iHorror Exclusive Interview: Makeup Effects Master Bart Mixon

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Jam packed with fan-favorite films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Killer Klowns From Outer Space, Stephen King’s It and House of 1000 Corpses, Bart J. Mixon’s lengthy IMDb resume reads like a listing of some of the best horror movies of all time.  Mixon has done it all in the world of makeup effects, and whether you know his name or not, I can 100% guarantee that you’ve seen his work on screens both big and small, and been blown away by it.

As a huge fan and supporter of practical effects, I was absolutely ecstatic to have the chance to chat with Bart, who has worked on some of my personal favorites movies, both inside and outside of the horror genre. Mixon was incredibly candid and open, speaking with me at length about everything from his work on the Nightmare on Elm Street films (both the originals and remake) to computer generated imagery, and how the shift from practical to CGI has changed the landscape of the horror genre, and impacted him as an artist.

This one’s for you, fellow practical effects aficionados. Enjoy!

Bart Mixon

– Let’s start at the beginning, with a generic little getting to know you question. What was it that made you want to spend your life turning your fellow humans into hideous and frightening monsters?

I got into monsters and comic books at about the same age, the early 1960’s when I was four or five years old. I had issues of Famous Monsters, bought Spider-Man #6 off the rack, and remember seeing KING KONG and CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF at that age.  We had a second run movie theater a block from my house, so my twin brother, Bret, and I would spend lots of time there watching Harryhausen movies, ToHo films, Beach movies, etc.

I guess at first I wanted to either be a comic book artist, a stop motion animator, or a make-up effects artist.  Movies like THE SEVEN FACES OF DR. LAO and PLANET OF THE APES certainly made an impression on me and started steering me in that direction.  I joined a local comic book club in Houston in 1970 and a member there knew some very basic info about make-up, crude life casting methods, slip latex casting, etc. – but it was enough to get me started.  Around this time Famous Monsters ran an article on Rick Baker.  One of the things that stuck with me, other than how much better his work was than most of the other things I was seeing at that time, was how YOUNG he was – only 8 years older than myself.  Before this I assumed make-up effects was an “old man’s” game, since all the photos I had seen were of guys like John Chambers in his smock and tie, but here was a kid doing work on par with the old guys.  It made it seem obtainable for someone my age.  Of course, I still had the obstacle of living in Houston to overcome.

In the early ’70’s I made super 8 mm movies like everyone else did.  They would highlight make-up effects, stop motion, and other crude visual effects.  I don’t want to say I gravitated towards make-up effects because it was “easier” but perhaps it was less complicated than stop motion.  I did not need all the special equipment that one needs for stop motion work.  The sculpting, mold making, casting parts were about the same – and with make-up effects you can apply it and get an instant reaction.  I don’t think I would have had the patience for stop-motion work, either.  I did meet pro animators like Jim Danforth and Ernie Farino, but at a Houston convention in 1977 I met Rick Baker and that pretty much closed the deal.  That was what I wanted to do.

– Can you give us a little rundown of your process, when it comes to creating effects for movies? Let’s say you get handed a script, and you’re hired to tackle the effects. What’s the first step?

In a lot of respects, that’s the toughest part of the job – just finding a project and getting them to let you bid on it.

The first step is to read the script and do a breakdown.  I developed a format that worked for me, and I was sort of surprised when I started working at other shops that they did not have a standard way of doing this in Hollywood.  I was Rick Baker’s shop foreman on GREMLINS TWO and oversaw the script breakdown, and remember Rick commenting that he had never had one with such detail.  I basically just list the page and scene number where an effect happens with a description of that effect or make-up – what ever information I need to know when I am bidding out the effect.  I group them by character so I know all the things that is to happen to that character or creature. This breakdown is submitted to the production office to see if I have missed anything or included something that they did not want.  Once it’s amended and I get some input from the production then I can go about working up a bid.  To do that, I chart out all the steps from life cast to application, plotting how many man days for each step, and total them up.  I then estimate materials, overhead, etc.  Total it all up and that’s the bid.

In the past I would also do design work to help visualize the make-up or character if it was something like Pennywise from IT.  These days it seems most productions hire a designer long before the effects company is hired so you have to figure out how to make their designs work.  If you are lucky, the designer is someone who knows something about make-up effects and has not designed something that’s impractical to accomplish.  The aliens that my shop, ME-FX, created for MEN IN BLACK on a sub-contract from Rick Baker, were designed by Rick’s team, but we had to adjust some of their dimensions once we had the actors cast.  It was nothing drastic, but it did change the look a little, but at least someone like Rick understands these reasons.  Same thing with the Thing make-up I applied that Spectral Motion created for FANTASTIC FOUR – the original design from Fox was too slim and had to be bulked up to fit on Michael Chiklis.  If you are lucky you get a few tests to work out the bugs, on some of my early shows the first day of shooting was the test. On a big show like MIB 3 we did months of tests.  Depends on the show, budget, schedule, etc.

