Rich Knight is not only a creature effects wizard, but an actor and an educator as well. He’s done creature fx, puppet work, acting, teaching and you name it for a lot of years now, and has had a wonderful and varied career. Recently I got to interview Rich, which was a pleasure for me as I’ve never had the opportunity to interview a creature fx / make-up artist before. He did a brilliant job answering my questions, and had a lot to say about his career and what it’s like working with monsters day in and day out.
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Ok, let’s start off by having you introduce yourself and filling us all in a bit on your background.
I’m a Professional Special Effects Makeup Artist, a Puppet Maker, a Puppeteer and a Professional Character Actor. As you can see I wear many hats, but to better define that "label" one might just say that I’m a ‘character creator’. . . Whether through the use of makeup effects, puppetry or via character acting, my job, simply put is to bring characters to life. I’ve worked on several feature films and television programs both big and small. Some of my most notable credits include such films as Robert Zemeckis’ ‘BEOWULF’, the recent remake of ‘THE OMEN’, ‘X-MEN 3’ and ‘POSEIDON’ or the hit TV shows ‘CSI: LAS VEGAS’, ‘NCIS’, ‘ALIAS’, ‘HOUSE’, ‘MEDIUM’, ‘X-Files’ and ‘POWER RANGERS LOST GALAXY’. I’ve been working professionally in the special effects industry for over fourteen years. I define myself as an artist, a teacher and most importantly a student of the art we call "Special Effects Makeup".
Approximately how old were you when you first got into doing creature fx and making puppets? Was it something you had always felt drawn to, or was it something you just sort of fell into at a certain point?
I can trace back my first makeups to when I was an adolescent. I remember experimenting with creating fake mustaches. Once when I was about ten years old or so I remember cutting some hair from my pet Collie and gluing it to my face as a mustache. It’s funny, I thought it made me look so grown up, I remember wearing it out in public to the local shopping mall. . . Looking back, I must have appeared like such a dork, but back then I though it was pretty cool that I could use such methods to make me appear older.
I was also a big Muppet fan when I was a kid. I used to go to a lot of garage sales rummaging for fabrics and anything I could use to create my own puppets. I began to experiment with modeling clays and paper mache. I always knew that I wanted to use my artistic skills to create characters but I lacked the knowledge and guidance I needed to do it properly. It wasn’t until I was a young adult that my interest in special effects would be sparked once again. I think it was Tim Burton’s ‘BATMAN’ in 1989 that got me excited about collecting and making masks again. I was really impressed at how they brought the comic book character to life. I was fascinated at the body suit – it wasn’t your typical shiny spandex super hero suit this time it was like the real deal. Seeing that inspired me to learn about the art of special effects makeup, masks and creature suits.
You’re a graduate of the Institute of Studio Makeup in Hollywood, California. Tell us about the school and some of your experiences there.
Yes, I graduated from the Institute in 1993. I was in one of the last classes ever to be taught at the Institute. The school closed it’s doors in 1994. It was owned and operated by Damon Charles which at that time was a twenty year veteran of the makeup industry. From 1984 to 1994, Damon Charles created, owned, and operated The Institute of Studio Makeup, Ltd., known as being the premier makeup training school of the time. Former students have gone on and won awards in every field of the entertainment industry, film, television, and theater. Damon opened The Institute of Studio Makeup, Ltd. in 1984 with a 10 year plan of accepting no more than 48 students per year and graduating no more than 480 students by the end of that period. So I am one of those 480 students fortunate enough to receive the extensive training offered by the Institute. Although many of the makeup effects schools that are around today are superior to the Institute in many ways, I strongly feel that the institutes’s methods of teaching and it’s curriculum were the best available… even by today’s standards. Some other notable graduates from the Industry include Wayne Toth (‘TRANSFORMERS’, ‘GRINDHOUSE’, ‘DEVIL’S REJECTS’) and Judy Yonemoto (‘MIGHTY JOE YOUNG’, ‘MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE’). Damon Charles and the school were also featured in a scene from the 1993 Robert Altman film ‘SHORT CUTS’.
