!”  Which coming from hot actresses I had been watching on my TV, was music to the ears of a young upstart who did indeed feel like a dweeb. Unfortunately, after a 9 year run, the show was cancelled the week before this episode was to air, and all I have is the rough cut of my scene on a VHS tape.  Cue the sad music.

SRM: What a waste, indeed. What do you think has been the single most important advancement in traditional effects, such as prosthetics, from ‘Buffy’ times to the last ‘Hellboy’? Has there been any major advancement in that department like, for example, in the digital area, which might have made the actor’s experience a bit easier?

DOUG JONES: Here’s where I don’t hate technology. What I’ve seen in more recent years is the happy marriage of practical, prosthetic make-up on an actor, coupled with digital enhancements that make a look or certain movements possible that wouldn’t have been possible when I started back in the 80’s.

A perfect example is the subtle eye blinks that were added to Abe Sapien after the HELLBOY movies were filmed. Another perfect example is the digital sheen coating that was put over my SILVER SURFER prosthetic make up when I was at full power, then taken away to reveal the latex foam rubber costume and make-up when I lost my surf board, getting weaker and tarnished. 

There’s also the brilliant leg designs on the Faun and the Pale Man make-ups I wore in PAN’S LABYRINTH, with parts of my own legs wrapped in green screen color to be wiped away in post production, allowing the prosthetic parts of my legs to move on their own as I manipulated them on camera.

I wish we had some CGI technology when I had to spit dust and moths out of my mouth as ‘Billy the zombie’ in 1993’s HOCUS POCUS, but there was also something real and gritty about all that really flying out of my mouth as I opened it for the first time in three hundred years. You can imagine the smell.

SRM: Dust and moths… mmm… sound delicious (laughing). Also, and as I commented earlier, you have performed as ‘yourself’ in box hits such as Adaptation (with Nicholas Cage), Mystery Men (with Ben Stiller), Batman Returns (with Danny DeVito), and indie projects such as Stefan Haves’ Stalled or Phil Donlon’s A Series of Small Things.

Which role outside prosthetics have you found the most challenging thus far and why?

DOUG JONES:  I think the most challenged, and scared, I’ve ever been in my “human” roles was when I played ‘Grady Edlund’ in the Skin & Bones episode of NBC’s FEAR ITSELF (formerly MASTERS OF HORROR on Showtime). 

My character had been possessed by a Wendigo spirit and came home from the mountains having lost sixty pounds, with a hunger to eat the wife and kids. When doing this kind of role in a full creature make-up, it’s easier for me to find the extreme moments.

But just as a regular guy on camera, it felt dangerous and vulnerable going to this possessed state with my own face available for ridicule.

There is a fine line between horror and unintentional comedy in a case like this. But our director Larry Fessenden had a brilliant way with actors, and we safely got me there with rave reviews from the critics and fans of the show, thankfully.  You could see the sweat on my brow while waiting for that one to air!

SRM: But you had nothing to worry about. In fact, you became Guillermo Del Toro’s choice to perform the role of “Abe Sapien” in Hellboy. What can you tell us of the process that you internally undertook for the embodiment of this character and how was working with Del Toro that first time?

Doug as Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Doug as the Faun and the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth
Doug is Abe Sapien in HELLBOY I and II

DOUG JONES:  Abe is my favorite costumed character I’ve ever played. I just adore his clairvoyant abilities, his intellect, and his childlike lack of street smarts. Finding his internal workings was a combo platter for me. While I have no supernatural powers in my own real hands, I do use them to see better.  You’ll usually find me touching whatever I see, or petting the people I’m talking to, as my hands need to complete that interaction for me. So that lent itself well to Abe’s signature hands that could see beyond the present when he touched something or someone. As for the intellect, this is where I wasn’t as well equipped. But I have some great character study in my three older, very smart brothers, Bobby, Tommy, and Richie, who all have masters degrees in various fields, with Bobby also holding a PHD in Molecular Biology. In those moments when I felt out of my intellectual realm, I channeled a little of Bobby, who is a college professor and is happy to lecture confidently in any of the sciences. I also needed to brush up a little on classical music, art, and literature, as Abe absorbs all forms of culture. All this, while snacking on rotten eggs, bless Abe’s little heart.

