To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.
Kenneth Calhoun is a special effects makeup artist and technician at Legacy Effects, with a portfolio of work on films including The Shape of Water, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Captain America: Civil War, Jurassic World and Terminator Genisys.
CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Kenneth?
KENNETH CALHOUN: When I was a kid, my mom was into horror movies. Every other weekend we would go to the video store and she would buy me a horror movie from her childhood, usually something with a creature. I watched a lot of Ray Harryhausen and giant monster B-movies, and from as far back as I can remember I was always obsessed with dinosaurs, monsters and creatures.
That obsession followed throughout my childhood. I was always drawing vampires, ghosts and creatures in my notebooks. When I was 14, my family took a trip to California and we went to Universal Studios. At the time they had a show called ‘Creature Factory’ all about the special effects in their movies. That was the lightbulb – I realized that Universal had been the ones working on a lot of those movies I had seen as a kid. I also realized that making monsters was a career option and quickly became more familiar with the men and women who had worked on these films.
After that trip, I started playing with latex and cotton and anything I could find around the house. I loved makeup and special effects, and would watch anything I could to find out more about how everything was done. I wasn’t really sure about how to get into the effects industry – being in Seattle, all I knew was eventually I would need to move to Hollywood. I stayed in school and went to college for business, saving up for my move to California. In 2011, I entered a local makeup competition at a convention called ‘Crypticon Seattle.’ During the competition, while I was working on the makeup, I ended up getting three job offers to do makeup from convention attendees. I won the competition, which gave me an opportunity to intern with a local makeup artist Doug Hudson.
I worked on a lot of short films and low budget movies in Seattle before finally being able to move to L.A. Shortly after my move, I met up with an artist named Christina Kortum, who recommended me to Brian Sipe. Brian gave me my first big break. I was running prosthetic transfers for his ‘Got Flesh!?!’ line while he was working at Legacy Effects. At the time, Brian was leading Terminator Genisys and he thought I would be a great choice to help run the transfers for the film. I was hired at Legacy and that was where everything gained momentum.
Since starting at Legacy I have worked on commercials, television and movies. I’ve gotten the opportunity to go to set and apply makeups, paint, do hair, sculpt, mold and run appliances of many different types. I was fortunate to lead a department for the character Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I’m very appreciative of all of the opportunities I have gotten so far, and I continue to strive to be a better artist and look forward to where my skills, hard work and dedication will take me.
CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?
KENNETH CALHOUN: Working on movie franchises and licenses that I am a fan of! Working on Jurassic World was a big deal for me, because Jurassic Park was one of my favorite movies as a kid. Seeing my name in the Terminator Genisys credits, and knowing I got to help work on Spiderman for Captain America: Civil War, mean so much to me because these franchises are part of who I am and what shaped my interests.
Another thing is getting to meet and work with the artists who worked on those early films. Some of those artists who were huge influences on me are now some of my closest friends and mentors. I never imagined the men and women that used to inspire me as a young artist in Seattle would be hanging out with me! I really can’t help but smile.
CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?
KENNETH CALHOUN: SLC Punk! and The Iron Giant. Though in all honesty it doesn’t take much for me to cry in a movie.
CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?
KENNETH CALHOUN: Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, no question. I was asked to figure out how to turn the original silicone pieces into transfers while also resculpting the designs a bit. The lead artist was out of town, so I was basically on my own to figure out how to redesign this makeup. This was the first big character I was involved with so I was nervous as can be, and being a fan of the first movie and David White’s work doubled that feeling. After some trial and error the sculptures were finished, but then the second hard part began – running my first department. I was 24 and had never led a department, much less for a blockbuster movie. I am so grateful for all the responsibility I was given because I gained a lot of confidence during that movie. My department ran smoothly and my team was great – we all worked so hard. I really didn’t know what my true potential was until I had to figure out so much for such a complicated character.
CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?
KENNETH CALHOUN: Making female genitalia for The Human Centipede 3. They had to be edible, but we some had issues with the molds so I had to make them by hand because it was faster. It was a really fun experience getting the chance to work on the movie, but it was definitely the strangest first day on the job I’ve had!
CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?
KENNETH CALHOUN: While I haven’t been in the industry that long, I have loved the resurgence of audiences being aware and appreciative of practical effects. When I started, most movies were moving towards digital effects, and I would constantly see articles and discussions over whether or not practical effects were dead. With movies like the recent ‘Star Wars’ films, Wonder, and television shows like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story openly talking abut their use of practical makeup, there has been such an impact on the demand for makeup artists in our industry. I can recall low-budget movies deciding to go digital with all of their effects – even basic cuts and scrapes – and now I see low budget movies wanting puppets and in-camera effects. I really have hope that since many movies are using a balance of digital and practical we will see this wonderful harmony continue.
CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?
KENNETH CALHOUN: I would love to see more monsters and creatures. As an artist, I like seeing beautifully executed old-age and character makeups, but in my heart I always have a soft spot for monster movies. I’m hoping The Shape of Water helps kick off the monster/creature genre again because as a fan I was so happy to see a practical man-in-a-suit creature utilizing modern technology and digital capabilities. Having an underwater-capable suit using silicones – but also having digital augmentation and an amazing suit actor – really created a beautiful and stunning creature performance that was so refreshing to see after the long span of digital creatures that have starred in movies.
CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?
KENNETH CALHOUN: Know your history and practice constantly. Know who John Chambers and William Tuttle are. You always have to look back and respect the greats and at the same time continue to practice and push the limits of what you can do. Make something innovative. Make an improved old-age makeup. Don’t just copy tutorials – learn from them and then change them and make something new. This is a very demanding business and you constantly have to be creating something audiences haven’t seen before. Utilize new methods and technologies, and develop more new ones because our industry will keep moving whether or not you keep up with it.
CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?
KENNETH CALHOUN: Return of the Living Dead – if you want to know what I’m all about, watch that movie. Punk rock fashion, 80’s makeup effects, killer soundtrack. Can’t get any cooler than that! Tarman is one of my all time favorite effects, and the skeletal zombie design is amazing! The first time you see tarman in the basement is incredible. I actually made this movie required viewing for everyone on my Drax transfer team.
Creature from the Black Lagoon is one of my favorite movies. Milicent Patrick’s design was so ahead of its time and the beautiful sculpture done by Chris Mueller is perfection, in my opinion. I think that it is the greatest monster/creature of all time and can’t be topped.
Demon Knight would be the final pick. Todd Masters’ work is incredible in that movie. I love the demons, all punked out with dreadlocks and piercings. My favorite scene is when Billy Zane says, “The property is hereby condemned!” He cuts his hand and drips blood into the ground, then the demons begin to grow where the blood had fallen and they’re covered ultraslime. Amazing creature design, and such a fun scene.
CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?
KENNETH CALHOUN: I’ve never really been into eating popcorn at the theatre, but my girlfriend and I have really been enjoying big soft pretzels. So, a soft pretzel and a soda.
CINEFEX: Kenneth, thanks for your time!