July 15th, 2014
Mike Spatola – king of monsters, old age make-up master and Chief Academic Officer of the Cinema Makeup School – is quite possibly our new favourite person, here at Warpaint. Stunned by the subtleties of his aged make-up demonstration at IMATS, we chased him down to talk about wrinkles, writing and the battle to keep traditional make-up in Hollywood films.
Read on until the end to find an exclusive chapter on old age make-up from the master himself!
WP: Were you traditionally trained? If so, where?
MS: [Instantly] No. No, because there were no schools when I started. I started as a ten year old, at home, as a hobby. The only thing I could do was find books and watch movies – I loved monsters, scary movies and all that stuff. I originally wanted to be a doctor, because of Dr Frankenstein! My father had to correct me on that. Dick Smith’s amazing Monster Make-up Handbook was what really got me going – in fact, my books are a homage to his.
I think it would harder to jump right in at 30 years old, to make a complete career change, although it’s easier now there are proper make-up schools. But everyone who came up with me, around the same time, did it the same way as me – trying new techniques, making mistakes, learning from them, and practising.
WP: We’ve heard you used to work at an amusement park – The Brigantine Castle – a five-storey haunted house, churning out monster make-ups. What was that like?
MS: It was my first professional job, at 16, and I ended up staying there for six years. It really was the most amazing training ground. I would have 20 make-up jobs to do, and only two hours to do them in. When I made the move to LA, everyone couldn’t believe it; they thought I was so fast.
WP: With a job like that I suppose you can change things up, and try new things out, quite easily. And if it doesn’t work it’s only for a day.
MS: Exactly. I learnt what I could get away with – which looks needed more attention, depending on lighting and location, and which I could leave as more simple.
WP: How did you make the jump into the industry, then, without the education to lead you in?
MS: When I was 21 I met Rick Baker, who arranged for me to meet with the team at the Makeup Effects lab. They looked at my books, and pretty much gave me a job on the spot. I was there for two years, and it filled in what gaps I had in my own practical knowledge. It gave me the education in things like the moulds and prosthetic creations which I didn’t already know.
WP: What is it like working on sets, working with actors to help create characters together?
MS: I think all MUAs are like psychologists, to a certain degree. We spend lots of time with the actors over shoots, and they open up, talk to you and discuss things with you. It’s funny, because some actors like to watch every step you do, watch you all the way, and by the time you’re done they’re also done with creating their character mentally. And others just want to close their eyes, not see any of the transformation, open their eyes and just suddenly become the character.
WP: You’ve been nominated for Emmy and ACE awards multiple times by your peers. How does it feel to have your work acknowledged by people working alongside you in the industry?
MS: It felt amazing that people liked my work enough, to be included in the top five works of that year. It was an honour just to be nominated, and all of the certificates are proudly displayed in my office. Recognition by your peers is always appreciated.
I think And The Band Played On was the best work I was nominated for, I was very proud of that. It was one of my most important projects because of the social impacts and commentary the film makes, about people living with AIDS and HIV. We had real AIDS patients on set, as well as actors, and the doctors we had on set to provide support and information didn’t know which ones were which. They couldn’t pick out which ones were made-up, which is when we knew we’d done a good job. We had touches like the flaky skin which I created using a methocell formula.
I remember that Steve Johnson won that year, and I will admit to feeling a pang of disappointment: not because Steve’s work didn’t deserve it – his work was amazing – but he won for monsters – really great monsters, but they’re not real. You can conjure up anything and people will accept it because it’s an invented monster, and it fits into the unrealistic world of the project, whereas we had created something so real and beautiful that it had fooled real doctors.
WP: Your books The Monstrous Make-up Manuals Vol. 1 and 2 have been a sensation, selling out in just the first day of IMATS here in London. How did the idea of creating a book come about?
MS: I’ve always wanted to write a book, ever since I was that kid reading Dick Smith’s. It started as a bit of a lark, I had no idea how it would be received by my peers. I did everything in the first book as well – I did the make-ups, the pictures, the words, the editing. I really wanted the readers to think I was there, in the room, teaching them, in the conversational way I talk normally. I wanted it to capture what Dick Smith had in his book, but an updated version, with all the new technologies and prosthetics and things. His was written for kids, and I wanted mine to still keep the approach of “I can do it!”
At the time, it was the most illustrated make-up book available, with over 800 photos. I originally published it as an eBook, but then people started to ask me to actually publish it, they wanted a solid copy, and I had the choice of three publishers! My favourite publishers actually wanted me to change lots of it – they wanted to change the cover, fix the grammar to make it less like my normal speech, things like that. But I wouldn’t, because then it wouldn’t be my book. So I went with my publishers instead, because they told me to keep it exactly as it was. And it’s crazy, because it’s been published in something like 20 countries, most of which don’t speak English!
I hinted at a second book in the first volume, but I didn’t start it until about two and a half years after the first one, when people had started to pile up asking me about it. The second volume has 100 more pages and 500 more photos so now that’s the most illustrated book! The disc version came first, and I had a Kickstarter campaign and pre-orders for the published book. It came out about two years ago now, but IMATS was the first show I brought it to and it sold out even faster than it did at this one.
The second volume is slightly different, because I got asked by my peers if they could do make-up designs for it. But it still has the same feel, the same tone. Some of my students even did some designs, which were beautiful and fully deserve to be in there right next to someone like Joel Harlow’s.
