Ghosts goblins, monsters, gore and more! That’s what October’s makeup artist of the month, Michael Burnett specializes in. Michael is a Halloween Extraordinare, as he is the mastermind behind Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights! This is his third year in charge of 5 Halloween mazes, live stage shows and keeping a crew of 35 makeup artists busy cranking out classic movie monsters, mummies and more. I had a true Hollywood gore and effects experience as I got the behind the scenes tour of Michael’s effects shop, where all the Halloween magic comes to life. Michael is a true all-around artist, dabbling in all sorts of creative venues from special effects makeup, the makeup department head on Nickelodeon’s show, “All That,” an instructor for UCLA’s Extension program, and a Dad!
Last year, Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights was rated the #1 Best Halloween event in town over its rival and long time leader in Halloween events, Knott’s Berry Farm! Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights begins October 15,16,22,23,29-31 and last from 7pm-1am. Come see Michael’s hard work come to life in the spookiest ways!
What got you interested in makeup as a possible career?
Growing up as a kid I loved horror movies and special effects movies: “Mission Impossible” and “Six Million Dollar Man.” I started making super 8 movies when I was in junior high. They were always science fiction or horror movies that had makeup. I did that through high school and in college I was a theatre major with an emphasis on TV/film and took makeup classes.
How did you get interested in Halloween makeup effects?
Halloween was always my favorite time of the year. I would always do a giant exhibit at my parent’s house, which was written up in the local papers. This eventually grew from a small display on the porch, to an extravaganza in the garage and driveway. We would start at the beginning of September getting the garage ready by building walls and putting my monsters in place. I don’t think my parents ever parked their cars in the garage. People would come from all over to view the exhibit at my parent’s house. I just did it for fun. From this I started doing Halloween theme parties. Since I lived in Orange County I started doing events for Knotts Berry Farm, the Queen Mary and Universal Studios.
Where did you get your makeup training?
I went to Cal State-Fullerton but did not complete my degree. I took basic stage makeup classes and an advanced prosthetic class. In my junior year, I started working in the industry. I loved makeup and making movies with special effects. I never really thought I wanted makeup to be my career but I needed to focus on one area. My jobs and interests always came back to makeup and makeup effects. If I did a science fiction movie it had aliens in it, or if I was working on a play, I did the old age makeup. Everything just made sense and lead me to makeup. Up to this point, I was self-taught, reading books, and watching how to videos. I began hitting a wall because I could only teach myself so much. You start to need people that have a lot more experience to take you to the next level.
Tell us how you started working in Los Angeles in the makeup and special effects industry?
When I was in college one of my classes required that I do an internship in the makeup field. I had already been working and met a few people that enabled me to make connections with Tim Lawrence who worked at Rick Baker’s shop. Tim invited me to visit the shop, which happened to be the time they had just finished the Michael Jackson video “Thriller”. At the shop I was able to meet Rick and talked to him regarding the internship, which enabled me to work three days a week for school credit. This was not something that Rick did on a regular basis so I was very lucky to be able to do this particular internship with his shop.
Was this your first LA shop experience?
Yes, more of where the experience was really regular makeup. I worked at Bob Clark’s about six month’s prior to working with Rick but we weren’t really doing makeup. I met Greg Cannon who was a friend of Bob’s and he had farmed out a creature for us to work on. We were working on the fringes of special effects makeup rather than makeup on an actor. I felt really lucky because the internship at Rick Baker’s was my second real job experience in LA.
Were you guaranteed a permanent position after the internship or did you hope that it would come from the internship?
Rick said “Come do this internship and we will see where it goes from there.” A few months later the shop started the movie “The Rat Boy” and he hired me on as a full-time paid employee. I was there for four years and I did a lot of stuff. Rick’s shop was much smaller back then, maybe ten of us working at a time, and just one building. When a job was complete and went to set for filming the shop would close down for a while. It was at this point in my career that I decided not to continue with college. I had been turning down jobs in the industry, which seemed to be of more benefit to what I wanted to accomplish. It seemed only natural to take the jobs.
Did you have a specific job at Rick’s once you were a full-time employee?
Yes, I ran the foam latex. When I first started working there we got to do a little bit of everything. The jobs started getting bigger and bigger so we started specializing and I ran the foam department.
When did you decide to open your own makeup effects shop?
I had just finished working on “Gorillas in the Mist” over at Rick’s and that job was a ton of foam. There were full-bodied gorillas, faces, baby gorillas, almost overwhelming for one person to handle. I talked to Rick about my desire to branch out into other areas of the shop whether it was painting, sculpting, or molding. I did not mind running foam but Rick explained that he wanted to departmentalize the shop with people specializing in one department. That’s where his shop was headed. At that point I did not feel like my goals were in line with where his shop was headed so I finished with “Gorillas in the Mist” and left Rick’s shop. I connected with Roger Corman and took a job on the film “Twice Dead”. It was a low budget horror movie with severed heads, slashers and gore. This film was the first project I did all prosthetics and makeup special effects. I had a shop in my garage, gutted the inside, insulated, and hung lights, the whole bit. Had a couple of guys that worked with me in my shop. We would work subcontract jobs off and on and also working for Universal at the same time. I got a big job with Universal doing some earthquake body victims and the job was too large for my small garage. I moved out at that point to an industrial area in North Hollywood. I have had a large shop location ever since the move from the garage.
After you left Rick’s shop, did you become independent?
