Vincent Van Dyke, on FX Makeup & Prosthetics, Working on Code Black, Grey's Anatomy, & Founding Vincent Van Dyke Effects.
September 10, 2015
I'm born and raised in Los Angeles, so I’m a bit of a rare breed in the entertainment world. Everyone seems like they all come to LA to pursue their dreams, but I was fortunate enough to already be here.
I really didn't know what makeup FX was, I just knew that I liked to create faces, and make people look like they were someone else.
That led me to eventually learn what this world was and find as many books and videos on the subject that I could find. Cut to me getting my first job at 14 and never looking back.
First Job in Entertainment
The first thing I actually got paid for was probably working at Barney Burman's shop.
I got an internship with him when I was 14, and still in high school. The internship lasted for a few months and then I started to get paid, I believe on Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny.
It was really a series of extremely lucky events… I was shopping at a retail FX supply house, and Barney's shop happened to be right behind it.
He was shopping as well, and I recognized him. Showed him my work, and he said that he would call me. Lucky for me he actually did, and It was an amazing first experience. I learned a tremendous amount quickly.
I think nature probably inspires me the most out of everything.
People are the biggest form of that, characters and old people, deformities, things like that really get the ideas flowing for me.
Others people's work gets me extremely inspired also though, seeing good work is probably the biggest kick in the ass to do something good for yourself.
Seeing stuff from my peers, and also people across the country just doing this as a hobby just blows me away. I'm still a fanboy at heart when it comes to the world of makeup fx.
Why Special Effects Makeup & Prosthetics?
The reasons that I got into this business is very different from others. I was not a horror fan, didn't watch all of the Friday the 13th movies and love blood and gore.
I got into it to fool people. For me the magic is what appealed to me. To create something that was so realistic it could pass for reality.
I thought it was so cool, to think that someone could look like someone else completely and people would believe it!
For me that excitement is still what I enjoy the most - creating things that visually look real whether that means gore, surgery, or a full old age makeup.
Roles within the Entertainment Industry
I started out primarily as a sculptor/painter for studios.
This would usually entail me going in and being handed some reference of what it was I needed to work off of and either incorporate or duplicate into the sculpture or paint job.
I also did a lot of lab work, which means more of the technical side then the artistic.
I did mold work and a tremendous amount of silicone prosthetic castings for various studios as well.
My staple though, was being the supervisor at the Burman Studio for nearly 7 years.
Vincent Van Dyke Effects
I always knew that at some point that I really wanted to have my own studio… I just had no idea when the time would be right.
And, I think I realized at one point, that there is no right time.
I just pulled the trigger and rented a small little space out, and while we were building my shop tables we got our first feature in titled "Yellow" a film by Nick Cassavetes.
That was in 2010. I strongly believed (and still do) the "build it and they will come" mentality.
As far as working for myself goes, I absolutely love it. I can't imagine not having the creative/technical control.
For me it's a balance of knowing when to let go of something.
You have to balance between doing the creative, the technical, and the business…. and unfortunately the business takes the most time out of my day.
There is a part of me that enjoys the business, but I hate when it takes me away from being able to get involved creatively. That’s where you have to know when to let go, and bring someone in to sculpt or paint etc. Someone who is excellent and can execute your vision.
Working in Film
I like working in Film a lot, I’d like to do more of it in fact. We primarily do TV work. With film I think its really having more time to create the work. It's not always the case, but we usually get more build time.
There is a longer creative journey and this can allow for tests, which we almost never get with TV work. Tests are hugely important in my line of work, so having that opportunity is very beneficial. Then from that test getting to refine the look of whatever it is we are doing.
We recently worked on a film called Officer Downe. This was a very FX heavy film, and called for a lot of different gags and makeups.
This film contradicts what I was just saying though, we had almost no time and limited budget.
This had us going back to our roots of old school FX techniques and cheats.
It was really a fun experience because of that, thinking a little differently than I usually do. It was a different approach than where I would normally go, and to me that made it a fresh experience.
Improvements in Technology
Our field has changed dramatically because of technology. VFX has taken a large amount of the work that used to be an immediate "go to" for physical prosthetic guys.
A lot of people are hurt over this or think that it's not a good choice.
But I'm a bit of the opposite. I think that VFX work has helped us so much, and can just do things better sometimes.
To me the ideal effects are a combination of some great physical prosthetics on set that can be enhanced with VFX work.
Working in Television
Tv is our bread and butter. We do a lot of it and I have personally been working in TV for over 10 years now.
It really makes you learn how to work incredibly quickly. The deadlines for TV work just feels like it gets worse and worse - having a week to do one effect is a luxury to me and my guys at the shop.
Things that should be taking us 23 weeks to pull off are being done in 35 days.
