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MEET THE CREW: Special Makeup Effects Artist: Christopher A. Nelson

Hello ladies and gentlemen, Muldoon here with another interesting edition of "Meet The Crew," AICN's tiny peek around the curtain of filmmaking where we get a better look at what all it takes to make a film and how many talented individuals are involved in the process. Sure, we all see interviews with the ship's captain, the director(s), and their main cast, but how about those cable wranglers, stuntmen, the picture car guy, or the badass artists who've built animatronic creatures or design memorable sets? Hopefully you'll find these articles half as interesting as I do and so far we've been able to chat with Production Designers, DPs, Creature Supervisors, and more. This week we're taking a look at Christopher Allen Nelson, Special Makeup Effects Artist Extraordinaire.

Take a glance at Chris's IMDB page and you'll understand exactly how cool it is of him to take the time to chat we me/us. The guy's been a part of some of the more memorable films out there, movies like KILL BILL, SIN CITY, HOSTEL, SERENITY, and STAR TREK. Outside of cinemas, the man's worked on some pretty cool shows like THE CAPE, NCIS: LA, and my absolute favorite TV show out there - AMERICAN HORROR STORY. As a matter of fact, Chris and company just last weekend were given a Local 706 Make-up and Hair Guild Award for their work on AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAKSHOW. If you haven't seen FREAKSHOW, I implore you to do so - great writing, incredible acting, wonderful sets, and well... award winning special makeup effects! So before we get going below, I would like thank Chris before anything else for taking the time out of his busy schedule to shed some light on what it means to be a Special Makep Effects Artist, as well as provide quite a few candid behind the scenes images. I'd also like to thank 1st AD Brian McQuery for putting me in touch with Chris in the first place.


As a Special Makeup Effects Artist, exactly what do you do? As in when do you typically get hired on to a show and what are some of the first things you do to get the ball rolling?

As an FX Make-up artist, when I get hired has varied over the years. Currently I’ve been an “independent contractor” of sorts. I’m mostly brought in to execute prosthetic make-ups and “gags” or puppeteering during principle photography through post. In the past when I’ve worked exclusively for shops such as KNB (7 years), or Steve Johnson... I would be involved from the beginning during design concepts and supervising the “build” before going to set and executing everything during shooting. The first thing is always design, approval from directors and producers, then building. Daily, I work very long hours applying make-ups and shooting. Working closely with the actor bringing their character to life. Once the day is done, then the removal process and preparation for the next day begins.

What do you consider to be the most enjoyable parts of your job? On the flip side, what are some of the tasks that you don’t necessarily enjoy, but come with the territory?

I’m very lucky in that most of what I do is enjoyable. I love my job and all aspects of it. Creating something from nothing is the ultimate high. Collaboration is one of the most stimulating and inspiring aspects of what I do. Artists working together and brainstorming. I love that this business is filled with your peers and people that think alike. An island of misfit toys so to speak. We all belong. I also love working with actors who love character and make-up. That’s my love of Lon Chaney talking. To be able to work with such amazing artists, thinkers and story tellers goes beyond satisfaction. It’s the ultimate artistic education. Also traveling is one of the highlights of my career. I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over the world for weeks and sometimes months at a time. Tasks I don’t necessarily enjoy? Well there aren’t many... but I’d have to say hair work. Haha. Though I’m good at it, I don’t really enjoy it.

Typically how many people are in your department and how do you flow with each of them in order to achieve the desired outcome on an actor?

The size of the crew varies from show to show. On American Horror Story, there’s Eryn Krueger Mekash, Mike Mekash and myself for the most part in prosthetics. Eryn Krueger Mekash is the “make-up department head”. Depending on the size of the workload, other artists come and go, which is wonderful because you get to work with your friends and some great artists. How you work with others is a crucial part of my job. You have to understand other peoples artistic approach to things, and they you. There is a “dance” of sorts when doing make-ups with others or juggling multiple make-ups and gags. Some people get the rhythm and others don’t. It’s important to work with other artist that can “dance” well so to speak.

