How Would You Like It, a Little More Off the Top?

Genevieve Garner carefully examines a gaping gash in the head before her. Her professional demeanor initiates calm amid the chaos on set. Clearly, the sight of gore doesn’t faze her, and she efficiently gets to work. Instead of cleaning or closing the wound, however, Garner makes sure that its mangled contours look fresh and will photograph well. She enjoys messing with people’s heads—whether to highlight the way a chainsaw has rearranged a scalp or sculpting hair for a beauty shot. Creating beauty or the beast is all in a day’s work for this makeup and special effects artist.

That bloody head wound proudly on display in The Open Door turned out to be the most controversial of the film’s many special effects. The pivotal question: Should the audience see the character’s brain, and, if so, just how much? Garner casually recalls the discussion:

“The character had been beaten over the head with a hammer… We first talked about what we wanted to see and what we wanted to use as brains. Once we decided on the brain, we then had to decide how to build the effect. Because we had decided to build brains out of clay, we had to build a base so that we could place the piece on the actor’s head.

We first melted some plastic, and while it cooled, we formed it to the actor’s head—this was the base. We then formed pieces of clay to look like brains, colored them, and attached them to the base. Once the scene was [ready to be filmed], we attached the piece to the actor’s head. We left holes in the piece so that we could pull some of the actor’s real hair through it and make [the wound] look more indented in his head. Once on set, we dressed it with blood and filmed the scene.”

With a combination of ghoulishness and glee, Garner admits that this is “one of my favorite makeup effects yet!” because “we had to actually build a piece instead of building gelatin and silicone onto the actor’s skin. One of my other favorite effects from the movie was the burnt body. It took my assistant and me three hours to apply the makeup to the actor’s entire head and neck, along with parts of his back, hands, and arms.”

Far from being “horrified” by her job, Garner loves what she does and wouldn’t change a thing about her profession. Horror film The Open Door gave Garner her first taste of responsibility both for special effects and beauty makeup. Although Garner found leading a two-person team was daunting, this independent film effectively introduced her to the demands of the movie industry. Having the film win Best Makeup at the 2009 Big Bear Horror Film festival (among other film festival awards) didn’t hurt her career, either.

A large main cast of eight featured throughout the film—with most characters dying before the final scene—required Garner to create “a ton of different looks,” including “a regular makeup for them throughout the feature and then the effects for each of their death scenes. Most death scenes were very complicated, because our director was a stunt man. We had decaying flesh, brains, slit throats and wrists, possessed characters, [and] burnt bodies.”

Variety certainly plays a role in a film, and Garner may be required to develop several specific looks for different characters (or body parts) during the course of a story. “The most challenging [aspect of] creating a specific look for a character is re-creating that look over the period of production. We take a lot of continuity photos to make sure we re-create [exactly] the makeup, hair, scars, [and] bruises.”

Garner makes the process sound easy, but the art of makeup requires a great deal of finesse. If a character is hit in the face during a fight, for example, Garner must design a realistic bruise that meets the director’s vision of the character in the after-fight scene. She also must know how lighting will affect the color and texture of the makeup so that the bruise looks real on camera. Between takes, she may have to touch up the makeup so that the character’s appearance remains consistent, no matter how many times the director films that scene.

To complicate matters, a scene filmed over multiple days means that the makeup will have to be re-applied each day when the actor reports to the set. Garner’s photographs of the way the actor looked when the “bruise” was initially applied become the model she must reproduce. Multiplying that task for an entire cast, plus the number of changes a single character might undergo as the story is told, suggests the realistic workload for this makeup artist.

Collaboration is an important part of developing the right hairstyle and makeup for each character in each scene. Garner loves the opportunity “to work with other creative people on a daily basis. It is very inspiring when I can sit down with someone and give them an idea. Then we can just go back and forth trying to make that idea better.” The results of that collaboration can be seen at Garner’s website.

Being on a film or television set also has its fannish perks. Photos on Garner’s website show her posed with, among others, Drew Carey (The Drew Carey Show, The Price is Right), Greg Grunberg (Heroes), Snoop Dogg, and Zachary Levi, perhaps best known as Chuck. When I asked about her photo with Levi, Garner fondly recalled working with him “on a weekly show called What’s Trending. We are live every Tuesday at ten AM Pacific Standard Time. I have been truly blessed to work on this show. One of my best friends is the makeup artist, I am the hairstylist on the show, and her husband is our director. Our entire crew has become a family, and that is the way I love to work!” Running her fingers through Levi’s locks does not seem like a bad job to have.

Her tweets, however, illustrate the flip side of working with the famous. “Home after another 14-hour day on set,” she recently reported. Only a few days into her new project, the web series Sister of No Mercy, Garner seems fully immersed in her work on set. “We just filmed our pilot episode and hope it will premiere at Channel 101. It is basically about a nun whose sister is kidnapped and sold to demons. She goes around looking for the people who did this to her [sister].” Perhaps Garner has been around horror films too long. She sums up Sister of No Mercy as “kind of a comedy.”

Although the hours can be brutal, she enjoys learning new makeup techniques with each job. “I never stop learning new tips and tricks of my trade. Working with new artists is always great because we all have different techniques.“

One creative professional whose career inspires Garner is the late Stan Winston, the legendary visual effects and makeup artist best known for his work on Jurassic Park, Aliens, Iron Man, and Avatar. Garner “had the pleasure to meet him a few months before he died, and he told me to never let the child inside of you die.” She recalls he once said during an interview “that he was a twelve-year-old at heart.” Lamenting that many people forget their childhood dreams and aspirations when they grow up, she vows “never to lose my inner child.” She hopes to collaborate with professionals like Winston to keep that inner child alive and gain further inspiration for her designs.

Yet another benefit of her work on film sets is traveling, “not just outside of Los Angeles, which will always be amazing, but even within my own city. I am always finding new places to explore and enjoy everything within California that I wouldn’t see on a normal basis.” Given that Garner often works on horror films, her “normal” work locations are more akin to Bedlam than Beverly Hills.

One favorite location is Linda Vista Hospital in Los Angeles, where she has been on set for several projects. Garner likes knowing the history of film locations and explains why this hospital has the proper ambiance for the often creepy movies she helps make. “It was built back in the ‘20s for railroad workers and was abandoned in the ‘90s. It is used only for filming now, but [crews] can still find some old patient files in the halls, some even from the ‘20s and ‘30s.”

Another frightening favorite is “Fred C. Nelles in Whittier. It was an all-boys correctional facility built back in the 1890s and was also abandoned. When we filmed Hello Herman there, I felt like I was in the middle of I am Legend because the entire grounds is overgrown. Both [locations] are said to be haunted, and it is always exciting to explore these facilities.” Despite the lure of these sites’ fear factor, Garner has nothing against less haunting locales, adding, “Of course, I love filming in big, beautiful houses.”

Garner’s future in the film and television industry seems right on track. Her next objective is to become a member of Local 706, the makeup union for film and television, but a potential backup plan sounds equally exciting—to be “a personal artist for a celebrity [or two] and have them take me on all of their adventures around the world!” Wherever her career takes her, Genevieve Garner knows how to put on a happy face and enjoy the journey.