April 6th, 2020
Stuart Bray is one of the key prosthetic makeup artists in Europe. A freelance make-up effects artist since 1994, his career has seen him work on some of the biggest film and and TV franchises, including Saving Private Ryan, Gladiator, The Mummy 1 & 2, Shaun of the Dead, Stardust and Doctor Who; most recently working with the prosthetics team on the set of Game of Thrones. Since 2010 Stuart has been teaching the artistry of prosthetics to aspiring make-up artists at Greasepaint and more recently has run courses in conjunction with Titanic FX and also joined the Pinewood Studios based Iver Academy as a tutor. Always busy, we took advantage of the lockdown to ask him some questions.
What’s your background and what brought you into prosthetic make up?
I was a child of the 70’s, so I was the perfect age to see the emerging movies which used puppets and practical effects. Things like The Muppets on TV Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, The Evil Dead movies plus the emergence of home movies and video for the first time, all fed into it. There were the original Star Wars films, Star Trek made their entrance at the cinema, Clash of the Titans, so many memorable films and shows.
I was the right age at the right time for all this creativity to make an impression on me. I knew I wanted to be involved in it somehow, even though I didn’t really understand that it was a job someone could do.
What were your favourite monsters as a child – has this changed over time?
I remember being scared witless by the head popping out in the submerged boat hull in Jaws, and the first time we see Reggie Nalder as The Master in the TV movie of Salem’s Lot (1979). Both scared me, but things which were more human were creepier for me than full on beasts. In An American Werewolf in London (1981), the transforming wolf look, part human, part wolf was far scarier than the fully transformed would look – terrifying as that would be to meet in reality. I guess I enjoyed being scared by things which were human-like.
I had a book that my aunt gave me about Horror, and Vampires were my favourite. I loved the Hammer movies (Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter was a favourite) and Monster Club (1981). There was also some amazing stuff in Theatre of Blood (1973) with the electrocution of Miss Chloe Moon being a strong memory for me.
I always wanted to be involved in making things look creepy, and seeing the makeups in The Evil Dead (1981), House (1985), Return of the Living Dead (1985) and Fright Night (1985), Vamp (1986) and The Lost Boys (1987). Oh my – the 80s were an amazing time for movies. I never get tired of that and I think I spend forever now trying to recreate that feeling now.
Also there was a comic I had called Scream! Which sadly only ran for 15 weeks before getting cancelled during the printer strikes of the 80’s. That again captured me utterly, and I tracked down a complete set a while ago as I am still very nostalgic for that campy horror the 80’s did so well.
You started your career in a pre-social media world – who or what were your early influences in relation to prosthetics – where did you find information and ideas?
I didn’t know who did the makeup in films because then of course the world wasn’t a connected web of easily found information. I discovered Fangoria and Gorezone magazines in a local newsagents and snapped one up as soon as I saw it. This was the first time I saw the word ‘prosthetic’ in print, and looked up what it meant in a dictionary!
In there was an advert for the Lee Baygan book ‘Techniques of Three Dimensional Makeup’, and I credit this book with being the single most influential purchase of my life. Through the book and reading stuff like ‘Caglione & Drexler FX Lab’ articles, I learned the names of Dick Smith, John Chambers, The Westmores, Charles Schram, Jack Pierce and Lon Chaney. The makeup artist who really came on my radar was Greg Cannom who I idolised because of Vamp and The Lost Boys.
Then I got a copy of Elm Street: The Making Of A Nightmare on VHS and learned of Steve Johnson, Screaming Mad George and Howard Berger. I got to see them working and what they actually did and realised that I had to do that. There was no other possible choice for me.
You’re always happy to share your knowledge and experience with others – you have a website, a YouTube channel, have developed a range of moulds, act as a competition judge and also are a visiting lecturer for aspiring artists – why is this so important to you?
The love of this stuff is so deep for me, I can’t separate it from myself so I have to do it because it means so much to me. As I have been lucky enough to work on some great shows, I have been around a lot of talented people who feel the same and I think that is special.
The craft of it matters hugely to me, and because making things is fraught with difficulty, it requires a certain mindset to be able to do it. Everything is fun when it is easy and goes to plan, but overcoming problems is hard and making that fun means digging deep and grasping the nettle.
Picking things apart so they can be fixed and analysing what goes wrong and why, being specific and drilling down, that matters a lot to me. I want the end result but I also want to master the process to get to that end result and sharing that with others is incredibly rewarding.
Also, I remember vividly not understanding things as a kid, and I hated it when things which I found difficult would not get broken down further for me by people who either couldn’t be bothered to present it a different way or assumed I was stupid because I didn’t get something wholesale in the way they presented it to me.
I aim to present things to others in a way that the twelve-year-old version of me would like to have seen it done. To me, that is my guiding light. I love taking something I understand and altering the presentation of it to best help the listener to understand it. It’s not enough to understand something myself, I have to understand how to present it to you and influence you with it too. If I think something matters enough to distract me so thoroughly, I am duty bound to make that palatable to someone else who may have found it as difficult as I did.
Nowadays we have so much connectivity and there are few barriers to entry, and there is a lot of bad information out there as a result. We must put in the effort in our presentation. We don’t need to have a publisher, a producer or studio behind us now to put something significant into the world like we used to. I feel very lucky to live in a time where I can plough energy into what I see as useful work, and so I feel validated every time something I say or do can be useful to someone else. Just as I have benefitted myself from great teachers, I want to add to the pool of good things as best I can.