What path led you to where you’re at now? Just from glancing at your IMDB page, you’ve been a working Special Makeup Effects Artist since the early nineties – I’m just curious what got you excited as a youngster and how that led to you working on so many great films.

My path to Make-up FX started at a very young age. I think I was 7. I was a huge fan of Lon Chaney and character acting. Chaney combined acting and make-up like no one did, or has since. I was extremely poor and left alone a lot as a kid, which fueled my imagination artistically. In a sense, I wanted to know what it’s like to be another person. Something more extraordinary than myself and my own life. Film and television were my “church”, my school, and my introduction to a bigger world than my own. A magical world. No one around me thought it was attainable to work in film. I was told it wasn’t a real job from my guidance councilor in school. But I knew it was and I was going to make it happen. So at 15 I moved from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles to pursue FX Make-up AND acting.

Was there any one in particular who helped give you your first break?

There are two names that pop into my mind right off the bat. Tom Burman gave me my first job in a real FX Make-up shop. He was very kind and I learned a lot working with him and his two sons Rob and Barney. Also Bill Corso was a huge supporter and got me into Steve Johnsons XFX, where I learned SO much. Both Bill and Steve taught me how to problem solve, to think outside the box, and that anything was possible. John Vulich and Everett Burrell also took a chance on me and kept me learning and practicing my craft. That led me to work at Rick Bakers, Optic Nerve, and many other amazing shops. It was at a time before all these schools, DVD lessons, and the internet. You had to learn all of it and you had to learn by DOING and making mistakes. It was the best education. And though I never really got to work with him, Rob Bottin was a huge influence and inspiration.

Is there a shot/sequence/moment that you can point to and say, “It’s that way because I was there and had it of been anyone else, it would have been different.” Not necessarily good or bad, but possibly something a lot of us movie fans would have seen and can find a little more appreciation out of. Have there been any designs that you’ve created or changed in an extreme way?

That’s a tough question. In film, it’s always a collaborative effort and medium. There is never really one single person that can take credit for it all. But, I do think there are certain kinds of people that can push something to a higher level and make you look at things from a different and better perspective. “The House of Blue Leaves” from Kill Bill is a sequence that comes to mind. This is where Uma battles the Crazy 88’s. That sequence could have gone a completely different way if the right people weren’t there to execute it. Howard Berger of KNB took me over to China to shoot that sequence among others and boy did we work. Every day drenched in blood. We built most of the gags for that sequence on the day based on what Tarantino wanted to see. That sequence was sculpted as we went. I look back at it now and wonder how the hell we pulled that off the way we did. There was no digital. It was all practical. None of those gags were built ahead of time. I think we went through 400 gallons of blood. It was an immensely fulfilling experience that not many people could have pulled off given the circumstances.

Another thing that comes to mind is Jeremy Iron’s make-up for “The Time Machine”. Apparently production was having a hard time finalizing the right look for the character he played. Greg Nicotero of KNB called me and we went to Warner Brothers for a test. I love that make-up and thought it turned out great. A lot of what I do is problem solving or “fixing” things. That’s something I’m good at. Tell me what you think you want and I’ll give it to you. Off the cuff is something we have to deal with on AHS all the time based on what Ryan Murphy wants. You wouldn’t believe some of the things that were built or changed moments before it went to camera. But that’s part of the process and an exciting one at that.

With practically any film, the demand to work with other departments is crucial to the success of a given film. What type of things do you look for when working with other departments? Or, what are some key questions you typically need addressed in order to pull off some of your more elaborate gags and make sure everything works cohesively?

Trust. Trust is the most important thing when working with any and all departments. Respect is right up there with it. Like I said before, it’s a dance. You have to respect and trust other professionals as much as you need them to do the same with you. In FX Make-up, you rely sometimes on the costume designers, the DP, props, and the set designers in order to make some of the illusions you’ve made work. When everyone is on the same page, working toward a common goal, and everyone is a seasoned professional, you can do anything. To be great at your job, you have to have a working knowledge of how other departments and artists do what they do. Never stop learning.

