“How are we gonna kill that person this week?” is a question that Matthew Mungle would periodically ask himself when working on the set of The X-Files in the late 90s. “I couldn’t wait to get the script to see what monster we had to create next.”
That might seem strange for a man with a terrible phobia of blood, but Mungle’s job is hardly within the realm of normal. Though you may not recognize his face, you’ve surely seen the prosthetic makeup Mungle has done in more than 200 film and TV projects, including Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for which he won an Academy Award. And it’s not just faces: He’s also designs prosthetic pensises, breasts, and pregnancy bellies. “We’re known for realistic-looking work,” Mungle says. “We don’t do too many aliens.”
But the work is Frankenstein-esque in the sense that Mungle hatches new creatures from scratch. He and his team may spend an entire month on one effect, like someone’s hand getting cut off in CSI. That work could be edited together so it’s only on screen for four seconds. But hey, those are still pretty impressive bragging rights.
Based in: Los Angeles, but I’m moving my studio to Austin next year
Graduated from: After two-and-a-half years at Oklahoma State University, where I majored in theater, I registered at Joe Blasco Makeup Artist Training Center in Hollywood. I graduated from there after 3 months of classes.
Years in the business: 38
Previous jobs: I started teaching at Joe Blasco after graduating, and was referred to jobs that came into the school. I was a hick from Oklahoma who had moved to Hollywood, so teaching taught me how to deal with people. I worked on beauty makeup for news anchors and soap stars, and in the early 80s, started doing low-budget slasher films. That’s when “makeup effects” were hitting their stride.
Can you look back and identify a “breakout” moment? The first two major films I did were Split Decisions with Gene Hackman and War Party, where I met a producer who always hired me after that. Then I became second-in-command to Ve [Neill] on Edward Scissorhands and worked on Johnny [Depp]’s makeup. After that, things started snowballing. Bram Stoker’s Dracula came around, and that won me the Academy Award.
Walk me through how one your projects comes to light. First, I get a call from a producer about a new project. I’ll read the [movie or TV] script, and there will usually be one paragraph where a creature emerges — a disfigured person or someone in a disguise.
After meeting with the director or producer and deciding on a look, we take dental impressions and a face cast of the actor, or sometimes I’ll do a Photoshop rendering. Then we pour up a duplicate face cast of the actor — using urethane, plaster or epoxy — and sculpt the desired look on top of that with oil-based clay. Once the sculpture is approved, we make a negative mold of the face cast and pull the two molds apart, which leaves a void between the two. We fill the negative mold with gelatin, foam latex or silicone and press the positive into the negative mold to create a prosthetic appliance. The prosthetic has tissue-thin edges, which are glued and blended onto the actor’s face. That’s where the artistry comes in: disguising the edges with color, making it look like the actor’s skin.
Performing that process each day of shooting a movie must take a lot of time. With Edward Scissorhands, we used a clear vacuum form face from Johnny Depp’s face cast to mark where all the scars were with a Sharpie, then I cut out each with an X-Acto knife to make a stencil. There was one prosthetic appliance to cover his eyebrows, and the rest of the appliance were all foam latex scars.
Doing the makeup for Dracula took more time. Gary Oldman had a lot of looks, but the longest one took about four-and-a-half hours — which we had to do every day for about 20 days. The old age look consisted of about 12 foam latex appliances on his face, plus four finger appliances to make his fingers look longer, plus back-of-the-hand appliances, and an extra fingernail glued to his thumbnail.
Does anything gross you out anymore? I have a horrible blood phobia. I can do a makeup effect for it, but I have to put my mind in a different position. Sometimes, on the set of a medical show, I might get queasy and have to walk away.
Were you always passionate about makeup? I was born on Oct. 26, which is really close to Halloween, so I loved monsters — even though they scared me. I was fascinated by the characters in Frankenstein and Dracula and The Mummy, and was absolutely mesmerized by how makeup chaged Tony Randall’s look in 7 Faces of Dr Lao. Then, when I was 11, Planet of the Apes came out — that was it for me. I was hooked. I knew I wanted to be a makeup artist.
