MAKEUP ARTIST #38

SciFi Extravaganza

by Joe Nazzaro

August-September 2002

T'raltixx

T'raltixx

Zhaan

Zhaan

Oo-nii

Oo-nii

MA_Scorpy.jpg (8067 bytes)

Scorpius

E'alat

Aeryn Sun - The Locket

Aeryn Sun

Zylar

Zylar

B'Sogg

B'Sogg

Lennock

Lennock

Linfer

Linfer

Neeyala

Neeyala

Creature Shop

Dave Elsey, Virginia Hey, Kerrin Jackson & Colin Ware

In 1987, it was Star Trek: The Next Generation; in 1994, Babylon 5. And the boundaries of science fiction make-up on television are being pushed once again, thanks to the critically-acclaimed SciFi Channel series, Farscape. Now in its fourth season, Farscape has produced a stunning collection of imaginative characters, combining make-up prosthetics, animatronics and puppetry.

For those who still haven’t tuned in, the series follows the adventures of astronaut John Crichton, whose shuttle gets sucked into a wormhole and emerges in a distant part of the universe. he ends up on a sentient spaceship along with a group of fleeing alien prisoners, including the towering Luxan warrior D'Argo; Zhaan, a Delvian priestess; the slug-like Rygel, Aeryn Sun, a former Peacekeeper; and Pilot, a creature symbiotically linked to the ship.

The task of populating this new universe fell to Jim Henson's Creature Shop, who had built some of the original characters in London, but needed a make-up FX artist to oversee them in Australia where the series would be shot. Enter Dave Elsey, who'd worked for such companies as Image Animation, Lyle Conway and Henson's before opening his own London shop in the early '90s. Elsey had been looking for a career shift when the phone call came in that would change his life. " All my friends had just done Babe, and were working on Babe 2," explains Elsey from Farscape s creature shop in Sydney. "I was in Scotland, standing on set in the rain doing Gregory’s Girl 2 saying, 'Why don't I get offered things like that?' I came back to my workshop, and the following week, I had a phone call from [Henson's project supervisor] Jamie Courtier, who said, 'I've been looking at your work for a long time. I've got this project in Australia that goes on for a year; would you like to do it?' I knew about this project, which was now called Farscape, so I went down to the workshop and he showed me what there was at that point, which was basically maquettes of Rygel, Pilot and D’Argo. The series was starting in about a month, and I said I'd have, to think about it, because it meant giving up my flat in England and persuading my wife, who's a fabricator, to come out here. At that point, nobody had mentioned the fact that there might be lots of new creatures; it was really just a job of babysitting what Henson's had already half-created, and that wasn't so interesting.

"1 asked Henson's if there were going to be any other aliens in the show, and they said, 'We haven't got a script yet, but there will probably be the odd thing to do as well. Of course the first week I arrived, I went to a meeting and they said, 'So we land on the commerce planet -, and I said, ‘And what's on the commerce planet?' They said, ‘Aliens,' and I asked how many, and they said, 'Well, it's a crowd scene,' and we were supposed to start in three weeks!

"The first thing I did was run back to the workshop, and break open all the cases from Henson's to make sure that at least the main puppets were finished, and everything was in pieces. Almost nothing had been really finished off; Pilot was almost together, but his pole arm wasn't working, Rygel was in a million pieces, and D’Argo was still being re-sculpted back in London. The last week before we started shooting, we put D’Argo together for the first time, and I thought it was a really impressive make-up. And then they sprung Zhaan on us as well, which I believed was going to be the property of the straight make-up department, but they said, 'Look, we don't know what to do.' Virginia [the actress who played Zhaan] ended up shaving her head, and we worked out her blue make-up and the coloring on her head. We also made little prosthetic ears, and I chose the contact lenses for her, and [ original make-up chief] Lesley Vanderwalt stuck it all on her and made it look fantastic. It was clear that from then on, we were never going to get a break, because there were going to be aliens every single week. I also met with David Kemper, the producer, who looked at some drawings and pictures of my older stuff and said, 'This is great, I'll write an episode for this character if you can make it! ' So that's how Farscape began to grow, and became the absolute dream/nightmare of my career."

As Elsey recalls, the early weeks of production were a bit touch and go, and he found himself somewhat disappointed in what the new Creature Shop was turning out. "1 felt like I didn't have enough time to do it," he remembers. "I didn't know any of the people in Australia, and all the materials and techniques that I was comfortable with were suddenly thrown out the window, because none of them had the same name or code as the ones I'd worked with before, so I was lost. It was hard to get the materials to work, and the heat in Australia messed up all the foam and silicones and mold-making materials and fiberglass that we used. Nothing worked, but we were all still really excited to be on the show, and we fired ideas off each other, and gradually got to know the new materials and got friendly with the new crew, and things started to fall into place."

One of the major turning points was the introduction of Scorpius, a cadaverous alien villain played by Wayne Pygram. It was the first major character that Elsey got to design and build from scratch and the results were impressive, to say the least. "The only description of him was something like 'Scorpius, kind of like an evil Mr. Spock,’ but I wanted to make him more evil than that, so the moment he walked on set, people would say, 'This is the bad guy!' I looked at images of the Grim Reaper and skulls, Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein, and every bad guy I could think of. I was drawing on all of that stuff, and they were originally going to cast Bruce Spence, who played the helicopter captain in Mad Max. That was a very interesting way to go, and would have fitted my drawings as well, but they changed their minds and got Wayne Pygram instead. I’d never met Wayne, so I thought I'd better meet with him and tell him what we were planning to do. After we'd taken the head casts of his head, I told him about my ideas, and he totally got it and told me how he was thinking of playing it. He went away and we carried on making this thing, and then we made another important decision."