I’ve already started Book Three, and people are already lining up to do work to be featured in it. Erica Preus was one of my students who went to UCLA to do English Literature before she switched to make-up, and she’s now my right hand, my Girl Friday. She’s the only one I trusted, other than myself, to edit the book and because we’ve spent so much time together that she really knows me, she can keep it sounding like me. Plus she’s able to compress my work down in a way that I never could, and still have it say what I wanted to say, just in fewer words. And she’s going to be listed as co-author of the next book, because she deserves it! She does make-up looks in the book, as well as editing it. I have complete trust in her.
WP: How did you get into teaching at the Cinema Makeup School?
MS: Mainly because the teachers were already using my book, basically like a textbook. I got called up, and they said “You have to come and teach!” I got introduced to all of the directors of the school, and they pretty much offered me a job on the spot. The more classes I taught, the more they brought me back. I’ve had a lot of experience with Photoshop, so I could teach that class, as well as old age make-up, as well as characters and creatures.
One day Lee Joyner [Director of Admissions] called me over, with a very serious face on, and I had no idea what had happened or was going on. Then he just broke into this silly grin, and said “How would you like a full-time position?” They were offering me Chief Academic Officer, a director’s position, plus keeping on my teaching. It’s amazing, it’s a regular job in a place that I truly love – I love the kids, the students. I’ve personally employed many of them, or recommended many to other artists looking for help. The best ones show that they’re good with their skills combined with an amazing work ethic; even if they’re not the best in the class, that’s what makes a great artist that you want to work with.
I would absolutely hire someone of good ability over incredible ability if they have the better attitude. Who is the team player, who will make the actor feel good in the morning, right after they’ve woken up, and start the day off right? It’s all about trust in this business.
WP: Do you have any products without which you couldn’t do your job? Ones which you would panic if they suddenly went missing from your kit?
MS: Well the Skin Illustrator palettes, I can’t do a show without them. The original one has the most gaps where there are missing pigments, and I also really like the FX and Complexion palettes. And the Telesis adhesive is great. Premier Products are the best; I used them in my book before I even started working with them. I actually use them, nothing in my book is a product endorsement.
I like to use the cheapest, nastiest brushes! I beat them up, and they become perfect for character work – stippling, freckles etc. My nicer brushes are by Crown and Bdellium, they’re good. There’s one brush I’ve had since 1978, it’s a complete mess, and I use it on every job. It’s just perfect for character work and I’m almost superstitious about it, I get panicked if I misplace it. And I have a beautiful wooden make-up box, which was a gift in 1985, and that goes with me on every job. I fell down the stairs recently, while I was carrying it, and I was more worried about protecting it than I was about breaking my fall!
WP: Speaking of Skin Illustrator, you have your own palettes coming out soon. What can you tell us about them?
MS: There are two palettes, both for the Monstrous Make-up Manuals, called the Life and Death palettes. Frankenstein’s monster is on the front of the Life palette – because it’s aliiiive! – and the zombie is for the Death palette. The Life palette has healthy skin tones in it, a lot of warmth, while the Death palette is all the SFX colours for dead things and monsters. The primaries are also included, so you can mix your own colours too.
The two palettes are going to be used exclusively in Book Three, because they’re the colours I use most anyway. Rice Paper and Aged Blood are always the colours I go through the fastest.
WP: Do you have a favourite project you have worked on?
MS: Probably Tales from the Crypt, I got to work with some amazing talent. And the celebrities – everyone wanted to do the show! Whoopi Goldberg, Tom Hanks… he directed an episode as well, and Rita, his wife, was in one too. He wanted to get involved, and he called up [Executive Producer] Robert Zemeckis, who he’d worked with on Forrest Gump. It’s crazy, because most big stars didn’t do TV then! We had some great directors too, like William Friedkin [The Exorcist], who was the nicest of them all! He came in to the make-up trailer on the last day to say thanks to us for doing an amazing job.
Working at the Stan Winston studio was great too and I got to work on Edward Scissorhands and Terminator 2, etc. I worked on the old age make-up of Winona Ryder in Scissorhands. And I love working at the Cinema Makeup School. We have start dates every month, so we’re always getting new talent. I love teaching the classes, and because we’re an independent school we can be flexible, I could change my syllabus for tomorrow if I wanted to. It keeps things fresh and relevant.
WP: Have you noticed changes in the industry over the time you’ve been working?
MS: Everyone’s making their own webisodes and Kickstarter projects now. It’s a great way to get into the business, but these home-grown producers don’t know what the difference is between a good MUA and a bad one; they just want the cheapest bid. You can see adverts for MUAs on Craigslist! So we try to educate the students about things like Unions, and on working for experience, or working for free.
There’s also a huge shift to CGI, people are starting to not even bother with trying to use traditional make-ups for looks. I’ve been involved with a project called Harbinger Down, and a company called Amalgamated Dynamics (ADI). They’ve worked on some amazing jobs over the years, and are committed to showing that practical monster effects can still look great. They worked on a big Hollywood movie and then almost all of their hard work was cut and replaced by CGI. So they used a Kickstarter campaign to fund the making of Harbinger Down, which uses absolutely no CGI monsters or creatures, they’re entirely practical effects. I think if the film does well, it will really change how practical effects get viewed again in the industry. Or that’s what we hope, anyway.
WP: So what’s next for you?
MS: Book Three is next. I’ve got loads of amazing artists interested in doing looks for it, but I’m maintaining that I get to do several of the big make-ups!
Mike has kindly given all Warpaint readers an insight into the Old Age make-up tutorial from his Monstrous Make-Up Manual. Click below to read the chapter!