Idris Elba and Abraham Attah (CENTER) star in Beasts of No Nation | Photo © 2015 Netflix
Idris Elba and Abraham Attah (CENTER) star in Beasts of No Nation | Photo © 2015 Netflix

Make-up department head Chris Burgoyne talks about the perils and pleasures of filming

Make-up artist Chris Burgoyne, who recently traveled to Ghana for the production of Beasts of No Nation, found that shooting in the West African nation brought a new perspective to his job.

“It was a real adventure,” says Burgoyne, who was intrigued by the story of Agu, a child soldier fighting in an African civil war. “When you work on productions here in the U.S., you get used to a certain way of working, so when this project came along, I was really excited about the script and the subject matter, and I wanted to see if I still had the same passion for this job.

“I think the biggest challenge at first,” Burgoyne recalls, “was getting there, accessing our environment and figuring out what kind of conditions we were going to be working in. Production basically gave us a small furniture truck to work out of; once we actually stepped inside it in the 100-degree temperatures, it made it impossible to work in there. So we elected to work under pop-up tents with collapsible tables outside, which was easier. We had to get to set every morning in the dark, set up our work space and get a bunch of people done between two of us, so that was definitely challenging.”

Burgoyne’s make-up team consisted of himself and key Kris Kobzina. “The way we worked was Kris and I packed up an entire mobile lab and brought all the raw materials over [to Ghana] with us, so we could make everything over there. We knew we would be doing a lot of make-up on the fly, from direct transfer stuff to bigger blood gags and a lot of 3rd Degree.

Make-up artists Kris Kobzina and Chris Burgoyne working on the set of Beasts of No Nation
Make-up artists Kris Kobzina (LEFT) and Chris Burgoyne working on the set of Beasts of No Nation | Photo courtesy of Chris Burgoyne

“We also fabricated a few things before we left; mainly gags we couldn’t do over there, like a chest with multiple bullet wounds that was bleeding out. Pretty much everything was set up in my hotel room, so we would fill molds and let them dry and then brought things out in pizza boxes, hoping for the best.”

Local cast members also presented Burgoyne with skin tones he hadn’t worked with before. “That was definitely a challenge,” he says, “just the layers of color you have to create or use to get that depth to the skin. Even if we had a decently under-toned silicone appliance, we would put so much paint on top of it just to make it seem lifelike.

“I thought working with someone like LL Cool J over the years [on NCIS: Los Angeles] gave me a nice little base of knowledge, but once we were on the ground dealing with some of those really deep, dark, almost purple-black skin tones, a lot of the palettes we have in the States don’t really have colors that work for that skin, so it definitely posed a challenge when we were putting Bondo appliances and things on top of it.”

And getting home was a major culture shock. “Having been in this place with limited resources and food options and coming back to this world of anything you could possibly want definitely felt strange,” reflects Burgoyne. “It seemed enormously unfair that we have access to all these things and that we’re so incredibly wasteful.

On the set of Beasts of No Nation | Photo courtesy of Chris Burgoyne
On the set of Beasts of No Nation | Photo courtesy of Chris Burgoyne

“One of the things that hit me so hard was lunchtime. We would get these boxes of rice and chicken brought to set from the hotel, but it was difficult to sit there and enjoy your lunch, while a hundred kids were standing around you, staring at your box of food because maybe they hadn’t eaten in a couple of days, so I could never feel comfortable. I would end up giving my lunch away, and exist on things like canned tuna or smoked sardines. I came back with a bikini body!

“What I was probably happiest with on this film was knowing we did everything within in our power to deliver the best product to [producer] Carey [Fukunaga] as possible. And I liked working out of a kit again and trying to figure out a way to create something, which really re-trains your brain. With all the access we have to shops and materials here [in the U.S.], it’s easy to get comfortable with modern prosthetics and things that fit properly, so what I took away from this project was the ability to problem-solve and say, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do!’ and then figure out how to do it.”

Beasts of No Nation debuts on Netflix Oct. 16.