Working this way can be beneficial because we actually discover new ways of doing things quicker and sometimes with better results.
I also like the fact that the work you are doing is done so quickly because I don't like to stay on one thing for too long. I tend to lose interest after a few weeks of working on something or I want to change how I originally designed it.
So, having less time makes me commit to something, finish it and move on. Also getting the opportunity to have that work air so quickly, allows us to share our work faster.
Our challenges will always go back to deadlines, and I think my biggest challenge to date is working on a full body fat suit for Grey's Anatomy while I was project supervisor at the Burman Studio.
We had 12 days to do a full prosthetic suit from under the eyes to the ankles. He shot for 6 days, so that means 6 sets of facial prosthetics and blenders. And 2 full suits for him to alternate between each day.
Getting this accomplished within 12 days sounded impossible, but it's all about coming up with a great plan, design, and keeping communication strong between departments.
All in all it’s probably one of the things that I am most proud of being a part of as well.
This is a difficult one…. I don't ever want to sugar coat anything, and I also don't want to discourage. Make sure you want to do this for the right reasons.
You have to LOVE this more than everything else you do. This field will consume your life at times, and you won't have time for anything else.
It's also not as glamorous as I think people may think. Shop work is kind of like walking into a mechanics shop with a fine art studio sitting in the middle of it.
It's messy work, its toxic, the deadlines are awful, and you really have to love it to continue.
I also strongly recommend that you choose whether you want to be a Makeup artist or you want to be working in a shop. They are very different universes and one does not always lead to the other.
It is incredibly important to know a bit of everything in my opinion. But it’s also important to know what you are really passionate about and go for that.
If shop work isn't what you want to do, then don't do it. Start getting as much set work as you possibly can and build those connections because the end goal for shop work and set work are usually very different.
One involves a Union, the other may involve running your own business one day or becoming a supervisor or key at a studio.
Those paths are very different and they both take a long time to get to where you want to be, so you might as well start on the right path first so you don't waste any of your time.
Creative Process & Approach to Projects
Every project requires a different approach. But generally speaking it either starts with a design, or a reference photo. This is either something we have created or provided to production, or something production has provided us.
Once that has been established we will start doing our own research on gathering more reference that is in the same vein or prevalent to the project.
At this point I also usually start designing how the effect should be done. This is the most important part of the process in my opinion.
For me, it’s essential to think about every aspect of that effect from the very first step to the final application on set. Everything in-between those are equally important to the success of an effect.
I like to sit down with my team and talk about these steps and figure out the best approach for each. It's a total brainstorming session and thinking outside of the box.
But once this is figured out everything can then be scheduled properly and the workflow will be that much smoother.
After that I’m usually the Sculptor on the project, and or the painter. This is where I will step in and start creatively exploring the looks and making sure we are accurate to whatever design or reference we are needing to match or emulate.
I think the biggest struggle in this business is where is your next job coming from. This is a problem with most jobs in the entertainment business in general.
But it’s a hard thing to handle sometimes if you are ending one job and have no idea where the next is coming from or how long it will last.
For me, I think the solution as a business owner is to try and keep overhead as low as possible.
The times of really large studios seem to be dying and the smaller shops are booming.
The ability to stay small regarding space and crew allows us to survive during the slower times and the ability to expand during the busier.
It's a very fine balance and it's something I think will be an ongoing battle.
Creative Problem Solving
Every job definitely gives you its own challenges. Whether that means a lot to do within a short amount of time due to deadline, or budget constrictions. Or sometimes its just because it’s difficult to make something look like what it needs to.
Honestly, one does not really stand out strongly in my mind. There are MANY all-nighters that are running through my head right now where I had to re-run prosthetics at 4:00-5:00 in the morning and were being picked up at 7am.
Making it work is usually experience, knowing what to do to make something work.
A mold that isn't cutting an edge, or a paint job that didn't bond well, these are usually the 11th hour panic moments where you have to pull out the tricks from your bag and make it work and look good right before delivery.
Being recognized for your work is incredibly flattering. As an artist it’s always nice to be appreciated for what you do, and having your peers recognize good work is all the more of an honor. But generally speaking, it’s not why we get into this field.
The goal is to produce the best work we can and in the moment you never think about an award or being acknowledged.
So, having something like that pop up usually long after you are done with the project, is a nice reminder of how hard you worked and makes it all the more rewarding.
Specialist or Jack of all Trades?
As a freelance artist I jumped around quite a bit. But primarily I was hired for Sculpting and painting. I could take a job from start to finish, for the most part.
But I think that there is a huge advantage to knowing a bit of everything. You don't have to be a master of all of it, but knowing how to do everything from start to finish will benefit you exponentially.
As far as my company goes, I’d say we specialize in more of the realistic work body duplication, medical, and humanistic prosthetics.
