What happens when you take former Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach and cover him in age make-up, prosthetics, a beard and braids? You get Willie Nelson—or at least the essence of Nelson. In the recent ABC talent show Sing Your Face Off, five celebrities were trained to perform as musical icons. Their transformations were aided by make-up effects department head Richard Redlefsen, make-up designers Matthew Mungle and Clinton Wayne, hair department head Lisa Meyers and a team of artists from W.M. Creations.
“Matthew’s main concept to production is that we will give the essence of the pop icon, not exact matches,” said Redlefsen.
The five competing celebrities were Bach, Toronto Raptors basketball player Landry Fields, former Saturday Night Live cast member Jon Lovitz, A.N.T. Farm’s China Anne McClain and former Days of our Lives star Lisa Rinna. Throughout the six episodes, which aired between May 31 and June 14, the celebrities were transformed into singers such as Lady Gaga, Adam Levine, MC Hammer, Nicki Minaj, Elton John, Luciano Pavarotti, James Brown, Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper and Justin Bieber.
Mungle explained that as the celebrities came to the lab to get their faces cast, he and the crew took pictures of each person, then searched the Internet for photos of the singer they would be imitating. They then chose prosthetics based on physical differences between the impersonator and the subject.
The celebrities had to pull their weight, too. “We were relying on that actor to portray that character as much as possible,” said Mungle. “Lisa Meyers was right on as far as hair was concerned. Hair had a lot to do with it.”
Meyers, who Mungle brought on, said some of the biggest challenges were the short prep time and the constant changes in the list of icons.
“They [the production] would lose musical rights, so we would consistently change gears about what we were doing. It was really fly by the seat of your pants at times, because I would prep a wig, like Gloria Estefan, then it would change to Amy Winehouse and then Roy Orbison. It became a little bit challenging at times,” said Meyers.
“ … Sometimes production could only get song clearance at the ninth hour which did not give us much time to create the character’s look. So some had to be simplified,” said Redlefsen, who Mungle also hired. “Our transformations were gender-based; from male to female and vice versa; age-based, old to young and vice versa; and same-sex aging transformations. For example, Lisa Rinna was transformed into the young Justin Bieber. She wore a nose prosthetic and a wig styled in a very recognizable Bieber cut. China Anne McClain was transformed into the much older James Brown. She wore a complete wraparound foam-latex piece and silicone nose, giving her more James Brown-esque features, as well as a chin, dentals and a wig. We also did straightforward same-sex age transformations. Again, China Anne McClain was transformed into the older Whitney Houston. This was achieved through cheeks, nose, brow-cover appliances, lace brows, dentals [and] full beauty make-up on the prosthetics, with lashes and a wig.
“I think the proximity between W.M. Creations’ shop and the stages at CBS Radford also helped facilitate getting the make-ups created quickly and efficiently. Our go-to products were many of Matthew’s own Stacolor airbrush make-ups and color palettes as well as his C Aging stretch-and-stipple [W.M. Creations Old Age Stipple C] for any subtle aging. PPI products such as Illustrator airbrush make-ups and color palettes, Telesis 5 and thinner [were also used].”
Mungle, Wayne and the crew had about two days’ lead time for each episode’s make-ups, Mungle said: “It was just a matter of pouring the positives out and sculpting it out and running it. Most of the prosthetics were silicone; some of them were foam latex.” Filming usually happened a day after the make-up test, and production taped two live episodes at a time.
Meyers said she had about five days to prep before the first live show. During those few days, she often had to drive around Los Angeles to find the right human-hair wigs or pieces she needed. Because of the constant changes, the need to dye the hair and to replicate the iconic looks, Meyers said she couldn’t use synthetic wigs.
She and her crew (Nanxy Tong-Heater as her second and Mishell Chandler as her third) also worked on looks for the judges and backup dancers. Redlefsen’s crew included Greg Nelson, Jamie Hess and James Rohland.
The pressures didn’t let up once tapings began. Filming under hot lights, with singing and dancing performers, is always a problem, said Mungle. The performer is always going to sweat because of nerves. “There were times when edges started coming up but [the crew] couldn’t get in to touch them up. Just put them on as strong as you could …. and hope for [the cameras] to pull out.”
For Meyers, performance days meant she was on camera too, with a mic, while she was working on the performers. Production set up cameras around her station so they could show the audience what was happening backstage as the sets were being changed. She said she would do it again, though.
“What was really wonderful was how the cast members felt about our effects team. It was such a mutual appreciation for each department working to pull it all together,” said Meyers.
“Everybody brought their A game to make this happen. A great team,” said Redlefsen. “My personal highlight was China’s Whitney Houston transformation. I felt like a true make-up artist, doing the technical prosthetics application and then doing a glamorous beauty make-up on top to create a pretty undetectable make-up transformation.
“Teamwork is paramount. The designers, sculptors, mold makers, silicone/foam runners, fellow make-up and hair artists all have to work together to make a show like this happen. It’s about a team. It’s the only way it will work. It’s a lot of work with quick turnaround. We all had to be fast [and] efficient, with good communication.”
Mungle suggests this to anyone venturing into live-performance shows. “Just be prepared for the worst,” he said. “If it works out, great, then that’s perfect. It can be very, very difficult. And take the most simplest approach in the design of your make-up. If you make it difficult, then you’re constantly going to be worrying about ‘Is this piece going to come up?’ Sometimes subtly is the best policy.”
Watch performance videos below.