Bart Mixon

– The first big time horror film you worked on was A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, where you helped bring to life the incredible sequence where Freddy tears out of Jesse’s body. I remember reading that you were somewhat disappointed by the finished film, and that you effects guys were pushing for more effects heavy stuff like that, which the studio wasn’t into. Can you remember any particular effects sequences you wanted to execute for that film?

I worked for Mark Shostrom on ELM ST 2, and had done two other films with him before that, one being THE SUPERNATURALS that had some nice zombies in it.  I really liked the first ELM ST but as you point out, was not too thrilled with how PART TWO turned out.  The work, both ours and Kevin Yagher’s, I thought was great, just the movie, well not so much…

I don’t think there were any specific effects that we wanted to do, other than trying to use some visual effects with our make-up effects.  If Jesse had been shot against either a blue screen or a front projection screen it could have gotten him off the wall and out into the room a bit, making it a little less obvious how Freddy was coming out of his body.  That sort of thing.

– You also worked on the effects crew for Dream Master. What did you contribute to that one?

I was on Steve Johnson’s crew for that one.  LOTS of lab work, seaming Freddy chests, making membranes that stretch over the little arms and heads that burst from his body.  I put together a Freddy head mask for after his head is split open and the optical effects are bursting out of it, on-set puppeteering, that sort of thing.

Bart Mixon

– Continuing with the Freddy theme, your career came full circle in 2010, when you worked with Andrew Clement on applying the brand new makeup for the brand new version of Freddy, in the Elm Street remake. As I’m sure you’re aware, that makeup has gotten a whole lot of hatred from Elm Street fans, in the last few years. And from what I gather, you guys weren’t exactly happy with it either, given how much the makeup was altered with CG effects. Can you talk a little bit about that?

I thought the make-up looked pretty good when Jackie [Earle Haley] left our trailer.  It looked more like a real burn victim, less monster-ish and more realistic.  The plan was always to have digital put a few holes in specific places, adding depth that’s impossible with a head under there. But the trouble with a lot of digital guys is they have to screw with stuff.  Even during the shoot, they kept trying to do more different stuff, and the producer had to keep telling them to stick to the approved design.  However, once shooting had wrapped and that producer was gone and they were into re-shoots and the second or third digital house, there was no one there to slap their hands and make them do what they are suppose to do – so they were pretty much out of control and were able to talk who ever into letting them screw up the make-up by adding senseless holes all over his face.  I don’t think they even matched from one shot to the next, and by the time we were into our last batch of re-shoots Andrew was having to alter the appliances to match the changes digital had made in the make-up.  Crazy.  I don’t think Freddy looks bad in the movie, but he looked much better before digital got their pixels on him.

– If I may ask, what were your thoughts on the Elm Street remake, overall?

Pointless.  Like most remakes or reboots, it is sort of a waste of time.  I thought Jackie was a great choice for Freddy, and I like the fact that he towers over the children, but they are bigger than him as adults.  But any scenes that are direct copies of what was done in the original just fail to improve in any way over the original.  Maybe by the time Freddy is going to Hell and Jason is going into space it IS time to start over, but try something a little different.  At least the FRIDAY remake combined the first three movies into one.  But having said that, I would be happy to team up with Andrew and Jackie again any day!

Bart Mixon

– One of my personal favorite horror films of all time is Killer Klowns From Outer Space, another classic that you did work on. You also helped bring the trolls to life in Ernest Scared Stupid, a couple years later. A friend of mine recently blew my mind when he pointed out to me that a couple of the Klown masks are actually re-used as troll masks, in that film. Was that something the Chiodos wanted to throw in, as a fun little Easter Egg, or were they just added to the mix out of necessity?

I guess a little of both.  I think we made about 14 background trolls for that, in addition to the two versions of Trantor, and it was a way to give them more for their money.  I think we sculpted a few new trolls, too; but we did use a few Klowns as a foundation and then added new noses, ears, and other details to change them up.  I guess some were more successful than others.  Of course, the Chiodos have such a personal and specific style that some similarity is going to be there.

– Grant Cramer broke the news a couple years back about the Killer Klowns sequel, which I haven’t heard anything about lately. Have you had any talks about being involved in that?

I ask them about that every time I see them, which is at least once or twice a year at Monsterpalooza.  I wish I had some real news about it, but I don’t – you’ll have to ask the Brothers about that one.  We do talk about working together again, and this would certainly be a great project to do that on – so let’s all keep our fingers crossed!

