Exclusive: In Depth with Vincent J. Guastini on Scream of the Banshee and More!
Let’s face it… Special Makeup FX are the backbone of the horror genre. As engaging as storylines can be, as believable as acting is, and as competent as directing and cinematography are, fans pay money and put their asses in those seats or buy those DVDs and Blu-rays because they love the creatures.
Back in the 1980s FX artists were like rock stars. Names like Savini, Bottin, and Baker were spoken in revered tones. People went to see films because of who was doing the FX. As the years progressed, FX artists refined techniques, CG was introduced, new materials were brought into play, and what was once a discipline soon became an art form.
One FX artist who’s recently been helping elevate that art form to new heights is Vincent J. Guastini. His contributions to such films as Requiem for a Dream, Flags of our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima, Dogma, and Last of the Mohicans were marked, and he continues to push the limits of the art form to the next level.
Dread Central recently spoke with Vincent about his career, the creation of Special Makeup FX, and some new projects coming to a theater or video store near you.
Dread Central: What can you tell me about where you grew up?
Vincent Guastini: I grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey. That’s where I was born and raised and did most of my early FX work. I had a small studio in New Jersey and then opened up a bigger place in New York City.
DC: Growing up, were you like a “monster kid?”
VG: Definitely! When I was very, very young, I watched a lot of Ray Harryhausen movie like 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, CLASH OF THE TITANS, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and then graduated from there to STAR WARS. After STAR WARS came out in the ’80s, there were movies like AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, THE THING, and THE HOWLING. Some nightmares came when I watched THE EXORCIST for the first time. So, yeah… definitely.
DC: Did you attend FX school, or did you learn the old fashioned way, figuring it all out for yourself?
VG: Pretty much self-taught, yeah. At a young age - around twelve or thirteen years old - just doing sculptures. Like I say, after I first saw STAR WARS, I said I wanted to be a director or producer and started making my own versions of STAR WARS like a lot of other people did when they saw that film. I got side-tracked when I started learning about Rick Baker and Rob Bottin. After seeing THE THING, I made up my mind that I was going to be a Special Makeup FX Artist.
DC: So those were the guys you first latched onto?
VG: Pretty much. I gravitated more towards Bottin because of the types of movies he was doing FX for. Of course, Rick Baker was "The Man" as well with AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, but for some reason, the more movies I saw of Bottin doing FX for like LEGEND, THE HOWLING, THE THING, and EXPLORERS I latched on to him more and became a Bottin fanatic. I sought out his work, and that was what made me really go for it.
DC: I read that you once worked with Dick Smith.
VG: Yeah, I did. When I was starting to progress and open my own studio. I started sending stuff to Dick Smith at a very, very young age, and he was actually critiquing my work. Eventually there was this TV series called MONSTERS which I was already working on, assisting John Dods on the East Coast, and through that association Dick Smith (who was the Makeup FX Supervisor) started giving me my own episodes to do. From there, I was recommended by Dick Smith to work with Nick Dudman, who did the Batman, the Joker, all the Harry Potter movies, and was heading up MOHICANS at the time. When I was on that, Nick left and I took over the FX and brought on my own crew. So, yeah… Dick Smith was huge as far as getting me my first big gigs and recommending me for jobs as well as being a huge influence on me from the work he’s done.
DC: Do you find that your game gets elevated when you’re working with people of that caliber?
VG: Oh, yeah! After working on the East Coast for so long, I wanted to see what it was like to work on the West Coast, and on a honeymoon with my ex-wife, I went on an interview with Kevin Yagher and was hired by him to do CHILD’S PLAY and BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY and some other projects he had going. So from that experience I left California and went back to the East Coast, headed up MOHICANS and started doing my own shows. I got called by Greg Cannom to supervise FX with another artist on the East Coast named Bob Laden on THINNER. So, yeah… Dick Smith, Greg Cannom for sure… as well as, for animatronics, Kevin Yagher… it definitely improved my knowledge of what I do. So for sure I’ve learned from all of these people.
DC: Was this around the time you were starting your own FX company?
