G / September 30, 2015 / 0 Comments
Penny Dreadful’s Key Prosthetic Make-Up Artist Sarita Allison is a double BAFTA winner and a fan favorite among Dreadfuls. Interactive, mysterious and gracious to fans, each Dreadful awaits in bated breath for her social media updates on what’s happening on set of the show. While in the middle of production for season 3, we caught up with Sarita for an exclusive interview to chat about her career, Penny Dreadful and working with Eva Green. Get to know the London-based genius behind The Creature, Witches and The Werewolf as she takes us behind the scenes of the show and tell us what to expect on season 3…
A lot of Penny Dreadful fans already know you by name but could you tell us more about yourself?
I am the Key Prosthetic Make-Up Artist on Penny Dreadful and I work closely alongside Nick Dudman, the HOD. I apply the prosthetic makeups with Nick or by myself with the exception of Sembene’s facial scarring which is done by the make-up department.
The design and look of the characters is a collaboration between Nick and I. The final look and maintenance of the actors on set is all part of my job. I am a Make-Up Designer in my own right and I have the versatility of also being a beauty make-up artist. That skill has proven extremely beneficial whilst working on Penny Dreadful. Nick wanted someone to work with him who had that versatility because we were not creating rubber monsters. We were creating characters. I am incredibly passionate about my work and always strive to improve and be the best I possibly can. Trying to have a work / life balance is really important as this type of job can all consume if you allow it. Practicing yoga is part of my life and helps me focus and switch off from work at the same time.
Not a lot of people know that you used to be a high fashion model. Could you tell us more about it?
Modelling was something I wanted to do when I was at school, you know a teenage dream. I used to have very long hair and one day I felt like a change so I went to a salon in King’s Road in London and had it all cut off much to the shock of my mother. Several people suggested I should try modelling as I had a “good face”. So I pursued my dream and joined a small modelling agency in Covent Garden. The agency sent me to see various photographers and one in particular liked my “look” and gave me an editorial job. That particular photographer said my look was very current and I would get better exposure if I switch to a bigger agency. He personally drove me into Bond Street to see the agency Premier who immediately took me on. Within a few months, I started a contract with an agency in Tokyo and worked there for four months. My modelling career spanned over five years working in London, Milan, Tokyo, Madrid and Hamburg.
You’ve worked on various fashion shows, magazine covers and editorials, album covers, music videos, etc. and you’ve worked with the likes of Bjӧrk, Issey Miyake, Vivienne Westwood, and not a lot of people know this, but you even worked on one of the late Alexander McQueen’s iconic fashion shows (Spring/Summer 1997). In a lot of ways, you can say that you’ve worked with the crème de la crème of the fashion industry. What was your favorite memory from that period of your career?
Those were fun days. I worked on a lot of fashion shows during that time. There were many memorable moments. One year, Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood won the Designer of the Year Award together. I happened to be working on the McQueen show and it was just an incredible experience being at the Royal Albert Hall witnessing two great fashion designers win an award together.
What made you decide to jump from being in front of the camera to working behind it? What was the process that you undertook to be able to get into the make-up, hair and prosthetic industry? And what made you decide to move into makeup and prosthetic work on television and film?
I really enjoyed my modelling career. I was able to travel and see some amazing countries and meet so many different and interesting people. Being a creative person and having trained at art college, I felt the need to do something more with my life. Having been a fashion model, a make-up career seemed like a natural progression for me. I started practicing make-up on myself and on models and slowly built up a portfolio of work. I contacted photographers whose work I admired and asked to work with them.
The transition from modelling to being a make-up artist took about a year. I worked with celebrities, musicians and models and had a huge client base. Again though, I wanted to achieve more and expand my knowledge even further and pursue prosthetic make-up and special effects. I did a prosthetics course which really was only a taster teaser. So armed with a special effects make-up up book, I began to practice. I soon got known as a beauty make-up artist who could do special effects make-up too.