The first HELLBOY was actually my second film with Guillermo del Toro, as we met when I was one of his Long John cockroach guys in MIMIC five years earlier. Working with Guillermo, it doesn’t take long to realize you are in the presence of pure genius. He is one of the smartest, most well-read, well-watched people I’ve ever known, and at the same time, he’s an 8 year old fan boy who loves creepy, crawly monsters. When a writer/director “gets” the genre like he does as a fan, the outcome is a movie that will titillate fans just like him.

SRM: In Pan’s Labyrinth your role is no other than that of the “Pan”, for which you had to learn Archaic Spanish (and you nailed it) and in the French Serge Gainsbourg: Vie Heroique you did Gainsbourg’s strange alter-ego “La Gueule”. Do you know a second language or have interest in learning from other cultures, Doug, which might have helped you interpret so well these roles? Also, how important as an actor is to be open to all types of scripts and other countries’ cinema?

DOUG JONES:  I had two years of Spanish in high school, but that was almost 30 years before filming PAN’S LABYRINTH. Thankfully, Spanish is a language where every letter makes a sound, and it’s consistent, so I was able to get through that script without a coach. Speaking French in GAINSBOURG was a different matter, with a language that loves using silent letters, making no sense to my American eyes. So a dialogue coach was imperative to get a phonetic version written down that I could make sense of.  I love languages and other cultures, and do find inspiration from them, especially when filming a movie on their soil. Having filmed PAN in Spain, and GAINSBOURG in France, I was fully immersed in their languages, traditions, lore, food, humor, and social ways that could only help me bring a little new flavor to the screen. I can’t tell other actors they must try this, but if I let my fears tell me that I couldn’t have pulled this international thing off, I would have missed out on two experiences that completely changed my life for the better.

SRM: Well, that’s a fantastic, even if ‘reluctantly’ given, advice (laughing). Also, and as mentioned earlier, you’re also very well known for your role as “Silver Surferin the Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. You love rollerblading, don’t you? Did this passion help you to portray the natural moves and posture that a character like this would have, you think? What other type of personal skills did you put at the service of this character and did you do any other research apart from its story in the comic books?

DOUG JONES:  I do love rollerblading, and even though I’m a tad clumsy at it, this does help with finding an athletic posture that requires balance.  The one obvious thing I did not do, was actually learn to surf in the ocean. I guess I wanted the Silver Surfer to move with a grace that comes from another world, not from Newport Beach. It was all about finding balletic poses with the strength and confidence of one who holds the power cosmic. This inspiration came directly from my review of the early comic books with Jack Kirby’s beautiful drawings and Stan Lee’s (or as I like to call him, “Dad’s”) poetic writing with a gentlemanly use of proper grammar. I also drew from the Christ-like imagery of this character, who sacrificed himself to save his own home planet.  Now that’s the stuff of a true hero to me.

SRM: The independent film My Name is Jerry, allowed you to perform what you’ve considered to be your ‘dream role’ and in fact you hold this movie very dear to your heart. Would you please share with us a bit about the character, the movie and what else makes it so special to you?

DOUG JONES:  As I clutch my heart and tilt my head, I fondly remember this whole experience.  Jerry is my favorite “human” character I’ve ever played. He was written specifically for me originally by our young director Morgan Mead and Andy Janoch, with re-writes by David Hamilton.

I find Jerry to be so endearing as he’s stuck in a sad little life he created for himself and is now entering a full-blown mid-life crisis.  I’ve been through this in my real life, and if handled well, we can come out of it with a healthy re-invention of careers, priorities, and relationships.

