Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Back from the Dead - I AM ALIVE

I recently reunited with an old housemate and friend from my days as a Bobcat at Ohio University. This unique individual is Justin Buckner, known in some circles as one half of the the intergalactic space-rock-funk-rap duo Galactic Mustache. You can find some of their (mis)adventures on their YouTube Channel, their Official Website and you can make kissy face via their FaceBook page too.  You can even click here and download some free music. Since Easter's right around the corner here's one of Galactic Mustache's videos to prepare you for their mind probing...

From this reunion I was was tasked with creating the look and special effects for the zombies in Justin's new foray into short film, a project titled I AM ALIVE. The story centers around a group of zombies slowly easing their way back into humanity thanks to a government induced cure. But sometimes the cure is worse than the sickness when you're caught between the world of the living and the world of the living dead! 

Well now that you're panties are as moist as a Twinkie in a fruit cellar understand that the request for how the zombies should look is very similar to a previous director's vision with GEORGE. It was another case of DUNH DUNH DUH! - Zombies, but NOT Zombies! - (If you're curious about the current state of GEORGE - click here

1) Make Up Tests

To develop the look a step further and get a more definitive plan agreed upon in terms of style, I held a couple make-up tests at one of the script read-throughs with the cast to try out a bunch of different ideas and color schemes. I knew I would have no budget and even less time, so crucial pre-production was necessary to ensure nothing bit me in the ass come production. I knew I would have less than 30 minutes per actor, out of a cast of about 8, and they wanted to keep me at under 20 if possible to get each character ready. I figured I could and aimed to prove it. (How did he know the schedule? Well, I also built the Call Sheet and Shooting Schedule.)

This is Larena Krohe who would portray Dr. Yvonne. I haven't seen Larena since I was about 17 and now I get to make her look more than half dead. I applied latex to both sides of Larena's face and applied my favorite Cover Girl cream blush to her eyes. This made her eyes look irritated and that's just with one simple pass of color. For one cheek I added a bit of red and browns and a tinge of sheen from a micro-layer of KY jelly to insinuate peeling skin. The other check I applied a decent level of white to tone down the skin tone and added a little blood and fresh scab to detail the wounds.

Here's two graded looks to gauge how much gore and blood to use and how involved the make-up would be. It was here that gore wasn't going to be the envelope pusher, and that I should keep my barrels of red dyed Karo syrup at home. These are important conversations to have with producers and directors, and it always, ALWAYS helps when you have something to physically show them rather than just agreeing on some obscure horror movie as the palette for your current project.

Aaaah, the old paper towel/toilet paper wound, instantly adding depth and the misguided perception that you're suddenly Dick Smith. I knew I had to go old school and completely bootleg to show one vital look. A common mistake I believe people make with cheap effects is that they try to make it more than it could ever be. Sure, you can do amazing things with blending and a little bit of liquid latex, but you're not gonna pull out a STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE character for under $2 in less than 10 minutes and if you can, well, you deserve to work for them.

Here's a far more blended look versus a darker/less blended look. The left photo is more blended out, and dry, while the one on the right has a bit of blood and KY Jelly (actually a bit too much, but that's why this is just a test)This one was not my favorite, but it was necessary to see the 1950s-60s style of dirt cheap effects that people still utilize. I equate this with Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD, except I actually extended the make-up beyond the neck. This is dirty, this is grimy, but don't forget with proper lighting this can look menacing or completely comical on screen. It worked for Ed Wood, it worked for Roger Corman, it can work for you. It all depends on the mood that you're going after. Ideally if this was the look to pursue, I would go in with body paint for a more solid foundation and build from there, but that's just me.

This is Gina, Buck's wife. She was patient enough for me to play with a few different looks. Some were more blistered with a bit of grey scale....

....and I added more blacks to try and pinpoint a color scheme to work with for the characters. I find if there's some uniformity to a cast's make-up, it lends makes their characters a bit more believable. It was starting to look like the darker tones were winning over.

Ultimately it was decided that the looks would be all make-up, painted on and blended up. There just wasn't time or money for anything else. This would be ALL Ben Nye make-up wheels, Death wheel and Bruise wheel specifically, to pull all of this off. I really need to get a Skin Illustrator pack. You listening, Santa? I think I can still make this work.

Again these were all just simple make-up tests on the first sunny day of the Spring. You'll probably fail to notice that this is taking place all on a front porch while everyone enjoys a frosty PBR. It's important to bond like this because it opens proper channels of communications. People can see your efforts, offer their input and critiques and you adapt from there. Every set needs this ebb and flow or things just turn stagnant.