Of all of your production credits, which we’ll get to later, what’s the one thing you’ve done of which you’re the most proud, and the one thing, if different, that was the coolest experience for you?
I think that the smaller projects, the indie fims, those are the ones that I am most proud of. A lot of hear and soul gets poured into an independent film. The art is more true – and there is more love poured into them. As an effects artist I also get to do a lot more on independent films than I do on big budget studio films. With big studio productions an effects artist is likely to be one of many. The effects artist will likely get "compartmentalized" meaning that they will specialize in one thing like painting, or seaming, or mold making, etc., etc. Because most of the FX people out there want to do the creative stuff like paint or sculpt that means theres a lot of "grunt work" left over for guys like me. I prefer being the key artist on smaller independent productions because I get to do more. It’s rare in a studio production that one effects artist will get to do all the work from start to finish, but in the indie world it is likely that you will be the only one doing all the work. I often find myself going long stretches of time working on indie projects and taking on lab work at other creature shops every now and again just to break things up.
The indie projects that I am most proud of at the moment are the films ‘ESCAPE FROM DARWIN’ and ‘WELFARE BUNNIES’. I acted in and did the effects for both films. We shot them last year both at the same time and the characters that I play are drastically different. So during the week I would be in Death Valley playing a red neck gang leader and on weekends I was in San Diego playing a goofy/dorky guy in prosthetic makeup. I enjoyed the challenge both as an actor and as an effects artist. All the effects were done on a shoestring budget, which made for a great challenge. I think that these two projects reflect some of my best work… especially as an actor.
How often when you do a job for someone do they have something really specific in mind? Is it like that quite often, or do you usually find yourself in a position where you’re supplying them a variety of designs to choose from based on their general idea?
Sometimes a producer or director will come to me knowing exactly what they want. They will give me designs or detailed descriptions and even story boards. Other times there’s not so much input. When I was working on the film FEAR RUNS SILENT the director left the description of the monster pretty vague, so I did a series of conceptual designs for him. When we met to go over those designs he pretty much didn’t like any of them and he sent me back to the lab with yet another sort of vague description of what he wanted. As time went on (or began to run out depending on how you look at it) I had to make a decision myself – because the director pretty much left it to me. So I tried to be as true to the director’s description as possible and I made it my own… In the end the director was pleased, but I think that he also realized that we could have had an even better creature with more time and input. In a lot of cases the directors are learning how to work with effects also. Sadly most film schools don’t teach film makers how to work with effects artists so they are in most cases learning as they go and trusting that the makeup artists that they hire know what they’re doing. It’s always better when a director knows exactly what they want, and is able to provide precise and detailed descriptions of their characters and creatures – It helps the artist to visualize exactly what the director sees in his "mind’s eye" – it also saves the production money too because there’s no time wasted going back and fourth with designs. I like to offer a director up to five different design concepts and possibly a miniature maquette. From there an approved design will go into production and test makeups will be done.
Have you ever run into clients who had something really specific in mind, but couldn’t quite explain it, leaving you to have to guess what they really wanted as they rejected design after design? If so, there has to be a certain frustration level that goes along with that. How do you deal with it?
It does happen, just like in the case of FEAR RUNS SILENT. .. Then again, on the other hand you can offer too many designs, for instance on FRANKENSTEIN VS. THE CREATURE FROM BLOOD COVE I did something like fifteen different designs for the Frankenstein monster alone. The director would then start taking elements from one design that he liked and would ask me to add them to another design or morph them together somehow. I think that this can become a pitfall if you offer a director too many options he/she may want to change or alter their own vision or it might just confuse them or lead to indecision… or even lead them to believe that you’re not the right artist for the project. It’s a double edged sword I guess. With ‘Frankenstein’ we found a design that we both liked because we stayed true to the "old school" look for the monsters. In all honesty we could have easily gotten hung up in the design phase if any more new designs were added to the mix. There is certainly a frustration level that can occur if a director is fickle about designs. There’s no real "trick" around this ecspect to really listen to the director when he/she talks about what they want and then really try to put yourself into thier head and see what they see. Once you’re on the same page of music you’ll likely have a clear understanding of what the desing is supposed to be… from there the challenge is bringing it to life and staying to true to the vision.
