John Vulich, veteran make-up effects artist and co-founder of Optic Nerve Studios, died in his sleep on Oct. 12 at age 55. A three-time Emmy winner for Babylon 5, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files, Vulich’s numerous credits include the Night of the Living Dead remake, The Dark Half and the never-released version of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four.
Born in Fresno, Calif. in 1961, Vulich began experimenting with his own Super 8 home movies while in high school. He also began playing around with make-up effects and corresponding with future mentor Tom Savini, who eventually hired him. According to former Optic Nerve partner Everett Burrell, “John had been sending Tom videotapes of his mask work and cool tests he had been doing for years, and Tom eventually brought him on as a PA on one of the Friday the 13th movies. This was back in the heyday of the monster ’80s, where a bunch of us—Bob Kurtzman, Howard Berger, Mitch Devane, John and I—all met at [John] Buechler’s working on Ghoulies, so that’s where most of us started. And when John went off to work on Day of the Dead, he called me and Howard to see if we would come out to Pittsburgh to help.”
By the late ’80s, having spent time in most of the major shops, both Vulich and Burrell had grown increasingly frustrated with some of the people they had been working for and decided to strike out on their own. “I called John while I was on the set of Glory,” Burrell recalls, “and said, ‘Hey, why don’t we just do this for ourselves? It’s a big risk, but I’m tired of working for other people. We would have a lot more creative freedom, and monster movies and creature effects seem pretty popular right now; why don’t we go for it?’ We started Optic Nerve in my garage in Granada Hills in 1989.
“Our first project was a movie for Fred Olen Ray called Spirits, where we did a demon make-up on Earl Ellis, a friend of ours at the time. John did a great demon head sculpture, and I did the finger extensions and a couple of dead bodies. We were bidding on a lot of stuff, and then Tom Savini called, who was directing the remake of The Night of the Living Dead and he was taking bids and design concepts. John and I thought long and hard about trying to come up with something new and cool, so we did this really great test make-up that Tom loved, and he picked us to do the make-ups for Night of the Living Dead and that’s what really started us off. We were also using Amiga computers to do some concept work, which nobody was doing at the time
“After Night of the Living Dead, we got The Dark Half, because George Romero really liked our work and after Dark Half, we came back to L.A. and started doing whatever we could whether it was Roger Corman movies or a few things for Mel Brooks or stuff for Batman Returns. And then we got a call out of the blue for Babylon 5, so I took the meeting, bringing with me the mechanical Thing we built for Fantastic Four. I called John and said, ‘I think it went pretty well,’ and an hour later I got a call saying we got the gig, so we went out and had a few beers to celebrate and jumped right into it.”
Optic Nerve’s work on Babylon 5 earned Vulich and Burrell Emmys in 1994, but the duo had a falling out the following year. Burrell left the company to pursue a career in visual effects, while Vulich continued to run Optic Nerve. The company expanded even further into television with shows like Buffy, Angel, The X-Files and Crusade; and films such as Being John Malkovich, The Cell and the Return of the Living Dead series
In recent years, Vulich sold Optic Nerve to longtime staffer Glenn Hetrick in order to continue his work as a director and producer. He also rekindled his friendship with Burrell after not speaking for nearly half a decade. “We definitely patched things up,” claims Burrell, “and I was just talking to him a few weeks ago about a project we were getting ready to start. I’ll say it, now that he’s passed away, because it’s not going to happen, but it was basically going to be Optic Nerve 2.0, which was going to be a digital/make-up effects hybrid company, but I think those plans will now take a back seat for a while. Maybe I’ll start it up in memory of John!”
Fellow make-up artists remember Vulich
Rick Stratton: “I wish I’d gotten to know John better, but in our brief times working together I definitely found a kindred spirit. Talented, intelligent and truly a fan of film and its arts. In the ’90s our shops shared talent and techniques during our friendly competition. The quality and quantity of prosthetic character make-ups on TV in those years was really pushing the envelope. Astounding times! I had the pleasure of applying some of his make-ups on Buffy and The X-Files and always found the work to be top-notch! So long brother. RIP”
Robert Kurtzman: “I worked with Johnny for years, and he was an amazing artist and I learned so much from him, because he had been in the business for several years before I got in, so he was somebody whose work I respected and him as a person as well. He was a great guy and very helpful in nurturing my talent at the time, as well as everybody else we were working with, because we all kind of fed off each other at the time. … Johnny was one of those guys who always had great ideas. He was an incredible sculptor and make-up artist, and an all-around talented guy.”
Fionagh Cush: “John raised the bar in the world of make-up effects. I didn’t know this at the time, just how his brilliant artistic eye would indeed pave the way for my future and many others. Always giving as an artist, he just seemed to be one step ahead of everyone else.”
Mark Garbarino: “With the gift of Babylon 5, we all blossomed as artists and make-up artists, maybe even as people thanks to the trust and responsibility placed in the staff’s hands. The construction process was completely communal in the preparation, the art decisions were in the hands of John, Everett and the genius John Wheaton, key sculptor and illustrator. The set was non-union, which allowed all the shop crew to join in on busy days of background characters, and sub for principal make-ups at times. This was unheard of in the previous seven years I had been laboring in L.A. at many a studio. Johnny would apply a character when he wanted to, and then pass it off to one of the many now-famous make-up staff members to carry on with. John Vulich and Everett Burrell allowed their staff to develop as long as they worked their asses off!”
At press time, no information was available about memorial services.