Bart Mixon

– Speaking of clowns. The film you’re perhaps most known for is IT, as you’re the guy responsible for the iconic Pennywise makeup. I see on your Facebook page that there were several concepts you considered, before you arrived at the makeup we all know and are terrified by. What was that process like, and how did you arrive at your final design?

I started out designing Pennywise by doing lots and lot of research into various clown looks.  I did do a number of sketches, but these were somewhat pointless until the part was cast.  The production was considering Tim Curry, Roddy McDowall, and Malcolm McDowell – and while I think any of these great actors would have given us a very unique Pennywise, I do think they made the right choice in casting Tim.

Once Tim was it, I got his head shot from the production and started sketching over it, so that I knew whatever I designed would fit on Tim.  We then took a full head cast of Tim and produced three copies of it.  Upon these busts, I did three clay sketches of different looks that I liked, sealed them and painted them with different clown designs.  I took photos of these busts with a red wig and sent them to the director, Tommy Lee Wallace.  We discussed them and eventually he chose one very similar to the final look in the film.  I then sculpted this approved version and it was broken down into the various sections for an appliance make-up.  At this time there was a domed head, the nose, cheek bones, and a chin.  I had a wig made and we tested this make-up on Tim.

Tim wanted to wear as little prosthetics as possible, so we tested two looks for Pennywise.  The first was just the nose and head piece and a paint scheme that Tim contributed some ideas to. Since I was using PAX paint as a base, and not traditional clown white make-up, I was able to glue the cheeks and chin over this for our second test.  The paint this time was closer to what I had originally intended, but in the end the lighter make-up was chosen and the paint was modified to what it was in the film.  Of course, this look was chosen AFTER I had sculpted the “battery acid” look for Pennywise, so that stage does have the facial features of my original design.

As a side note about the Pennywise design, and I am not sure if I have mentioned this elsewhere, but the inspiration for this look was the original Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera.  The upturned nose, bald dome and cheek bones were intended to echo this classic make-up.  Interesting enough, while I was researching clowns, I found a photo of a Russian clown from around 1917 that looked very much like Chaney’s Phantom, but much creepier than Pennywise.

Also, the “battery acid” look incorporated another concept I had for Pennywise that Wallace did not want to use.  I saw no reason for Pennywise to appear as the same clown to the seven characters when they were adults, because they already knew he was not a real clown; so I wanted him to look like a horrific caricature of his clown self, almost like a rotted clown corpse – as if it was mocking them that they once believed he was a real clown.  Anyway, Wallace did not want to go this route, so I took elements of that design and used them on the disfigured part of the acid look.

The Mining Camp Encounter

– I read a while back about an 80s monster film called The Mining Camp Encounter, that you were attached to early in your career. That film never ended up getting made. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and do you recall any other projects that you were a part of, that never quite got off the ground?

Not a lot to tell really about MINING CAMP.  Back when I was getting started, I was contacting everyone I could about possible work, and this was one of those contacts.  They sent me a script and I did a breakdown and some sketches but it never went past that stage.  There was something called THE THICKET that was going to shoot in Houston – something was mutating people in the woods of East Texas – and I was talking to them for a few years.  I think I even submitted one of my own scripts to them – and they showed some interest in it – but again nothing ever came of it.  The closest one of these that almost got made was a Fred Olen Ray film called THE ORION PROJECT that Fred was going to shoot while he still lived in Florida and was to star Darth Vader himself – David Prowse.  I guess it was sort of like THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN – an Astronaut comes back from space with some weird mutation – and had lots of fun effects possibilities.  I did a lot of prep on this, breakdowns, sketches, budgets, and several make-up tests.  Not sure why Fred did not make this one, even after he moved to LA.

– How about projects you hoped to be involved in, but never got the chance to be. The ones that got away, if you will. Got any of those?

I guess there are a few of those, sure.  When I had my shop with Earl Ellis, we were talking to the FREDDY VS JASON folks for some time.  It was looking like my shop, ME-FX, and KNB would be splitting the work; but then the entire thing shut down and when it picked up again it was in Vancouver with local FX guys doing it.

I had done a number of shows with Mark Shostrom in the early ’80’s and had hoped to continue.  Right after we finished ELM ST. 2 I heard about FROM BEYOND and suggested to Mark that we call about it.  I went to the first meeting and showed our work from ELM ST. 2 and then brought Mark in with me for the second meeting.  I was still living in Texas at this time and had to return home, so Mark ended up doing that one without me.  I assume had we done FROM BEYOND together, I would have also worked with him on EVIL DEAD which would have been very cool.