This period of life can be familiar to us when it hits, because we tend to go through something similar in our 20’s when we’re trying to find our place in the world. The 20-something story is also told here, as Jerry befriends a group of younger punk rockers and forms a special friendship with a girl about the same age as his own estranged daughter … another topic that resonates as we are surrounded by broken families in our world.

MY NAME IS JERRY offers some hope of this all coming right, while exploring an emotional range that goes from laughter to tears.  I felt Morgan Mead’s direction with me was flawless, as he inspired such well thought-out beats on the tightest film schedule I’ve ever had, filming up to 13 pages a day.  Another selling point is that this was all filmed in my home state of Indiana with my alma mater Ball State University acting as our studio by financing the film.  Kind of ground-breaking for a university to back a commercially viable movie headed for the real marketplace. 

And what this also did, was create a work/study program for film and theatre students who staffed up our crew under the department heads from Hollywood. A learning experience you can’t get in the classroom.  It was so refreshing to be surrounded by this much enthusiasm as these puppies would all be so happy to come to work, reminding me why I got started in the business, myself.

And in the end, we have countless festival awards (including my first acting award outside of make-up), with the film currently on DVD, Netfilx instant view, and recently added on Hulu. Not too bad for a little indie, eh?

SRM: Definetely worth watching, more than once. I know that apart from your performing abilities, in which singing is yet another one, there’s something you like doing and do very well behind the scenes… who would you give a haircut?

DOUG JONES:  EEK, someone’s been reading up on me!  Some people go to their garages to throw paint on a canvas or sculpt a lump of clay to relieve artistic stress.  My lump of clay is a head of hair.  I’ve been cutting my own since I was in 7th grade.  Whether it’s a buzz cut or something longer, if you’ve seen me on camera as a human, that haircut was created by me at home.  I’m not licensed as a barber, but I’ve created haircuts on friends and family, for decades, including the current look on my lovely Mrs. Laurie’s cute little head.

SRM: I’m so glad we can enjoy of your art in the sci-fi TV series Falling Skies, and in films like the beautiful The Shape of Water; what else is out there with Dougie’s stamp all over it?

DOUG JONES: My very silly, but beautifully photographed coffee table book comes to bookstores, MIME VERY OWN BOOK, making fun of all pop culture, famous works of art, famous movie posters, historic photos, social commentary, and of course mimes.  I started as a mime many years ago, so re-joining my beginnings with all this “punny” humor was nothing short of magical for me.  Things you’ll see in the book: “A Mime is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” “Once Upon a Mime,” “Venus DeMimelo”, “Frank-n-Mime”, “The Little MerMime,” “MimeHammed Ali,” and on and on. It’s available at Amazon.

Doug Jones as the creature in The Shape Of Water

I also have a bunch of feature films finished that haven’t been released yet.

SRM: Yes!! So many ‘pressies’ to look forward to, thank you! Now, let’s also talk about your mentoring work. You mentor, alongside your wife Laurie, young people that wish to have a career in film, which is very laudable! How does the Puppies-Moniker process/relationship work?

DOUG JONES:  Awwww… “The Puppies”!!!  Mrs. Laurie and I were never able to have kids of our own in our 27 years together, a doctor even said so. Through this, we learned that we may have been placed here for a different reason. 20-somethings (and some have grown into 30-somethings), young enough to be our children, have made their way into our lives and formed a special connection with us, like family over the past 10 years. 

So many young people in Los Angeles are here either from families that they love and miss, or from situations they don’t miss.  Either way, it can feel nice to have a mom & dad figure close by.

It’s not at all show-biz related, and is not a get started program for that. But because I am in entertainment, naturally a lot of our “Puppies” are pursuing their dreams in show-biz. 

SRM: Doug, it’s been a honour and a pleasure. All the very best in all of your endeavours!

DOUG JONES:  Thank YOU for having me! This has been one of the most creative interviews, covering things no one else has asked before. It always humbles me that anyone would want to hear from me, so seriously, thank you.