That decision was to create Scorpius from translucent materials, a move that changed the way that Elsey and his partner Colin Ware would approach the series from that point on. "We'd gone down the gelatin route, and moved on to silicone appliances but weren't Impressed by how they adhered to skin, or the processes involved in making them. So we'd gone through all that stuff and basically come up with what we now call  'Hotflesh.' It was a basic formula , compared to what we're using now, but it seemed to stay on and you could lose the edges, so we were very impressed with various things about it and said, 'Let's try it on this character.'

"One of the things I wanted was for Scorpius to be really pale, to have almost white skin, but I know from the past that it's one of the things that makes foam look opaque. It almost looks like clown make-up if you don't do it properly. I said it would be great if the make-up was white but translucent, because then it would be like real white skin, so that's what we did. I remember driving to work that morning and thinking, 'Will this even  glue on?’ But it worked and when Wayne walked on set, everyone crowded around him. The lighting cameraman came over and did some tests and said, ‘I can’t believe how close we can get on this make-up!’ so it was a success.”

Although hot-melt vinyl products have been around for years, Elsey believes the potential for Hotflesh is enormous. “I’ve used foam and gelatin and silicone, and this stuff beats all of them. Not only can you stick it on like foam and it stays on equally as well, the edges stay good all day long, and you can also blend the edges, which you can’t do with silicone very well. It’s reusable, which silicone isn’t; you can actually melt it down and use it again. It is a hot-melt, but it’s a hot-melt in a barrier, so it’s the barrier that’s the important thing. You can also paint it with ordinary make-up or with PAX or acrylics, and all of those things stick to it just as well as they do to foam, which is not the case with silicone.

Once Elsey had the Creature Shop up and running successfully, his next priority was to upgrade some of his original characters. “I could have improved the puppets very easily, but once they’re established, you can only tweak them slowly as the season progresses. In season two, that was a big priority and [executive producer] Brian Henson's priority too. Brian was also unhappy with how light D'Argo looked, and wanted to make him much darker and more tanned, because he felt it looked a little bit too much like foam latex, and I agreed. Pilot was a very good puppet, so there wasn't a lot you could do to improve him, but with Rygel, basically we improved everything about it. I also wanted to improve the mechanisms, so we completely rebuilt that puppet and a backup puppet as well.

"There was also a problem with Scorpius, because when we’d shifted studios, the molds somehow disappeared. So I had to re-sculpt him, and I re-sculpted D'Argo as well, making his pieces a little thinner so I could get more movement out of them. By then of course, I was familiar with the materials and the people, so we began to hit our stride. The show took a darker turn when Scorpy arrived, which the writers started to reflect in their writing, and we started to get darker with our designs as well."  

With Farscape well into production on its fourth season, the biggest obstacle for Elsey's team is how they can continue to top themselves with each new episode. "I think we're always trying to do better quality work within the time. I can barely watch season one now, because all I can see is how difficult it was as we I were trying to find our feet. I think the work got better towards the end, but it was really a matter of trying to stay afloat. This is the most comfortable season so far, but we still have a ten-day schedule to come up with this stuff. So we can be arguing with a producer or director about the way it's got to be, but in ten day's time, you've still got to be standing on set with the finished result. That can be anything from a false nose tip to a full creature suit and costume, so it can get quite tricky."

But one would think things got easier by season four, once the Creature Shop had built up an inventory of spare molds and characters that could be recycled for future episodes. "You'd think it would, wouldn't you?" laughs Elsey, "but so far, it hasn't worked out that way at all. If they ask for a new Scarran, our point of view is that we should come up with a new Scarran. We've reused a Scarran head more than once, but we re-mechanize it each time, and we've almost always come up with a new costume or new body or updated the hands.

Also, very little of it survives, because while we have an adequate budget, it's still not a movie budget, so we tend to cannibalize things. At the end of an episode, we'll cannibalize what we've made and rip out all the servos and throw away the skins. By now you'd think we had a stock room full of Scarrans or other characters, but we really don't reuse anything.

"To be honest, part of the way we work is whenever they bring back a character we've seen before, it's a great opportunity to improve it. Maybe we'll make new molds, or color it differently or use different hair, so the temptation is to go back and do everything allover again—which usually results in a whole new batch of new problems! To do it the way we do it doesn't make any sense at all, and is actually a real pain in the ass for us, but what ends up on screen is worth the extra trouble."

Elsey is also quick to credit Farscape s straight make- up people, who have an equally difficult job on the series. "It's very hard to create aliens every week when all you have as tools is an  airbrush and a make-up kit.

No matter what you do, you're going to end up with Humanoid-looking characters and there are only so many different spots and colorations that you can try. I think we've pretty much tried all of them on the show. It's very hard to come up with the straight make-up, and we did so well in the first season with Zhaan and that airbrush make-up on her that we could never duplicate it. In fact, we banned using that particular fabric that we were spraying through, because it was too good. Since then, that's probably become one of the biggest challenges, and although we sometimes get a little bit involved in the straight make-up, they mostly handle that by themselves."  

Looking back at his four-year run on Farscape, Dave Elsey believes this is the most enjoyable season he's had thus far, but he still hopes to go that one step further in future episodes. "What I also want to do more than anything else (and we potentially have one more season to do after this) is the Farscape movie. I really want to do what we're doing now but with more time to prepare. I'd also like to have pre-production and the shoot as two separate entities just like you normally do, because we're building and shooting at the same time, so I don't often get to go on set and stay there and make sure that everything is perfect. So yes, I'm very happy, and creatively, this has been an amazing four years so far. I'm still waiting for the aliens to dry up because every time you sit in front of a life cast with a bag of clay, you think, 'Is there going to be another alien in there?' But so far there has been."  

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