Charlie is an extremely modest guy. Regularly called onto Hollywood blockbuster sets for his special effects and puppeteering expertise, he wouldn’t think to talk about his success unless directly asked. What Charlie will talk about, however, is his latest special effects recipes, e.g. edible monkey heads, rubber gravel, fake roast beef, his festival hit film Zitlover (bought and distributed by Troma films, makers of Toxic Adventure and Surf Nazis) and the fact that his favourite news source (said with tongue in cheek) is the infamous tabloid Weekly World News, which once featured a centerfold story about an alien sighting that had a suspicious resemblance to one of many monster models Charlie has created over the years.
Charlie teaches special effects to Make-up Design students and sculpting to 3D Animation & Visual Effects students at VFS, and despite constant requests to teach and lead seminars elsewhere, has remained at VFS for more than ten years.
Most recently, Charlie has been working as a puppeteer with Will Smith on locally shot, feature film I Robot. Prior to that, he built a giant uterus (yes, we said giant uterus) for Robin Williams’ latest feature, Final Cut.
“I got called just the other day to prepare 15 gallons of
lung blood for a film.” - Chalie Grant
When did your love affair with special effects make-up begin?
I have always loved science fiction movies and animation, particularly stop motion animation. When I finished high school I began shift work as a janitor for the school board. It was secure, but not very exciting work. It did, however, leave me a lot of time to draw, so I took advantage; I built an art portfolio and saved up to pay for my education at the Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design.
While at school, I made friends with a classmate who wanted to recreate the character Cornelius from the Planet of the Apes movie series. Unfortunately, Make-Up Design was not a legitimate art form at the time and my friend ended up being leaving the school, but not wanting to forgo my education, I went along and finished my degree in animation studies. My focus was stop motion and puppeteering. I never understood how learning to copy Picasso and Renoir was considered a sign of talent but copying renowned make-up artist John Chambers of Planet of the Apes fame was not. Talented make-up artists are no less creative than other artists.
When I graduated, I got a job helping making animatronic animals for the then legendary West Edmonton Mall. The animals I created were based on an ocean theme, and included a harem of mermaids, crabs and clams. That project led to a Kokanee Beer commercial and a job assisting making prosthetics for a Sasquatch character.
Describe your defining moment as a special effects make-up artist.
My first really BIG break was on David Kronenberg’s film sequel Fly II. I was hired as a trainee in make-up effects, and ended up proving myself useful and resourceful; I did just about everything. There wasn’t really a department yet for people that did what I do and the Canadian film unions were still in their infancy, so I ended working for what was aptly named the ‘Creature Shop’. That opportunity laid the foundation for many others to come as BC slowly established itself as Hollywood North.
For a short period, I did take leave of make-up work and became one of three partners in a company that did motion control. We were the first of our kind in Canada in 1990, but were a bit ahead of our time. Computers were not what they are today and the market wasn’t quite ready for us, so after a very interesting couple of years, I returned to what I still do today: special effects make-up and puppeteering.
Tell us about some of your television and movie making experiences as a special effects make-up artist.
I worked on X-Files seasons II and III and was responsible for helping create everything from dead aliens to pulsating boils. As research, the entire make-up team went on a field trip to the Vancouver morgue and watched an autopsy being done. The morgue employees then visited our shop on-set to see what we were doing. It was fascinating.
I really learned a lot as a member of the make-up team. For one episode, I was asked to create an elephant’s uterus, which has since served me well. I recently made a giant female human uterus for Robin William’s latest feature Final Cut.
After X-files, I worked on the feature Deep Rising, and following that I started to work at VFS in addition to continuing my film and television work.
Is your work restricted to film and television?
No, not at all. I did work for Science World when they had a kids-oriented Special Effects exhibit, and have been called by advertising agencies before to create creatures or effects for campaigns and commercials. For example, I built the dinosaur model used in Palmer Jarvis’s Humongous Bank campaign for Richmond Credit Savings.
I also enjoy working with a special effects colleague Gary Paller, who once a year participates at elementary school fundraisers by providing a special effects attraction. Kids buy tickets and line up in order to have a special effects person like me give them a fake black eye or face scar etc. I also let kids experiment making blood and other concoctions. They get a real kick out of it, always have tons of great questions and who knows, maybe one of the will want to be in the industry one day.
How did you get involved with VFS?
Jonathan Pain, who I had met while working on X-files, introduced me to VFS. He was an extremely gifted artist who was the first to teach sculpting at VFS. His portfolio intimidates just about everyone.
You took a break from teaching in the late ’90s to go work in Los Angeles. Tell us about that.
Yes, in 1998 I was sponsored to work with Greg Aroniwitz who was Steven Spielberg’s top model builder at the time. Greg was getting involved in directing and need back up in his shop to handle the workload. He asked me and within a week of arriving in LA, a model I collaborated on with Greg was sitting on Spielberg’s desk in his office. I was pretty excited about that. I still get calls from Greg to do work.
With your experience, no doubt you could take on apprentices and do well running a studio of make-up artists. Why don’t you?
I prefer the flexibility of running my own shop and not having staff to manage. Then there’s the burden of overhead costs, payroll, etc. I don’t want to run a big special effects studio. I like being able to accept or decline offers depending on how I am feeling. Of course, I have a lot of people that know me and to whom I feel very loyal.
Tell us about your work as a puppeteer?
In addition to special effects make-up, one of my passions is building and creating models of creatures including a variety of monsters and aliens. I actually ran a successful side business manufacturing models of different monsters etc. and toured around international shows selling them when not working on film sets or at VFS. I did well, but it’s intensive work and I don’t do that any longer.
Having built a lot of creatures etc. for different films, I understand how they work. Through contacts, I started getting calls to work on-set to operate different creatures while scenes are being shot. Working with Will Smith on I-Robot recently, I operated a version of the film’s robot during interaction with Will which helps the animation and special effects team create more natural movements when they do their work. It’s hard to explain, but I’m actually accredited within the union as a puppeteer based on the hundreds of hours I’ve accumulated doing similar things. Because I know how creatures are made, it helps when things go wrong, as I can usually be resourceful and find a way to do a repair. Often the people that have originally created the robot or monster etc. are thousands of miles away.
What have you been doing lately?
In addition to working on I-Robot and doing work for Robin William’s feature Final Cut, I got called just the other day to prepare 15 gallons of lung blood for a film. Different kinds of blood are different in texture and this director was particular, but I think I nailed it.
Do you ever hire students to do work with you?
Occasionally. I’m pretty much a one-man show, but I do ask students to come and assist me once in a while, to get some experience. I had one student come and help create the Uterus for Final Cut. Another student came and did some with me for the feature film Scary Movie III.
What advice would you give someone considering a career as a special effects make-up artist?
You need to know how different materials and substances work together. That way, when asked to make things, you can think through a variety of possible solutions. I collect a lot of books on different subjects including anatomy, diseases, blood types etc.—anything that will help me create solutions for different projects. It sounds gruesome, but the truth is special effects artists need to have strong stomachs and a tolerance for bad odours. You are always experimenting with new materials and mixtures to achieve a desired effect and they seldom smell nice. Being able to draw well helps a lot too when scoping out an idea and working with directors etc.
As for general advice: make-up artists, special effects oriented or not, put in long hours on set. You have to be there before the actors arrive early in the morning, stay around to do touch-ups during shooting and wait until the end of the day in order to remove all their make-up. It takes a lot of commitment and can pay well, but it will help a lot if you love what you do!