Since 2016 you’ve hosted a podcast with Todd Debreceni called Battles with Bits of Rubber. How did this start and what’s the reception been?
I love podcasts as a medium, and have listened to them for a long time. I like the fact that you can consume something whilst doing somethings else. With video, you have to stop what you’re doing to watch, but audio only means you can listen and drive, walk the dog, workout or just sculpt at the same time. It gives you a lot more opportunities to be heard and it’s easier to edit and upload as the files are smaller – so from a practical point of view it is a less taxing medium. The idea came up as I was keen to share the same kind of chats we often got into in classes and on set. It felt like often, important things would crop up and stuff that would be useful to know and these would vanish forever.
We don’t do them as often as I like, but we spend more time than we should prepping and working on them so hopefully the content is liked more than churning lower quality stuff out every other day. I am not a broadcaster by trade – I am a nerdy FX bloke so we talk about what we care about and interview others who feel the same.
It is definitely niche, and so far we have racked up over 76,000 downloads – which is no Joe Rogan numbers – but given the very niche area of interest, we are excited about that. I don’t focus so much on growing the number of listeners as deepening the quality and work we could do. I’d rather have a dozen people listen who really give a damn about what we do than millions who flit from one distraction to the next.
It has gained momentum and we have been so lucky with guests like Rob Freitas, Neill Gorton, Matthew Mungle and of course, Rick Baker. Even with those kinds of guests, I hope people hear that we are having a real conversation where I am trying to get to the bottom of something. I dislike puff-piece podcasts which are full of ads and fawning over the guest, and you finish it learning nothing new other than the interviewer thinks the guest is great. I never wanted to do that, even though I am often in awe of the guest. I like to think when you listen, you will come away with something new, useful and interesting.
What would you say are the key skills needed to be a successful commercial prosthetics artist?
Skills are essential but also being – and remaining throughout – enthusiastic, punctual, and discrete. Many things have changed, and many remain the same. Good technical skills and ability to work in a team. Good sculpting, moulding, casting, application etc.
Being ‘creative’ under pressure is not something everyone can do. Many college education programmes have indulgent lengths of times on projects. There isn’t a fearsome entitled producer who is paying you and waiting to tear you a new one in college. As good as education may be, it won’t necessarily replicate the working environment enough to pressure test your suitability for the job.
Nowadays, I would say good Photoshop skills help, and the ability to use ZBrush is a real bonus. Designs and conveying your ideas are valuable skills, so that is useful to have. In a big department, there are a number of different departments so not everyone can do everything well, but a decent awareness of all the skills is good, even if it is to know what you lack and should stay clear of.
Also being able to function as a freelancer with good financial planning, keeping track of tax and your accounts is a real skill which often is overlooked.
What has been the most challenging job you’ve had? Has anything ever gone catastrophically wrong? How do you manage on set when things don’t go as planned?
I have had a few howlers, but the longest and most challenging was probably Dr Who. I was supervising the workshop build of the autons for ‘Rose’, the first episode of the new Dr Who in 2005. It seemed like the expectation of what was easily written was hard to make real on budget, and there were lots of tough days on set with masks. It was a logistical issue of needing holes to see out of the masks while them not wanting to see visible holes in closeup.
We had different heads for close-up and for running around in, but it was mad on that first season. Eventually, the show got into its stride, but that first few episodes were just horrid. A lot of fixing things on the spot and looking bad when the amount of stuff they got for the budget, I should have felt more confident to say no to something rather than try to please everyone.
On Guest House Paradiso, we made a rig which made Simon Pegg appear as if he had been picked up by his (fake) nipple ring on a fishing line. It was supposed to stretch to a point and then stop, but it snapped under the appliance, and we had to take the chest off and reapply it quickly over lunch. There is no getting away from the odd catastrophe like that, and it always pays to have backup pieces just in case.
What was your favourite show to work on? Why was this?
I liked working on Shaun of the Dead and creating the David (Dylan Moran) body as it was featured and I got to be the zombie that first opens his stomach up. As I made the rig, it made sense for me to control how it was used in the scene, so I got made up and prepared a costume to be in the scene and direct the opening of the stomach for the shot.
Saving Private Ryan was a real experience – to be on a big-budget Spielberg movie was terrific. The sheer size and spectacle of the show was something to behold, but you end up comparing every other job afterwards to it.
You’ve worked on some very high profile and award-winning films and TV shows – is there still a ‘holy grail’ client/film/show you would like to work with?
I would love to work on another war movie or TV show – something I would enjoy watching too. If I could work on an adaptation of any of the Flashman books, that would be cool. Think action-adventure military campaigns set in the Victorian era.
Did you ever expect your career to be this varied? What is next on the horizon for you?
No, I was always glad to get a foot on the ladder and take steps up when the opportunity was there. I am very grateful for the opportunities which have come my way. I don’t have a lot more ambitions for the industry itself, but I do have creative aspirations. If I can get to accomplish these in a show build, then that would be great, but currently, I am working on learning ZBrush and 3D printing and working on being a better artist generally.
You can’t control what opportunities will come your way, but you can control how much you practice, so my main ambitions now are to be better, keep on writing and producing good content for the podcast and articles and learn more about using digital technology to create things which interest me.
These things are practical and need constant work. So many talented artists inspire me; I want to keep working and chase that creative dragon.
See Stuart talking and working here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p066kp62