When you’re designing a new creature, or a new makeup look, do you spend a lot of time sketching it out and designing it on paper first, or do you tend to just get the image in your head, come up with an initial design and then and start working on the piece right away, basically designing it on the fly?
I think that it’s different each time. Some designs come easy as if they already existed before I even got there. It seems like they sculpt themselves. While other designs are not so easy, they can be difficult or simply a case of "artist’s block" where you’re not sure what direction to take. If this ever happens to me I just walk away from it and move onto another project that requires some attention… or I’ll just leave the shop and go for a walk, or a drive, I’ll watch a movie, or play a video game… and then I’ll return with a fresh set of eyes and a clear mind. This will usually help me over any "blocks" that may present themselves. If that isn’t enough, then I’ll go through my picture morgues or look for more reference materials to see if I can find some inspiration.. I’ll look to see how other artists may have approached the same or simular designs. Either way, I do whatever it takes to find my motivation and make the deadline. On the other hand, I also enjoy freestyle sculpting. That’s where you start out with no design in mind and you just start adding clay to your armature to see where it takes you. This is a method I use for fun or for "liesure sculptures". I have come up with some pretty interesting and creative stuff this way, but it’s not likely to be an approach I’d use for a legitimate film production. Once a 2-D illustration is established I have a clear understanding of what the final design will be so I prefer to always start with a pencil and paper as opposed to "sculpting on the fly".
Of all the things you do (makeup effects, creating monster suits, gore effects, puppet design, etc…) what do you personally find to be the most fun and satisfying?
I really love creating prosthetic appliances and full body creature suits. I think the big stuff is my favorite because it’s larger than life. I also enjoy delving into puppetry. Animatronics and mechanics can be very expensive so you don’t often get the chance to work with them, so when I do I really enjoy it. In truth I enjoy all aspects of special effects. I think that is what is so appealing about what I do, there’s so many aspects of it from sculpting and painting to mold making and casting, hair and makeup, puppetry and animatronics, blood and gore, etc., etc,, There’s really a little bit of something for everyone. Lately what I have found most satisfying is when I am able to both act and do the effects because this taps into that inner child that wants to dress up like a monster and scare the crap out of the neighbors. There’s nothing like being able to create something and then breathe life into it, give it a voice and a demeanor. Something new is born from an idea, and as an acto I can also give it a personality. That’s the greatest feeling, and if you can capture it on film in a movie scene that can be shared with the viewer… all the better.
You’re teaching a special effects prosthetics course at The Cinema Makeup School. Tell us about that class and what it covers, and also give us the some information on the school itself so people who are interested in getting into this line of work and might be interested in attending can check it out.
(Rich is planning to answer this question with the help of their school administrator to make sure that all the info is accurate and complete. His answer to this question will be posted as soon as it’s received.)
Speaking of getting into this line of work, do you believe that anyone who’s really interested in the field can learn it, or do you need to have a sort of a natural artistic talent going in?
I think that it definitely helps to have some artistic talent, but it isn’t mandatory. I know plenty of talented sculptors that can’t draw to save their lives. I say it’s all about putting in the time and the practice. I’ve been drawing since as long as I can remember. My first murals were in crayon at the age of two. My parents weren’t too thrilled about the crayon murals on their walls but they knew their kid had some exceptional skills at a young age. This isn’t the case for everyone, but I believe that anyone can improve their artistic ability simply through study and practice. You can also learn in school, but that isn’t necessarily going to make you a better artist. What makes a person better as an artist is continuous practice and study. It can take some makeup effects artists as long as two years before they are proficient in all aspects of makeup. For others it can take less time, whether they’re artistically inclined or not. I think where my drawing skills help most is in the design stage. I can have a conceptual design completed and inked and off to the
director for aproval, where a sculptor might take longer. I can also use quick thumbnail sketches to get an idea of a design concept as opposed to just grabbing a lump of clay and sculpting "freestyle".
