May 11th, 2016
Stuart Bray‘s passion for his craft has blown us away every time we meet him. With a diverse CV including TV, Hollywood blockbusters, teaching and even his own podcast, Stuart’s experience, talent and enthusiasm is undeniable.
WP: What initially sparked your interest in make-up and SFX?
SB: I was always interested in make-up as a kid and would often play with my aunt’s make-up, trying to turn myself into creatures and characters. I never really grew up – I just started getting more into creatures and monsters as I got older. I loved monsters and monster movies – mainly Hammer stuff and whatever I could lay my hands on. It scared me but I was hooked on that feeling, and like a lot of kids the monsters were my heroes.
I discovered a newsagents which sold the US Fangoria and Gorezone magazines when I was about 14, and they often had workshop articles and tutorials in them which I just drank in like a thirsty sponge. Then I saw an advertisement for a book by Lee Baygan called Three Dimensional Make-up which was the very first book I bought on the subject. It used material names of products which we didn’t have in the UK, and I spent a while finding equivalents.
WP: Where did you train?
SB: I played with make-up and make-up effects for years as a kid, inspired by Gorezone etc. like I said, but it was all just fun for me. I ended up making lots of mistakes but always having fun. I went on to do two year foundation course at college, fresh out of school, as I realised I needed to learn about art and practice it. Then when I was 20 years old years (this was 1993) and at college, we had a few weeks of prosthetics on our degree course, and the tutor who taught it was a visiting lecturer.
It turned out to be Nick Dudman (Harry Potter, The Mummy, Penny Dreadful) who had not long done the Jack Nicholson Joker on the first Batman movie in 1989. I sat with him for about twenty minutes, and all these questions which I had been stewing for years just poured out. It was the first time I had met somebody who knew the answers and could talk to me about it in such depth. I remember coming away from that brief chat absolutely buzzing, and I think at that point something in me shifted into high-gear and I didn’t even think about pursuing anything else; I was hooked.
At the time, as it was a theatre-based college, they kind of frowned on prosthetics and movie stuff, and I remember my course leader saying how I hadn’t really grown much as I started the course wanting to do prosthetics, and left three years later still wanting to do it – but then we never got on. I’m not good with pompous authority.
WP: What was the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your years as an artist?
SB: It’s an industry, and you are a small part in a big machine if you want to take part. Often the work for film or TV shows is the most well-known but the least satisfying, so I think having your own endeavours and interests outside of work are important. Keep a small fire burning for your own creative interests, keep growing creatively. It can be cold, wet, filming for long hours in freezing outside condition at night… but when it all kicks off around you and the big machine of film making turns over, it’s a thrill to be working amongst it all. Then, when you watch it years later, the memories come back! It’s a thrill, but sometimes the industry is a tough place to be. Having something that is yours is an important thing to maintain.
Also, everyone suffers from a degree of self-doubt, and learning to deal with that whilst still working is important. You are not alone if you feel overwhelmed or like you have lost your ability to make once in a while. Over the journey from initial idea into creating a piece of rubber walking around on set, a lot of different ‘frames of mind’ creep in. That inner voice most people have which whispers every self-doubt you’ve ever had can creep in and start to unpick your determination. Deadlines and working for other people have beaten a lot of that out of me but it still happens every now and then. Refusing to let that whisper grow into a shout is the way to cope with that one.
WP: What has been your favourite product to work on? Or, if you can ’t narrow it down, your favourite things to create?
SB: Character make-ups – that is, things which look real and believable to the eye. If you do an amazing creature or zombie, that is fun and kind of nice to hide behind blood or patterns or bruising etc. But when you see a nice clean character make-up done well, it’s really a thrill. It looks like you have created another person, a believable character who maybe wouldn’t draw attention in an anonymous crowd.
WP: What pre-conceptions do you think other people might have about the industry/what you do?
SB: That it is glamorous (not true), that you get paid huge sums of money (not true) and that you are made to feel really important (again, so not true). I teach a fair bit and often the thing people comment on when they go through the manufacturing processes is that they didn’t realise how much work was involved. There is so much hidden, so much effort not seen in the final product. You have to know the processes and love doing them. One analogy I use a lot in a class is that it’s no good deciding that you want to be a chef simply on the basis of enjoying a delicious meal. If you’ve never worked in a kitchen under that pressure and conditions late at night, you can’t realistically make a real decision. Confusing a fleeting want with true, informed desire is not the same thing.
As with most industries, people want things as quickly and as cheaply as they can. As an artist you want to have as much time and money as you can… and so the tug of war begins.
WP: How long have you been teaching SFX, and what prompted you to try your hand at it?
SB: I started teaching when I worked for Neill Gorton, and he started up Gorton Studio. I taught most of a seven week course and found that I really enjoyed doing it. Then at a London IMATS I was on a stand with Mouldlife for Millennium FX (Neill’s FX company) and loads of people came up and asked questions. I had a notebook and pencil, and spent the day talking with people and sketching out ideas to help them make moulds, fix problems and stuff. It was such a buzz and it felt like I was really connecting with people through a shared interest.