Touching the Void is a pivotal point in your career. You having done almost everything and being exposed to challenging situations while making it. Could you tell us more about this experience and its impact on your career?
That’s right, Touching the Void was a pivotal point in my career. When I met Kevin Macdonald the director and he explained the incredible story of these two climbers, I was immediately inspired. When the job was offered to me, I started researching the impacts of severe weather exposure and frostbite. I knew the make-up had to be realistic otherwise it just wouldn’t work. I spoke with and met doctors who had treated climbers with frostbite.
Having collected a vast array of research material, I started my makeup tests. Once I felt I was getting the right look, I then started experimenting with products that would hopefully last in minus sub zero conditions. We were going to film on location in the French, Italian and Swiss Alps at altitude in severe weather conditions. I knew it was going to be tough. The make-ups were approved by the director and then we were on our way. It was one of the most challenging jobs I had done to date. For practical reasons there were four stages of make-up. We stayed in refuge huts in the Alps with only solar power.
I used to apply the make-up very early in the morning then we would go out on location either by cable car or sometimes a helicopter. Some of the locations were at least 50 minute walk from base camp. I had to carry all my make-up supplies on my back in a rucksack and stashed away in my pockets.
When we were filming I knew the film would be a success, I just had that feeling. I was so relieved I put the time into the research and managed to achieve such realism in the make-up.
Touching the Void won a BAFTA for Best British Film. After the film’s release, I was approached on several occasions to do similar types of make-up for various productions. To this day, I still get approached by make-up designers asking advice on how to achieve similar types of effects.
You’ve always closely worked with industry legend and Penny Dreadful Make-Up and Prosthetics Head Designer Nick Dudman who early on in his career assisted and apprenticed under the great Stuart Freeborn (on the construction of the very first Yoda puppet!) and in a lot of ways, you have been his protégé. How’s it like to work with him and how does it feel like to be under the supervision of a master like him?
I have known Nick Dudman for a long time. We are very good friends. He is incredibly supportive and encouraging. We work very well together as a team. We are quite similar in our approach and are free thinking – we seem to read off the same page when it comes to designing a make-up. Working with Nick is always good fun. We tend to have a laugh and a giggle together. On occasion, we have been referred to as like an old married couple and even John Logan says we are like a comedy duo!
Who are your inspirations –in your life and career? Is there anyone in your industry that you particularly look up to?
I would have to say Nick Dudman is the person I look up to. He is not only a talented artist and very good at his job as a HOD but has very good values and morals. He brings the best out in people and is wonderful to work for. I am very lucky to have him as a friend and also as a boss.
The make-up, hair and prosthetic industry is known to be male dominated. While it’s not unheard of, it’s quite rare for a woman to be successful in this particular industry. You’re a woman who has carved herself an impressive career and someone who holds a key position in lots of film and television productions, particularly in a big production like Penny Dreadful, what’s your take on this?
Thank you very much! That’s very kind of you to say. I hadn’t thought of it like that. Absolutely – it is a male dominated industry. Being very focused, determined and strong-willed, once I set my goals on something I do pursue them. It’s a tough industry to work in. The hours can be brutal. The constant travelling and filming schedules can take over your life. It’s not conducive to having children and a family life. But it is all doable. I try to manage my time for myself and my family. Being away on location can make that quite difficult though.
What has been your favorite experience doing prosthetics work so far?
I would say one of my favourite experience’s applying a prosthetic make-up would be The Creature. That was such an iconic look to reinvent. I enjoyed the whole process from the first make-up tests to seeing Rory Kinnear bring the character to life.
Of all the hair, makeup and prosthetic work you’ve done, do you have a favourite? What’s your favorite work that you’ve done in Penny Dreadful?
That is quite a difficult question to answer really. I actually don’t think I have a favourite make-up. They are all so different and individual in their own right.
What has been the hardest and longest creation that you’ve done so far?