With regards to artistic talent, what kinds of things were you doing artistically before you entered the field, and what was the one thing that finally inspired you to just go for it?
I have always been involved in the arts in one way or another. I was raised in a family of musicians. My father was a guitar player and singer, he worked for musical vendors like DeArmand Pick-ups and Dean Markley Strings. When my brother and I were younger we got free backstage passes to a lot of the concerts that would come to town. We got to meet and rub elbows with rock stars from bands like KISS and Iron Maiden. Naturally being around such musical influences I began taking up an interest in guitar and singing. I played in a few cover bands and original bands playing hard rock, heavy metal and grunge music. I think it was in 1992 when I had an "incident" with one of my former band members stealing equipment from me. I became very frustrated with the music scene and my interest leaned towards what was at that time just a hobby… special effects makeup and masks. Between ’92 and ’93 I saved up as much money as I could so I could go to a special effects makeup school and formally learn all aspects of makeup. In late ’92 I was accepted at the Institute of Studio Makeup, Ltd. and received a partial scholarship. In April of 1993 I left my home in New Jersey to go to Hollywood and follow my dreams.
Aside from doing the makeup and such, you also act now and then. Is that something you trained to do, or is it something that just comes naturally to you? Also, what roles have you played that have been the most fun for you, and have you taken any roles that you didn’t really feel you were right for, but went ahead and did them anyway?
Actually acting is something that has sort of fallen into my lap. When I lived in New Jersey I used to work with my girlfriend in a local Murder Mystery troupe. We did "murder mystery weekends" at hotels across the tri-state area acting out murder scenes and letting the guests try to solve the mystery. It was great fun and it was my first actual exposure to "on set blood work". Also while in Jersey I was asked to be in the commercial for my local hairdresser’s salon Avigon Hair. I played that part of a "hair client". It was a pretty hokey little commercial that will probably one day surface again to haunt me.
It wouldn’t be until the director from FRANKENSTEIN VS. THE CREATURE FROM BLOOD COVE offered me the co-starring role as "Salisbury" that I would officially become an "actor". After the release of "Frankenstein vs. the Creature" I received more and more offers for movie roles, both acting and doing the effects. I’ve sort of become a modern day Lon Chenney, or at least that’s what it feels like being able to do both the makeup effects and acting. The interesting thing about doing my own makeup effects is that I have learned even more about designing prosthetic appliances so that the move realistically. With each new appliance I design for my own face I learn something new about the ways the muscles of the face make the appliances move. I’ve learned that by placing the thinest part of the appliance along key movement areas, such as wrinkle lines on the forehead, that the appliance is less likely to buckle or fold unrealistically. My makeups have become even better because of this new found knowledge and I try to apply it as often as possible.
Of all the roles I have played I think one of the funnest characters is "Archie" from ‘ESCAPE FROM DARWIN’. Archie is a racist redneck thug, the complete opposite of myself. He’s an abusive, foul mouthed gang leader and drug/gun runner. The film is currently filming with plans for re-shoots in Darwin, CA later this summer.
So far I have loved al of the characters that I have had the privilege to portray. I think that of all those characters the one I’d like to do again is that of "Salisbury’. My performance was rushed and not representative of my best work. I was still very new to the process and would love to have another crack at the character. But that’s not gonna happen, so instead I learn from it and use what I’ve learned and apply it to my next role.
