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July 24, 2014

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Weekly Q&A: Makeup artist Miriam Writer on blood, beauty and zombie strippers

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Makeup artist Miriam Writer with one of her creatures, played by an Australian friend and fellow special effects nut who also happens to be in the running for Miss Universe. Looks can be oh so deceiving.

Looking at Miriam Writer’s educational rap sheet (zoology, diesel tech, creative writing) and professional resume (customer service, insurance sales, “shady telemarketing” management), you wonder about the mummy, dark elf and dead hooker on her Facebook page. They are creatures ripped from her imagination by her own nimble hands. After only six years of learning the craft and working on sets, the 26-year-old Las Vegas makeup artist is a consummate pro. From special effects for films to makeovers for battered women and scenarios for soldiers training for war, her work is all about transformation.

After high school, you had steady jobs and decent money coming in for years. But the work didn’t inspire you, especially not after your neighbor introduced you to her special effects kit.

We were just playing around with it one day, and she showed me how the wax works, and I was like, “This is so fun. I had no idea.” ... So I started dabbling around. Then I started looking into behind-the-scenes type stuff and work from Rick Baker and the creature creation. I’ve always been kinda artsy-fartsy, ... so I all of a sudden decided I really want to try doing this with my life. … I took an at-home program, the Dick Smith program. He did The Exorcist and Altered States. Basically they call him the Godfather of Makeup.

One of the Godfather’s signatures was lifecasting, or creating 3D copies of real body parts. What does it feel like for the people attached to those parts?

When you do a full headpiece and shoulders you’re completely covered. Your whole head is in plaster. You can’t move; you can’t do anything; you can’t talk. You’re breathing out of your nose, and that’s it. … It’s like being reborn. I’m kind of claustrophobic, so I was a little bit worried, but I really wanted to experience it.

Not too long after that you got laid off from your full-time job. A chance meeting with makeup artist Lee Joyner at a horror convention pushed you to apply to LA’s Cinema Makeup School, but because you were so young and didn’t have much income, you had to apply 10 times. Even after you were accepted, it was such a slog to make it to school everyday. You must have been pretty sure this was the field for you.

I took my car to the bus stop, and then I took two buses and then three subways to get to school, which was all the way in LA and I was living in the Valley. … I did the very best I could throughout the whole thing and took in as much as I could.

The Details

Special Effects Workshop with Miriam Writer
June 4-8, L Makeup Institute & Agency.
241 W. Charleston Boulevard, 685-9298.

How did you start learning to make unreal things look stunningly real?

I did digital effects first, which teaches you how to photo-manipulate and work on your own images and use Photoshop to take someone’s face and mutilate it. … I moved on to character prosthetics and special effects. I had no interest in the beauty side at that time. I didn’t wear makeup. It just wasn’t something that I had any kind of passion for whatsoever.

Yet, you got hired to do beauty work for a movie before you even graduated.

I hadn’t done a day’s worth of beauty makeup and got booked for a feature film [called Case 219] because somebody liked my name. … I ended up working with Evan Ross and Leven Rambin from The Hunger Games and this guy was the director of The Apprentice and Survivor, and I was like sweet, I’m around all these people. Awesome. … I went to Walmart and bought whatever was cheapest, and I showed up and I just kinda winged it. Fake it till you make it. … At that point I decided that I really did need to learn the beauty side of things to get some work out there.

While mastering the beauty side, you found time to do a little low-budget horror.

Somebody called me up and was like, “I basically don’t have a budget for this. We can maybe swing like 200 bucks.” And they had so many effects that they needed. Somehow, some magic way, we found a way to make all this work together. We actually ended up using real meat. We went to the Mexican market and picked out all these really gross pieces of meat, and I rigged them up to look like the real deal. His film came out looking so legit. I was really proud of it.

What’s the best thing about turning regular people into fantastical beings for films?

The creativity of the whole thing. You really get to create your own little world revolving around your creature or character. The makeup can really define the character. For example, when you’re given a script, you can only sorta see in your mind what impact the character is going to play throughout the production, like the Angel of Death in Hellboy II. That character had a really small part to play in the film, but the design of the makeup makes that one of the most memorable scenes.

What films have impacted your work, both the best and the worst?

There are older films like Altered States and The Howling that did such revolutionary effects that definitely deserve recognition. Total Recall is definitely one of my favorites. They pulled off some amazing effects for their time. … Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth developed simply amazing characters design-wise. Of course, Alien holds a special place in my heart. It’s just so scary no matter how old I get. … I like cheesy stuff, too, like Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers or Zombie Strippers. ... I’m even a fan of Stephen King’s made-for-TV movies. I’m a big fan of Mystery Science Theatre, so I’ve seen a lot of really bad effects. Probably one of the worst is The Creeping Terror, aka carpet monster. It’s so bad it’s legendary. … Of course I’m a big fan of everything Nightmare on Elm Street. I’m a big Freddy fan. I always compare Freddy and Jason. Freddy is so funny and weird. And Friday the 13th is like, “Oh look, another hot-boobied teenager got stabbed.”

Knowing special effects so well, can you even be scared anymore?

