The subtle details that go into bringing a science fiction show to life often go unnoticed by viewers. When the citizens of Hawkins, Indiana, didn't question that Will Byers' body had been dredged from the depths of the quarry, the special effects team and fabricators behind that convincing body took a backseat to the drama.
SYFY WIRE spoke with actress and makeup and special effects artist Melanie Aksamit about her genre-adjacent wizardry on hit shows like Netflix's Stranger Things and HBO's Westworld. We discuss her passion for the arts, what it takes to pursue a career in makeup, working as a body fabricator on Stranger Things, and how many artists (sometimes going uncredited for their work) are usually behind the visual magic we all love to see onscreen.
How or when did you know that acting, makeup, and special effects would be your career path?
I’ve always been into the arts since a very young age. I acted in plays in elementary and all the way through high school. I had art featured in a museum when I was in 2nd grade. I’ve wanted and tried to do just about everything under the sun when it came to entertainment and art. It kind of just felt like a process of elimination. Which, of all these things I’ve tried, could I see myself doing as a career? It took me several years to narrow it down.
I was 29 when I decided to pursue a career in makeup and special effects. I had tried just about every other option and was feeling a bit lost when my mother suggested I look into makeup school. Makeup seemed to be my greatest interest ever since I was in middle school and started wearing it. I loved practicing on my friends.
But it wasn’t beauty makeup that grabbed me, it was monster makeup. When people used to ask me when I was in my teens and 20s what I wanted to do someday I usually responded, "I wanna make monsters for a living." However, I never actually pursued it because it didn’t seem tangible. It didn’t seem like something I could ever make money doing, and where does somebody go to school to learn that?
So, after finally exhausting all my other options first (photography, videography, radio and tv broadcasting, acting, singing, dancing) I finally, at 29 years old, looked into making monsters for a living and here I am.
Are there any special effects moments (past or present) either in television or film that stands out to you or made an impression of you?
When I was young, my father loved sharing classic horror movies he grew up with, with my sister and I. They are terrifying to watch when you’re just six, seven, eight [years old]. But those films such as The Wolf Man, Frankenstein, Dracula, Night of the Living Dead, really spoke to me. I love those classic monster designs and Jack Pierce who created a majority of them and was a pioneer in the industry was really my main inspiration. And of course, I wouldn’t love horror as much if it weren’t for my dad.
The realm of special effects has a lot of layers. There are many roles that exist within the field. You are credited as a body fabricator for Stranger Things. What did that entail?
Stranger Things was my first experience in body fabrication. It was a blast! I was working at Fractured FX at the time and was told to help Kevin Kirkpatrick on this body project for a show called Stranger Things. None of us knew at the time what the show was really about or that it would become an instant hit.
Body fabrication is just that, fabricating a body from materials such as silicone, polyfoam, wire, PVC pipe, and other super random materials. We usually start by lifecasting our actor and making a mold from the likeness. Then we fill the mold — in this case, it was with silicone and foam. There are several more steps such as seaming, painting, and punching hair before you get to the final goal, which for us was to recreate Will Byers and stuff him with cotton. Kevin Kirkpatrick was a mentor to me and showed me so many tricks and tools to help me become a better artist and I’m thankful for my opportunity to work with him and Fractured FX.
How many artists besides you are behind creating a lot of the special effects on a show like Stranger Things?
Just alone at Fractured FX there were probably around 15 to 20 of us working on various tasks for Stranger Things. I was just appointed to one of the many projects which happened to be, making the "dead" body of Will Byers.
Besides Fractured FX there was another FX shop, Spectral Motion, that was in charge of making the Demogorgon. I can only image there were another 15 or more people working on that there.
Then you have the makeup artists and FX technicians that are actually on the set of the show. Probably another five to 15 more there. Unfortunately, a lot of people are left uncredited due to the high numbers of people working in the makeup and FX departments. Everybody is equally important though from FX PAs all the way up to on set makeup artists. One could not do it without the other.
You’ve also worked on HBO’s Westworld in the mold department. What was your role there if you don’t mind me asking? What is a day in the life of an artist like working in that department?
I mentioned briefly in my last answer that we had to make a mold from a lifecast of our actor. Essentially, that is what I was doing for Westworld at Christien Tinsley’s FX shop. In the mold department, we were in charge of making molds of bodies, props, teeth and more that would be used to cast up silicone, acrylic and plastic copies of the bodies, teeth and other various things for the show. We then would hand off the copies to be seamed and painted.
Mold making is very complex. You really have to think like an engineer and be able to see something start to finish in your head before you ever start making it. On top of that, as a mold maker, you’re usually working with harsh chemicals that you have to take precautions while using. Often times, you can see a mold maker looking like something out of Breaking Bad. Full Tyvek suit, respirator, and goggles.
Making molds puts a lot of wear and tear on your body and it’s not my favorite job in the realm of special FX but is 100 percent important in completing most makeups and props you see on camera. Mold makers don’t get enough credit.
Is there any advice you could give to a reader looking to get their start in a career like yours?
You definitely need patience and be prepared to live off Ramen noodles for the first several years and then a few more after that.
I think a lot of young artists come into this field thinking it’ll be much more glamorous than it is. Shows like Face Off aren't extremely realistic. It’s rare that one artist is designing, sculpting, molding, painting and applying a makeup. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that working at an FX shop. Like I said, there are usually lots of people involved.
Working on set is very fun, but the hours are long, exceeding 10 or more hours a day. I’ve worked on set for a full 24 hours before. It’s kinda madness sometimes. But seeing your work on the big screen or even just on the Internet is extremely rewarding and makes it all worth it.
What are the challenges in pursuing a career in special effects or makeup effects?
There are definitely challenges to pursuing a career in this industry. I believe it’s important to start at a makeup school or fine arts school, and unfortunately, school is not cheap. After school, I think it’s extremely important to have several months worth of living expenses saved up and continue to save when you can because there are often times you aren’t working for weeks and sometimes longer. That’s just the industry. Last year, there was a writer strike scare that would have left thousands of people out of work for who knows how long, so it’s important to have a backup plan if something like that were to happen.
Also, it’s not necessarily what you know, it’s who you know. I hate that aspect of this industry because that basically that means it doesn’t matter how talented you are because somebody with less talent could sneak ahead of you just because they’re friends with the right person. However, in the long run, I believe it’s the people with the real artistic talent that are going to shine through.
Most importantly, though, don’t give up if this is your dream.