By Gregg LaGambina
When you first step into the lobby of Tinsley Studio, you’ll be greeted by Brad Pitt and a dead woman in a wheelchair. “Brad Pitt” is strapped to a board with ropes. He is made mostly from silicone and is a life-size body cast of the actor – a prop from the feature film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Our dearly departed grandmother’s arm is surprisingly lifelike, despite its rubbery wobble whenever her chair is jostled by a passerby. “One of the seasons of American Horror Story, I think,” someone nearby offers, when asked where she came from. “Creepy, right?”
This squat, square concrete structure located in Sun Valley, California is what Santa’s Workshop might look like if Kris Kringle took more of a liking to Stephen King novels instead of fulfilling the gift requests of well-behaved kids. Prop tumbleweed rolls across the factory floor where artists and sculptors work on chest scars and alien fetuses. There’s the warehouse in back, where Tinsley Transfers – the offshoot company of the studio business – that makes and distributes temporary tattoos, fake blood, and theatrical makeup to retail outlets. It is filled with people busy packing boxes to restock shelves after Halloween season has come and gone. Back in the lobby, look up and you’ll gape into the eyes of a multi-armed, not-quite-octopus-creature that clings to the ceiling above the stairs leading to the office of the company’s owner.
Inside Christien Tinsley’s office, you’ll begin to understand why this place is both spooky and fun. The walls are lined with graphic design books and coffee-table tomes devoted to anatomy, tattoos, and Mexican wrestling. He even has his own secret room where he goes to think and create and hide from the rest of his staff. He gestures somewhere toward a corner where a door is hiding behind a stack of boxes filled with prosthetics and makeup. “I go in there to think,” he says.
Tinsley is a surprisingly affable man, considering his clear affinity for the macabre. When CreativeFuture recently visited with him to talk about his career as a special effects makeup artist, Tinsley cracked jokes and was generous with his time. He settled in for over an hour, pulled no punches, and shared stories of both triumph and frustration and the lessons he believes anyone can learn from enduring both.
Gregg LaGambina: You are the owner of Tinsley Studio, but your company is the culmination of years working as a self-taught special effects makeup artist who took all sorts of odd jobs to get yourself to this point. Can we start by talking about how you became interested in effects makeup to begin with and then walk us through some of the journey to owning your own effects studio?
Christien Tinsley: Sure, absolutely. Like a lot of kids, especially those of us who didn’t grow up in California – I grew up in a little town south of Seattle, Washington – when you’re not born into it, when you don’t know anybody who is involved in the film business, and when you are thousands of miles away, working on movies is definitely a fantasy. It was a childhood dream, is the best I way I can put it. I was about 7 or 8 years old when it first hit me that I wanted to work in film.
GL: As a makeup artist?
CT: For makeup and makeup effects, specifically? Not so much. But, then again, my understanding of filmmaking at that time was that four people and a couple of actors would just get together and make a movie [laughs]. I’m not sure if I even recognized the difference between actors and the people who made the films. I just thought there was someone around saying, “You do this, now you do that!” I thought it was some small group of people that just did everything.
Because, at that age, you don’t know that there’s a business, that there are profits, that there are departments, skill sets, or anything else. So, growing up, or at least at the age when movies first started to interest me – American Werewolf in London, The Thing, Star Wars – all of these movies were huge influences. And, again, the fantasy was, “I want to make movies.” It wasn’t with any sort of defined role in making them. However, over the next few years, I found myself gravitating toward the world of makeup effects, even unknowingly.
It was just a thing that was interesting to me. When I read articles about how they did things, very few articles interested me unless it had the word “latex” in it.
GL: What kind of magazines were you reading at that age?
CT: [Laughs] Ones that talked about making monsters!
GL: Besides the films you listed as early influences, why do you think this part of filmmaking was the most interesting to you?
CT: I’m not exactly sure. But, at a very young age, my interests were just leading me down this road of doing makeup and I just continued down that path. It was artistic, it was fun, it was creative, and – in some ways – it was shocking. You’d make something and your friends would be like, “Whoa! That’s cool.” Everybody kind of dug it because it had this immediate gratification. You could see it. It didn’t have to be something that took time to edit and put together.
I’m not going to tell you a sad story, but we literally had no money in my family. And materials aren’t cheap, you know? I would go mow lawns when I was 11 just to make two or three dollars and I would hand that over to my dad and I would say, “Hey, on your way to wherever you’re going today, could you run by this store? I hear they have these cream sticks and they’re supposed to be great for painting latex.” And, of course, they weren’t and they were crappy and I’d waste my money on experimenting. But, in a nutshell, I was just a kid who wanted to make movies.
