Me: When did you first discover make-up and prosthetics as a passion?
Phil Nichols: I started playing with make-up when I was three. My dad made me up as an Emmet Kelly tramp clown for Halloween one year, and I wanted to be a clown. I was fascinated with clowns, and at 10 years old I even applied to the Clown College in Florida. They said I was too young, and sent me an application. It was about that time I found a book that Dick Smith had written called The Handy Dandy Do It Yourself Monster Make-Up Handbook, and I got that. That’s where I learned about nose putty, mortician’s wax, greasepaints, and all that sort of stuff. I started playing with that stuff when I was about 10. When I was in high school, I got into the drama stuff, the thespians, and learned about stage make-up and went to college for it and picked up prosthetics along the way.
Me: Shows like Face/Off on Syfy expose how much hard work goes into the process of creating full special-effects make-ups. What is your process like?
Phil: It all begins with sketches. It was a year ago this week that I sketched out The Creature. My birthday is tomorrow, and I presented it all on my birthday. It all starts with research, and I started doing these doodles a year ago, just different things I possibly wanted to do with it. And, we ultimately picked that for The Creature. [See image insert.] But originally what I was going to do was have him start out like that and heal up and kind of begin to take on Victor Frankenstein’s appearance. Then, I realized how much work that would be changing the make-up and everything, and we just don’t have the time to do that with this production. So, I went with a different route, which is the more Bernie Wrightson re-animated corpse route, which is what he is. It starts with sketches because pencil and paper are cheap. I get the ideas out, and then I move onto modeling clay and sculpt out the prosthetics. Then I cast the play, and I took a life-cast of Michael Raabe, who’s playing The Creature, and started to translate this sketch to his face as best I could. I originally wanted somebody much leaner to play The Creature. I really wanted a very gaunt Creature, but the people that were the right physical build for what I was looking for didn’t have the right acting range for what I wanted in the play. The acting won out, and Michael came in and blew everyone away. He dropped about 50 lbs from what he normally is, and I was able to take his current status and incorporate this sketch and a lot of elements from the Bernie Wrightson Frankenstein and Hammer Film’s The Evil of Frankenstein that we’re using to template as much as we can for the play. Then I sculpted it in clay and took the molds in special plasters that we make the prosthetics out of. It’s a heat cured sponge rubber, and the plasters have to hold up to the heat and multiple runs because we use a new prosthetic every night. This play runs 12 performances plus techs, so I have to make like 20 copies of the face. Then painting and arting it up, and there it is. That’s the basic process.
Me: Considering you have worked extensively in both genres, what are the major differences between designing FX make-up for film and live theatre.
Phil: You can get away with more in theatre as far as being a little bit less concerned with The Edges and things like that. With movies and stuff, the camera is right on it and you have to be focused on the details more. Also, with theatre you have to exaggerate a little bit more to project it for an audience that is distant because a play is like a permanent wide shot. And the paint can be more exaggerated too.
Me: What advice do you have for others interested in pursuing FX make-up as a career?