Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, July 2007. Creating Make-Up Effects for The Enemy God: Achieving FX make-up believably and realistically for a feature shot in a foreign jungle. by Todd Debrecenicould. Pages 36 – 41.
In the November 2006 issue of StudentFilmmakers magazine, I wrote a pre-production article about a make-up-effects-heavy, independent, period production in planning. This production would have a large cast, hair (wigs), and limited resources, and would be shot on location on film (super 16mm and 35mm) in the remote jungle of a Central American country. The make-up team began planning and making materials lists even as the article was going to press in October 2006, not yet knowing what our budget for hair and make-up was going to be, or even having a signed agreement. We were certain the project would go to us, and with production beginning in January 2007, we were already cutting it close for make-up design. So we moved forward as though it was a done deal, which it became in short order.
The Enemy God, written and directed by Christopher Bessette, is based on real events and follows the life of a powerful shaman of the Yanomamö people in the Amazonas region of Venezuela. Tracing his life and in his village from the 1950s to the 1990s, the shaman, Shake, tells the story of how he and his people struggled with new ideas that came from contact with the outside world, and the challenging decisions they made in order to preserve their identity and survive as a people.
The Yanomamö are a fascinating people with distinctive hairstyling, body painting and multiple facial piercings. Our biggest concern was not the volume of make-up effects we would have to create, but how to achieve the effects of facial piercing believably and realistically – and affordably. Apocalypto (2006) was just about to open in theatres, so I solicited advice from Vittorio Sodano, who designed the make-up. Vittorio graciously offered suggestions for the nasal piercings for the women. We fabricated a small dental wire clip that would fit snuggly onto the septum and attach to opposite halves of thin-shaped balsa sticks, mimicking the sticks Yanomamö women wear through their noses. Our Yanomamö actors were Kekchi Indians who live in the Toledo District of Belize, Central America. The tests we did on each other were positive (and pretty funny), and the director and producers were pleased. However, we wouldn’t have a true test until my Make-up Key, Alison Chilen, went down in January to handle the straight make-up of principal photography and Debrecenicould do tests with our prosthetics on some of the actors: wired nose sticks (women), earlobe extensions for ear sticks (men), and piercings around the mouth (women).
To save time sculpting and molding earlobe extensions from scratch, Matthew Mungle made molds available to us which he had created for The Indian in the Cupboard. As soon as we had them in hand, we made several test pairs in varying shades. The earlobe extensions had gauged holes in the lobes that were just the right size for the stick diameter we would be using. Again, tests on each other were encouraging.
We then began fabricating pair after pair of silicone extensions – several hundred, because we couldn’t be certain we would be able to reuse any of them. Also, we had many shoot days with our Kekchi actors. Here comes an example of why being well-prepared in advance is so important. Alison flew to Belize three weeks before I was to go down for the 1950s scenes. She took several pairs of the silicone earlobe extensions with her to test on some of our cast. They didn’t fit! We didn’t take into account that our actors actually had very small ears. A month and a half’s worth of work gone.
“That’s okay… No biggie,” I lied to myself. Then, as I was straightening some tabletop space in my studio to work on other aspects of the make-up we were creating, I came across the solution to our problem: Magnets.
If the test we began to devise worked, we could make up for lost time quickly. I had some fairly strong ½“ disc magnets lying around which I had used on another project some time before. I glued them to the ends of an ear stick cut in half, and painted it to match the wood grain. Success! On my ears, they looked like the stick was literally going through my ear – big, but believable. That meant they would probably be too big on our Kekchi actors. The thing about magnets is you can’t really alter their size without demagnetizing the metal, plus the time it would take, even if it worked, was unacceptable. That also meant we’d need to make the diameter of the sticks smaller, too.
A little internet research dug up very small, very strong, and very inexpensive neodymium magnets. With these little gems we were able to imbed magnets inside the stick halves so they were not visible, and they pulled tightly enough to create an indentation in the earlobe which made it impossible to tell it wasn’t actually going through the ear, even in a fairly tight close up! We next tested gluing these same magnets to the ends of a nose stick cut in half, and voila! We had solved our facial piercings. Almost.
We still had to come up with a believable way to attach sticks to our women’s faces. The diameter of the sticks used was too small to imbed magnets inside, and I wasn’t too keen on having magnets inside the mouth anyway… We sculpted a few small punctures in Chavant oil clay, made an Ultracal 30 plate mold, and cast some test pieces out of silicone. After applying them and blending the edges, we glued a balsa stick into the punctures. They looked terrific. The problem was creating the quantity we would need in time for the make-up effects photography.
I contacted Tinsley Transfers, company of make-up and special effects artist, Christian Tinsley (Memoirs of a Geisha, Catwoman, The Passion of the Christ, Pearl Harbor, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps). They agreed to do a test for us, and if we liked it, they would be able to mass produce 3D puncture transfers for us. We had to compromise on the number of pieces we could get by with and afford. The tests were fantastic, and they promised to have at least 250 in my hands in time for my departure to Belize, with the balance to be brought down on successive trips by the film’s executive producer, Tom Khazoyan.
Well, as I was saying earlier, and will say over and over again as long as I am working: there is nothing more important than pre-production. In that spirit, you must always be ready to make compromises and sacrifices, and find alternative creative solutions so that production values will not suffer – and be willing to engage Plan B, and even Plan C. We used every plan in the book.
Being one to always err on the side of caution, there were many things in my kit I simply took along because I had the room in my make-up cases and, truth be told, I was just too lazy to take out: things like crème foundations in colors well out of the realm of our design parameters, and foundation colors that we would be airbrushing anyway instead of applying with sponges. After all, in the heat and humidity we would be experiencing, crème foundations were going to become very soft (if not liquefied) and possibly difficult.