The Mystique make-up for X Men: First Class was the hardest and longest make-up to apply. Just logistically working everything out. We were a team of seven make-up artists all working on Jennifer Lawrence. We had to devise plan where we weren’t all on top of each other. The hours were punishing and the maintenance on set was constant. However, the final result was rewarding.
On most of your works, particularly on Penny Dreadful, you’re given the freewill to create and design characters. Where do you draw inspiration in creating these fresh new character designs?
On Penny Dreadful we have had the luxury of a free reign to come up with new ideas for our characters. It’s a case of knowing and researching what has been done before. The trick is not to repeat what has already been seen in the past. We work with concept artists to come up with fresh ideas for new and iconic characters.
Do you do some sort of a ‘continuing education’ process to help you learn new techniques as the industry constantly changes and your industry always finding new ways and materials to work with ; Or do you just learn as you go?
There are endless new products coming out on the market. We are continually learning, there’s always someone coming out with new ideas or techniques. Refresher courses are a good idea if you want to brush up on certain skills or try out new ones.
Is there are particular material or technique that you favor when it comes to working on prosthetics?
Working with silicone is my preferred material when applying prosthetics. It has the most realistic affect. There are pros and cons to using different materials, it just depends on what you are trying to achieve. I like to airbrush when applying colour but I also work free hand using several techniques in one make-up.
What skills do you think a good make-up, hair and prosthetic artist should have?
Good skills to have as a Make-Up / Prosthetic & Hair Stylist would be artistic, personable, good communication, versatile, flexible, know your materials, have empathy with the person you are making up.
Lately, there’s been talk in the make-up industry about trade pay (being paid in goods) or working for free (as a way to build connections and portfolio) versus monetary pay for a job, being someone who has worked on the fashion, television and film industry wherein such situations are prevalent, what’s your take and opinion on this issue?
If you are an artist wanting to gain experience and are happy to collaborate with other professionals in the industry to work on one’s portfolio, then that’s great and each individual gains from that experience. I don’t think anyone should work for free if it is a proper job.
Some of your colleagues like Greg Nicotero (The Walking Dead) have made the jump to working behind the camera through writing, producing and directing. What do you think of this and are you in any way interested in this aspect of filmmaking?
If people would like to branch out in other areas of filmmaking then why not? Taking up photography is something I have thought about on occasion. I am though, perfectly happy being a make-up artist for the time being.…but you never know what the future holds!
Penny Dreadful is one project that chooses to be old school by sticking to doing manual scares with your crew painstakingly doing make-up and hair applications and physically manufacturing props as opposed to solely relying on Computer Generated Images (CGIs). As a veteran Make-Up, Hair and Prosthetic Artist, what’s your opinion on CGI versus manual scare applications?
CGI versus manual scare applications? There is a time and place where CGI & manual scare applications can work together. Where that worked nicely was the death of Proteus in season 1. I don’t think you can beat the work of practical make-up to be honest. The two departments can work together and produce some good effects.
Now let’s talk Penny Dreadful. You’ve worked on a lot of film and television productions but how did Penny Dreadful came about for you?
When Nick Dudman first read the scripts for Penny Dreadful, he contacted me and said this was the perfect job for us. The scripts were amazing. I immediately knew I wanted to work on the show. Nick offered me the role as his number 2 – Key Prosthetic Make-Up Artist.
Penny Dreadful is mysterious, funny, erotic, and frightening among other things. Have you always been a gothic or Victorian era fan? When you found out that you’ll be working on the show, how did you prepare?
Yes, Penny Dreadful is my genre. I have always had a fascination for Victorian Gothic horror. Preparing was quite easy really. It is an era that I am familiar with. Researching was a lot of fun as it is a subject that I am interested in.
You work closely with series creator, producer and writer John Logan. How is he like as a showrunner and constant collaborator? How far does he let you and Nick Dudman run away with your designs?
John Logan is great to work with. He is enthusiastic about what we do. We get each other. He trusts our judgement and we have a large input in our character designs. John has a keen eye and immediately knows what he likes which makes our job so much easier.
