Shaune of the Dead

July 10th, 2017

July 10th, 2017

On a recent trip to Manchester we stopped in at Shaune Harrison’s Academy.  After falling in love with his lovable dog Juno we settled down to business – looking around his airy studio space and chatting about his long and varied career.


WP:  Tell us how you got started in make-up.

SH:  I’ve always been interested in monsters even as a child – when I was 7, 8 and 9 I used to play with dinosaurs and I had a mind for playing with fantasy figures – Action Men, that kind of thing.  When I saw the work by Ray Harryhausen, who did the Sinbad films and Jason and the Argonauts, I was probably about 10 and was fascinated with that.  Then Star Wars came out and I wanted to make space ships but didn’t know how to get into the whole visual effects stuff, so I started doing little cuts and bruises on my Action Men. Then in 1981 there was American Werewolf and The Howling came out, and I bought this Fantastic Films magazine with that image of the werewolf from The Howling and Rob Botin’s stuff.  I think those films influenced a lot of people of my age – American Werewolf, The Howling and The Thing.  Even now, it’s ground-breaking.

WP:  What was your first step in becoming a make-up artist?  Did you train or were you self-taught?

SH:  Self-taught.  There really wasn’t anything out in the mid-‘80s.  I wrote to Industrial Lights and Magic when they had just finished Return of the Jedi – I had the book of the film and it had their address in it – and they wrote back and said that there were places in England to train.  I’d also seen an article on Christopher Tucker who had done Company of Wolves and so I sent a letter to him.  I literally addressed it to Christopher Tucker, Shepperton Studios, London [laughs] and somehow they passed it to him.  It took 3 months, but he got it, and he invited me down.  I was 15 years old and terrified, didn’t know what to expect.  I think at this point he was a BAFTA or Emmy winner – he worked on Quest of Fire and Dune and Star Wars – and I kept thinking I can’t do this work, it’s too good.  But he was very helpful, he was blunt and that’s what you need; people who explain what else you can use to make things better.  He told me to use foam latex, different materials.  I was using industrial window putty that my dad used to get for me and I’d be at home making Gremlins, lots of trial and error.

My careers teacher told me I couldn’t do it.  They said you could only do this if you were in Hollywood, why would someone on the Wirral do this?  I really wanted to show them and it took me a long time, a lot of practice.  I eventually wrote to Bob Keen and Jeff Portas at Image Animation and they called me down for an interview when they were doing Hellraiser II.  I remember thinking that I couldn’t do it, I was absolutely terrified.  I’d kind of becoming a recluse because I’d spent so much time on my own perfecting and I was really nervous about it.  They said they were doing this film with Clive Barker called Nightbreed and that they’d taken me on a as a runner, so that’s how it started.  I’d clean up, make tea, sweep up, everything, and I kept thinking that someone was prepared to pay me a small amount of money to do what I’d do and I could watch all the artists and soak it all up.  Eventually someone asked if I’d help with something they were doing.  In the evenings, we’d all stay after work – we were all obsessed – and we’d sit and sculpt and make our own things, and Bob Keen would say that we needed to get a life and go home!  But I was there on my own, a lot of us were by ourselves, so we became friends and would go out together.

Shaune sculpt

WP:  What about your directing work?  Have you always wanted to do that too or is it from being on sets that’s got you interested?

I was asked by Garry Tunnicliffe, who owned Image Animation back in 1994, to work on Hellraiser 4.  It’s still the hardest job I’ve ever done – lack of crew, loads of hours and I was working on other jobs too at the same time.  Garry set up the LA side and I was thrown in at the deep end; I thought there was lots of things already made and there was nothing.  Even though I hadn’t worked on Hellraiser 3 I’d worked on some of the gags for it.  They were shooting some of the effects and I was one of the only people who’d worked on a Hellraiser film before so I suggested that they try this or that.  Garry was doing Main Unit and I was doing Second Unit, and we had to split ourselves so I started directing some of the stuff with the 2nd Unit Director.  When I got to work on Sleepy Hollow, again I was working with Garry and Kevin Yagher – he does the best fake heads I’ve ever seen, even today I think that the standard that was created on Sleepy Hollow was amazing stuff.  He pushed and pushed and pushed us.  I was on set doing lots of the co-ordinating, I was basically the last one on set.  We had this amazing cameraman called Emmanuel Lubezki, who’s gone on to do The Revenant and Gravity and stuff – he’s a genius and would take hours setting all the lights – so I got to do little bits here and there.