New Rule: There is No Such Thing as a Sure Thing.
We used it all because our fancy schmancy airbrushes and liquid make-up wouldn’t work properly, and I’ve been using airbrushes since I was in college in the 70s. The crèmes worked great, even when it was 108° with nearly 100% humidity.
Here’s another example. The production was shot during January, February and March because that is the dry season. We would have fewer weather delays… in theory. Yes, it still rains during the dry season, but showers mostly, and it is relatively dry. During the production it was the wettest dry season on record. I am only now getting the feeling back in my feet from nerve damage done from wearing my stupid mud boots practically every day, all day, for 8 weeks.
Considering how much rain we had, and the number of weather-related technical glitches such as squirrelly mics and cameras, we weren’t way over schedule. I’m talking weeks. We wound up shooting 47 days on a 45 day schedule. We also had some very long days, as a result of having such a schedule; and as one could expect, there were some short fuses occasionally. That is to be expected on every show, but when you have two full moons during your shoot, and one of them is also a total lunar eclipse, (and you have a night shoot that night,) the natives can get a little restless (please excuse the pun).
I’ll save that story for another day. Suffice it to say, nobody died during our time in Belize, although we did kill two fer-de-lance (an extremely deadly, aggressive snake) in one of our village sets. And sadly, one of our two set dogs was killed and eaten by a jaguar.
Shooting was frequently interrupted by a troupe of howler monkeys, as well as toucans and other local fauna.
But as far as make-up setbacks, one of the biggest was losing the week I had planned to use fabricating and testing on location before 1950s photography began. We shipped many of our supplies down on a boat to Belize in December so they would be there when we arrived. I also had submitted a very detailed customs manifest weeks in advance of my departure so there would be no delays upon my arrival in Belize City that would delay my departure for Punta Gorda in the south. Naturally, customs did not have the paperwork for my 11 flight cases of make-up gear when I arrived, so my personal luggage and I left for Punta Gorda alone. I waited for my cases to arrive 5 days later. So much for testing and fabricating before shooting began. It would have to happen simultaneously.
Fortunately, we considered there could possibly be a customs glitch, so none of the work I hoped to accomplish by going down a week early was production-halting. It just would have been nice to have the luxury of time to do it.
We also had a larger cast than what we were initially told. I had a cast list of 65 actors including extras. I bought 75 wigs to be on the safe side knowing we would probably screw up a few when we cut them (since neither Alison nor I are hair stylists). That would still leave us with more than we needed. Our cast numbered over 80, and we wound up having to share wigs, which is not something you should ever do for reasons of hygiene. Mysteriously, some of the wigs began to disappear from the make-up hut because we came up short by five or so, and then ‘lost’ about 10 more of them. Pilfering was something we never considered during pre-production. Add that to the list for future reference. Even the single-use wigs got a lot of use, and if we had shot for more than another week, we would have needed new wigs, which we did not have, and had no way of getting in time.
English is the official language of Belize, and we were told that everyone spoke it. All of our principal actors spoke English, but few of our extras, who made up the bulk of the bodies we worked with daily, spoke any English at all. Some spoke only Maya, some only Kekchi, and some only Spanish. There were times we would be translating back and forth through four languages to convey the importance of not taking off your wig between takes.
The budget for The Enemy God was such that the production could only afford to send Alison and me from Colorado. They hired a local girl to help us with make-up. We were assured that she had make-up experience, but this was one aspect we could not control and would have to play the hand we were dealt. We were dealt a royal flush! The third member of our make-up team, Julia De Shong, could not have been more qualified if Alison and I had picked her ourselves, and I thank my lucky stars for her being with us every day. I don’t know how Alison and I would have done the show without her, and I am glad we didn’t have to find out.
Many of the Yanomamö women wear beautiful body paint in addition to their piercings. We created numerous designs we never got to realize because there just wasn’t time to do all the work we wanted to do. Eighty-plus actors and extras and three make-up artists doesn’t leave much time for anything but getting them in their wigs, attaching sticks and leaves, some dirt and making room for the next body in the make-up chair. It’s a wonder Alison, Julia and I didn’t come down with some nasty respiratory ailments, given our daily routine. One of our women extras would climb into our make-up chair breast feeding a baby while we’d try to pin up her hair and get her wig on. The child would then begin coughing a wet, raspy open-mouthed cough while his mom would be distracted by her two other toddlers pulling on her for attention. During all of this we are trying to glue facial piercings and blend her make-up so she can get to the set because our First AD is screaming for actors. Multiply this scenario by 25 or 30 women every day.
Of the entire cast, perhaps a dozen or so of them have ever even seen a movie. Many of the villages where they came from have only had television for a couple of years. Language barriers aside, the cultural differences were enormous, and we were ill prepared for it. Don’t misunderstand me, I am quite fond of the Belizeans and made many Kekchi acquaintances I will think fondly of for the rest of my life. I’m really glad I took this on, and hope I will return some day.
Todd Debreceni began his career in entertainment with PBS while in graduate school at the University of Tennessee, and has worked at TBS in Atlanta, and 20th Century-Fox Television, Warner Bros., and Walt Disney Pictures in California. Todd has created make-up effects for many theatre productions, and is a recipient of a 2006 Denver Post Ovation Award for make-up. In addition to working in his Aurora studio, Todd conducts workshops, teaches at several Denver-area schools, and is currently writing a new book on special make-up effects to be published in 2008.