I contacted Tom Savini about working on CREEPSHOW and while things sounded pretty promising at the start, it did not pan out for whatever reason. Likewise, I had contacted Chris Walas about possible work only to have him tell me that if I had gotten in touch with him a few weeks earlier I could have been on his GREMLINS crew.

I am sure there are more, but having missed some of these enabled me to work on other cool stuff, so I have no real complaints.

– Back to CGI for a minute. I would assume the trend of CGI over practical has had an effect on your career, in recent years. How do you feel about CGI, and what effect do you think it is having on the current state of the horror genre?

I do not hate CGI out of hand – if used properly it can be a valuable tool just like any other effects technique.  Sometimes a digital enhancement or a totally digital effect is the way to go (in the past it was sometimes a make-up vs. stop motion debate) but often it is not.  What I do not like about it is that it is too easy for anyone to use it to screw up your work, months after you are gone and its out of your hands.  I worked with Andrew Clement on the ELM ST remake, and he designed that make-up to have certain digital enhancements, and the producers made to digital team respects that design during the shoot.  Unfortunately, during post and reshoots, that producer was gone and there were new digital teams who constantly screwed with it in post to the point where it did not look like the same make-up from one shot to the next.  On the other side, when I was on MIB3 the digital supervisor was a friend of Rick Baker’s and therefore actually worked WITH us rather than against us and the results were fantastic.  Simple things like digital eye blinks saved us weeks of time and money in the shop and they were easy to do in post and looked great.  Just like any practical effect, you can have good and bad digital effects.  It all comes down to hiring the right team.

On a personal level, one of the most frustrating things for me about digital has been that in the past I have not been able to convince certain shows to use it when I felt it was warranted.  I do not know if I was the first to come up with the idea of a digital reveal of a make-up effect but I know I was trying to get shows to do that sort of thing when I had my own shop back in 1994-1998 but they either did not understand the concept or did not have the budget.  What are considered simple tricks today like having a bullet hole or wound make-up on the actor and then removing it for a few frames at the head of the shot and then revealing it – years later I was seeing everyone doing it and I was thinking “hey, I thought of that years ago…”

Likewise, on the Thing make-up in FANTASTIC FOUR, I was always pushing for some digital enhancements on the mouth to make it look more like the comic book, but no one else on the production seemed to be interested.

– Speaking of the current state of the genre, it’s pretty much all about remakes, these days. It’s inevitable that a lot of the films you worked on in the past are going to end up getting remade. How do you feel about working on the remake of a movie that you did the effects for? Is that something you have any interest in? There have been talks recently of IT being remade, for example. Would you have any desire to be the guy to give Pennywise a makeover, or is that best left to someone else?

I would love to have another crack at Pennywise – I guess better me than someone else!

I am not that bothered by remakes in general – they have been doing them for decades – the Karloff FRANKENSTEIN is technically a remake of the old Edison version – so just because it’s a remake does not automatically make it bad.  I thought the FRIDAY THE 13th remake was okay, but maybe that’s because I did not really care much for the original series.

The ELM ST. remake was rather pointless, though I did think Jackie made a good Freddy and the entire original series had spiraled out of control any way, so I was happy to be a part of it – if for no other reason than we got to do some nice work.  Likewise, I had a great time on the HALLOWEEN 2 remake with Wayne Toth and Rob Zombie – it was a fun show and they were great to work with.

The ROBOCOP remake looks terrible – like they have just totally missed the point of the original – so I guess it just depends on the project.

Bart Mixon

– Tell us a little bit about the Mixon Memories Museum, which your dad runs out of Houston, Texas. How can one go about taking a tour of the museum, and what would we see if we did?

Basically, over the past 25 or more years, my dad has been gathering up all the old monster things that I did not have room to store out in LA.  When IT was over and Fantasy II was throwing away the Spider, my dad drove from Houston to LA in a day and a half with a trailer and drove all the parts home.  When I wrapped on MIB2 Sony and Rick Baker did not want the huge dead alien I designed and oversaw the construction of, so they let me truck it home to my dad.  Finally he got enough stuff that he decided to open a “museum” so he built a 4,000 sq.ft. building to warehouse these items and more. About 1/2 to 3/4 of it is dedicated to the FX work of my brother and I – there’s one sheets from most of the movies we’ve worked on, the aliens my shop ME-FX built for MIB, creatures from FRIGHT NIGHT PART TWO, etc.  If you are ever in Houston, please drop by.

To learn more about Bart J. Mixon, and the Mixon Memories Museum, head over to his official website.

All of us here on iHorror thank you for your time, Bart, and for the incredible effects and monsters you’ve entertained us with over the years. Countless horror movies have been made better by you and your hard work, and we salute you for that!

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