2) Pure Paint Stage

Now it's time to play on my own face. But how do you improve on perfection, right Mom? Hey? Hey? This is why I am so alone... I decided that this would be pure paint, no prosthetic or the like, just blending and the color scheme of white, brown, and black - a neutral template to build all the looks for the cast.

The idea was to utilize only white, brown, and black as the colors to design a cross-bred skull/zombie look. This is a lot hard to do, using just cream makeup and nothing else without it looking just, well, dirty. It should be noted that it was at about this time that my sister's basement, where I currently keep my shitty little studio, flooded and I was forced to bring all my efforts and supplies out from the wet and try to make sense of it all.

I decided to accent the look with some color contacts I had leftover from Halloween. I like how the DUNE blue eyes set the look off, but next time I would do much harsher and distinct lines over blended/softer lines.

I will say that by following your body's movement and how one will arch their eyebrows, set their eyes, and elongate their mouths and building a design around that will lend itself more to the how overall believable your paint-up is at the end. I will also say that you have to have the patience to blend and also know when to stop. Otherwise it will look like someone just smeared straight dookie on your face.

All in all, this is where I was beginning to understand the techniques I would need to utilize to develop our characters as a whole. I do dig the pseudo Dr. Phibes vibe.

3) Let's Build an Appliance

I really wanted to do up some brow appliances and mold prosthetics for the cast, but there simply wasn't the time or the money. But it was an itch I had to scratch - I had to see if there was a way I could make one dirt cheap and fast. Again I started experimenting on my own face. I recommend this so that you know exactly how certain things should and shouldn't feel for those that sit in your make-up chair. It helps you utilize your time more efficiently & effectively as well as learn from your mistakes on your own time, rather when you have no time on set.

I took some old packing foam I had left over from an eBay purchase, cut it to shape my eyes and adhered it to my face using liquid latex. I almost look like a high school musical version of Elton John. I then applied some thin strips of dried latex I had over and around the foam, securing them in place with more liquid latex.

Building up an appliance this way is quick (it sets with the drying time of latex) and relatively cheap (it's foam and latex, c'mon) but this throw away design leaves no wiggle room for a concise execution in terms of style. You're basically starting the race running backwards. From where it sits on my face is the total application, meaning there's no room for properly feathered edges to glue done. You'll see why that's important shortly.

Again I stuck with the white, brown, and black cream make-up color scheme to have a unified look to the characters. I switched colors for contacts with the thinking that this would be a significant change in the levels of being a zombie. I do like the raised brow look and how it almost seems like exposed skull. This would be an interesting look to revisit with more sharp and defined lines for next time rather than this seemingly over-blended mess. All in all, this look would have been quicker if I had a more concise design in mind from the start. It would've helped with the build-up, the edges, the color, all of it, but still this took less than 45 minutes to bang out so I can't be too mad. It almost reminded me of that Skull Faced dude Val Kilmer slices open in WILLOW.

As my face moved you can begin to see the latex pull away from the cheeks and mouth. Normally I would be able to toss on some fresh scab and fake blood and make it look like dangling skin, but I had to stick to the established parameters of scaling back the gore. It's working within limitations that you realize where you can go and what you can do; this applies to your budget, talent, time, and anything else that can trip up your efforts.

I do always love the clean skin versus made-up skin from peeling latex. It's like a weird stencil you never intended. Remember kids, hot water and soap is your friend - don't be an idiot and pull off latex that more than likely dried on top of a hair follicle.

Part of the script involves a character getting their throat ripped out. Here's a neck piece I pre-sculpted from my own neck from about 6 passes of liquid latex. I colored it in with flesh tones to match my own skin on one side. I then applied reds, burgundies, and other veiny colors to the other side. The idea was that this would be applied to the actor's neck for close up shots of a neck tear. You can faintly see a small opening to the left where I designed to insert a plastic plunger filled with blood for  the effect. Ideally I would have hoses and a pump and blah blah blah but this was as cheap and quick as humanly possible. It's got fine edges and I would have been happier pulling a proper mold and all that, but it is what it is.

4) Let's Make a Movie!

I am always a big proponent of having an organized work area. If you don't know where something is you can't use it, and I want every tool available to me when I am working to get the job done as quickly as possible with at much quality as possible. I sometimes tend to bring extra of what I need, but it's far better than something I have yet to experience - forgetting something or not having it at all.