Yes, my jobs came from many sources usually networking job to job. Makeup is my first love and the thing I like the best. Now I am able to do union shows, as I was able to join the union several years ago. I had always made prosthetics for people but was never able to apply them to the face because I was not a union member.
Are you still an instructor at UCLA?
Yes, I have been instructing at the UCLA extension program for seven years now. I teach a basic prosthetics class, which meets 6 times, eight hours at a setting. I design my course to follow my instructional videos that I made about ten years ago. The students do a life cast, do a sculpture, mold it, run the foam, learn how to paint it, repaint it and do hair work. Some students like to do the Terminator thing where they have electronics. You can only do so much in six weeks. My philosophy on teaching is if you don’t share the information then it gets lost. Everyone’s work advances by sharing information and knowledge.
What are some of the challenges that you encounter as a shop owner?
I think everybody goes through the ups and downs of shop ownership, as it is a lot of responsibility. Right now I have twenty-four people working for me and you look at that as twenty-four different personalities that you have to deal with. Some days it goes great and really smooth but then there are those days that there is a problem and I wonder to myself, “Why I am doing this?” Having a shop like this affords me the ability to do things that other people can’t do because they don’t have the facilities. It does have its advantages that I can take on bigger jobs that I would not be able to do if I were still working out of my garage. I like to do a variety of things. I don’t get the big budget films like Rick Baker or Stan Winston, or even close to that range. I did not get into the business just for the money; that’s not my first goal. I really enjoy the creative process of making monsters and doing character makeup.
Do you ever-just do straight makeup on movies or TV?
Yes, I currently work on a Nickelodeon Show called “All That,” it’s like a Saturday Night Live for kids. I am in the 4th season and it’s been on for 6 seasons. I am the makeup department head and I do all the straight makeup. I also did the “Ben Stiller Show” while running my shop. I am on both sides of the production process, in my shop and on set working as a makeup artist.
Let’s talk about your involvement with Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. Explain what this event is and in contrast the competition of Knott’s Berry Farm’s Halloween event.
I have worked for both Knott’s and Universal so I have a full scope on what they do. Knott’s has been doing their event for 27 years and they are the established event for Halloween in town. They do a very good show. The makeups at Knott’s are very theatrical versus the realistic film look that Universal tries to achieve. Knott’s is connected to a lot of theatrical people within the city and in the university setting. Hands down Halloween at Knott’s is their most popular event during the year. Universal is a movie studio so they get more into the details of the experience; like bringing a movie to life. They put a lot of effort into the design and not just the makeup, but the scenic stuff as well. Knott’s Berry Farm is a theme park attracting a younger crowd. Universal has City Walk, the Amphitheater and draws an older crowd. Each event has mazes and live shows orientated to Halloween. At Universal, I try to bring a movie quality to the makeup and makeup special effects I design. We use very little store bought masks unlike Knott’s where you might see your Halloween mask on an actor. Everything at Universal is an original design.
What are Universal’s themed mazes this year for Halloween Horror Night?
Well there are several. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a live stage show, which spoofs current events and movies. “The Mummy” maze is new this year and is based on the Mummy movie with Brendan Fraizer. Universal tries to duplicate as close as possible the chronology of living through the movie. We have actual props, costumes and are duplicating makeups from the movie. Clive Barker’s, “Hell” and “Rob Zombie” are both new mazes. “The Classic Monster” maze is there every year and is done in black and white. We will use airbrush makeup to recreate the classic movie monsters, which are all owned and licensed by Universal. The last maze is “Clever” and is like a Slaughterhouse/Texas Chainsaw Massacre theme.
Does a ticket get you into all 5 mazes and other events?
Yes, one ticket gets you into everything. Food and souvenirs are extra.
How do you coordinate everything behind the scenes?
It’s a huge event. There are about 300 people that have to go through costumes, makeup and hair. We have 2 makeup locations “upper” and “lower” due to the layout of the studios and location of each maze. I have it organized with big makeup charts according to character, what goes on the face and where, and makeup to use. The actors come in, pick up their makeup chart, and take it to an available makeup artist.
What is the level of makeup difficulty for the makeup artists working?
It ranges from basic to advanced prosthetics with bladder effects. We allow more time for the advanced makeup applications. We have a dress rehearsal before hand to work out all the kinks. I have a crew of 35 makeup artists working the Halloween Horror Night event. We have makeup artists that work every year and usually we add 8 to 10 new artists every year to the crew. The makeup artists are interviewed for the positions we have available. We like to see photos of their work so we can determine their makeup abilities since we have such a wide range of makeup applications.
How early did the pre-production process start for the Halloween Horror Night event?
My shop started designing in February 1999. The thing I love about Universal is they give us the opportunity and means to bring makeup to another level. Universal knows how important the process of makeup is. This event has come a long way in the past 3 years.
Has your budget changed over the years to meet the popularity demand of the event?
It’s stayed the same. We design things each year that can be incorporated and built onto for multiple use. We can take a general prosthetic, add to it with a wig, which allows for mixing and matching for budget purposes. Universal competes with Knott’s who has been at this Halloween thing for 27 years. Characters at Universal are more elaborate this year. Universal made a commitment to do this event and they’re into creating their own original ideas because they are the new kids on the block. Halloween Horror Nights was rated the #1 best Halloween event in 1998, I think we will do it again this year!
If you’re interested in viewing Michael Burnett’s work or want to know what his upcoming projects are check out his website at www.mbpfx.com!
Have a very makeupmania-like Halloween! See you next month!