Making Faces: Makeup Artist Conor McCullagh

It all started with a pencil and paper for the winner of Syfy’s Face Off, but life as a ‘freelance nomad’ and teacher is sweet for this 20-year veteran of physical transformations.

  • Conor McCullagh

In the back of your mind, you know that the monster on your screen is wearing a suit. You could peel away layers of foam rubber and spirit gum (or probably something much stronger) and reduce that alien menace to a pile of debris and a puppeteer. But if the craftsperson responsible for this creation is an artist, that thought won’t make it past the back of your mind.

Prosthetic makeup artists have one of the odder relationships with the audience. The work of a costumer or a set designer is commonly to blend the actors into a scene. Often, a quality prosthetic is supposed to stand out. A creature or a third arm or a melting face or a fat suit has to hold its own with the actors onscreen. Yet, though viewers are acutely aware of the artist’s work, his or her name stays off the radar.

Syfy recently pulled the curtain back from this group of technically skilled artists with its answer to Project Runway and Top Chef: Face Off, a reality show competition pitting 12 makeup artists in a latex arena. Following the same kinetic and catty formula as its peers, Face Off showcased its contestants’ talents—and occasionally their pettiness—through a variety of challenges that involved everything from making blood to full body suits. The result gave a glimpse (though not much more, as the subject of this interview points out) into the transformation process that leads to some of film’s most memorable images, and for this, Syfy garnered its highest-rated unscripted franchise launch.

Season One wrapped up its eight-episode run on March 16. The winner of the $100,000 grand prize, not surprising fans of the show, was Conor McCullagh, a 20-year veteran of prosthetics makeup and a teacher at the Joe Blasco Makeup School in Orlando, Fla. McCullagh, who at one point operated an effects studio called Nightmares Etc., worked his way up from theme park animatronics to be mentored and employed by John Caglione Jr., Oscar-winning makeup director of Dick Tracy and creator of the iconic Joker makeup Heath Ledger sported in The Dark Knight. McCullagh has created eye-grabbing works ranging from late-night movie monsters to Magda’s boobs in There’s Something About Mary.

His presence on the show was almost always purely professional, focused entirely on the task at hand. In only one challenge was he ranked in the bottom three, and comments about his work from both judges and his fellow contestants were generally beyond positive to the point of him not really belonging in the competition. Watching him, one quickly got the impression that his familiarity with the tools of the trade and the range of possibilities made him a frontrunner by a gait or two. Which is not to say that McCullagh found the show to be without drama on his end. We talked with him about the early days of his career, life as a freelance nomad, and the pressures of living in a contest.

Get In Media: What drew you into the idea of making monsters in the first place?
Conor McCullagh: My father tells everybody that I was doing this since I was a kid. I was doing it 2-D. I was really into science fiction and horror genres. I was decent with a pencil. I never had an outlet to sculpt, so I was always drawing out these depictions from films or my own ideas for films.

GIM: What did you learn under John Caglione that you didn’t learn in school? What is the benefit of working under a master?
CM: I’m only in the business a couple years at this point and John Caglione takes me in. And I guess he saw something in me. He really liked my sculpture. He knew I wasn’t an experienced makeup artist yet. So, on our second project together, he took me to South Africa to do a movie there. He had made all the prosthetics himself in New York. All I did was application, application, application to the same guy every day. It was just learning his particular techniques. Everyone’s got something different they like to do.

GIM: What work of your own do you look back on as campy?
CM: Oh, you want to go there? OK, at one point in the early ’90s, I made a full-sized, larger-than-human-scale monster. I was given $1,000 and I used a shopping cart and some sheet foam. The funny thing is that it was easily one of the worst things I ever made and it ended up in two films.

‘If you want to be like the roving, freelance, lone-gunman type, which I have unintentionally become, then you can carve out a living all over the country’

I originally made this shopping cart monster for a movie called Dark Universe. And then a couple years later, it shows up. I’m watching, like, Skinamax at 2 in the morning and it’s this movie called Dinosaur Island. It’s just a bunch of naked cavewomen running around. They’re in Bronson Caves in Hollywood, and the next thing I know, this creature comes out, and I’m, like, “I made that.”

GIM: That’s a weird little pop-up. Does that happen a lot that things that you make, now that they’re owned by the studio, get tossed around?
CM: No, it’s very seldom that a studio holds onto the pieces. Some of them do, some of them that know that they have a franchise and the producers are actually aware of what they physically own.

GIM: What are the largest changes to your side of the industry since you came into it?
CM: I would say there’s not as much big creature stuff as there used to be, because CGI has replaced a lot of what we used to do. However, the demand for more realistic makeups has increased with more HD video and so on. High definition video has really raised the bar for most of us. That’s why materials for creating prosthetics like foam latex don’t always fly anymore. Silicone prosthetics and silicone technology, period, has become a big part of makeup effects.

GIM: You’ve got a lot of comedy very early in your career. Does comedy just use more prosthetics or is that a jump you wanted to make?
CM: [to the idea of comedy using more prosthetics] Not at all. [to making the jump] No, in our business, there aren’t a lot of people turning down legitimate jobs when they come your way. The fact that I ended up working on the Farrelly brothers' movies, that was just by relationships I developed in the business.

GIM: Have you ever had a director ask for something in a script and you’ve looked at it and just said, “This is not happening”?
CM: Certainly. It’s usually because of money. There’s a lot of aspiring filmmakers who get a little overzealous. I don’t know if comes from a need to convince themselves that a project is happening or a need to convince others that a project is happening, but I get a lot of people who ask, “How much for this? How much for that?” And I’ve had people who get downright angry when I give them prices. And I’m sorry, but this is my work. That’s just time and materials.

GIM: How do you find jobs?
CM: There’s definitely people out there who don’t have to look for the work anymore. I’m not one of those people. But most of it is word-of-mouth. Just about every job I get is somebody who worked with me before and recommended me. I can’t even remember the last time I sent out a résumé. It’s done so little good over the years that I only do it at times of sheer desperation.

GIM: Do you agree with the idea that you have to get out to Los Angeles to make it in makeup?
CM: That is the question. My former students [at Joe Blasco Makeup School] asked me that all the time. It depends on which road you want to go down. If you want to be creating creatures in the film business, you pretty much have to go to LA and get into an FX shop. If you want to be like the roving, freelance, lone-gunman type, which I have unintentionally become, then you are able to carve out a living. Thanks to the incentive war, there’s tons of productions in Louisiana, Georgia, there’s some here, Michigan. These were scenes that 10 years ago you never would have thought of as far as filming goes. It’s all because of tax incentives. But that has done two things: That has meant less work in LA and more work for people like me.

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