fueled by fantasy

Unmasking the vampiric power of special effects artist Dan Phillips.

Unmasking the vampiric power of special effects artist Dan Phillips.

The first wearable masks — carved from stone with cutouts for the eyes, nose and mouth — were crafted in caves near the Dead Sea in what is now Israel. As global fascination with facial guises deepened, creativity exploded. Masquerade galas took hold of 15th century France. All Hallows’ Eve unleashed in Ireland, Scotland and Wales just 100 years later.

The mask became culturally omnipresent, and today, they define some of modern cinema’s most iconic films – especially horror. Through the hands of modern-day mask makers, petro-based prosthetics and makeup are used to suspend our disbelief.

Professional special effects artist Dan Phillips, founder of DP Studios, is a master of the mask. He makes the unreal possible, bringing the undead to life, placing cartoon characters in the real world, and helping kids and adults alike surrender to the imaginary forces that live within us.

Phillips’ work has appeared in films such as The Hobbit (both An Unexpected Journey and There & Back Again), Oz The Great and Powerful, and Real Steel.

As he transforms our victim — er, model — into a vampire before your very eyes, you might ask yourself how he wound up doing the ancient work of mask making in the first place.

He says it all started at a drive-in movie theater in Detroit.

I would steal my mom’s makeup, go sit in my bedroom, and figure out how to do scars on myself.

Fueled By: Being a professional special effects artist doesn’t seem like the kind of job you just fall into. How did you get into such a neat yet niche field?

Dan Phillips: I’m an inner-city Detroit kid who was one of only four kids that lived on the block. I always had a love for horror films and scary things, so I would steal my mom’s makeup, go sit in my bedroom, and figure out how to do scars on myself. Back when I was a kid, we didn’t have the Internet, so I’d have to go to the library and actually find out how to do this stuff. Trial and error.

FB: What’s at the root of your fascination with scary things?

DP: One of the big treats when I was a kid was when my dad would take me to the Bel-Air Drive-In to watch old Italian spider films. I was 11 or 12 years old, and my dad would fall asleep, so I’d just watch these films by myself. Around that time, I started to build little studios in the basements of the houses wherever we lived. Even in my eighth-grade year book, when we all said what we wanted to do when we grew up, I said I wanted to be a special effects artist.

One of the biggest influences was The Exorcist. The transformation of that young girl really did me in.

FB: Is there a movie that had the biggest impact on you?

DP: Oh, yeah! One of the biggest influences was The Exorcist. The whole transformation of that young girl (Regan, played by Linda Blair) really did me in. It’s one of those movies that holds the test of time. I’m also kind of partial to that movie because the guy I apprenticed under (Dick Smith) did that movie. It’s pretty iconic. But I really dug all those movies — Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, Hellraiser, A Nightmare on Elm Street — all those really good makeup-made films. It felt brand new, and it really got me wanting to do this for a career.

FB: In the realm of special effects, is there something you specialize in?

DP: I consider myself a very good makeup artist. When people come to Michigan, I’m that go-to guy for prosthetics. But we’ve done everything from large props for concerts to little tiny prosthetics for people’s faces. There really is a little bit of everything.

FB: Can you take us through what you did with our model, Emily?

DP: With Emily, we were originally going to go with a new version of the look from Lost Boys — a big brow piece, big double fangs. But she came in with a more vintage costume, so we didn’t want to go too modern. Instead, we went old school, but wanted to be hip at the same time. Emily has really short hair, so when my stylist came in, the first thing we did was add a ton of hair. I did use full-brow rubber prosthetic above her eyes, all the way up to the top of her forehead. From there, I used some creepy contact lenses, and we did big double fangs on her. Then I just painted her up and she looked great. It was a lot of fun. She was amazing.

FB: While people are undergoing these extreme physical modifications, are you also witnessing a transformation of character?

DP: Absolutely! It’s really funny because as I’m doing the makeup, I start by putting this big, white rubber piece on her forehead, spreading a little paint on her face, and at first it’s one dimensional and doesn’t look like it should be there. But then something just snaps. They become that character. And once they become that character, I know I’ve got it. I try to never let them see themselves before the makeup is done. When I’m finally done and they look in the mirror, they’re like “Oh my God!” They immediately start moving their mouth to play with the fang look and open their eyes real wide to see what the contacts do. That part is the most fun for me.

FB: As a practical special effects artist, what’s your relationship like with CGI (computer-generated images)?

DP: I love CGI! I think it works best with practical. CGI isn’t perfected yet. A lot of it still looks just a little cartoony. But I think it looks great when it works with a practical effect. A good example of that would be when they did Two-Face in Batman (The Dark Knight). They did a practical prosthetic outside of his face, but they also put green screens on certain sections of his face, so they could do CGI that made it look like you can see right through his skin. I don’t think CGI will threaten my job — I just hope it further enhances my work. That’s the goal for everybody — to make it look as clean and crisp as possible for the audience.

FB: What does your Halloween look like?

DP: I’m currently sculpting a cool prosthetic for a guy who’s going as Beast from Beauty and the Beast. People often ask me if I’m busy this time of year. Well, not so much! Sure, I get a lot of calls, but when people realize how much this stuff costs, they’re like, “Oh, uh, I’ll just buy a mask.” And I get it. It’s a very expensive undertaking for people who want to do full prosthetic makeup for just one night. It is what it is, ya know?