You’ve worked on films like HOSTEL, KILL BILL, STAR TREK, BORDELLO OF BLOOD, and many others... If you had to choose, which films have a special place in your heart, a memory or a lesson you’ll never forget?

My top three or so that hold a “special place”? Kill Bill for sure. I can’t express how much I learned or how fulfilling that experience was on so many levels. It was film school 101 working with Quentin and the amazing crew he assembled from all over the world. Sin City was another. Creating the character of Marv with KNB was amazing, taxing, hard, and rewarding. The Austin Powers films were a truly fun and collaborative experience. Ideas were welcomed and used from everyone to get the best results. Plus I laughed non stop. Finally the American Horror Story seasons are some of the toughest yet satisfying experiences of my life. They truly made me a better more confident artist at a time in my career where I needed to be challenged.

What is a “typical” day in your life like? (For example, on day 2 of a television shoot.)

Lately a typical day involves getting up at some ungodly hour. Getting to the make-up trailer and starting a 16 to 18 hour day doing multiple make-ups and gags. I remove the make-ups, prepare for the next day’s events, go home, sleep every minute I can, then start all over again the next day. Weekends I either work or blow off steam in any way I can which usually involves movies, reading, and drinking.

Can you share any stories from the trenches? Are there any films that you had to handle a problem in any unconventional way?

I have so many stories I wouldn’t know where to begin without this becoming a novel. Rarely any problems that arise are handled conventionally. But that’s what makes this occupation so damn fun and challenging. I know this will sound silly, but to use a metaphor, a lot of times it’s like arriving with a stew you’ve slaved over and made from scratch. It’s got all the perfect ingredients and has been “cooked” to perfection. It’s exactly what you and your team thinks it should be. They taste it and love it, but they want you to remake it. This time, they want you to throw in a bunch of ingredients that don’t taste good together. So, you have to incorporate all those things and still make it taste great. A lot of times that isn’t easy to do. Over time you learn how to do it and someday hope to master it. I’m not sure you ever really get there, but you get as close as you can.

If by chance you weren’t in film, what do you think you’d be doing with your life?

Hmmmmmm... good question. Another occupation has never entered my mind other than the acting thing, which I’ve been lucky enough to play in from time to time. Psychology? An astronaut? Or a nice quiet coffee shop/bakery.

Lastly, do you have any advice for potential filmmakers in the AICN audience? It could be for the folks out there who want to get into makeup effects or filmmaking in general.

Lots of people are going to tell you that it’s never going to happen. That you can’t do it. Don’t listen to them and don’t be a follower. Cut your own path and be persistent. That’s the key. You must be VERY specific with what you want and not be afraid to ask for it. VERY specific. No one is going to give you a chance unless you know what you want and put it out there. Be ready. Be the best at whatever it is you do. Luck is simply preparation meets opportunity. Know your history. Know your field and the players within it. Respect what came before you and build off it. Take your ego out of it and surround yourself with good people. You do that, you’ll make your way just fine.

There we have it, folks - a quick Q&A with an award winning artist and stand up guy, Chris A. Nelson. Again, it's a treat to get his insights and I appreciate him taking the time to provide pretty interesting answers to my rather clueless questions. I can't wait to see what more comes from Christopher and hope to circle back with him in the future.

If you work in production, in any aspect (truly!) and would be cool enough to give us film fans a glimpse into the innerworkings of your world, please shoot me an email at Mike@aintitcool with the subject line: "MTC - (Your Name) - (Your Position)"

This column is relatively new and while I'd love it to be an "every Sunday" kind of thing, it all depends on who is willing to chat with me. The more folks I can talk to, the more consistant I can make MTC. Hopefully you ladies and gents got a kick out of today's highlight. I'll see you fine folks later. (Now go out and make something awesome!) Be sure to check out past articles:

Robby Baumgartner - Director of Photography

Thomas S. Hammock - Production Designer

Seamus Tierney - Cinematographer

Brian McQuery - 1st Assistant Director

Shannon Shea - Creature/VFX Supervisor

- Mike McCutchen


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