I used to write scripts, they weren’t proper or anything, but after working on the Harry Potter films I wanted to make my own stuff.  So I did a film called The Grave which was ridiculously expensive and cost me a small fortune, but we built this outdoor graveyard set and I did a lot of research.  It didn’t have any FX in it; I didn’t want to be seen as an effects person.  It wasn’t great but then I did a thing called The Skeleton Crew which was a comedy about skeletons wearing zombie make-up that pretend to be human, it was like a take on people wearing character make-ups – and I won loads of awards for that bizarrely, including Best Screen Writer in the LA Film Festival which was mad.  So every time I’d do a HP, I do a short – HP then short – cos I wanted to do something for me and that’s gone on into other things.  Then we got this new one, this Infinity thing which is potentially going to happen this year in New Orleans and I’m really excited about.

WP:  You’ve worked on some of the biggest blockbusters of the last two decades.  What has been the biggest changes that you’ve noticed?

SH:  Probably the techniques that we’ve used, going from foam latex to silicone; the quality that we now achieve and the speed that we do it, we can pre-make stuff to a brilliant standard.  Also the VFX – CG has closed some doors but opened others.  From HP1 to the last one, the advancements in CG meant that we could build things that would never be seen on camera before.  You’d spend 7, 8 months building a creature for VFX reference purposes and that helps the actors, VFX, directors, everyone can see it as a 3D finished model when you walk on set. The cameras pick up everything so the quality of what you make has to be top, you need to be super careful.  4k cameras, you’re getting to 8k cameras now, and it’s terrifying.  You can do it but will always have to go into minute level to clean stuff and make sure it’s looking a bit better.

Shaune Sculpt Head

WP:  Is the camera technology driving the make-up technology or are they together?  Is one pushing the other?

SH:  I don’t think people think that camera is pushing, but I remember doing something for the BBC – Mark Coulier, Paul Spateri, Steve Murphy and myself – we did this thing where we did tests and they shot them on 4k, HD and normal and we couldn’t tell the difference, the make-ups looked fine on each one.  I think that as long as you make your make-up look good to the eye, then that’s alright.  It’s down to the camera and sometimes it’s a certain light hitting or shadow falling.  You might be able to see something you want to change, but the shadow hits it and it looks fine.  You should always be looking at the monitor and we always try to better ourselves.  I remember on the very last Potter there was a core group of sculptors doing goblins and we all wanted to do the best we could because it was the last one, and we were all asking each other’s advice on things – there were no egos in that sculpting room.  We got a lot of time do it and we all wanted to do it better than the previous film.  It’s about pushing yourself.  It might be that there’s a better material or technique than we used last time, or sometimes you stick with what you used before because it’s the best available at the time.

WP:  What are your thoughts on the overwhelming rise of CGI?  A help or a hindrance?

SH:  They’re a help, for me at least.  Although I think a lot of studios rely on CGI making their film better, and while we can still to very good stuff real I just think we might not ever get the chance to do it anymore. I think CGI rules – to be honest we can’t do a Hulk, you can’t paint a guy up and put him in prosthetics when they can make a Hulk that’s 10-12 feet tall.  Dinosaurs – they can do to an amazing quality in Jurassic World and stuff, but at the same time they tend to do stuff that’s unrealistic physically.  Same as the Lord of the Rings – the pale orc in The Hobbit with all the scars could have been done with make-up, Richard Taylor certainly could have done it, but it’s partly a laziness because most films have release dates before you shoot them and you’re always fighting back from that.

