Los Angeles

From FX to Fine Art: The Evolution of Special Effects Artists in the Digital Age

"I Want You" by Chet Zar | Image from Chetzar.com

It began with a dime store trinket. One fall evening in 2007, Glendale's Brian Morishita was sitting at home, brainstorming ideas for October Shadows, a now-annual Halloween-themed art show. By that point, Morishita had been in the visual effects industry for over 10 years, having worked on makeup and costuming for movies such as "Hellboy" and the effects-based reality show, "Face Off." He had the skill-set for this particular project but lacked inspiration. Then he looked at a small, plastic toy on his desk: "I had these vampire fangs, you know, the kind that you put in your mouth," Morishita explained. "I thought, 'I'm going to make a large version of that.'"

A few prototype failures ensued -- "I used a urethane material that came out a gooey mess," says Morishita -- but he eventually produced a set of oversized fangs and, "for whatever reason, I just put them on my head and started doing this nodding motion, up and down," he recalled. His next thought: "if I put this strap around the top, I can make this a wearable head piece.'" Morishita made a pair of the fangs and took them to a costume party where he and a friend wore them around during the evening; they won for "best couple." Thus was born JAAAHWS...the giant vampire fangs you can wear on your head.

User submitted photo | Image from Jaaahws.com

Morishita is part of an informal clique of traditional visual effects specialists who've shifted their creative focus from movies into other realms, especially the art world. Part of that movement is self-generated, as the restless energies of 10, 15, 20-year effects veterans guide them in new directions. However, it's also the case that their specific industry -- pre-digital make-up and costuming -- has been in a steady spiral for years now, especially as computer-generated effects took over. (The irony is that now, it's the digital effects studios that are in freefall). If necessity is indeed the mother of invention, the changes in the effects industry has birthed many a new artist.

Morishita introduced me to his friend Kazuhiro Tsuji, a makeup specialist originally from Japan who came to Hollywood in the mid-1990s to work on the first "Men in Black." Tsuji went onto become one of the most acclaimed makeup artists in the industry, with credits ranging from "Planet of the Apes" to "Tropic Thunder" to last year's "Looper." However, despite his success, Tsuji feels, "I think 1980-90 were the best years for special effects makeup," suggesting that he came to Hollywood in time for the beginning of the end. For Tsuji, the industry became, "more [about] marketing rather than an artistic effort. Every time I worked really hard to make something amazing, in the end the movie comes out and looks horrible.  I started to lose interest." He wasn't the only one.

Chet Zar is also part of Tsuji and Morishita's circle of ex-effects vets. This native of San Pedro got into visual effects just a few years out of high school, in the mid 1980s, and went onto a prolific career with credits on "Darkman," "The Ring" and "X-Men: The Last Stand." For Zar, he and his peers knew things were about to change when a certain dinosaur movie stomped onto the landscape in 1993. "Everybody in effects, when Jurassic Park came out, were like 'oh shit, this is it.  It's over,'" Zar recalls.

Though that change didn't happen overnight, the gradual decline in the makeup effects industry coincided with Zar's growing dissatisfaction with Hollywood projects. On the one hand, he says, "I had a great time, it was super fun and I loved it," but he adds, "there's only so many times you can have a beautiful design watered down to the point of being a not-beautiful design and more times than not that would happen. I was just sick of the politics and the lack of creative vision." Instead, Zar went back to painting monsters.

"Post American Gothic" by Chet Zar | Image from Chetzar.com

Zar traces his interest in monster-making partially back to a childhood spent in the relative isolation of San Pedro. As he puts it, "I can imagine a TV show being about San Pedro where it was a 'weird little port town where strange things happen.'" Zar also thought of himself as "a really shy kid, kind of scared of the world" and drawing fantastical monsters became a way for him to externalize those fears. For many years, Zar channeled that energy into his effects work, especially as a conceptual illustrator and sculptor, but as his frustrations with conventional movie work mounted, he turned back to creating oil paintings of his monstrous visions: "I was basically painting at night and on the weekends, and working during the day."

Then, a few years ago, Zar was laid off. This is common in the effects business -- you work from project to project so being laid off is normal part of the cycle. On this particular day however, the newly unemployed Zar received an email: "within 15 minutes of getting laid off, this guy emailed me and said, 'man, I've got to have this painting of yours. I just got my tax return check. I've never bought a piece of art before but I have to have this painting.' It was a $3500 painting. That was the signal, it was just like, 'yeah, this is the right way to go.'"

Zar's aesthetic -- dark, sinister, grotesque -- shares things in common with other horror surrealists such as H.R. Giger and the late Zdzisław Beksiński but his distinctive signature tends to be what one might call "melancholy monsters." Even at their most fantastical, there's always something identifiably human in Zar's creations -- many of them smoke, for example -- and Zar explains, "they're really paintings of us. They're paintings of our inner selves, our fear and parts of us that are dying."

"One In the Oven" by Chet Zar | Image from Chetzar.com
 If Zar has aimed for the surreal, Tsuji's become known in the art world for his hyper-realism. It began with a birthday gift for his mentor, Dick Smith, a legend in the makeup community. "I wanted to use my skill and talent learned from him. I wanted to make something really stand out," Tsuji recalls. Using a series of reference photographs, Tsuji began to construct a 3D bust of Smith using foam and clay. As Tsuji jokes, Smith's "presence is larger than life so I wanted to create a big portrait" in tribute. The final bust - stunningly precise in its details - ended up being double the scale of Smith's actual head.

Cover from Make-Up Artist Magazine, Issue 38

The Smith bust was instant sensation, especially once it went on public display. That lead to a documentary team to make a short film about Tsuji -- Dream Out Loud -- and also landed him his more recent project: a hyper-real, oversized bust of Abraham Lincoln displayed at Santa Monica's Copro Gallery. Unlike Smith, who Tsuji knew and could literally sit with, Lincoln's bust was a trickier endeavor. He points out, "no one saw [Lincoln] in a color photograph and no one saw him in moving pictures so the challenging part is how to make the portrait look convincing in color." Whereas one of Tsuji's movie monsters could get away with imperfections in the design, Tsuji points out, "[everyone] knows what a human is supposed to look like so if it's not working, they will notice it. Even if they can't tell [what's off], they can tell 'this is fake.'"

"Abraham Lincoln" by Kazuhiro Tsuji | Image from Corpo Gallery.

Tsuji is already at work again with new busts, trying to finish them in time for this year's Art Basel show, to be held in Miami Beach. He's also collaborating with artist Paul McCarthy. Likewise, Chet Zar's staying busy too, with a new show currently at the Stranger Factory in New Mexico, a documentary about him at the Kickstarter stage, and an upcoming solo show, Ego Death, which Zar hopes to have ready by -- when else? -- October.

Meanwhile, like his friends, Brian Morishita has taken his effects skills and found new applications for them, having moved from costuming to couture by working with designer Greg Lauren on a line of military material-inspired shirts and jackets. He's still making JAAAHWS in his free time and plotting a possible expansion into, "hillbilly teeth and other teeth." Morishita's latest project is more personal: rebuilding a Honda CB 550 motorcycle from the year of his birth, 1977. "I'm finding that a lot of what I picked up over the years, working on effects and fabrication and in machining, I'm pouring into this bike," he says but adds: "it's a recent fascination, I don't even ride a motorcycle." Could rehabbing vintage bikes become Morishita's next project? He laughs, "if I get better at it, and people are like, 'Brian I want a bike just like yours. I want ten of them...I may consider it." 

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Top Image: "I Want You" by Chet Zar | Image from Chetzar.com.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Wang is an associate professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach.
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