Todd Debreceni applying special effects makeup to a male actor

Costume Studio Demo Artist Todd Debreceni

Todd Debreceni will be in the Costume Studio demonstrating special effects and character design March 25-26, 2017.

Todd started his career in entertainment with PBS while a graduate student at the University of Tennessee. Todd has worked for Cannon Films, Warner Bros., Walt Disney Pictures, and 20th Century Fox Television. He currently is an adjunct professor in the theatre and dance department at the University of Colorado, Boulder, teaching advanced makeup design. Be sure to check out his book: Special Makeup Effects for Stage and Screen: Making and Applying Prosthetics (Focal Press, 2013).

HN: What can visitors expect to see from your demo at the DAM?

TD: Visitors to the museum can expect to see examples of my work in photos and as display maquettes. I will also have on hand molds for various masks and prosthetics, and I will be sculpting a new full-head mask in WED clay that will be molded in lightweight epoxy and cast in silicone (though sadly, it will not be completed during the demo), using a variety of tools and techniques I've been honing for years.

HN: How did you get into the work that you do?

TD: It all happened rather serendipitously and by accident, though I don't really believe in accidents. I have a medical background, so my experience with anatomy and the inner workings of a human body have certainly come in handy as a sculptor and fabricator of injuries and wounds for film and television, as well as for law enforcement and military training.

I grew up in an artistic family and have been painting and sculpting since I was a child, but it all started to fall into place when I was teaching at The Art Institute in Denver. I'd been working as a visual effects animator for a number of years, but had begun to really miss being able to actually touch what I was making. I'm a tactile person, and I like to be able to feel the materials I'm working with, whether it be clay, or wood, or metal... so, I'd just begun teaching myself life-casting techniques and getting mentored by my dear, late friend David Parvin, and was experimenting with different mold-making techniques.

The Art Institute had just implemented a new Special Topics class that could be anything, as long as it was industry related; my department chair asked me what I'd like to teach, and I said, 'special makeup effects.' He told me to work up a syllabus, and the rest is history. They say the best way to learn how to do something is to teach it to someone else, and it turned out I'm pretty good at it. This was nearly 20 years ago.

HN: Why special effects makeup? What intrigues you about this kind of work?

TD: As I mentioned, I have a medical background, so the anatomical and physio-mechanical aspects are very appealing to me. I still love CGI (computer-generated images), but nothing says 'real' like real. New and better materials are always being introduced to the marketplace, and experimentation is encouraged. Plus, I've never met and worked with a cooler, more open and giving bunch of artists in my nearly 40 years in entertainment. There are very few secrets. If you want to know how to do something, all you have to do is ask. And with social media, Academy Award, BAFTA and Emmy Award winners are easy to find, reach out to, and communicate with. It really is a brave new world!

HN: Can you go into a little bit of detail about how special effects makeup processes work?

TD: Sure! Firstly, for something to truly be a makeup effect, there has to be some sort of physical transformation involved, such as Pinocchio's nose growing, or a slit throat wound spewing blood, otherwise, it's just a mask or a prosthetic makeup. In an ideal world, you'd be able to get an accurate life cast of your actor so that the prosthetic age makeup you sculpt, mold, and cast will fit perfectly. But there's more to it than that: You need to understand how people age, as well as how skin wrinkles, etc. We have to be perfect observers of our fellow humans so we can create a convincing old person on top of a young person.

And it's important to remember that it's never about the makeup; it's about the performance. You can design and create the best looking makeup, but if the actor wearing it is inhibited in any way, then the makeup is wrong. What kind of light is the makeup going to be viewed under? What is the coloration like? Will it work with, or contrast against the costume? If you're doing a particular makeup numerous times, will continuity be important? That is, does the makeup have to match precisely day after day? All of these things need to be considered.

Kilawog Todd Debreceni created for a DC Comics Exhibit
The Green Lantern Kilowog Debreceni sculpted for the Arizona Pop Culture Experience. Photo courtesy of the artist.

HN: What is your process in choosing what to include and not to include when creating makeup designs, etc. for a particular character?

TD: That's something that should be found out as early as possible in the pipeline. A lot of what goes into that decision will hinge on whether the makeup will be seen up close or only from afar. If you're creating makeup for a background character that you know will only be a background character, then detail becomes much less important than makeup that will be seen in close-up detail.

What conditions the makeup will be used in is also important. Gelatin prosthetics are a poor choice for hot, wet conditions, for example.

How long will the performer be wearing the makeup? If you can determine that they're not going to shoot your actor's scene until much later in the day, it's foolish to get him ready first thing in the morning and be wearing makeup all day, risking damage from eating, etc. throughout the day. On the other hand, if your actor needs to be in makeup all day, try to coordinate with production to get the close-ups shot first, while the makeup is still pristine, and shoot wider shots later when you can get away with touch up cheats and the makeup may not still be as gorgeous as it was at the beginning of the day.

Beyond those sorts of logistics, how comfortable your actor is wearing prosthetics is of the utmost importance. As I mentioned, if your actor's performance is inhibited in any way as a result of the makeup, then the makeup needs to be adjusted to accommodate actor comfort and performance.

HN: Finally, what is your favorite piece you’ve worked on?

TD: I'm actually very excited about the piece I'm going to begin sculpting as my demo! But I'm not going to tell you what it is. Several years ago I was commissioned by the Arizona Pop Culture Museum to sculpt the Green Lantern Kilowog for their DC Comics exhibit. I was asked if I'd be interested in sculpting Kilowog, and I said, 'Sure! What's a Kilowog?' That was a lot of fun to do. Whatever I happen to be working on at the time is my favorite thing.

I'm getting ready to build a full torso and head makeup in foam latex for a production of The Toxic Avenger. Young Frankenstein was a ball, as was Shrek. I got to build an R/C animatronic Pinocchio! Creating Don Quixote was a challenge for Man of La Mancha, as were sculpting and fabrication the helmets and armor for Spamalot. I designed and fabricated a one-of-a-kind space helmet for a Starz movie campaign with Jeff Rodriquez. I think the project I'm building with Jeff and his wife Kim for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science is one of the most challenging things I've ever undertaken. I can't wait to be able to talk about it and show it off. It's really cool!

Holly Nordeck is a program facilitator in the department of learning and engagement at the Denver Art Museum. She loves the museum’s modern and contemporary art collection.