Visual FX still flourishing with 3D Imaging

Krystynn Hernandez pokes at the jawbone protruding through the side of the corpse's face, smearing a gob of blackish-green pus. She carefully places a maggot on the rotting, putrid flesh, then changes her mind and smears more blood over the wound. She is clearly enjoying herself, and her determined enthusiasm is a touch unnerving.

“This one’s coming along – she’s got a cheek on now,” says Ryan Nicholson as he inspects Krystynn's handiwork. He is darting between the four students working on their final projects for New Image College of Fine Arts, offering advice, adjusting prosthetic facial features, and trying not to take over. He already knows he is good at what he does.

As an instructor of Professional Makeup Artistry, and with over two decades experience in practical makeup effects, Nicholson is qualified to teach the darker side of the film industry. He learned the process through trial and error, working on movies, but now teaches it formally. From an early start doing makeup for his high school theatre performances, he soon began running a lab out of the basement of his horror movie video rental store in Victoria. “I basically taught myself, but eventually I started working in a lab in Montreal, doing effects for big budget movies.”

From there he was able to transition back to Vancouver during the 90's “boom days”, working on effects driven productions, like The X-Files. It wasn't long before he decided to open his own shop, and began focusing on his own vision. “The thing is, I always wanted to make my own movies, and I was always writing. Now I don't really see myself doing makeup for other movies – I will teach it, and I’ll do my own movies and that's really the extent of what I want to do.”


His own movies are classic slasher films, definitely owing much to Ryan's wasted youth watching 80's horror films. “One of our last movies was called Gutterballs, and it had some really insane FX. People love to talk about the special effects in that movie, and the sex, and the violence.” He is aware of the campy nature of this genre, and as he states “it definitely wasn't about the story, the story was secondary to the effects.”

Plotdigger Films is the production company he started to make movies, including such gems as Hanger, Torched, Live Feed, and Star Vehicle. Nicholson has written and directed all of them, but he is quick to point out how it is a team effort. Most recently, Star Vehicle was co-produced with New Image College, who provided actors, locations and “makeup expertise.”

The formula for Plotdigger productions is sex, violence, and extremely gory special effects. The attraction for him is the morbid fascination of it all. “With a grandfather who was a police detective and a father who worked at a funeral home, everything in my life has been on the morbid side, and the FX side. . .The appeal is to know that there is somebody out there that enjoys the movies I’m making, [but] really I do it for myself.” He is a aware that the violence is so over the top you can't help but laugh.

For independent film makers who want more production value for less money, he has this advice: “You need good blood. The cheap way is to buy Rit clothing dye – it's dirt cheap, and you can make a bunch of it, but it stains like a bitch, and wardrobe hates it. . .blood can be really expensive. A fog machine, you can get a little fog machine and just pour straight glycerine in it, go to the drugstore, and it's way cheaper.”

He advises putting your money where it counts. If your film has a main death scene, then focus your resources on that, and make it the best you can. He recognizes that emerging makeup artists and students will do volunteer work to meet people and practice their craft –  plus people need the credit.

“You need to have a lot of good coffee. It’s the one thing that makes our movies go. Cause we're shooting all night, we'll go six days straight shooting all night and if we don't have coffee, we'll have a riot on the set.”

As he helps Krystynn apply makeup to the zombie face, he explains, “you don’t necessarily have to be a makeup artist to do this, you can just be an artist, because there’s a lot of sculpting and painting.” He goes on to illustrate the reason why the program is extensive: “We teach them makeup and beauty because it’s very much skin oriented, so you have to know what human skin is like.”

He also makes it clear that you need an artistic spark from within, as well as an abundance of patience. “You can’t give up. You need to get experience doing it, working on your craft.”

Computer Effects – The Competition

Though Nicholson is transmitting passion and artistry, many other modern filmmakers are not wasting their time and money on these elaborate and time-consuming fantasies. Instead, they are working with computer effects and 3D imaging.

In 1993, a truly terrifying movie was released: Jurassic Park. But it wasn't the T-Rex that sent fear and doubt throughout the practical effects community, it was the way in which the T-Rex was created. Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) was started by George Lucas to fulfill his vision of Star Wars, and Jurassic Park marked the first time ILM's digital technology had been used to create a detailed and convincing living creature. Unlike the dinosaurs of the Jurassic period, practical makeup artists could envision their own extinction, as computer generated effects threatened to all but eradicate the traditionalists.

Seeing the dinosaurs' smooth rendering and sinister movements, anyone could see the advantage. Early monster flicks like Godzilla, for example, barely managed to create a sense of suspended belief, as it was always obvious that the audience was watching some guy in a lizard suit. In the Lord of the Rings movie, Peter Jackson employed cutting edge technology to create Shelob, the terrifying giant spider that threatens Frodo. It created a believability that prosthetics and costuming could never achieve.

Troy Robinson is Chief Operating Officer for XYZ RGB Inc. They provide 3D scanning to the motion picture, video game and manufacturing markets. Although they have been responsible for such frightening monsters as the giant spider Shelob, he admits that as far as creativity is concerned, “there is not a whole lot of that.” Their job is to make possible the elaborate fantasies that human actors cannot perform, like showing Shelob run up of a rock wall, or, in the case of The Matrix, enabling the elaborate fight scenes of Neo.

XYZ RGB also did the cyber-scanning for District 9, and even though they use the latest technology they still must have a physical maquette or model to work with. Robinson explains that ultimately, the film industry currently requires both aspects to create a true suspension of belief, stressing that they must work hand in hand with traditional visual FX artists. According to XYZ RGB: “Marrying the correct scanning solution with an object’s physical characteristics [and] material properties . . . is 50% of the know-how.”

Still, that 50% is beyond the reach of most budgets. This kind of digital imaging is still prohibitively expensive and relatively rare, so the practical effects are still preferred by those with more imagination than money. But a big budget does not necessarily make a great movie, just ask Kevin Costner (see Waterworld. No, on second thought, don't).

Back in New Image Studios, business is rolling, and the marriage of both art forms is expected and embraced, rather than feared. Ryan Nicholson credits Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson for showing the world how the two methods of creating special effects can work symbiotically: “He used to do FX for his own stuff, like his first movie Bad Taste; he built all the crap, he did the practical stuff.” The core illusion of the films are still based on glue, fur, makeup and paint, as in the hair on the Hobbits feet in Lord of the Rings. Jackson is aware of what scenes need CGI and what requires practical FX – the Hobbits and Elves just wouldn't benefit from computer generated pointy ears, but the overall illusion requires them.

Visual effects makeup is still a cornerstone of building a believable fantasy. It isn't just necessary for horror and sci-fi, it is critical for any kind of storytelling, due to the very fact that it is real. The most immediate advantage belongs to the actor. Being in full makeup intensifies the character, and consequently helps the actor to embrace the role in a more believable way. The hours spent outfitting a convincing zombie prosthetic allows an actor to embrace the role through more raw senses – the sight, feel and even smell of the costume brings its own tangible connection to the role, and is still the industry standard.

There has been a massive shift in FX creation methods in the last 15 years, but we seem to have reached a happy medium with digital FX working hand in hand with traditional makeup and prosthetics. The artistry nowadays is in the choices a director makes regarding the two approaches.

As Ryan Nicholson helps Jeanine Chau attach a mask of tentacles to a nightmarish creature, he says, as much for his students as for me: “There is always gonna be a place for what we do. There is still a love for the craft and the hands on stuff. Plus, actors don't want to do just voice over.”

//Mike Kennedy
Arts Editor

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