This is the work that I find the most appealing and it’s also what we have done the most of.
So, that’s what we have to show for, and in turn what we tend to get hired for the most. I think with the times we are in now it’s more common for the smaller shops I talked about to be more of a specialty shop.
It's better to go to someone who does amazing armor for armor work and another shop that does fantastic old age makeups for those, but most shops out there CAN do it all, that kind of goes back to the knowing it all… sometimes you need to pull off something that’s not necessarily your "specialty."
Do You Have a Team in Place for Projects or Do You Tend to Work Alone?
Oh Absolutely! I could not do the work I produce without my team. It is imperative.
A shop is only as good as the people working in it and I try to surround myself with people who do what they do better than I can.
It takes a village for sure, because of the fact that the work we do is so specific, it tends to get broken down to different people handling different aspects.
Having Someone handle one step, then handed off to the next person etc...
My core group that I rely heavily on are Carl Lyon, Manny Lemus, Gwen Ramsey, and Sasha Camacho.
I've always loved being able to reach out to other people who do what I do through social media. It goes a bit back to how I get inspired, by other artists I admire.
So, having social media to look at artists work from all over the world and see what they are constantly creating is a pretty great way to keep inspired every day.
As far as for my company, I'm not sure how much it affects our business. But I do try and keep active with it to keep our work out there.
A website is one thing, but having a constantly updated flow of work on social media I think helps keep the business alive and fresh in people's eyes.
I know I often look people up on social media before I work with them and I’m sure lots do it to us as well.
Top Memories in Entertainment
I’d say getting my first Job with Barney Burman.
My First day at the Burman Studio.
Getting my supervising role at the Burman Studio.
Working at Rick Baker's studio on Maleficent was a big moment for me I had the most mundane task of casting polyfoam heads and I cherished every minute of it!
And, of course, my first day working for myself, at my studio.
Something About Your Career People Might Not Know?
I definitely think one thing is that it's not as glamorous as it may seem. I think society has major misconceptions about what we do because of movies like Mrs. Doubtfire, etc...
There is SO much that goes into even the most simple of effects. I think people have this idea that we just have huge storage units full of bodies, and suits, prosthetics, etc...
Like a store for this stuff that we can just pull from any time we want. It's completely the opposite - 90% of everything my company does is custom builds.
Even if its a swollen eye or a slit throat, we will almost always do a custom build for that specific actor. This means a Lifecast, a corrected positive, a sculpture, a mold, a silicone casting, hair work if needed.
And each day it shoots a new set of prosthetics must be run from the molds. That’s a big one that a lot of people don't know.
That’s a huge amount of prosthetics that are cast for something that works for an entire film for instance. These are some of the things I think people are ill-informed about that really are shockers when they hear it.
I've known that this is what I wanted to do since I was very little, like 5 years old. So, I have been tinkering with clay, paints, makeups, etc.… for a long time.
I think the biggest thing is practice and trying things over and over and over again.
So, I did a LOT of that growing up and got as many books and videos on the subject that I could. You Need so many hours of work to get even mediocre at something it's mind blowing. But I didn't have any formal education on the subject really.
I did however take a sculpture class with Jordu Schell, which was very beneficial at an early age. I still remember things when I sculpt that I learned from that class 15 years ago!
Jordu is a tremendous talent and in my opinion the best creature designer in the industry. But, I didn't go to a specific school or college for this or anything like that.
Most of what I learned was self taught over years of doing it in my bedroom. And then everything else was on the job experience, working for amazing people and being as much as a sponge as I possibly could be to the talented people I worked with and for.
Barney Burman giving me my first job and some 14 year old a chance in this industry for sure. Tom Burman and Bari Burman for their tremendous support, guidance and opportunities.
Their never-ending education on this business, artistically and the technical side of things. And also as a person in general. I would not be where I am today without them.
I also have to mention Lee Romaire. He was one of the first pros out there that ever gave me the time of day.
He took a lot of time out of his very busy schedule to help guide my sculpture work before I ever even worked in the industry. I'll always remember that and appreciate it.
And lastly, I have to mention my Mom. I would never have been able to go through with any of the opportunities that were presented to me in my early days if it were not for her.
I can't even express how supportive she was/is to me and my work. She drove me to work every day before I could drive and would pick me up at whatever crazy hour I needed her to, at whatever crazy industrial lot location as well.
I will forever be grateful.
Code Black is a new medical drama on CBS that we are working on.
Steve LaPorte is dept. head on the show and reached out to us for creating prosthetics and body duplication type work for him and his team.
It has been a really great ride so far and a lot of fun.
There is a grittiness and realness to this show that I really love and I think will be a big hit.
It premiers September 30th. So, watch out for some prosthetic work on that!