I remember how excited I was when I got my questions answered starting out, and I really like explaining things which I understand to people who want to know. I basically break things down in a way that I would have liked to have it explained to me. Sometimes this is in minute detail, but often I think tutorials can focus on the ‘what’ rather than the ’why’.
When I started it was, of course, pre-Google and all of my information came from magazines, books and the occasional tip from somebody that was also interested in make-up FX. They were thin on the ground then. There is no shortage of information online now but I think that doesn’t really matter if you are not passionate and creative enough yourself to do something original, wonderful and with purpose. After all, we all have access to keyboards and digital cameras – are we all writing prize winning novels or working as photographers? No, because these are just tools; the plot, composition and real creative element comes from YOU, and that is hard to do well consistently.
I hope that people who enjoy my blog, videos and podcasts are picking up on the passion that I have and getting a sense that it is THAT which matters as much as the technical information that is discussed.
I have had a few major experiences with leading make-up artists which reinforced my intention to share and help people who want to learn. I had help from Dick Smith who patiently replied to my letters, Nick Dudman who, as I said, was my first encounter with a professional prosthetic artist and even Geoff Portass who, with Bob Keen, ran Image Animation and worked on the Hellraiser films. These people took time to answer my questions, and in a way that took time and effort to do. I took their information and applied it to help me get to the next level, and so on. As a result, I can see these as little bursts of enthusiasm which seemingly came out of nowhere but really helped me to keep going. So basically I value that kind of generosity myself, and if I can help someone then I will because I am myself a recipient of the generosity of others.
WP: What are your top five products which you always rely on? Do you have any underrated products picks?
SB: There are quite a few processes in actually making prosthetics which use things which may not seem like they are essential but are. In sculpting I use a lot of talc and plastic sheeting, for example to get different kinds of skin texture. We use unconventional brushes a lot too, for applying paint in a ‘flicking’ style rather than actually touching it down onto skin. I have also repaired damaged appliances with patches torn from a rubber glove, and once used condoms filled with water to make some huge, sagging cheeks wobble the right way.
I always have a few things on board which I wouldn’t want to be without: Kryolan Supracolour ‘B’ Palette, scar wax (no, really – you never know!), round brushes (I use art brushes sizes 2, 6, 10), cut down laminating brush for ‘flicking’ and Face to Face Antishine from Make-up International.
WP: What advice would you give to prospective artists now?
SB: Learn to draw and sculpt from life. Learn digital sculpting and painting, like ZBrush and Photoshop. These are useful tools and will become more necessary as time goes by.
You have to love the work, the processes. They are what will sustain you, and people who are successful at this now did it for fun before it paid their bills. It is a phenomenally difficult industry to make a living from. Most creative work is – fewer people are lining up to do unpleasant jobs, it is the jobs that appear most rewarding that attract the most attention. But there is a lot of fun to be had, and there is an abundance of information out there about it. You can pretty much find out how to do anything for free online. The real problem isn’t finding out how to do something, but finding who to do it for.
The internet means everyone can be a writer, an artist, a singer, a photographer. You don’t have to appeal to a publisher, a record producer or a gallery to get your work out there. Because of that, it isn’t about your ability to produce a single thing anymore, but about how consistently you are. Keep an open mind and look for opportunities rather than focus your search in too niche an area.
It isn’t enough to learn a thing and sit on it and wait for the world to beat a path to your door. It won’t and it never was like that. There are a few lucky people who land on their feet, but the vast majority struggle. Technology is changing a lot of things, but it is enabling us to do better things too and I would suggest we embrace this.
My top pieces of advice are:
- Nobody ever wants an average anything – when you get on a plane, would you be happier if that pilot had graduated top of his class or just scraped through?
- Learn to draw from life. The skill of seeing with your eye and reproducing it with your hands is never wasted.
- Learn to sculpt both in clay and digitally in a programme such as ZBrush if you can.
- Don’t do a zipper face makeup unless it looks amazing. To this day I still don’t know why the zipper would be on a face or why it would go down the face rather than across it in line with the mouth.
WP: What does the rest of 2016 hold for you?
SB: I have two young kids and an elderly father, so I’m in that awkward place of being in the middle of a lot of family commitments. As such, I am taking the occasional freelance job, but mostly teaching, writing, blogging and podcasting for the next couple of years.
As much as I enjoy the buzz of productions, you have to work to their schedule and times which I can’t commit to at the moment. I have been very lucky with jobs that I have been able to do, either from home or on a schedule that suits me. Last year I did lots of stuff for Doctor Strange, a new Marvel movie coming out this year.
You can find Stuart’s podcast series, Battles With Bits Of Rubber, here.