Features and Columns · Movies

Blood, Sweat and Latex: Career Reset

By  · Published on July 11th, 2011

by Shannon Shea

For those of you new to the column, I’m recounting key experiences of my life that made me what I am today: A Special Effects Make Up Artist looking for relevance in the 21st century. I’ve dropped out of CalArts after my sophomore year and have moved in with up and coming Make Up Artist Mark Shostrom, who was seeking a roommate. I am nineteen years old…

I had never experienced a Motion Picture dry spot before. In fact, I hadn’t worked on a film yet. My friend, James Cummins had left and returned from Canada with Margaret Beserra, Brian Wade, Bill Sturgeon, and Henry Golas after executing the alien effects for a film entitled Strange Invaders. Although I asked to accompany them and work on the film, James told me that he didn’t feel comfortable hiring me with no professional experience. Now, back in Los Angeles, James wanted to focus on his screenplay writing and wasn’t pursing any creature effects jobs. Clueless how to get hired at any other makeup effects studio, I stayed in Pasadena, setting up in Mark Shostrom’s apartment.

Mark bid on a few small projects. One job in particular was to produce a life-sized statue in the Greco-Roman style for a commercial. We even went so far as to sculpt a maquette (a small scale model) of our proposed design, but did not land the job. Mark had also been developing some creature effects for an independent film entitled The Last Resort (which has nothing to do with the subsequent film of the same title). Although, they never seemed to be able to get their financing secured, it didn’t stop Mark and I from sculpting maquettes and doing illustrations in an attempt to get things moving ahead. It never amounted to anything.

Finally, Mark received a call from a producer named Sandy Howard, who he had worked for previously. Howard had some success with a low budget exploitation movie entitled Vice Squad and was now prepping a kind of sequel called Deadly Force. The antagonist of Vice Squad, actor, Wings Hauser, would now be the protagonist of Deadly Force. There weren’t a lot of effects required for the film, but production anticipated needing a severe bruise make-up for Wings as well as some post assault make-ups on various non descript victims.

Having been paid a little money (and I do mean a VERY little amount of money), Mark and I drove to Wings Hauser’s home in the Hollywood hills to do a simple face cast as Wings was not available to drive to Mark’s studio. It is difficult enough to do a face cast without having to transport all of the required materials and then set up in a strange environment.

The procedure is messy. Working with the soft alginate casting material and the plaster bandages used to support the mold have a tendency to dust, drip, and otherwise flick particulates around the casting area no matter how well you attempt to protect it. After the life mold is made, the nature of the alginate is to begin shrinking so plaster must be poured into it as soon as possible, and the casting process is equally as messy.

Wings had a Spanish style home with a terra cotta tile floor, so Mark and I started taping plastic garbage bags down to make clean up easier. We were led to a water source and as I filled buckets with water, Mark started gluing a plastic bald cap to Wings’ head to protect his hair from the casting materials. Mark explained the casting procedure to Wings who seemed very cool about everything and soon, it was time to begin. I poured a measure of water into the alginate, Mark mixed it and together we began spreading it across his forehead, taking it down his cheeks, under his jaw, up over his chin and mouth, and finally over his nose, taking care to leave his nostrils open so he could breath. So far, so good.

Next it was time for the plaster bandages and I began dipping the plaster infused gauze bandages into warm water and handed them to Mark as he smoothed them on the alginate. Suddenly, Wings stood up! Straight up and began flapping his arms in panic! Mark talked him back into the chair and we stripped the unfinished life mold from his face.

Red-faced and gasping, Wings apologized to us. He then told us that he had trouble breathing through his nose and thought he could just hold his breath through the entire cast! Mark explained that we could cast him with his mouth slightly open so he could breathe and we started the entire process all over again. From that day on, I was never a big fan of life casting.

A week or so later, Mark had to execute some victim make ups for still photos to be used on a police evidence board and he asked if I wanted to be one of the victims. I went to downtown Los Angeles with him where they twisted a wire coat hanger around my throat (safely). Mark then applied scarring prosthetics and color. I lay down in a dirty alley and had my photo taken. In the final film, there are so many photos on the board that you can’t make out the one of me post-assault, but you can see a very clear photo of me prior to the attack. If for some reason, you decide you need to see Deadly Force, I’m the victim wearing the yellow shirt on the photo wall! It was my first appearance in motion pictures…well, kind of.

After Deadly Force, things got really slow and soon I found myself working for Bank of America in an office reviewing “Versateller” ATM card requests. The people were nice, the money was okay, but ultimately I was miserable. There seemed to be no end in sight, and I certainly didn’t want a banking career. Meanwhile, my car had been giving me so much trouble that I couldn’t afford to fix it and I found myself taking a bus to and from work.

They were dark times.

One evening, I received a call from my mother (whom I hadn’t spoken to in months). She said that she had a “feeling” that things weren’t going well in California and offered to pay for me to come back home an regroup. She didn’t have to ask twice. I sold my car, packed my things and moved back home.

Initially, my thought was that I would give up the arts, and movies, and go back to what I thought I wanted to do – become a paleontologist. My girlfriend, Tracy, had already been attending the University of New Orleans, so it made sense that I would apply to the geology department and reboot my life. Funny how things worked out.

I spent two semesters in the geology department at UNO, but my failing grades in Chemistry and Algebra made me realize that I would never have what it takes to be any kind of a scientist. By my third semester, I had switched into Fine Arts and learned, again the hard way, that I had no interest in being an expressive Fine Artist. I wanted to make monsters.

Out of desperation, I put a bunch of photos together and sent them to Dick Smith. One afternoon, my mother called me to the phone. Dick had called me. We spoke for a long time as he looked over my photos, offered advice, but most of all encouragement. He told me that I had what it took to be a Special Effects Make-Up Artist and I should continue refining my work until an opportunity presented itself. Needless to say, when I hung up the phone, I was elated and reinvigorated to pursue my love of creature making.

By this time, I had had a string of jobs at the Hilton Hotel, Fox Photo (the best job on the planet), and finally working for Tracy’s father at Driller’s Electric of Harvey. I had two more semesters of college in order to get my BFA, and then, I got the call. It was Mark Shostrom.

Mark had finally landed a decent-sized job on a film called Ghost Soldiers that had to do with the reanimation of Civil War corpse/ghosts. There were a slew of “gags” (one-off tricks to simulate wounding and killing of characters) that had to be designed as well. I said good-bye to my family and Tracy, and got back on the plane to Los Angeles.

I was finally in the minor leagues.

Next Time: “The Journey of 1,000 Steps”

…And Last Time on Blood, Sweat and Latex…: “Does Wearing Witch Make-Up Constitute Cross-Dressing?

Shannon Shea, a native New Orleanian educated at The California Institute of the Arts, has enjoyed a 27-year tenure designing, constructing, and performing animatronic creatures and characters for Motion Pictures and Television. He has had the pleasure of contributing to such diverse films as Predator, Dances With Wolves, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Spy Kids, The Chronicles of Narnia, Drag Me To Hell and 2012’s Men In Black 3.

Not limited to the confines of Motion Pictures, he paints (having been shown in New York, North Carolina, and Los Angeles), sculpts, writes and authors a new blog about his motion picture experiences called Monster History 101. Recently, he was tapped by the Stan Winston School of Character Design to be one of their instructors for a lecture series entitled Garage Monsters. When not participating on Hollywood projects, he enjoys producing, writing, and directing his own short films including Hotel Superman, Blind Passion, and his current Internet project Phantom Harbor. Shannon lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tracy, an Operatic Soprano and their daughter, Molly, who attends the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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