Nothing totally terrifies me. I’m pretty desensitized to the scary stuff out there. I pick it apart, sadly, always the first time I watch something. … At this point I’m so familiar with the whole process of filmmaking that I not only pick apart my side of things but the way they cut the film, the way they light the shots, where they shoot it from; I can basically take apart a whole film when I’m watching it. I try not to, but there’s no avoiding it. … There is this one movie that was made in the ’70s called Cannibal Holocaust. This is probably one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen. To this day I wonder what was real and what was special effects. I don’t really recommend anyone actually watch it for entertainment, merely just for shock value.

What natural features make the best creatures?

Long necks ... or really amazing eye color.

Your portfolio includes a tiger-woman eviscerating an evil clown and a very, very dead hooker. Any stories there?

I needed something really brutal for my portfolio, and sometimes when you’re working on set and you do a lot of simple things like a black eye or a cut you never really get to go full-blown. So I was like, “I need to do a dead hooker, someone just beat to hell in an alley looking dirty.” So, of course, my sister became the volunteer.

What did your mom think of that?

My mom really loves what I do. She thinks it’s really fun. She looks at it as just one more art form.

Photos of your work really show how artistic bruises and blood can be.

If I get a really gory wound that just looks completely nasty, I’ll think it’s beautiful because of all the little details I put into it to give that extra cringe factor.

Over the years you’ve developed quite an appreciation for beauty makeup, too. One of the things that really hammered it home was a charity event for Safe Passage, an organization that supports victims of domestic violence. What was that experience like?

You have these women who have been beaten and belittled and treated like sh*t and been through hell and back, and they’re like these hardened, sour women. As soon as you put makeup on them and they see how beautiful they look, literally you see a smile that you didn’t see before. It’s awesome. It’s an amazing feeling to be able to do that for somebody. … There’s a supermodel in every single woman. I’m convinced.

Your special effects work was recognized at the International Makeup Artist Trade Show, quite a boon for a young artist. Then you went to Texas to work on a movie (and pass a kidney stone from drinking too much), and ended up living on a twin air mattress in a Hollywood apartment with a bunch of interesting folks, including a drag queen named Captain America. So, of course, after all that you and your boyfriend had to move to Vegas.

We stayed at some really slummy places Downtown, saw some really interesting things, got some bed bugs. … We’d have to suit up before bed, socks all the way up, long johns, beanie on your head, hope to not get bitten. Good times. … I knew there wasn’t much film, so I told myself I would corner the market for effects out here. I had asked around about the industry. I assumed this would be a great place to do makeup for shows or something. When it came down to it, it actually wasn’t, because most of the shows out here travel with their makeup artists. Local shows are difficult to get on—you kinda have to know someone, which I didn’t because I had just moved here. But then I got connected with the school and the base and things just took off from there.

The school is L Makeup Institute & Agency, where you teach special effects. And the base is Nellis Air Force Base, where you work as a Moulage Arts Specialist through JTM Training Group. Moulage is an old-school practice of simulating injuries to train soldiers and emergency responders to deal with trauma in chaotic conditions. Can you describe what a set might look like?

There are a lot of different training exercises. Some are simple, no crazy war-type stuff, and some can get very elaborate. … They get their downed helicopter thing going and their little boom machine and fire, and they get paintballs and people screaming with blood coming out everywhere … we do bee stings; we do huge burns; we do head parts blown off, eyeballs hanging out. … When you do film, not everything is realistic; you just want to make it look set-ready. When I do work up at the base they really focus on realism. … The more my work looks realistic, the better off the students are going to be.

Speaking of students, when is your next class at L Makeup Institute?

My next class is actually in the beginning of June. We are in the process of getting accredited. So for right now it’s just a 5-day workshop … the basic essentials that one would need to create characters and injuries and basic prep for set work. Anyone can take the class. … I call the first part of the class “Blood, Sweat and Tears” because it’s the simple stuff. You’ll be on a beauty photo shoot, and somebody’s going to say, "Could you make her look sweaty?" Or, "What if she’s crying?" You never know.

You’ve been invited, for several years in a row now, to submit your work for the Sci-Fi Channel’s special effects competition Face Off, which would come with a prize of $100,000. But with a very young son and all of this work, you haven’t had the time. Are you okay with that?

With having a baby, the stability I have out here between the two jobs is awesome, plus I feel like I’m giving back a little bit more. I’m able to teach, to show people how to do what I do, and that’s amazing to me. I love to see the looks on their faces.

During your own childhood, were there any memorable Halloween costumes, and do you just go crazy now that you have all of these skills and materials at your disposal?

I was the back-end of a cow—I was the ass of a cow with the udders hanging down and couldn’t see anything. I was a green jellybean. I was a lobster one year. … The hard thing about being a makeup artist on Halloween is that everybody wants a piece of you, all your friends want you to do their makeup.

If you could create a creature for yourself, what would it be?

I think I’d be biomechanical. So kind of alien, like the chick in Species, but biomechanical.

Are certain kinds of faces more fun to transform?

Any face can be turned into anything. ... It doesn’t matter what you come in looking like; I can make you look like anything you want, pretty much. I do magic.

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