Let’s talk about CGI for a minute. As someone who does creature fx, makeup and puppeteering for a living, one would think that you probably have some pretty strong feelings about CGI and how as a whole, it’s adoption as affected not only people like you, but also people in the stunt profession as well as model makers and those who used to design real life special effects. What are your feelings on the use, and or overuse of CGI in film today, and the impact it’s had on the people who work in these various areas of film production?
I get asked this question a lot. Many people feel that CG is stealing work for makeup effects artists. But I really don’t think that’s the case. Sure a lot of the work that originally went to makeup effects artists is now being done CG, but there’s also new jobs being created because of CG. For instance, I worked Robert Zemeckis’ BEOWULF which is an animated feature. I worked on part of the crew that created the motion capture helmets, essential for capturing the movement of the actor’s face. The effects crew for BEOWULF life casted over 85 actors and stunt people and created the motion capture helmets. This is a job that wouldn’t have existed were it not for CG. Sure one might say that if there wasn’t CG than instead of making motion capture helmets you’d be creating the creature effects for the film… I disagree, I think that the film wouldn’t be made because it would be too expensive without the use of CG. Most directors are beginning to realize that CG is just another tool at there disposal. The smart directors like Jon Favreau are combining the two and trying to base the majority of effects as live action as opposed to correcting in post with CG. When I am working with directors and producers I will often point out certain scenes that would work better as CG. Face it, some stuff is just better on computers. I’d rather let the CG guys worry about how to make the vampire dissolve in sunlight – I’d rather get started creating all the fangs and prosthetics and blood work that will go in front of the camera. I always remind the director that it’s better to be able to see every thing live and with your own eyes as opposed to just trusting some geek in a room with a computer to create your scene for you. I also remind them that nothing is better than natural lighting, therefore it’s better to film as much in front of the camera as physically possible. I do agree that much of the work for makeup effects artist has dwindled since the introduction of CG effects… but I also think that the viewers are beginning to dislike movies with too much CG. The problem is that people will see a CG effect and they will come out of the theatre saying "wow what a great CG effect"…. In the field of makeup effects our goal is to create an illusion so that the viewer leaves the theatre saying "wow, how’d they do that?". You don’t want your viewer to know if it was done with a computer, makeup or smoke and mirrors. If your viewer can see that it’s a CG effect the illusion has failed. It’s like seeing the strings on the model rockets in those old Flash Gordon movies. CG is getting better, but it still looks cartoony and the viewer can usually tell when it’s a computer, whereas if a good makeup effect is filmed live on set the lighting is completely natural and it’s based in the real world as opposed to being matched in a virtual world. In other words, nothing beats the real thing.
Do you have sort of a dream project that you’d like to work on, or do you just enjoy doing whatever?
I do have some pet projects that I’m working on… one of which is a puppet show called ‘THE RUFF AND SKITCH SHOW", a collection of funny stories and characters in the spirit of Jim Henson’s Muppets or Warner Brother’s Looney Tunes. Because of the scale of my vision for this project I’ll need to find funding to make the show a reality. That however doesn’t stop me from continuing to write stories and develop characters. I plan to make some of the puppets from foam fabrication, just like the Muppets. But the main cast of characters will be animatronic puppets. Some of the characters will be full size character/creature suits with prosthetic makeups and/or mechanical masks. Prototypes have been created of some of the characters, however there is still much work to be done before THE RUFF AND SKITCH SHOW becomes a reality.
As for "dream projects" I think that if I had the chance to "wish" for the perfect gig I’d want to do a sci-fi feature or another superhero movie. It was a science Fiction and Superheroes that inspired me to get into this business, so it’s always nice when I get to work on films from those genres. The upcoming Star Wars TV series would be a perfect "dream job" type scenario. The original Star Wars films inspired me from the time I was a child, so working on a TV version would be like living the dream. It would be even better if I was cast to play a character in makeup as well.
Until that "dream job comes along, I will continue to enjoy all of the work that comes my way… whatever it might be.