GL: Did you stay in Washington and go to art school?
CT: As I got older, with more life experience, I realized that Hollywood was a different kind of place and eventually I’d have to go there, but how? People were looking forward to what I was going to study in college, what kind of degree am I going to get, how is that going to influence what I become when I’m older? But I kept thinking to myself, “How am I going to get out of school fast enough to get a job to buy materials to do my art? Because I can’t go to school for this.”
At the time, there really weren’t any schools. And I certainly wasn’t about to go spend $30,000 on going to one. I didn’t have that kind of money. So, I put all of my focus into graduating high school as early as I could, working a full-time job, and spending all of my money on materials so that I could put a portfolio together. And that’s what I did until I was 20 or 21 years old and got my first job in Los Angeles. As they say, the rest is history.
GL: Did your parent’s support your move to Los Angeles and your creative pursuits or did they worry that you were never going to have a “real” job?
CT: I grew up with my father. My mother wasn’t dead; she just wasn’t in the picture. As I mentioned before, there really was no money. He was a social worker, which doesn’t pay anything, and even that was just for a few years until he got laid off. Anyway, the point is, we didn’t really have much. He didn’t really have a place to be unsupportive. It wasn’t like he was coming from this place like, “I’m a doctor and you’re going to do what your family has always done and you’re going to carry on the torch of going to college.” Well, no.
However, as an adult, having conversations with my father – and being a father myself – he would tell me, “I cried myself to sleep thinking about the fact that my son is going to chase this dream of working in Hollywood.” He would worry about how disappointed I would be as a young man, to see that dream not come to fruition. So, was he supportive? Yes. Did he think it was ever going to happen? No.
GL: What was your first job in Los Angeles?
CT: That first job was working for an artist by the name of Screaming Mad George. Most people don’t know who he is, but if you are my age or older, you know who he is – especially in this business. He was this very crazy Japanese artist who worked with Rick Baker and Steve Johnson – guys of that caliber. He started his own shop. He always did stuff that was very surreal in fashion.
My first job with him was working on this music video for a band called Bush. That was great. I slept on the couch in his office because I was still living up north. I drove down. I had no place to live, no place to stay. I got the phone call the night before, because he thought I just lived here [in Los Angeles] already. I just sent my résumé out and I got this phone call: “Hey, can you start tomorrow at 7am?” And I was like, “Yes!” So I drove all night and he had me sculpting the next day. At the time, I didn’t think my best attribute was as a sculptor.
GL: What was your best attribute?
CT: Well, you know, I didn’t even have a gauge on what was good or bad. I just assumed from the stories and the people that I had met and those who I was talking to on the phone long-distance, that more than likely, I would start out making molds or doing grunt work on that level.
Sculpting and painting are the real positions people want to have, because they tend to be the most creative. You’re building the actual characters for the show, so, in some way, those jobs have this higher value. You just don’t assume that when you start out in this business you will start as a sculptor. Everyone tells you to expect to sweep floors first. So that was kind of shocking to me, to get to work in sculpting right from the start.
GL: You’ve worked on such a wide variety of productions. It’s difficult to know where to start. What are some of the most memorable films or shows that you’ve worked on?
CT: The first project is always memorable because, well, it was my first project. It was that feeling of, “Wow, if I never work in L.A. again, I’ve done it! I’ve succeeded!” It was that kind of a feeling. Now, I look back and I go, “I don’t even know if I would take that job.” I’m sure it paid like crap [laughs].
But after I had worked on the Bush video, I realized that everything that I had done on my own up to that point – all of the reading and self-teaching – it actually prepared me better than I had ever imagined. I thought I was going to get into the business and be like, “Oh, so this is how you do it! I’ve been doing it all wrong! Now I am working with all the people I read about and they’re going to tell me how to really do this!”
Granted, there is a massive learning curve and these people do come with a wealth of information. But I didn’t actually realize that all of those years when I was doing what I described to you earlier, I was actually bringing things to the table that nobody else knew how to do in this business. Early on, I was put in charge of research and development – creating materials and processes and skins and doing all kinds of artistic things that not too many people get to do when they’re just starting out.
