In Issue 125 of Make-Up Artist magazine, we talked with Oscar-winning make-up artist Barney Burman about his experiences working on NBC’s Grimm, which airs its sixth and final season this spring. Here we bring you that extended conversation.
Many Lives, Many Monsters
While the apple may not fall far from the tree, in Barney Burman’s case you might say it landed right in his lap. The Oscar-winning special make-up effects artist comes from a family of masters in the trade. His grandfather, Ellis Burman, was a special make-up effects artist on The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Jr. And Thomas, Burman’s father, has worked on popular TV shows such as Nip/Tuck, Grey’s Anatomy and The X-Files.
It’s no surprise that Barney Burman grew up on set amid the exciting world of motion picture cameras, the intensity of bright Fresnel lights, big fuzzy booms and actors being transformed into all kinds of monsters and mischief. His father even used him as a model for the alien heads in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. How insanely cool is that?
The man behind more than 100 of Grimm’s elaborate creatures recently sat down with Make-Up Artist magazine and gave us some insight into his movie-magic boyhood, professional background and of course the hit NBC show which began airing its final season in January.
Make-Up Artist magazine: Growing up with a father in the movie industry must have been like being a kid in a candy store. Can you share a little story about your childhood?
Barney Burman: Oh, sure, I’ve got tons of stories. My brother and I used to run around and peek into the neighbor’s windows wearing masks from The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977). We had a pretty great childhood that was mixed with movie-related adventures, like playing around on the Western backlot of Paramount Pictures while our dad worked on The Barbary Coast. There was a lot of playful and unique opportunities.
I have a very early memory of my mother holding me while on the set of Planet of the Apes (1968) when I was a year and a half. And then—when my son was a year and a half—he was being held by his mother on the set of Planet of the Apes (2001).
MA: And how did you get into special make-up effects? Did you shadow your dad? Was he your first teacher?
BB: My father was always open and supportive to whatever I wanted to do in life. He taught me a few things directly but more than that he opened up a great deal of opportunity for me to learn, either from the people he had working for him or from just “hands on” experience. I’d say my brother, Rob, was really much more of a direct teacher. But they both gave me a great deal of trust and opportunity to practice my artistic and technical skills on the job.
MA: What was your very first make-up job? And where did that lead?
BB: That’s a tough one. The first time I received a paycheck from a studio was getting $75 from Columbia Pictures for sitting for a lifecast. My father used me as the model on which to make the small alien heads and hands for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
But my first real gig, the first job I got where I was charged with designing and creating the make-up effects, was Adam Simon’s first film called Brain Dead. It was a Roger Corman movie and starred Bill Paxton, Bill Pullman and Bud Cort. I was scared so I brought my brother on and he sort of guided me through the process of running a show of my own.
MA: We hear you were also an actor?
BB: I wanted to be an actor since I was 11 and on the set of The Island of Dr. Moreau. I did a lot of small theater and a few minor roles—but ultimately I grew tired of the pursuit. I also found a lot more reward and creative freedom in make-up.
MA: Jumping ahead, you worked on several episodics and movies, such as Tropic Thunder, Star Trek, Medium and Teen Wolf—and then came Grimm. What were you doing right before you got the call from NBC?
BB: It was 2010 and I’d just won the Oscar for Star Trek and, despite that, business could hardly have been worse. There had been a writer’s strike and the threat of an actor’s strike loomed across the land. On top of that, the economy had collapsed, so very few movies were being made. I had to close my previous studio, Proteus Make-up FX Team, and moved into a live/work space.
On the heels of designing and creating the werewolves for the first season of Teen Wolf, I wasn’t really interested nor looking for TV work. Old friends of mine, John and Natalie Drouillard, were directing/producing a version of The Elephant Man and asked if I would make—for the first time mind you—a full-body John Merrick make-up for stage. Afton Adams and I took on the project as a team and were having lots of fun.
And then I got a call from the producer Steve Oster …
MA: But you didn’t initially get the job?
BB: I bid on episode two—they’d already made the pilot with another make-up effects house and were looking for a different take on how to achieve these make-ups—but my bid was too high so they went with someone else. Apparently that didn’t go so well (lol). They called me again and asked if I could bring my “per character” budget down a little. I try to be a reasonable guy so I said, “Sure.” Next thing I know I’m off to Portland [Oregon] to turn my friend, actor Daniel Roebuck, into a pyromaniac pigman!