One of the joys of watching Penny Dreadful is the sheer feeling of watching a classic work of literature in motion. For you, what has been the most rewarding thing about working on the show?
The most rewarding thing is to see everything coming together. Every department works so hard right down to the smallest detail. I am very proud to be part of the Penny Dreadful team. We are like a family. Everybody helps each other out.
In season one, you worked with Eva Green on many occasions. How’s it like to work with her? What is she like on set?
We applied the silicone bald cap for the trepanning scene. Eva Green is a true professional. She works so hard and is dedicated to her part. On set she is quiet, focused and a joy to work with.
The asylum scene in season one will go down as one of the most disturbing scenes of the series, particularly the much talked about trepanning scene. Could you discuss it more? Was it hard to watch on set as it was for fans?
The asylum scene was hard to watch. It was very emotional. Even though we all knew it wasn’t real, your heart just went out to her. We had just the one bald cap which had been hair punched. The day before the application, I cut the hair and we had a quick fitting with Eva. A small metal plate was inserted under the bald cap to protect Eva’s head from the drill for the trepanning scene. We applied that make-up and shot that scene in half a day.
In Possession, Vanessa was essentially put to the ringer. One of the scariest moments was when hieroglyphs started to appear on her chest and arms. How was the process for that one?
In Possession that’s where the collaboration between CGI & practical make-up effects worked well. For that scene, we applied the hieroglyphs on Eva’s chest. Visual effects were then able to make them appear and disappear.
Penny Dreadful is greatly celebrated for its insistence to stay faithful to its source materials as well as to John Logan’s vision. Likewise, the show is highly appreciated for the intricate details and attention every department on the show puts on each scene and character. One particular example is Rory Kinnear’s The Creature who looks as faithful as he ever was to how Mary Shelley described him in the book. Could you talk about working with Rory and the everyday process that you go through with creating The Creature?
Rory Kinnear’s make-up for The Creature is about 2.5 hour process. The pre-painted prosthetic appliances take about an hour to apply. There are six pieces in all. The fiddliest one being the front piece that goes over his cheek – we call that the Norwegian coastline! I pre-paint all the sets beforehand to make the application process on the day quicker and less laborious for Rory to endure. Fine veins are then painted freehand onto his face underneath the pale base which I airbrush. I then darken his eyebrows and paint his dark lips on. He then goes to get his wig put on and gets into costume. Once the contact lenses go in, I finish off the eye make-up and make sure everything is perfect before he goes to set. The last thing to go in are his false gums which are a dark purple colour. Rory has a very dry sense of humour. He is lovely to work with and good fun. And he brings The Creature to life!
We interviewed Robert Nairne, who played the creature vampire in season one last year and he had nothing but great things to say about you and Nick Dudman. He also talked about the long process of transmogrification that he had to endure with you. Penny Dreadful’s vampire is highly praised for bringing back “the scary vampire”. What’s your take on this?
When we saw the casting tape of Robert Nairne, we knew immediately he would be right for the part. His body type and the way he moved was just perfect for the Vampire. Robert is a sweet, nice and such a polite sort of guy that when he’s in full makeup and transforms into the scary Vampire, it’s hard to believe he’s the same person. We wet shaved his head each day he was in make-up. The seven piece face prosthetics were applied unpainted. The chest piece I pre-painted to save time. He has special Vampire pants which were also glued on and Vampire feet which Robert said were comfortable. I researched several types of products and discovered a durable airbrush make-up which for the most part lasted quite well on Robert. It had a slight sheen to it which looked great when lit on set.
Proteus and The Somnolent Women from season one were also very memorable. Could you talk more about them?
Proteus was our first character. With the consent of Alex Price, we cut his hair short and I shaved the T area on his head enabling the prosthetic to sit nicely. There seems to be a theme here with shaved bald heads! Alex was great to work with and such good fun. We were sad to see him go. With Penny Dreadful though, you never know who is going to come back! Nick Dudman worked with concept artists to come up with design of the Somnolent Women. They were realized by Enzo and his team in the makeup department.