During this time, I also studied how the business worked. I was like a sponge: What’s the hierarchy? Who does what? How do people get to be on set? How do you get into those positions? I didn’t know anything about unions before I got into this business. So I had to learn about all of that. I studied that, which allowed me, after only two years, to actually get into the union. That was when I was working on a project. Again, that was another identifying or memorable moment.
After being in the union, I worked on How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) with Rick Baker, which was a huge milestone. And, again, it was one of those things, here I am with 40 makeup artists, the best in the business, quite literally – Rick Baker, Bill Corso, Ve Neill, Kevin Haney – all of these amazing artists. I worked with all of those people.
GL: What was it like to find yourself working alongside all of these makeup artists you had read about in magazines as a kid?
CT: I just did the best job I could possibly do, while also learning from these legendary artists. I was fortunate enough to get a principal character on The Grinch. We had three hours to do a principal character. If you were doing a background character, you had an hour-and-a-half. What happened was, I had gotten my principal character down to where I could do that job in 45 minutes. Now, most of the makeup artists I was working with, they had been doing this for years. They were kind of like, “I come in, I do my job, I sit around, I wait all day, and then I do touchups.”
But remember, this was my first union job and I’m working with Rick Baker. I’m as hungry as they come. I would get my makeup done and put it down and I would walk up to the makeup coordinator and say, “Do you have anybody else I can do?” They were like, “Oh, you want to do more?” I was doing five or six makeups every single day on that film. On the days that my principal actor didn’t come in, I would say, “Can I come in and do background?” Then, I would do another four or five makeups on those days. I was just cranking them out because I was like, “Oh my God, you’re actually paying me to do this? This is fantastic!” I was learning so much and people were learning from me because I was doing things differently.
Then, Rick Baker himself asked me to apply his makeup. He was doing a cameo. You have one Academy Award-winning makeup artist sitting in a room with the biggest Academy Award winning artist, and he comes up to me and asks me to put his makeup on? As a makeup artist, that’s kind of… well, it’s amazing, right? That was huge.
GL: Clearly, your work ethic – and your skill set – was being noticed by someone.
CT: One of the other makeup artists who was working on that project – who I didn’t really get to know too well back then, but is now a very good friend – saw the work I was doing. He was a department head and head makeup artist for his own shows. He’s done Bruce Willis’ makeup for over 20 years, for example. He gives me this call out of the blue, when The Grinch was over, and he says, “Hey, I remember you from The Grinch. I have this little thing that I’m doing. Can you come help me out?”
I went and helped him out and I was introduced to a woman named Julie Hewett. I talked to her for about three or four hours. We seem to have gotten along and about two weeks later, she calls me and says, “I had such a great conversation with you a couple of weeks ago and you seem like the type of person that might want to work on this film I’m doing called Pearl Harbor. Do you want to come work with me?”
So, that was my introduction to beauty makeup and expanding into that realm. She taught me so much. She’s one of the leading beauty makeup artists in this business. If you look at her résumé, it’s brilliant. That success led me into doing films like Ocean’s Eleven, which is like, how could you not love doing that film? One of the best experiences ever. Pearl Harbor taught me so much. That was when my company was born – from that film and the techniques that I developed on that film.
GL: Out of all the films in your credits, that’s an interesting one to have had such an impact on your career. You don’t really think about makeup effects when you think about that movie.
CT: Right, you don’t, but that was six months out of my life. That was a long process. It was one of my first major films that didn’t have everything to do with prosthetics. Like I said, it was primarily a beauty makeup job for me. I mean, I did Jennifer Garner’s makeup. That was about a year-and-a-half before she became “Jennifer Garner – the big actress,” but I was doing her makeup.
I have this wonderful birthday card from all the women from that film – Jennifer Garner, Sarah Rue, Kate Beckinsale, Jaime King – they all signed it and put lipstick kisses on it. And that goes in my archives [laughs]. I’m keeping that! That was a great experience.
After that, I did The Passion of the Christ, which was obviously a huge turning point, as far as my career goes. The process that I developed for the prosthetics on that film was nominated for an Academy Award in technical achievement. It’s gone on to become a process that’s used in the industry.
GL: It was recently announced that HBO is renewing Westworld for a second season. That must be good news for you.
CT: Well, look, I don’t take anything for granted anymore. It did get renewed and I’m completely thrilled. I spoke to Jonah [co-creator and director Jonathan Nolan] a couple of months ago and they were in the writing room already, beginning the second season. This renewal is good in the sense that the show is a success, they continued writing, and it means they’re also willing to invest more money into the concept. But I never pretend to think that I’m going to get the call back and that comes from obvious reasons, like, say, all of the times when I haven’t gotten the call back! [Laughs] I had a great time doing Westworld and working with Jonah to bring that show to life.