Speaking of enjoying what you do, that brings up another question. I’ve often found that when you do something you love for a living, it often takes much or all of the fun out of it, leading to burnout and a general dislike of the job. Has that been the case for you (at least at times), or is there such a variety in what you do that it keeps it perpetually fun, fresh and interesting?
Honestly, I love what I do. True, there’s a lot of work involved in creature effects and it does lead to burn out at times. In truth there’s been times that I got so stressed I wanted to pull all my hair out from the roots. I’ve had to pull all-nighters and work for days on end without sleep to meet ridiculous deadlines. I’ve worked with difficult directors and have had projects go over budget and/or have had budgets cut at the last minute. But it’s that love, that commitment to the art that keeps me going. It drives me, and carries me through the difficult times, and ultimately to the finish line. There’s nothing like seeing your creations come to life, especially when you overcome amazing obstacles to do so. Sometimes that’s when I do my best work. I live for this stuff, it’s not only my livelihood, it’s what defines me.
Tell us about what you’re working on currently and what you’ve completed recently that’s coming out soon.
In addition to teaching at the Cinema Makeup School in Los Angeles, I’m also working on three features. One of which is titled ESCAPE FROM DARWIN, a film noir/western drama. I play the part of "Archie" the leader of the Mojave Gang a band of desert dwelling thugs. We’re preparing to go back to Darwin, CA later this summer to complete filming. I’m told that our distributors have put up additional funds to bring in some A-list talent and more special effects as well. I can’t say who the "talent" will be, but some of the names that have been dropped are very impressive indeed. Be sure to watch for the film when it is released later on this year.
Another film that I’m also currently shooting is "SLICES" a horror anthology which ties several short horror stories together into one feature length thriller. I play the part of "Billy" the outlaw in the segment titled "THE RANGE", I also created the FX for that segment as well as two other segments from the film. The movie has already created a buzz on Fangoria, and some of the cast members include David Hayes, Chuck Williams (BUBBA HO-TEP, LIVE EVIL), and Don Calfa (RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD).
And finally I have been cast to act along side my brother, Robert Wesley Knight, in the film "THE VAMPIRE CLUB" – a slapstick style comedy about a group of misfit vampires. We’ve been cast as two brothers that are also Jewish Rabis turned vampire. In this project I am mainly doing my own makeup effects. Our director, David Fahy will be not only acting, directing and producing but he will also be doing much of the effects for the film himself. I first worked with David on the film FRANKENSTEIN VS. THE CREATURE FROM BLOOD COVE. David was part of the effects crew for Frankenstein vs. the Creature and helped to sculpt and mold the creature suit. David also helped me on Lisa Hammer’s upcoming feature POX (due out later this year), so he’s no new comer to the world of FX. If you’re a fan a slapstick humor and sharp wit then you’ll enjoy this film… Or if you just like a little bit of "fluff" in your life, well then this film is for you.
What’s the next thing you have coming up after you complete your current project?
INVASION OF THE NOT QUITE DEAD
WELFARE BUNNIES: EPISODE II
THE TRIPPING FALL
VERISIMILITUDE: THE APPEARANCE OF TRUTH
DRAKAN: A HERO’S JOURNEY
(As of the time of the posting of this interview, Rich hadn’t completed his answer to this question. I will post the rest of the answer as soon as it’s received.)
How can people contact you if they’d like to hire you to work on their film?
I can be contacted via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or if you are an ImdbPro user you can access my contact information via the Internet Movie Database at: http://pro.imdb.com/name/nm1231015.
For those interested in crew positions: I am not currently hiring for any projects at this time, however I do maintain a file for potential candidates for crew, and/or for possible apprenticeship opportunities. If anyone wishes to be considered for future projects they can email copies of their resumes and photos of there work to me at: email@example.com.
I usually delete email submissions that don’t have portfolio photos, so be sure that if you’re sending a submission that you are able to attach photos of your work.