The big surprise of season one’s finale is Ethan Chandler’s big reveal. Could you talk about working with Josh Hartnett and the application process of his Wolfman look and how hard was it to keep it a secret?
The code name for the Wolfman character was “Brian”. John Logan wanted the reveal to be kept a secret so the word ‘Werewolf’ or ‘Wolfman’ was never mentioned, it was always Brian – to this day I still associate that name with the character. Josh is very professional to work with and good fun. He brings in cool music for us to listen to. The original design was quite a lengthy process.
The forehead piece was much bigger with coarser hair. We refined the current sculpt and made the piece smaller, using human hair to match in with Josh’s own for a more human look. The ears and forehead piece I pre-paint prior to application. Once all the pieces are glued on I airbrush a light base onto the skin to match the piece. Enzo, the Chief Make-Up Artist, then loose lays false hair onto Josh’s face. I then finish off the eye make-up, lips and nails once the contact lenses are in. The general feeling that the adjustments made to season 2’s Wolfman are a good improvement.
Our current favorite work of yours on the show are the witches. Be it in their human form or in their naked, bald, scarred and branded supernatural form. Could you talk more about them and their unique supernatural looks?
Bald, naked, scarred and branded by the devil! These make-ups were certainly challenging. We wanted to design a make-up whereby the girls looked naked but also felt comfortable within that nudity. It was very important that the girls felt covered up and their modesty intact. The chest pieces were designed to cover their breasts but also had branding and scarring in the sculpt. Each witch had their own individual brands and scars. Olivia had more than twenty prosthetic pieces applied to her.
The process started by wrapping the hair tightly and close to their head before the bald cap application. The forehead piece went over the eyebrows into the eye sockets. We used to get all that done with the face and head brands before breakfast. Most days the witch applications would start at 2am or 3am. On one occasion, we started work at 1am. The whole process took about 7.5 hours including a breakfast break. The last part to go on was the crotch piece.
Finally finishing off with contact lenses and the eye make-up. My experience working on the Mystique team for X-Men: First Class stood me in good stead for the whole process of the witch make-ups.
We were very lucky with all our girls. They were just amazing. We couldn’t have wanted a better group of girls. They were so patient and tolerant during the applications. We tried to make it as fun as possible because without a shadow of a doubt the witch days were hard and long. We listened to music, had girly chats, and laughed a lot. It was a girl only team and Nick used to pop in now and again to make sure we were all okay and everything was fine.
In Verbis Diablo (Season 2 Episode 2), the show pushed a lot of boundaries and one of them is the taboo of child murder. The baby Evelyn Poole was holding looked very real that we had to look away when she started her ritual….what’s your take on this?
Hmmm yes I agree with you – that did push the boundaries. We all said we would go to hell for that scene!
The reveal of Vanessa’s doll version at the end of Verbis Diablo is literally the stuff of a lot of fans’ nightmares. It must be fun to witness the fans’ reactions to it…
That doll was very creepy but at the same time very beautiful. It held an incredible likeness to Eva Green!
Penny Dreadful closed out season 2 with an incredible, pulsating and heartbreaking cliffhanger. What was your favorite moment and episode from season 2?
There are so many moments that stood out for me. Two of the most memorable scenes are in The Season Finale (episode 10 “And They Were Enemies”). Under the railroad, the city of the homeless where The Creature asks Vanessa to go with him but Vanessa says “There is around me a shroud that only brings pain. I won’t allow you to suffer…” Then kisses him and leaves. He sits and the tears come.
Also the scene in Evelyn Poole’s Mansion, the enchantment room where Ethan/Werewolf spins having killed Evelyn then rages towards Vanessa and she does not flinch. There is a moment of recognition on her face when Ethan gazes into her eyes his eyes filled with newfound pain. He then turns and races out. Both those scenes were powerful and poignant.