So the day of the shoot, all the actors brought their own wardrobe and wouldn't you guess it if it wasn't all WHITE, BROWN, AND BLACK! To continue with the same color scheme for the zombies would make them all look like talking turds that worked at UPS. I had to think quickly and decided to throw in more colors to off set their drab costumes, but do so without making them look far too out of place.

I decided on using a color palette of maroons, purples, and blacks, with white to drown out any flesh tones. My nervousness was compounded because my make-up was going to be filmed in HD so it had to hold up without looking unnatural. That's easier said than done when making zombies purely with your paint-on skills from your kit alone.

The main look of the zombies were their contact lenses, these are BERSERKER style - white with a circle of red around the outside. Effective and instantly recognizable that any human wearing them is not quite what they seem to be. I would center my make-up around the eyes to build up a hollow socket look and do the same with the cheekbones. You can see how important it is to also pay attention to ones hands as they can kill the look of your illusion. A simple pass at the end of their chair visit and they're ready for set.

It's amazing how significantly lighting can alter how your make-up is perceived. I highly recommend taking multiple shots from a variety of angles, with and without flash. On your own time, experiment with light settings and the apertures on your camera. If you don't know what or where those are, you probably don't deserve to own the camera that you have.

Here's Ryan. He had this very defined forehead that I knew I had to accentuate. His character is constantly emotional, the Eeyore of this 100 Acre Woods if you will, who is constantly crying. I decided to toy with that and incorporate a weeping skull look into his make-up. His colors were very dark purples and black blended in and off set with white cream. His beard stubble was a little bit of a challenge but I think for just painting and blending that this is a very strong look.

Here's almost side by side of Cryin' Ryan without and with flash. You can see how the black and purples play differently in different lighting. You definitely are able to see more of a tear trail to his eyes and an almost Goth Kid look to his sensibilities. I made his neck look a bit more skeletal than the rest of the group as well by relying in heavy whites and shadows.

Gina's almost too darn cute to have fallen prey to the Walking Dead, but her written character is also one of the most tender-hearted. I wanted to keep the females in the same color range of pinks and purples with a bit more paleness  then when compared to their male counterparts. Gina's neckline to her blouse added my attention to making her clavicles more pronounced. One key bit of instrumentation to that is blending a small line of dark grey along the thicker lines of white that I applied to her chest bones. This added a more sunken look and a bit of depth. Gina's eyes were done with some Cover Girl blush and accented with a bit of purple. Her look is subtle yet significant.

This is Jen Poland who helped out immensely, not only with acquiring lights, equipment, and locations, but also stepping in as an actress at the last minute when one of the talent was a no-show. She really amazed me in her ability to pick up a script cold and become the character. It should be noted that that's one helluva wig as she's blond underneath. Pretty rocking if you ask me, and if you need further proof of her rock star abilities - check out her movie magic with Invasion Films and her music with The Poland Invasion.

For Jen's look I used the same Cover Girl cream blush, it's really a fantastic color and blends so well along the eyes. I accented lightly with purple. Since she was wearing a lower cut neckline I had to address her throat and clavicles with purple shading and a bit of white cream make-up for the pale hue. I wanted to leave as much of her natural make-up intact as her character is a bit more fashion conscious among the group, almost a Valley Girl from Beyond. I find it odd sometimes to compliment archaic body parts, but I do enjoy folks with defined clavicles and deep eye sockets. Judge me all you want.

Here's our fearless director, Justin. For his look I went with a very dark, dark purple around the eyes, with a  touch of maroon for highlights and black along the cheekbones to sink the eye sockets. I used the same white cream make-up to dull his flesh tone down, and the real key is his crackhead white lips. Far too often I see "zombies" with healthy full lips that ruin the entire look when a quick dab to the mouth area with the same application to the rest of the face. That is unless you want them to look healthy. Again, it's all meant to be factored in as a complete design.

I put a bit of the purple between the webs of Justin's fingers and along his knuckles and blended white on top to ease the look together when talking with his hands and putting them near his face.