MA: The entertainment business is so fickle—but did you have a feeling Grimm would become a hit and run for so many seasons?
BB: I did. Not to say I “knew” but I felt it was a very well done show and had the right mix of darkness and humor. The cast was great and the people on the production team were really just amazing so it would have been very surprising if it didn’t do well. Of course, I’m very happy it did.
MA: How much flexibility or license is there in creating the character(s) while also meeting the vision of the EP’s?
BB: Before I came onto the show, production had been wise enough to contract two of the best concept artists in the business, Constantine Sekeris and Jerad Marantz. I mean, come on! If they had asked me to do the concept art for these characters those are the first guys I would have called, so I knew I was in for some fun designs. And they have absolutely not disappointed. That said, a concept design can often be extreme and the producers expressed to me how important it was that these creatures work as make-ups.
MA: Grimm volleys between using practical make-up and digital effects. What is the deciding factor when it comes to an actor wearing prosthetics versus all of it done in post?
BB: They got a formula down pretty quickly; if there was going to be three shots or less of a creature, including the “morphs” in and out, it would go to visual effects. Any more than that—or if it was something that would be too difficult for them to track—it would land in my domain.
MA: Old school versus new school techniques—are there technologies being developed that are guiding how practical effects are created?
BB: Yeah, all the time. And yet, there’s still a very basic connection to what we, as make-up artists, have been doing since The Wizard of Oz. Everyone has their preferred techniques and favorite materials but in a very real way it’s still basically the same thing.
MA: TV schedules are wicked fast. How in advance do you get the script?
BB: That’s the craziest part. Teen Wolf, at least the first season, kind of had a preconceived build list for the season so I know there are shows that work that way. Grimm is the polar opposite. I would get a script only a day or two before our first concept meeting for each episode. From there we would have anywhere from four to eight days to create the monster or monsters and/or dead people—oh, so many dead people! The longest we had was 12 days and that was for an extremely elaborate “Lava-man” who had to walk around and literally glow from the inside!
MA: What has been the biggest challenge working on Grimm?
BB: That’s easy. It comes down to three things: Time—the insanely short turnaround from defining what needs to be made to putting it in front of the camera. Distance—building everything in North Hollywood and shooting in Portland requires we have everything ready to ship two days before it films so it can arrive the day before it shoots. And longevity—this was by far the longest job I’ve ever had and traveling back and forth from L.A. to Portland for six years definitely had its challenges.
MA: What’s the most awesome thing about going from the design phase to the application phase and watching an actor bring your creation to life?
BB: There’s several stages of Awesome (with a capital A) that come with this job. The first is the excitement you feel in your gut when someone wants you to make something new, or even something old but in a new way. Then comes the sculpt. Full of uncertainty. Will this be any good? Will it even work on any level at all? And then suddenly it does! Somehow you hit that point where the expression in the clay is just right and you can almost see a spark of life in it. Painting is a similar process, it always takes at least three colors before something begins to come together. And the hair, if there is any, is another layer. It’s like sculpting a veil. But I personally get the biggest thrill out of a performer who can look in the mirror and “become” that creature, that character.
MA: In relation to the above question: Is there anything specific in a performance—an actor’s emotion or unique attributes, for example—that surprises you? Something an actor brings to the character that you didn’t expect?
BB: There’s a real mix of creature performers, many of them stunt men and women, who bring a wonderful physicality to the characters. But there are a few who take it to an extra level. Doug Tait is one of those guys. He’s a real character actor and he takes it seriously. I’ve made him up at least a half dozen times, characters who are various levels of beyond human—the long-faced barfly in Star Trek being one of my personal favorites. And he brings it every single time!
MA: So, what’s a day like on the set of Grimm?
BB: Cold. And wet. It usually starts when I slide to work on the ice-covered streets of Portland and I crash my rental car into the parking lot where I’m then lifted onto a litter carried by dwarves to my magical make-up trailer. …
No, seriously, it’s pretty normal. Come in, do the make-ups. They usually shoot them pretty quickly. Clean them up and go back to the hotel.
MA: Do you have any input regarding the creature sketches in the Wesen book on the show?
BB: Sometimes. Occasionally, Carly Sertic, the [Wesen book] sketch artist, would ask me for pictures of the creature, or maybe the wounds that the creature might leave on its victims, so she could match to it.
