The rise of computer-generated special effects hit the visual effects world like an earthquake. The ability to create entire worlds or at least enormous creatures on a computer made many previously impractical things possible. The tradeoff, however, was increasingly high pressure, less money, and faster turnarounds, and the result is a paradoxical situation in which demand for effects only gets more intense, but the studios producing the work struggle, often being driven out of business. This is especially true for practical makeup and prosthetics effects, which have been increasingly deemphasized, and in many cases largely discarded in favor of cheap CG.
But according to makeup effects powerhouse Glenn Hetrick, known for his former company Optic Nerve Studios and as a judge on Syfy’s Face Off, we’re on the verge of a “renaissance” for practical makeup effects. Hetrick hopes to spearhead that with his new outfit, Alchemy Studios, a hybrid effects house intended as a fully integrated shop utilizing FX makeup techniques, 3D conceptual design and 3D printing capability, with an eye on how practical and computer generated effects can compliment one another.
“I think that regardless of where CG ends up, and where the industry ends up, there’s always going to be a need for high-quality prosthetic effects, and for people that know how to create them and integrate with VFX,” Hetrick told Deadline. “And [who] are willing,” he continued, “while you’re working hundred-hour weeks, to keep pushing the boundaries and pioneer things. That’s always been our model.”
Since the 1990s, Hetrick’s work has appeared in a diverse range of projects from fantasy to period pieces. Among them are the four Hunger Games films, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, NBC’s The Event, The Host, Mad Men, and CSI: New York. Further, Optic Nerve’s work on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, X-Files and Babylon 5 earned it a total of nine Emmy nominations. Alchemy Studios is built on that legacy, but geared more directly to meet the increasing needs of film and television studios for high-quality makeup effects efficiently, and cost-effectively.
“I came up in the effects industry at a time where it was still extremely modular. There were very high profit margins, there were a lot of people working on a show and each of them were compartmentalized and sort of just relegated to doing what they do,” Hetrick says. “For instance, when someone comes into the studio the first step is you take their life cast, then the sculptors sculpt. And back then you’d have to make multiple sculpts… those sculpts would be molded and made into prosthetics, following that the camera test, and when the look was approved, often times several hundred copies of the makeup would have to be made because each day you need a new set.”
Hetrick recognized the problem with that system early in his career. “I remember looking at it and thinking, “How long will the profit margins stay at [this] point? How can that be sustained in an environment that’s changing so quickly?” Citing the rise of CGI and how, “obviously,” studios would choose to do things with CGI only, he also noted the transition to HD as another factor that impacted practical makeup effects. “It didn’t really change things for a lot of departments, but for us it was absolutely massive and it was overnight.”
He noted that makeup effects which won Academy Awards in the 1980s and ’90s weren’t nearly as effective in HD. Those techniques, he says, “work on film and they work when you’d like them to work.” And, he says, “there are men and women who are geniuses who predate me who figured that out.”
Hetrick insists the ’80s and ’90s were a golden age for makeup effects. Even so, now “you’d see the entire illusion, every edge would be extraordinarily present.”
The time crunch has also worsened in all aspects of visual effects, as being able to create some of the more complex effects via computer took away preparation time for practical artists. For example, before CGI, the transformation of a werewolf would require makeup effects for every step. Now all of it can be done as a visual effect. “It remodeled the way line producers look at principal photography and post-production,” Hetrick says. “Suddenly you didn’t have to hire artists a year out and start spending money on makeup effects. Now you can play with it in the computer and two months before you start filming you can tell the makeup team what you want, and what they don’t need to do.”
The result is that studios pared back the time allotted for makeup prep, and even for principal photography. “If a makeup effect took too long, then probably that makeup effect was cut.” The upshot is that practical makeup effects operations have less time, less money, and less work. Those challenges are what Alchemy is designed to deal with.
“We do a lot more overtime, people work more, but they’re also completely immersed in the subject matter from the moment that I come back from the concept meeting,” Hetrick says. “This eliminates all the miscommunication… a smaller team works together through the whole process. This reduces the cost and speeds things up quite a bit.”
Part of that is the incorporation of 3D printing technology into the process. The prosthetics can be designed for a life cast of the actor and created as needed. For one example, fellow Face Off judge and Alchemy partner Neville Page created “beautiful, giant demon horns replete with dead sea scrolls text, printed from a scan of his lifecast that fit onto his head right out of the printer.” The makeup is then applied to more effectively merge the horns with the mask in a way that works with incoming CGI.
As for CGI itself, despite the “hysteria” Hetrick says took over the film industry when the technology became fiscally practical — which led to a host of films relying almost entirely on it — the technology has limits.
“CG is so great for set locations, for fire, for water, [but] there is absolutely no way that they’ve come even close… to capturing characters on the screen,” he says. “It’s not for lack of trying and it’s not for a lack of talent, it’s a matter of processing speed. Those programs cannot run enough information fast enough to truly capture reflective light, which is our eyes are reading all the time. CG still looks watery or glassy, it does not look like it exists in the environment, it does not capture the gravity and animus of a performer performing.
“I think that [trend] has met its natural death. How many more movies can you possibly watch of what are clearly digital effects? It’s not that interesting,” he says. “I think you’ll see a return to focusing on characters and emotive storytelling. And what [makeup effects artists] do is accentuate characters. That’s all we do. That’s ultimately what a makeup effect is.”
As a result, he continued, “we’re on the verge of a renaissance of traditional makeup effects coming back. So that’s what we’re about. What is the right thing to do with CG so that it lives within the makeup, you still get the performance, still get actors reacting in the proper way, the actors are in the scene reacting to something that is physical, and then you put a VFX into the scene that allows us to do something we couldn’t accomplish with makeup.”
Based in Los Angeles, Alchemy Studios currently employs between five and 40 people “depending on the week and the project,” he says. Among Alchemy’s first official assignments is the creation of the superpowered Inhumans characters for ABC’s Marvel’s Agents Of SH.I.E.L.D., realistic effects for Steven Spielberg’s Extant, and CSI: Cyber. The studio’s original productions include development on Necroscope, a feature film series based on the horror novels by British author Brian Lumley; and a television series based on the classic EC Comics series Tales From The Crypt/Vault Of Horror. Alchemy is also planning a brand of live horror entertainment for Halloween.