For the fans, who would you say is the funniest cast member on the set?
Funniest cast member on set – in truth I don’t know! Sorry!
When you watch Penny Dreadful, do you watch as a critic (of your work) or as an audience?
The first time I watch an episode of Penny Dreadful I watch as a critic of my work. I never used to be like that actually. I hold Penny Dreadful so close to my heart. It means a lot to me that everything looks good. The second viewing, I tend to sit back and breathe a sigh of relief that everything looks great and then enjoy the episode.
Knowing how things work and were made behind the scenes, do you still get surprised, scared or amazed whenever you see special effects work on screen or are you already so desensitized by it considering that you’re constantly surrounded by gore (albeit not real)?
I do tend get surprised and amazed how things look and come together because with the edit, grading and music it brings things to life. Some scenes are far more scary once they are edited and cut to music. I’m not on set all the time so when I see an episode finished, it is always a pleasant surprise.
Penny Dreadful is shot on location and the hours are long. When it’s time to wind down, how does Sarita Allison relax?
I like to practice yoga in my spare time it’s good way for me to switch off and relax from work.
You along with Nick Dudman, Enzo Mastrantonio, and Stefano Ceccarelli won for Best Make-Up and Hair Design during the BAFTA TV Craft Awards this year. This is the first major win for your department. Was it something that you all expected?
It is wonderful to be nominated by your peers and then go on and win such an award. The next morning I had to pinch myself to realize that the previous night did actually happen. I was keeping an open mind to avoid disappointment.
You were also nominated with Nick Dudman and Barney Nikolic for Outstanding Prosthetic Make-Up for a Series, Limited Series, Movie or a Special at the recently concluded Primetime EMMY Awards and you attended the ceremony in Los Angeles. You looked stunning!
Thank you very much! It was an amazing achievement again to be nominated by one’s peers. Going to LA for the Emmys was very exciting and glamorous. The Creative Arts Ball after the ceremony was something out of a fairy tale book. I was absolutely thrilled to be there and it meant so much. We had an incredible time, a memory that will last.
Penny Dreadful fans are very passionate and you are one of the cast and crew members who are active on social media. What can you say about the fans and do you have any message to them
I am aware of a very strong Penny Dreadful fan base on Twitter. The fans are extremely complimentary about our work. Some of their responses have been huge and supportive. That means a tremendous amount. I am very very flattered when fans take the time to tweet me. I try to tweet back and make the time for the fans that have been in touch – I think that’s only fair and polite. The Penny Dreadful fans are great!
What advice would you give to aspiring artists who wants to work in the make-up, hair and prosthetic industry?
To be an excellent makeup artist, ensure you get a good foundation in training.
Research various make-up schools offering different types of courses. Visit the schools and ask tutors for advice as to what type of course is available. For example, there could be degree courses lasting two years or shorter more intense courses from six weeks duration. Arm yourself with how-to reference books and DVDs from professional make-up shops and above all, practice!
Penny Dreadful wrapped up a very successful season two, what’s in store for you and what did you do over the summer to recharge and relax?
Actually, I have been working throughout the break. I did quite a lot of work on the first block of the final season of Mr. Selfridge which was set in 1928. That’s such a lovely era to work in with the water waved hair, smokey eyes and red lips! I also worked on Huntsman out at Shepperton & Pinewood studios. That was very different again. There was quite a lot of hair work and ground in dirtying down to do. There was some prosthetic work and some silicone dummy painting too. Finally, I managed to take four weeks off to see some of my family in Toronto and I also went to Mexico for some beach fun and yoga! Now I am back in the thrill of things for Penny Dreadful season 3!
Now that you mentioned season 3, without spoiling anything to fans, what can we expect from the show on season 3?
Season 3… Well anything that the fans will expect then be prepared to expect the unexpected. John Logan as you know continually surprises us. It’s a wonderful season…Be prepared!