Monster's Ball: Paul Jones

When Syfy and Trion Worlds set out on a unique collaboration to introduce the world of Defiance to television and gaming audiences, they tapped the special effects makeup and prosthetics designer Paul Jones, whose background in gruesome creatures and stunning transformations includes cult classics and contemporary thrillers. 

Things that go bump in the night are Paul Jones’ specialty. Since 1988, the English expatriate has done makeup, creature design, and special effects for films ranging from Bride of Chucky to the Resident Evil franchise. His latest project, Silent Hill: Revelation 3D, is another accolade in Jones’ gruesome arsenal, but the opportunity to create the underbelly of Hell didn’t come overnight.

Jones’ foray into the world of blood and guts started the old fashioned way – through the U.K. postal system. Teaching himself basic effects techniques as a teenager, Jones landed his first professional gig by sending a homemade portfolio to Bob Keen, the artist behind Hellraiser, Krull, The Neverending Story, and Highlander. Jones was hired immediately for a commercial shoot in London.

I was 18 years old and I kind of hopped on a train, went down, worked on the commercial for a couple weeks, and slept on his couch; it was an incredibly eye-opening experience,” Jones says. “I ended up getting homesick and came home immediately afterwards.”

But not for long. Jones went back to Keen two months later, spending the next six years working his way up from sweeping floors to running entire special effects teams. Jones currently runs his own studio in Toronto and has worked on projects including Kick-Ass, The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day, Skinwalkers, and George Romero’s Survival of the Dead. This year, Jones will bring to life the species of Trion World’s Defiance for the Syfy live action series.

Get In Media: You worked on the 2011 remake of The Thing. Is it easier to work on a project like that where there’s already an aesthetic precedent from the first movie or to create the look entirely from scratch?

Paul Jones: A better example would be the Silent Hill movies because on The Thing, I was only peripherally involved; I was just doing prosthetics and fire masks and things like that. On Silent Hill, I was working with Patrick Tatopoulos. We created a very strong aesthetic for that movie, which was based on video game designs. But again, they were adapted to work practically within the movie and within the confines of the story.

Now the Silent Hill world has a very big fan following and it has a big gaming following, so the look of the movie was already set. When we designed the new creatures, they had to have, obviously, elements that the new director wanted and that the producers wanted and that I wanted as well. But they also had to fit in the same world. It was a benefit having worked on the first movie because you’ve already gone through the trial and error to achieve what was in the first film, so the second film you know that certain colors and certain textures don’t really fit into that world. That is actually a benefit to doing a sequel because all the [research and development] for the most part was already done by somebody else on the first movie. You kind of skip that and get right into knowing what already works. It’s like the foundations were already in place.

GIM: On a project like Resident Evil: Retribution, where there are several different types of the same basic creature running around, is it the same deal where it’s easier to create multiple creatures from the same palate because that research is already done?

PJ: Yeah. You already have a kind of design element that [director Paul W.S. Anderson] has established in other movies. I can kind of skip through all the crazy stuff and bring it down to a more grounded design. The beauty of zombies is they’re people. Essentially, you’re always going to be dealing with an actor and adding to that. Hopefully, if we do another Resident Evil, we can do zombies that are a little bit more digitally manipulated.

GIM: With so much zombie media coming out, how do you make your work stand out?

PJ: It’s tough, especially when you get to the point when you think – pardon the pun – that zombie movies are dead. Then along comes The Walking Dead, where they take something and create it for high-concept drama television. You have people who would never watch a zombie movie ever before are now Walking Dead fans.

The stories are a lot more watchable. It’s just become more mature, more grown up, but the actual zombies themselves are visually the same. The makeup obviously has changed, the techniques have changed, but the way they’ve been applied, it’s like they’ve been applied in a more mature way to match the story and to match the show itself.

You look at Return of the Living Dead, the zombies in that are kind of over the top and very gross and slimy, but they almost have a cartoony feel because they match the performances of the other characters. It’s very tongue-in-cheek and very horror-orientated. Whereas Walking Dead, everyone’s taking it so seriously, it’s almost like the zombies have to be serious also, even though they’re still zombies. I definitely see a difference between stuff we did in the early ’90s and stuff we’re doing now.

GIM: Do you feel like having worked prior to CGI has had an effect on what you do now?

PJ: Having an understanding of computers is necessary in life and it certainly is in the film industry. I find that almost every instance now there is going to be, to a certain extent, a digital element. I don’t necessarily need to know how CG is created, but I need to know why it’s created because the audience’s expectations in what you see in cinema now is a lot wider. It’s not limited to one, either CG or makeup effects. They’re expecting to see something new and the only way you can achieve that is by combining the technologies and creating hybrid effects.