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Interviewing Ryan J. Woodward (Story-boarding, Animation, Direction)

 Ryan J. Woodward
With a filmography of over 20 blockbuster and all time classic titles and a reputation for extraordinary conceptual skills and an acute sense of motion and special effects, Ryan J Woodward acts and lives like the down-to-earth fella who breathes and transpires a never-ending passion for art and creation in all its forms.

Charismatic, hardworking and a self-described eternal student, despite the fact that he is a master in more than one artistic discipline, Woodward is one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets.

That is, until Google discovered Thought Of You

SRM: Ryan, it’s a pleasure to interview you, thank you very much for your time.  Please, tell us a bit about your background, when did you start developing an interest in the arts?  Do you come from an artistic family?

RYAN J WOODWARD: Thank you. I am honoured to participate. I’ve always been a drawer of sorts. Ever since I was a little kid, I drew superheroes, read comic books, and created sci-fi adventures that only my little wild imagination would go on. My early teachers would always get me to paint still life’s and other forms of more “refined” art, but I seemed to always put a twist to my drawings like adding in some demon horns, super powers or glowing eyes to my projects.

I always knew I’d do something with drawing and animation, but didn’t really know how or if I could even make any money at it. In fact, when I met my wife at college, I told her I was going to be a poor starving artist for the rest of my life because I didn’t care about how much I was going to make, I just wanted to draw and create stories. Luckily she still married me (going on 17 years now!) and while I’m not the richest guy on the block, I’m not a starving artist either. My family isn’t very artistic.  My mom appreciates it and actually draws well, but I think I worried my father quite a bit when I expressed my early artistic interests. I think he’s still worried about me. 🙂

SRM: He really shouldn’t… One of your works that most captivated my imagination was the original and enchanting Thought of You, which I discovered by following your also fantastic animation work for the Google Doodle logo on Martha Graham. By the way, did Google commission you this project or was it already made due to your interest in dance?

RYAN J WOODWARD: The Doodle team at saw my film, Thought of You, and they felt that it would be a good fit for the upcoming birthday of Martha Graham. I was flattered and honoured to accept the invitation to be able to work with the Martha Graham Dance Company to create this little animation.  I learned a lot about Martha Graham from doing this and feel like we really worked hard to capture iconic dance moves that represent her and her works of art.

SRM: Well, needless to say that your hard work paid off, you did exceedingly well at capturing the essence of her dance art. Had you always done figurative animation?

RYAN J WOODWARD: Yes. I’ve been figure drawing since I was 16 and have never really stopped. It’s one of those practices that animators do for their entire lives. We never really get “great” at it, but the experience of trying to capture so much beauty, design, and form in a single drawing is very challenging and humbling. I’ve also been teaching figure drawing for about 8 years and the desire to put some of these drawings in motion has been picking at me slowly but I never really could figure out the context to do it until Thought of You.

SRM: Thought of You is about idealising a romantic interest, about chasing them in that idealisation, longing for them and finally realising their own humanity and frailty. It’s almost unbelievable the wonderful skill you have for imbuing the drawings’ movement and expression with this range of feelings and all the emotions in between. You have trained, as you have just mentioned, and are, in fact, a master at figure drawing and animation but, and as I also mentioned earlier, you have also been inspired by dance.

What type of dance does inspire you the most? What other disciplines can help, by observation, in the intuitive capture of the human expression when re-creating it in drawing and animation?

RYAN J WOODWARD: I absolutely LOVE dance. I wish I was a better dancer myself. I dance with my little girls and my wife at times when we have our own little dance parties at the house but I embarrass them terribly. My wife says I just “jog awkwardly” when I dance. I agree, I’m terrible; maybe that’s why I love to watch it so much. In my opinion, dance is the most powerful art form when communicating an emotion. I stand in reverence and awe at highly disciplined dancers and what they can achieve. I’m not too fond of highly technical dance, rather I like the raw styles like contemporary and modern. I love the emotion in Krumping and especially in an agonizing Spanish flamenco dance.