VG: I had my own FX company before I ever worked for anybody. Basically, I was on the East Coast and I’d read about FX people and I said, “Well, to do this, you have to open up your own shop.” So, I put in my own money and opened up my own studio. Occasionally I’d “co-star” for people. I co-starred for Greg Cannom supervising his FX for THINNER. Then, when I wanted to check out California just to see what it was like in the mid to late-80s was when I got tapped - just before I took over for MOHICANS - I worked for Kevin Yagher on CHILD'S PLAY 3 and BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY as one of his crew. I also found out then that I wasn’t much of a cog-in-the-wheel type guy. I was more of a guy who wanted to be in charge. I learned greatly from them and that’s when I came back.
DC: Walk me a little bit through your creative process. Obviously you start from what’s written in the script, but how do you go from the idea stage to the finished product?
VG: A lot of times what I do is I’ll take the idea and I’ll add to it if the director is cool enough and confident enough to let me do what I need to do as far as taking the idea and adding to it or saying, “Listen, this would be cool if we could do this.” So I kind of subtract ideas that aren’t so hot and I’ll try to develop them to give them more than what they’re asking for. I basically start with a creative conversation where we’ll go back and forth about ideas and designs on the look of things, what can we do that hasn’t been done before, given the money and time that I’m allotted. From there, we’ll take those ideas and get the director’s approval. The design is the whole thing. You’ve gotta have a strong design. From there, when we have concepts in the computer or traditional sketches and fully rendered color paintings, we make sculptures from the designs and construct our rubber or silicone creatures, whether they be prosthetic or animatronic.
DC: What design programs do you use? ZBrush?
VG: I have a lot of really talented artists who do stuff in that field. I’m a traditionalist, but I always try to keep a fresh, new perspective, so I’ll take my ideas a lot of times and translate them to the artists who will use ZBrush, black and white sketches, acrylic paintings… all mediums. I don’t have any rules… whatever gets us there and gets the idea clearly across to the director, producers, and the studio I’m working for.
DC: And all of that is predicated on their approval…
VG: The director is like God. He’s created his world, he’s created his characters, and I’m a visual agent trying to get those ideas and concepts that he wants across; and if I can help make them better and he gives me that freedom, then that makes for a better relationship.
DC: Is it ever frustrating when you’re bringing designs in that you think are good and these people say, “No… that ain’t it. That ain’t it.”?
VG: I’ve had a high success rate as far as that. I don’t get much of, “Oh… we don’t like this.” There have been some jobs where I’ll have an idea and they’ll come in with some ideas that I really don’t think are… well, being polite… are all that great. When that happens, you have to walk a political tightrope and try to be professional. You have to appreciate the director’s idea as best you can and try and translate whatever weak idea you may think they may have and try to make it a strong one. Even though it might not be your favorite, you kind of try and pick and choose the strong point of the idea and see what you can do to make it better and always try to be as positive as possible no matter what the situation is whether you like it or not.
DC: While you’re creating these images, are you conscious of the difference between whether you’re shooting on film or shooting on, say, high-def video? I mean, FX tend to look different depending on which format is used, correct?
VG: Yeah, it does. I try to figure on what it is that we’re going to do, how quickly it’s going to be on camera, how it’s going to be lit… I am a purist in the way that nothing looks better than film, and I know that’s changing. I worked on the RED so much now on so many films that I’m not against digital. I used to be a little more hard-nosed about it, but not anymore because the technology is getting better with all of the software which makes this stuff look more and more cinematic even with digital. The thing is you don’t have the filters that they used to, things don’t look as pretty as they do on film, but they’re starting to get better. I think they’ve got that down now. It’s getting pretty damned good.
To answer your question, I always ask that because I like to know the medium of what the FX are going to look like and I try to know where I’m at. If the thing is seen for more than a few seconds, then I know digital is going to have this specific look so we have to add a lot more detail in a sculpture because the high definition picks up a lot more as far as detail, depth of field, etc. It affects things, but everything I work on, I try to make as real and detail-oriented as I possibly can no matter what format we’re shooting in.