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‘Westworld’ & ‘American Gods’ Makeup Designer On Developing Sensitivity To Grisly Research Process

Deadline logo Deadline 6/22/2017 Matt Grobar
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Pulling triple duty recently on HBO’s Westworld, Starz’s American Gods and Netflix original series Santa Clarita Diet, makeup effects designer Christien Tinsley has become more selective of late, in the projects he takes on and the imagery he looks at in preparation.

Viewing the bloody brawls of American Gods or the hacked up bodies of Santa Clarita Diet through the lens of Tinsley’s craft, one can imagine the kind of imagery he has to look at as research, and while Tinsley was comfortable with the blood-and-guts of it all at a different stage of his life—prior to becoming a family man—he’s now much more tactical and selective with the imagery he puts in his head.

Speaking with Deadline, the makeup designer explains his philosophy when it comes to the job he does, and the different artistic opportunities presented by each of the above series.

What attracted you to Santa Clarita Diet?

They called me. [laughs] It always starts with that, right? I have tried to become a little bit choosier about projects that I’m working on, because there’s so much content being produced nowadays, under such time restraints and financial restraints, that I think to maintain a certain pedigree of projects, you have to be choosy.

Once I read the script, met with the producer and director and explained to them my philosophy—how I like to work, what I think I can bring to the table, and things that I wouldn’t be very interested in doing—we came to an agreement.

The thing that popped out to me was as much as it’s a “Walking Dead”—and I use that term loosely—it’s not a zombie show. That was exciting to me, because I didn’t want to do a zombie show; creating zombies is not fun for me.

I also loved the cast. Victor [Fresco], the creator, this was my first time being introduced to him, and his writing on this show was some of the funniest I’ve ever read. Just to be really honest with you, I thought it read much better than even the series came out—the series is funny and delightful and cute and had all the wonderful moments, but the script was hilarious.

It was all those things compounded together that enlightened my perspective of it and made me want to jump in with both feet.

Can you elaborate on the principles of the creative philosophy you mentioned?

It’s more of a feeling than a strict set of rules. Like anybody in this business, you’re looking for variety. You’re looking for something that’s challenging and new.

What happen all too often I think is we get stuck with feeling like we have to do the same thing. Everybody wants to be creative and different, but ultimately, they keep chipping away, guiding it in the direction of something that was successful previously.

Many times, people come to me and say, “Hey, we want to create a new alien. It’s going to be awesome. It’s going to be different. No one’s ever seen anything like it.” By the time you finish up your 30th design sketch, it starts to look exactly like the Predator.

Along that road, people keep going back to their comfort zone. I think writers have dealt with the same problems. “Yeah, this is great, but we really need that funny sidekick guy,” and it’s like, Oh, God. Here we go.

For me, it comes out of seeing something original and unique and a spin off of the norm, which I felt Santa Clarita Diet did; certainly American Gods is friggin’ left field. That one, to me, was a treasure chest of fun and coolness, from reading the scripts to coming up with concepts and being in the production meetings, as far as how we were going to approach something.

Half the time, you couldn’t even really describe it, because you’re describing concepts that don’t exist. It’s so different, and physically doesn’t fall into the realm of reality, so it makes it tough. Shows like that are wonderful.

I’ve lived with Westworld for so long, going on almost three years now. I’m not continuing on that show, but I think the first season was an exceptional concept of storytelling. It was a twist on time travel. At its core, that’s what it was.

It had a great Western undertone. It was creative, it was different, it was a concept based on humanity. I love storylines that mean something. If the story sucks, usually my interest dissolves very quickly.

There’s some variation in your job titles on these three series. Can you explain the distinctions there?

Absolutely. Westworld, I was Makeup Effects Designer as well as the Makeup Department Head, which means I handled designing all the character looks, from beauty makeup through character makeup, and then all the makeup effects. Any time you saw a fake body or a limb being severed or something like that, that also went through me and my team. As far as Santa Clarita Diet, we were Makeup Effects Design only, which was essentially the same title for American Gods.

To list the elements and the challenges, Westworld, that’s such a huge concept, both designing the makeup and the makeup effects—really doing the job of two different departments. What it encompassed was ultimately the look of the project when it came to the characters, working very closely with Wardrobe and Hair Department.

Where was the line drawn between production design and makeup effects on Westworld? When we see the white, sculpted heads behind Dr. Robert Ford’s desk, who was responsible for their creation?

There were some gray lines that we were asked to participate in. One of the gray lines was the wall of heads, which we did create. Also, in Dr. Ford’s office, you’ll see an evolution of Evan Rachel Wood’s character, Dolores, where it goes from a skull to a forensic study, up to a finished sculpture in a glass cage. All those elements, we were in charge of, because they fell more into the world of recreation of the human body, or the human figure.

The initial Vitruvian Man—the white, classic figure in the round ring—that was something that we created. We worked with production design in the early stages about three years ago, pitching some concepts.

Of course, classically, any of the violence in there, there’s certainly some marriages with ourselves and effects. Things like Dolores being built in the later episodes, you see Jeffrey Wright’s character pulling her flesh over a robot body. The flesh element and everything that he’s tugging on are all prosthetics that we created; the actual body, when she sits up and you see this hollow cage, that is visual effects.

For the most part, visually on screen, if it wasn’t a visual effect, we created it. If it has anything to do with a human figure, whether it’s an element of flesh or a statue, that was probably us.

What was the visual research process with regard to Santa Clarita Diet? You helped craft some pretty gruesome images in that series.

We always go to realistic reference, regardless of what kind of show it is. Of course, the internet is a fantastic resource, as much as that scares me for my children. We have a collection of medical and forensic books that I’ve been collecting over 25 years. There’s plenty of resources to go to.

I’ve visited the gross anatomy classes; we’ve done it, and therefore, it is all based off of reality. What you do with it from that point is per conversations with production. For Santa Clarita Diet, specifically, we grounded it into a level of realism to juxtapose with the lighthearted comedy aspect of the show.

Where they pulled back a little bit was not so much on the meat or the visceral aspect; it was maybe on some of the levels in which we got messy. That whole tub sequence, I wanted much more blood—that is just a messy, messy process, and they kept it a little cleaner, yet the actual severed limbs of the body, I was allowed to dive into as much reality as possible.

Is there a certain disposition inherent to the average makeup effects designer—an ability to stomach visuals that your everyday person might find disturbing?

I think there is, to a level. Look, I don’t think you’re going to go into a hospital and find a surgeon who is that squeamish about blood. They may not prefer it; however, I think you’re going to find that most surgeons are okay with the idea of cutting into a human body.

Now, that’s an extreme sense of it; for us, we’re not actually physically cutting into human bodies. We are simply looking at photos, but I think there’s a certain point where you become sort of numb to it, and a lot of people get into this business—especially the makeup effects side of it—because they want to build monsters, they want to make severed heads of their friends. They like the blood-and-guts aspect to it, and they’re horror movie fans. And when you’re actually building something, you know it’s fake, you know it’s rubber.

That being said, I personally don’t like looking at this stuff. I’ve become much more sensitive to it, partly because I’m a husband and a father, and partly because I’ve been doing it so long. I’ve started to become more sensitive to the idea, because it’s real—this really is a human being who was in a car accident, who was murdered, whatever.

Although you look at it through objective, artistic eyes, you can’t help but be a part of the context in which it was delivered. As you start to get older, you’re like, “You know what? I don’t need to put that stuff in my head.” I’m very sensitive about my research now.

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