SRM: Flamenco is intense, oh yes. What else would you recommend any artist trying to emulate the Conte Animation style?

RYAN J WOODWARD: My approach is a little different than most figurative styles. I like to include a lot of exaggeration and creativity to the figures. Getting the basics of proportion, light and shadow, etc. are great, but then when you add in a little bit of creative personality, that’s when I feel like I own the drawing and I’m not just replicating what my eyes are seeing. So use some creativity and enjoy the process!

SRM: Perfect advice. You have been working for characters and blockbuster movies such as The Avengers, Cowboys & Aliens or hit sagas such as Iron Man, Spider-Man, and classics such as Where The Wild Things Are, The Scarecrow or The Iron Giant. Please, Ryan, I would love if you could tell us a bit about your work in Cowboys & Aliens.

RYAN J WOODWARD: Awesome movie.  When they first called me, I was wondering if it was a comedy or some kind of goofy kid’s movie. But then after getting into the script and meeting with the director, I realized this was going to be a VERY COOL and dynamic movie. The idea of placing the audience in a western, filming it like a western, and then introducing aliens….can you think of anything more fun to create? I helped to develop some of the action moments when the cowboys fight the aliens. It was really challenging to keep my mind in the film-making approach of a Western, but throw in some space ships and aliens.

SRM: It really was very cool. You’ve also written and directed three shorts: TheTurtle and the Shark, Aliens and The Loch, which received great reviews in the festivals circuit. Do you think artists such as story-boarding artists and animators have an inherent tendency to create a full story, from scratch, and hence become writers and directors? Is it very difficult to keep oneself compartmentalised in one particular role?

RYAN J WOODWARD: Every artist has their long term goals and what they want to do with their craft. I’ve always liked to learn as much as I can about the entire production process because I do see myself creating and animating my own stories one day. I can’t speak for all artists because I know some artists are very satisfied becoming the best at their particular skill and they become masters of that. For me, it seems after I’ve learned and have become successful at one skill, I then start to yearn to learn another. So I’ve gone from animation to EFX animation, to digital EFX, to animatics, to compositing, to story-boarding, and now to directing. Who knows what’s next.

SRM: You also worked on the neat title design for Osmosis Jones and one I love, too, is the main title sequence you did for Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, which was sadly cut. Is it true it only took you two weeks to make? Do you have any special techniques to keep track of the overall visual effect when working on each separate frame?

RYAN J WOODWARD: Yeah, I drink a lot of caffeine 🙂 Production deadlines are never long enough to do the job you really want to do on a project. They always want things faster and cheaper and high quality which is a formula of three. Even though this is an impossible formula, I can’t help but strive to give each scene all I have. Not because I’m getting paid extra or anything, but because I really want it to be AWESOME! That passion can really kill me at times because I’ll invest all I have, and then a director may not like what he/she sees.  Then I go home and sob in my pillow for an hour 🙂

SRM: Ah, the secret tortured life of the artist… What other blockbusters have you worked on?

RYAN J WOODWARD: I’ve done story-boarding for Captain America: The First Avenger and concept animation for Snow White and The Huntsman.

SRM: And what about your own projects? What’s new? Do you ever rest?

RYAN J WOODWARD: My latest monster of a project, Bottom of the Ninth started as a fun idea and snowballed into an animated graphic novel for the iPad and iPhone. It got the BEST ENTERTAINMENT APP OF 2012 Award. I’m also enjoying traveling to festivals lecturing about this stuff. The people I’m meeting all over the world is really inspiring to me.

SRM: Bottom of the Ninth, looks awesome! Thank you so much again for collaborating in this interview. I look forward to watching your phenomenal work in all upcoming projects!

RYAN J WOODWARD: Thanks.  I really appreciate it.


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 >
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