G: How much has the “special effects” business changed over the years as new technologies have emerged? We’ve all read about budgets getting cut and productions having to make more with less – have things gotten better or worse from your perspective?
CT: You know what? It’s gotten so much worse. I attribute it to quite a few different reasons, but I’ll give you one example. Can I just dissect one brief concept here?
CT: For example, I have to make a fake nose that goes on the middle of an actor’s face. Now this is probably one of the hardest things that you can do because it’s in the middle of an actor’s face. A nose can change the way somebody looks so much by the smallest varying degree. It’s a challenging concept to pull off successfully. If you go to somebody like Rick Baker, for example, and you say, “Hey, Rick. We need to make a nose.” Rick will go, “I need six months. I need 15 makeup tests. And, you’re going to pay me $1.2 million to make that fake nose.” There’s a reason why Rick Baker doesn’t get called to make fake noses.
GL: Was it the part about the $1.2 million?
CT: [Laughs] It’s the $1.2 million – which isn’t the exact figure, I’m just using approximate amounts for this to illustrate my point – and it’s the six months and everything else. So, what they do is they say, “Well, that’s never going to work.” Then, they start calling people like me and half-a-dozen other companies at my level and they go, “What’s it going to take to make this fake nose?” And, I go, “I don’t have seven Academy Awards, so I don’t need to charge $1.2 million. I don’t have the same overhead. Blah, blah, blah. However, to do it successfully, I need three-and-a-half months. And I need $150,000.”
GL: And it will be just as good as Rick Baker’s.
CT: And it will be just as good as Rick Baker’s! But then they go, “It’s just a damn nose!” So, they go to the next level down and they probably find someone that’s willing to make it and they’re probably going to do it out of their garage and it will be a decent artist, they’ll pay $10,000, and the person will squeak it out in four weeks because they’ve got to start shooting! And it didn’t even occur to the producers that the main actor is going to have to have a fake nose and we start shooting in five weeks. They never even thought about looking into it six months in advance to really make sure they get the best work.
GL: Why do you think this happens?
CT: You can attribute this to any number of things – they didn’t get greenlit, they weren’t funded in time, they couldn’t sign the actor they wanted because they weren’t funded, the actor had scheduling issues they were still working out up until the last minute. No one is willing to commit anymore – is what it comes down to.
So when they finally do make a commitment, they have less time, which ultimately means we have less time probably because we have less money and then it becomes, “We don’t want to pay that much money for a damn rubber nose. Are you kidding me? That’s ridiculous!” Not realizing that I’m not building a rubber nose, I’m building a character. How much is that character worth to your film? Right?
You can look at it from two different perspectives. Yes, it’s a piece of rubber and it’s not worth much. But to do it correctly and to have it be the main character of your film, guess what? It’s worth everything! Every other dollar you spend on the film, the lighting, the grips, the electricians, the catering – they all mean nothing if your actor looks like he’s wearing a bad rubber nose.
So, here’s what happens. They pick the cheap one. The cheap guy goes on set and he puts it on and it doesn’t look perfect. Why? Because he’s not the guy who gets paid a lot of money to do this. He’s not that great. He’s good, just not great. And there is a difference. Then they go, “All right, we’re just going to have to fix this in post-production.” Then they end up spending $20,000, as opposed to the $10,000 for the rubber nose, in post to fix it.
GL: I see where this is going. Pretty soon, they will have to spend as much to fix it as they would have if they just had hired you in the first place.
CT: We’re getting closer, right? And it keeps adding and adding and adding up. This is what happens, and this is the really screwed up part. Those producers take that experience – not ever taking responsibility or accountability for how they got themselves there – but now they go on to their next project.
I’ve heard this a billion times. Now they’ll go, “We need this prosthetic, we’re looking for this fake nose, and one time we spent all this money on one and we ended up having to fix it in post anyway, so I’ve got five grand to spend on this nose.” They end up going even lower and with less time, not expecting good results because they think that you can’t get good results! Why? “We already spent $10,000 on a nose! It must have been good! And it wasn’t!” Do you see how this might be a problem? So, those are the battles, man.
GL: There’s nothing worse than a nose that stinks.
CT: [Laughs] Exactly!