It’s a difficult one because it’s opened up a lot of doors for us and at the same time it can also ruin a film.  If they redid Jaws it would be terrible.  The reason the film worked so well is because it’s not really about the shark, it’s about the three characters on the boat and the suspense of them being scared by the three yellow barrels that pop up.  It’s down to a great filmmaker.  Sometimes all they says it that they’ll fix it in Post and don’t worry about it.  I love CG in the right places.  Once the prices start coming down with CG though you do lose the quality – I think Hollywood’s a bit fascinated with doing films in post-production and re-shooting, they’ll make a really cool creature suit and then they’ll replace it.  There was something on Captain America: Civil War where the Black Panther was a real suit – a really beautiful suit – even though they replace every frame of it with a digital version.  Why?  The audience isn’t gonna see anything different.  Why paint him out? Why make a suit?  Then you’ve got Chris Nolan – who I think is one of the best film makers in the world – and he’ll try and do it for real.  In The Dark Knight when the Joker’s truck flips over, it’s a real truck.  You wouldn’t do that in a Marvel film, it would be a digital truck.  I don’t suppose the audience realises – I don’t watch wondering if it’s real or digital – but they do notice if it’s bad.  I don’t get the fighting against it, it’s like trying to block a dam.  So long as it’s done well and they don’t waste quarter of a billion on a CG shot, if it helps speed up production then great, that’s what it’s all about now.


WP:  What 5 products do you keep stocked in your kits at all times?

SH:  Most important are my Medical glues – Telesis, Kryolan Silicone Adhesive which I’ve just started using and really nice glue, strong, 355 – you can’t get that any more but people have secrets stocks of it.

Alcohol palettes are another – the Zombie palette by PPI has a great range of colours, I use that as much as possible.  IPA alcohol to go with it and a good cleanser for the skin – it has to come off as well as go on.  I always keep a stock of good blood – Rob Smith’s Silicone Flow blood doesn’t stain, it’s really good.  I think it’s the best of the market at the moment.

WP:  One underrated product that you think more people should know?

SH:  Kryolan Fixing Spray.  It sets make-up perfectly.  You should always use something to fix, but I hadn’t seen this one until World War Z.  I saw someone using it and their skin looked better and popped out.  So now I use it all the time and spray over every make-up.  I don’t upgrade until there’s a reason – I’m the same with phones.

Kryolan Fixing Spray

WP:  You have your own academy – how did the teaching come about?

SH:  It was probably a few year prior to opening the Academy when I was doing bits of teaching, which lots of us do between movies; you tend to says yes to a teaching job, and then a film comes up and you have to say sorry.  I did some in Brighton, Northbrook College and really enjoyed it – I think we all teach people when we’re working anyway, trainees, showing them how do do bits.  It keeps me on my toes, in this industry where you can sometimes go six months without sculpting or putting a make-up on, and then you have to get back into it.  But with teaching you’re constantly doing it, and it felt like the right time for me to move slightly to doing my own stuff.  Films take over your life – big budget, kudos, money, but no life for 6-12 months when you’re the first in and last out.  At the time I felt like I needed a change.  It was at the end of the last Potter and I wanted to do something a bit more for me. More directing and writing, which I don’t have time when I’m on a film.  Me and my partner Justine spent a year working out how we do it – do we teach all year long? Build in breaks?  We position our classes a year ahead and we can fit things in.

Classes are no more than 6, I keep it really small, especially on the 6 week course when they do full life cast heads.  I’m not about taking loads in and getting loads of money because that way they don’t get my individual time; my way, they all come out with individual pieces of work that they’ve designed with some direct feedback or help.  I don’t head off to the office and leave them to it – I’m always with them, advising and hands on.  That’s the whole point of our school.  Students have gone on to do the new Mummy, Justice League, Wonder Woman, Star Wars – which is great for me to see them go off and do the big films.

SHaune pupils

WP:  What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned while teaching?