This is Jake Greener - the other half of Galactic Mustache and the resident Sound Guy/Boom Op for the flick. His character is sent away for treatment to curing the physical deformities from being formerly dead. His look was a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants design. I had no idea how to make this guy look formerly dead/recently "healed", until he hit my chair. The notes I was given were "more human than human" with possibly being overly tan and twisted looking or like a bad Funeral Home make-up job that's still walking around. I think I effectively captured that look. I used a flat flesh tone cream makeup that was almost off the scale in terms of matching his skin tone. I knew this would look way too faint but still have color. I used some of the Cover Girl cream blush as actual blush to give him those toy soldier cheeks. The rest is a long string of rolled liquid latex backed with some fresh scab and my bruise wheel to build up my character. I added a slight dab of KY Jelly to the sides around the edges too. When first applied it's nice and wet looking, a fresh wound appeal, but as it dries it still gives a nice shine that reflects in the same manner under certain lighting.

Here's side by side look of our Gerald. Here you can see a bit more of the dynamic difference in his skin tone. I really like the bruised purples and how they bring out the artificial rosiness in the cheeks. The amazing thing about this look was from start to finish was 15 minutes. It was a mad rush to get him back to set as there's not much you can do without sound. I sincerely impressed myself with this and still can't believe it was pulled off. I would love to try this again with a nose and/or chin prosthetic.

Here I am in action with a bit of touch ups after our first big scene wrapped a large chunk of our actors.

For a sequence at the end of the night, I gave Gina touch-ups that accented her look a bit more since she would be featured in more close-ups. This meant making the cheekbones and forehead a tad more pronounced, a bit more skull like. In another sequence Gina gets a mouthful of blood, and let me take this moment to say this - I have my own non-toxic blood formula I like, but when actors need it in and near their mouths I prefer to use Ben Nye's Zesty Mint flavored Stage Blood. It's got excellent color, flows nicely and isn't a major hassle for actors that would want to spit and rinse with something else, which can ruin your make-up and mood for the shooting day.

Here's our Gerald again - I can't get over how much he reminds me of a cross between the main villain in LITTLE MONSTERS and Pavi Largo from REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA.

Here's Joe Brown - a true American, lover of all God's flora and fauna, and another reunited soul from my past. He's the poor sucker that gets his neck ripped out. He was also the Assistant Camera Man, the Assistant Director and much more. Here I applied the neck piece using a combination of latex and Pros Aide. I even surprised myself with how well the pre-painted neck piece matched Joe's skin tone. Yes, I know the neck piece looks like Old Man penis, get your mind out of the gutter, that's where mine belongs. Next time it all gets it's own sculpt, considering this is my neck on his. Think of the movie FACE/OFF, but from the chin down.

I added some Fresh Scab and a bit of blood on the outside and it was off to the streets to film the neck rip. I had a plastic plunger (I believe it's 800cc's) with fake blood to inject into the appliance. It seemed to coat and seep nicely and evenly, especially pooling in a natural sense which was a big concern. This appliance lent itself favorably to plenty of movement, but was a bit on the thicker side in terms of being able to tear apart in pieces. It came up almost all in one piece (that is one big flappy piece of fake skin), but I'm sure through the magic of editing it will all work out. For next time I would do a far thinner application in the fabrication process of latex, but that would take away a large portion of its durability. Then again I would do this effect completely differently because of the massive influx to my make-up budget, right? All in all this was roughly 30 minutes on the nose from start to finish. I'd wager a little less, but damn close.

I was really happy to be able to deliver a cohesive and creative vision to the project. In all honesty it was more of a challenge than if I did have big masks or prosthetics because the zombies all relied on how they looked. There is absolutely no way I could have done this any cheaper or quicker on my own, so it was invaluable in learning my abilities and limitations under pressure. I think that the zombies have a unique look, almost as if they were ready to host some Late Night Public Access Horror Show. I am looking forward to future projects with Justin, Joe, and the rest of the squad as they're as hungry to crank out more quality projects. It helps to have a fun project like this under your belt too to help fuel the ideas of what to do next.

A favorite moment of mine was an impromptu wrap-party at a nearby bar with a majority of the cast still in costume. You've never been given service quite like you have when you order a round of shots covered in fake blood a good 6+ months til Halloween.

Many thanks to the amazing cast & crew for all their hard work and determination. It was a fantastic experience filled with plenty of passion, grit, and a surplus of laughs. Everyone wore many hats that matched their many talents and it was refreshing to be around and work with a group of people that genuinely love making movies.

And because I can't tease you any longer, here's the trailer for I AM ALIVE just fresh out the kitchen and steaming hot. I hope you like the camera work. I actually worked holding the lens this time as well...


 Be sure to keep updated on the film with pics, screenings, and other goodies via the I Am Alive FaceBook Page.