The Iron Man costume would be a perfect example. That costume has digital elements of the costume as the actor’s walking around. He also has a completely digital version, which is created from the practical costume. It’s a real marrying of the two disciplines.

GIM: Do you have specific creatures that you prefer making over others?

PJ: Each effect brings its own problems. Like when you do makeup on an actor, no matter how you design the makeup, you have to include the actual actor’s personality in the equation. Some actors love wearing prosthetics. Some actors hate wearing prosthetics. I can’t emphasize that too much: They really don’t like having stuff glued to them.

So when you go from that to doing a dead body or a puppet, you kind of take the actor out of the equation. You’re able to do it the way you like, but unfortunately, you lose the performance unless you bring in the same kind of talent. A great actor can bring a bad makeup to life really, really well. In the same respect, you can have an amazing puppet, but if it’s being puppeteered badly, it will look dead on camera. It’s kind of a toss up between the two, so when you find an actor who’s an amazing actor and also really loves prosthetics, it becomes a dream job.

GIM: Every special effects person has their own tips and tricks they’ve developed through the years. What are yours?

PJ: Don’t over-complicate anything. If it works with a piece of wood and an elastic band, use a piece of wood and an elastic band. Don’t go digital unless you have to, especially with animatronics. Just because you have a small puppet doesn’t mean the mechanical part of it has to be miniaturized, because the more complicated it becomes, the more things can go wrong with it.

My personal belief is the more simple you can make something, it frees you up to be able to modify it on the day [of the shoot]. If you make something over-complicated, it ends up you have very little to play with when you actually get to camera. When you get to a movie set, the process evolves right in front of the camera. You can get to set with makeup on an actor and the director can walk up to you and say, “I kind of like it, but can we do this?” If you keep it simple, you can add many layers to it. If you make it really complicated, it’s very difficult to take those layers away, to modify it into something else. That’s probably one thing I’ve learned in 25 years in the industry is to just keep it simple.

“I think my biggest failure would be listening to a bad director too much. There’s nothing worse than being bullied by a director that really doesn’t respect what we do.”
GIM: What’s the most challenging project you’ve worked on?

PJ: Silent Hill 2, mainly just because of the sheer amount of what I had to build for it. I had probably the best crew I’ve ever had. I was lucky to have everybody in town who were available to work for me at that particular moment, so I had a really excellent team, which was good because the amount of work that was thrown at me on that particular movie was unbelievable. I still look around my shop now at everything on shelves and hanging on walls and go, “How the hell did I build all this stuff in nine weeks or whatever it was?” Every effect in it was like a creature suit or big elaborate makeup. It wasn’t anything simple in that bloody movie.

GIM: How big was your crew for that project?

PJ: Again, it fluctuates; when you do makeup effects, you bottleneck. You’ve got a design stage, which is a few people, and then that will open up into the sculpting stage where you need to have bums on seats. And then once the sculpting stage is done, everything bottlenecks down to mold-making, because you don’t need as many mold makers. The largest amount was probably about 23 people working for me.

GIM: What is the greatest achievement you’ve had in your field and the biggest mistake?

PJ: It really is about still being in the industry after 25 years. That’s an achievement in itself. I put that down to just keeping things simple, not overcomplicating things, not over-expanding myself as a business, keeping myself humble and keeping myself within. I don’t have a 30,000-square-foot facility with 100 full-time employees. Toronto couldn’t support that anyway. Plus it would be suicide, because as soon as you expand too much … well, the industry is very fickle. It’s feast or famine. One minute you’re working and the next minute you’re not. It’s when you’re not working you can go out of business very quickly.

I think my biggest failure would be listening to a bad director too much. There’s nothing worse than being bullied by a director that really doesn’t respect what we do. There were times where I was bullied by a director to do something a certain way, even though I knew it wouldn’t work, and the end result was, to me personally, very unsatisfying.

GIM: What do you look for when you hire someone?
PJ: Commitment to makeup effects and a respect for the industry. Makeup effects is a discipline, and unless you respect that discipline, you’re never going to be successful. Anyone walking in my door, they have to know the history of makeup effects. They have to know who designed certain makeups for certain movies, they have to know the background on those guys, what materials they used. All this you can find online, it’s just having the initiative to go out and look for it. I was taught a long time ago, if you don’t know how to do something, ask someone to show you. Don’t just expect someone to do it for you. It’s having the initiative to figure this out.

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