SH:  When you’re working in film, you know all the people you’re working with; with a class, it’s totally fresh people each time. You’ve got to make sure they all work together well – whether it’s ego issues, backgrounds (newbies, 20 years of beauty make-up), just help them get along with each other.  It puts me on my toes.  Each course starts from scratch – it’s good for me cos I have to be up with new materials much more than on set.  Also the courses fly by – 30 days is not a long time, they worry that they won’t be able to remember all the code names of the products but they do.  It’s like spinning plates.

WP:  Personal career highlight?

SH:  Captain America: The First Avenger.  I worked with Dave White, I’ve known him for a long time, and worked with him on the Red Skull.  I’m not a massive comic book fan, I don’t read them and as a kid I was films not comics.  But Hugo Weaving is a fantastic actor and it was a great experience.  As a huge bonus Joe Johnston, who was on the original Star Wars films – he designed the snow walkers on the Empire Strikes Back – was involved and for me meeting him was incredible.


WP:  What would you is the project / design / piece of work you’re most proud of?  Are they the same?

SH:  That’s a hard one – sometimes you do a character that you love but the film doesn’t end up great.  I worked on a character called Bib Fortuna on The Phantom Menace.  Nick Dudman had done the original on Return of the Jedi, so being given that character and told to recreate it was amazing.  The whole Star Wars experience was a weird thing for me, a very surreal moment – the prequels always get slated but I think working on a George Lucas Star Wars film was pretty amazing.  I never thought when I was a kid of 9 seeing Star Wars that I would be working on one with George Lucas.

WP:  What advice would you give aspiring artists on how to stand out from the crowd?

SH:  Don’t copy other people’s work.  Don’t do zipper faces, coke cans, all of that because all you become is a sheep.  Just one piece of work, the right piece, can get you a job and I always tell people that if you’re not happy with it, do it again and again and again until you can’t do it again.  If you think you’ve put 110% into it and that’s all you can do, then great.  Don’t just share stuff on Facebook for reactions because your friends will all say it’s amazing even if it’s not, they don’t want to upset you.  Do something original; spend 6 months on one make-up because that one project can get you a job.

When we did the witch character at UMAexpo I spent 5 months on it.  I was working on Avengers: Age of Ultron during the day so spent my evenings and weekends on it.  I wanted to because that was our first ever character for the Academy so I wanted to go out of the blocks with something that was the best I could possibly do at the time.

Make sure you love what you do – I do a lot of stuff just cos I want to.  I don’t get the point of just copying, do something with a twist.  Think about why it is the way it is.  People tend to copy stuff from social media or Face Off and you’re diluting it down all the time.  I’m not a big fan of that type of stuff in any case; I think you should look at the likes of Rick Baker, Stan Winston, Rob Botin, Dick Smith, people who are icons – Jack Pierce in the ‘40s and 50s, that’s who inspires us, they’re the best.  Steal from the best, not the wannabe YouTubers; just ‘cos they’ve got 100k likes on Facebook doesn’t mean you’re gonna get that too.  You’ll be lost in that world.

Shaune Witch2

WP:  What makes a good assistant?

SH:  Someone who understands what we do, the materials we use, the knowledge behind it.  What I love is whenever we’re doing a make-up and you pick up a cotton bud and the person hands you the talc or the glue or whatever it is you need – it’s right there and they’ve anticipated what your next stage is gonna be.  Kind of obvious things – not getting in the way, emptying bins, cleaning up, all that stuff – being useful.  Asking someone to clean out a mould and instead of them saying, “Do I have to?” they just do it.  That’s what I did for a year when I first started – understanding the processes, doing as much as you can.  If you want to do something in your spare time, sculpt something to impress.  If you’ve got nothing to do in the workshop, ask what you can do to be helpful – not sitting there doing nothing.  Sometimes this job is repetitive and dull, but if you find it gets too boring, do something else for a while.

Be on time.  There’s nothing worse than waiting for your assistant or picking them up because they’re late.



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