Interview with SFX Master Thomas E. Surprenant
We recently had the chance to catch up with legendary and Emmy Award winning make-up artist Thomas E. Surprenant to discuss how he got his start in special effects makeup, what advice he has for new artists, and why he is excited to head The Art of Makeup’s new 7 week “Character & Special FX Program.” Thomas has been a makeup artist for more than 30 years and is known for his work on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Donnie Darko, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, and X-Men: The Last Stand.
How did you get your start in special effects makeup?
Most of my family worked in the film industry and they discouraged me at first because they wanted me to get a “real job” and career. But I grew up watching classic sci-fi and horror films with my family, so when American Werewolf in London came out, it really inspired many people including myself to work in makeup. My granddad introduced me to old makeup artist friends of his who told me “you’re never going to be Rick Baker, so if you want to do this, you’ll need to learn how to do everything.” They really guided me and pointed me in the right direction and would even tell me when something I did didn’t look good. At that time, there was a big calling for practical effects in film, so I started talking to more special effects makeup artists and I decided to go to cosmetology school, learn hair and get my license to really develop my skills. After that, I started meeting new people who would hire me for jobs, worked in special effects shops and then interviewed with production companies for jobs. A friend of mine, Michelle Bühler, hired me to do makeup on a non-union film that flipped into a union film during production – and that was Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
What does it take to be a good special effects artist?
In effects makeup, you will have a better understanding of everything if you follow through and learn makeup skills. A lot of people who are going to school now are learning new and trendy things instead of the basics. A lot of the techniques we use in painting are the same techniques used for 100 years in theater, we’ve just refined them, developed them and now use new products. My advice is to learn as much as you can about everything, and if you want to get really good, do design. There are so many great books out to learn from; Stage Makeup by Richard Corson, The Technique of the Professional Makeup Artist by RCMA founder Vincent Keho, Special Makeup Effects by Todd Debreceni, The Monstrous Make-Up Manual by Mike Spatola and Sandy Collora’s book on creature design is really inspirational for young people who want to learn character and special effects makeup.
Are there certain qualities that make someone a good special effects artist?
Imagination is a great thing to have as a special effects artist. A lot of people get into it because they are inspired like I was, but many people now only focus on doing one thing. You have to keep thinking outside the box and need to be well-rounded. Everything I do is pretty diverse, so special effects can be a good fit for someone looking for a diverse career. Having skills in painting, sculpting and chemistry are all helpful because you need a full spectrum of skills in special effects. Even being a bit of a science geek is great because you’ll know lab procedure- chemistry has been a big part of the work I’ve done. You might also enjoy fantasy, have art skills or want to develop art skills, have an eye for nature or are creative. People skills are always important too. Having a good personality pays off working in special effects shops and with actors who might be sitting in your chair for hours. Working in a salon really helped me learn how to work with different types of people.
What kind of training does a special effects artist need?
If you are interested in special effects, you should be able to find a program that brings you from the core base of theatrical makeup onto high tech special makeup effects. You want courses that covers everything including painting, sculpting, mold making and proper lab procedure.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in the special effects world?
Be open minded to learn everything that there is, including anatomy and all different types of art. Once you start working, find a niche and your personal style. I have friends who tell me that they can can just tell something is my work by looking at it. Also, be prepared to put in hard work. A lot of people think working in this industry is going to be sitting around drinking lattes with actors, but that’s not what it’s about. We do this for the love of the art.
What is the coolest country or place your work has taken you?
I’ve been to a lot of neat places. Romania was really awesome because I got to see Dracula’s castle and shoot in a forest where a great battle took place. I worked on a made for TV movie there and was Grace Jones’ personal makeup artist. I also went to the Argentinian Andes for a two-day commercial but got to spend 5 days there in order to acclimate to the altitude. I remember standing on top of a high mountain looking out into the valley, and a tour guide pointed out that you could actually see Chile from up there.
You’re obviously very accomplished. You have worked all over the world and created specialty products company Thomas Surprenant Creations. You have been nominated for three Emmys and have won once. You were a part of two Academy Award-winning makeup departments and won a Local 706 Union Guild Award. What made you choose the Art of Makeup in the Pacific Northwest?
I was introduced to Celena, who founded the Art of Makeup, through a mutual friend of ours. I was thinking about leaving California, where I grew up and lived most of my life and she shared with me a proposal for this special effects program. There are a lot of schools out there, but this program is different because it has my own flavor and is more one-on-one than other programs. I’m really glad I got to work on the ground floor putting the curriculum together. Students in the program will get to learn from myself and guest teachers who are very well respected in the industry. The teachers at the Art of Makeup are more experienced and have more years under their belts than other programs.
Learn more about The Art of Makeup’s “Character & Special FX” Certificate Program at https://www.artofmakeup.com/FX
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