MA: Has there ever been a character you’ve created for Grimm that just didn’t work visually and needed to be completely revamped? If so, which one and why?
BB: Hahahaha! Well, I’m certainly not going to tell you which ones I didn’t like (lol)! There’s been a few—fortunately very few—that I felt did not come together well. And I would remake them when I had the chance. A couple of them returned in other episodes so I would take the opportunity to either convince production to let me remake it or I’d just go ahead and do it on my own dime if I felt strongly enough.
MA: Where do you see make-up technology and prosthetics in the future? For example, can you print 3-D prosthetic pieces?
BB: I’m not personally printing 3-D prosthetics but I can certainly see things going that way. I think it’s still some ways off, at least as a commonality. I hope so anyway. I tend to be more visceral than that, I want to put my hands in clay and push it around and make molds and mix materials and slam it all together and see what we get. That’s exciting to me.
MA: Technically speaking, what would you like to see available that isn’t yet?
BB: I’d like to see more marrying of practical make-up effects and CGI. I think there’s a lot more that can be created and have a great and substantial realism to it. I feel like the potential for that combination remains sadly untapped.
MA: And so, the final season of Grimm is in the can, but are you open to doing more TV?
BB: Absolutely. TV has really evolved into the cutting edge of storytelling and I just love that! Scheduling-wise it can be extremely challenging and a real grind but I also find that exciting. It’s like, ‘What can we do to make this thing in this time frame and make it as good as it can be made?’ Let’s find out!
MA: Does literature help you form mental images for your creations?
BB: Actually, I would say it’s nature, more than literature, which inspires me the most. And perhaps because of that I really try to bring a sort of natural realism to what I make. Nature has a kind of simplicity, sometimes almost a boring quality, that I look for, even in the face of extreme design.
MA: Can you talk about how the industry has changed since your dad and grandfather started? For example, has social media been advantageous for your career? Do you even use social media to promote your work?
BB: Well I don’t really know what it was like for my grandfather. All I can do is imagine the “Golden Age” of Hollywood and parties with martinis and cigars and starlets in gowns. I’m pretty sure it was just like that all the time (lol). I did see it change from the time my dad was in his heyday, so to speak. And sure, social media has become a vital tool in marketing and publicizing one’s work. I definitely use it. I’ve also become much more of a social human because of it. I’ve met a lot of people I might otherwise never have gotten to meet.
MA: What’s it like working with so many cohorts on a show like Grimm?
BB: I’ll just say that this has honestly been the best crew, from the executive producers to craft service, that I’ve ever worked with. Across the board everyone has been really terrific. The cast, the caterers (one of whom turned out to be my cousin—a fact we didn’t know until just this last season!), the ADs and PAs. There just wasn’t any massive, egocentric foot-stomping going on. Everyone was in this to be of service for the project and I think that showed. I’m really grateful to have been a part of it.
MA: How do you feel about Grimm ending? Lots of shows stick around long after their “time” has come—meaning the story and plot lines splinter off in so many directions it’s hard to know what’s going on. Do you think it’s a good time for Grimm to wrap things up?
BB: I think the creators and writers did an excellent job in wrapping it up. I think it’s going to be one of those endings where people are just blown away by it! For me, it’s a really good time to move on as well.
MA: What’s next?
BB: I’ve been making my own film for the past year or so. I wrote and directed and am producing, along with my partners Gregory Mackenzie and Mark Burman. It’s called Wild Boar—about mutant pig-men living in squalor in the desert, naturally—and it’s dying to be finished. Fortunately, I had some wonderful and dedicated artists, led by Nick Reisinger, who really gave their all. I’m really grateful for the team that came together to help get it made. I’m hoping for a late spring release date. Meantime, there’s editing and sound and music and some visual effects which need tending to.
MA: Finally, what in the heck was Halloween like at your house when you were a kid? And did you give your son any special Halloween make-ups while he was growing up?
BB: Halloween was amaze-balls when I was a kid. We had haunted houses with masks and puppets from Cat People and The Manitou and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And then Stan Winston and his family would come over and bring bodies from The Entity and Dead & Buried. We made people vomit and faint and run screaming into the night (lol). It’s different now. I do enjoy making up my son and occasionally someone else, but for the most part, I’d rather go to the movies on Halloween.