Did you practice on yourself? I’d get friends to take my face cast. Once, when I was 15 or so, I showed pictures of my Planet of the Apes makeup to a girl whose dad owned a movie theater in Oklahoma. She showed it to her dad, who called and asked me to dress up in the makeup to promote the movie, which was showing at his theater. I got paid $15 for it — it was great.
Your most intricate job: Probably Brendan Fraser’s makeup in Bedazzled. That took around three hours each day.
Right now, the top Google search results for your name are articles on the prosthetic penises you made for the movie The Overnight. That’s still work! We’ve done those for a lot of films and projects, including for Bad Santa 2, which is coming out soon. Sex is sex — I’m just like, is the check cashable? I get calls from producers and directors who are very shy about it, like, “We need… um… we heard you do this.” I’m like, “Yeah, what’s the girth, is it cut or uncut?” They’re completely taken aback.
Are those parts…[awkward pause] recycled? With penises, you keep it. It’s been glued down there. Prosthetic breasts are thrown away after a single use; same goes with prosthetic pregnancies after they’ve been glued to the skin.
The hardest makeup to do: Old people, because it’s gotta look realistic. Growing into my professional boots, I’d go down to the flea market and just observe them. It’s fascinating to watch how people age and how their skin gets translucent or moves when they turn.
How have digital touch-ups and HD changed your work? It’s not kind to prosthetic makeup artists these days. We have to be very cautious how much makeup we’re putting onto the skin. Today, everybody uses an airbrush to paint the face. You lower the air pressure of your compressor and distribute lots of little dots.
Any other special techniques? I build up color on the skin gradually; my technique is to layer it. I start out with a red- or pink-colored appliance and then add the flesh tone to that. You need that red undertone; we’ve all got blood running beneath our skin. Real skin is a combination of about four to six colors: yellow, pink, veins, reds around the nose and knuckles. You have to train your eye to see what the camera is going to see.
How do you prevent the makeup from sweating off during a 12-hour shoot? Close-ups mostly take place at the very end of the day, but manufacturers keep that in mind with most professional products. We use alcohol-based products very sparingly.
We have to be very careful when removing makeup at the end of a day, too. If you’re working with an actor every day, you know you’ll have to turn around and put it back on the next morning, which you can’t do if their skin is irritated. I use a petroleum-based makeup remover called isopropyl myristate, which weakens the adhesives in prosthetics and gently removes it from the skin. Others have additives that can burn the skin over time.
Best part of your job: Actually applying the prosthetics. It’s kind of like Dr. Frankenstein; you’re creating a creature and sculpting the work. That gives me the biggest thrill.
Most challenging part of your job: Dealing with directors and producers, and these days, the budget. There are so many low-budget or no-budget films because the tech with visual effects is growing by leaps and bounds. But there will always be a need for prosthetic makeup. You have to be able to change with the tide.
What would people be surprised to learn about your job? We might spend two months on one effect, like someone’s hand getting cut off. Then, when you see it all edited together, it will be less than four seconds on screen. It’s a little disheartening sometimes.
How do you describe your job when meeting new people? It’s kind of a roundabout process for the layman, so I sometimes just say I work in the entertainment industry. Or that I do art.
Salary: We’ll charge $5,000 to $10,000 to do an autopsy rental body on a show like CSI. A general union makeup artist will earn $50 to $75 per hour on set, depending on level of experience, but you can also ask for a daily rate.
Your must-reads: Stage Makeup by Richard Corson. Before that, I picked up Dick Smith’s Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-up Handbook, which is a little paperback. I underlined everything in it and read it until it was falling apart.
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. It’s crucial to have a really good eye for color and skin tone. When you’re creating a character, you need to think about where that person grew up and what exposure they had to outdoor elements.
2. Be able to get along with actors or producers. I like to say that 60% of what we do is getting along with people, and 40% is actually doing the job.
3. You need to be very passionate about this work. If you’re like, “oh, that would be interesting” but you don’t have the drive, find something else. Then practice as much as you can. Do your makeup — then do it over and over again.
Next, meet the graveyard guide trying to convince people that cemeteries are nothing to be scared of.
All photos are courtesy of Matthew Mungle and W.M. Productions.