Oscar-nominated make-up artist and creature designer Mike Elizalde explains why he relishes the challenge of bringing the extraordinary to life on screen.
The owner of effects house Spectral Motion, Mike Elizalde is an award-winning make-up artist, effects consultant and creature designer. Among his many credits are films like Hellboy (2004), Fantastic Four (2005), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)—for which he was nominated for an Oscar—and the upcoming Attack the Block. And despite being hard at work on creature feature Growl, Elizalde was happy to take us behind the scenes of his craft.
How did you first get interested in the world of make-up and effects?
It goes back to when I was very young, watching classics like Frankenstein and The Mummy on TV, all these wonderful films that showcased these characters and this make-up. The make-up was integral to the storyline too, which kept not only my interest but I’m sure everyone else’s who was watching at the time. At the age of 10 or 11, I discovered there were artists who were creating these looks and there were people behind the whole filmmaking process.
So were you inspired to try stuff out for yourself?
That’s exactly what I did. One day a week in school we used to do painting; you could put a piece of blank newsprint on an easel and paint whatever you wanted. I would create a palette that I could reconstitute later and use as make-up on my face. Those were my early experiments, and then once I realised the palette was becoming soggy and wet, and that that was an interesting substance and texture, I started using the paper itself to make a moulage or mâché that I could make shapes with. Of course at the time you don’t think of it as your future career; it’s just fun, trial and error to see if you can duplicate what you’ve seen in a movie. But I definitely ran that whole gauntlet of trying to figure out what I could use to change my own appearance.
So you were always attracted to hands-on practical effects and make-up rather than creating something on a computer screen?
Absolutely, that’s always been the way that I’ve been able to express my creative needs and my thoughts, to do a physical hands-on practical effect. Instead of pushing pixels we push clay. It’s a very rewarding experience.
Some actors really respond to hiding themselves behind a mask, so is it a mutually beneficial exercise?
That’s right, quite a few actors I’ve worked with seem to really enjoy the process and participate actively in it. Those are the ones that are such a joy to work with, people like Ron Perlman [who starred in Hellboy] and Kelsey Grammer, when we did the Beast make-up on him in X-Men: The Last Stand. He was very responsive to it; he really felt himself becoming the character as the make-up was going on piece by piece. At the end of it he would look at himself in the mirror, look at us and say, ‘There he is’. It’s a great acknowledgement of what went into it and also what he would be able to do with the work we’d done.
Are practical effects and CG seen to be a seamless part of the whole package, working together to achieve a particular goal?
That’s correct. We’ve all been preaching that, and when I say ‘we’ I mean the people who create practical effects, the directors who believe in that and the digital effects artists. Everybody agrees that that is the proper way to do things. We’ve always used lots of tools to create one effect, or a series of layered effects for a specific purpose. Today’s technologies should be approached with that same mentality, so if you’re creating an illusion you should use as many different elements as you can to convey the illusion and make it seamless. That’s one of the things that we enjoy about CG; we are able to take the practical effects that we create and push them beyond their limit. And by the same token we add credibility, weight and presence to digital effects by combining them with a practical effect.
Another key to your success seems to be the fruitful relationships you establish with directors.
We’ve had a lot of very good experiences with some great creative minds. We enjoy the boundless energy of Guillermo del Toro for example. He’s tremendous to work with, because not only does he believe in what we do and celebrate it, but he contributes to it. When he lived in Mexico before coming to the United States his background was as a make-up effects designer; he had his own make-up studio and designed creatures and make-up effects. He loves monsters, he always has, just as we all do. So we share a very productive relationship with him; he gives us tremendous challenges, and that always makes us raise our bar and come up with new systems, new ideas and inventions to try and deliver what he’s asking for. It’s always a pleasure to work with that sort of director, who puts trust in you to respond to those sort of challenges, and who is able to express his ideas and creative thoughts so articulately.
Where do you look for inspiration for the make-up effects and creature designs that you undertake?
Nature’s always a great source of inspiration. There are so many species and subspecies of creatures that people have never ever seen before. Aquatic creatures, and creatures that exist in the microscopic realm for example—there’s so much there, so much source material in nature alone. There are millions and millions of species on the planet so we call upon that rich reference material, and we turn to art as well; there are so many tremendously gifted painters and illustrators who have hit upon really interesting paths. We draw inspiration from that, and we try to find the people who have created interesting images.
Beyond that we look to the films that inspired us, back to movies like John Carpenter’s The Thing and An American Werewolf in London. Artists like Rick Baker have always been an inspiration to me and my kind. So yeah, we have a lot of sources of inspiration which again feeds that creative energy. There’s certainly no shortage of places to look for the next cool creature.