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April 08, 2024

Interview with a Makeup Artist

By Alexandra Queen

The day he got a phone call from a friend saying he had found a gimmick to make straight blades squirt blood, Vance Whitaker knew exciting things were in store.

Now, instead of a regular nine-to-five job, Whitaker's typical day involves transforming innocent actors into dogs, zombies or giant lizards.

Vance Whitaker is a theatrical makeup artist.

A day in the life of a makeup artist.

So what does a theatrical makeup artist do?

Typically, Whitaker explains, doing makeup and effects for a production follows a certain pattern. First he researches the play, what it's about, what kind of budget there is to work with and what's been done before. Then he talks with the director to see what he has envisioned for the production. After that, Whitaker takes some time to contemplate the job ahead and comes up with a number of sketches for the director to comment on.

At "first makeup night", Whitaker introduces his portion of the production to the ensemble, from simple grease-paint to enhance an actor's normal look to creating an aging effect or even applying prosthetic ears, noses, and more.

"Time, money and knowledge are the three controlling factors," Whitaker says, "Otherwise the sky is the limit." And when you're talking about transforming actors into giant talking lizards, as in an upcoming production of Seascape that Whitaker will be doing for Prospect Theatre, that sky high limit can take a lot of adjusting to, for actors and director.

Between first makeup night and opening night, the director, the makeup artist and the costumer must work quickly to coordinate a finished image. For instance, in a production of the Mikado, Whitaker and the director agreed to put the upper class family members in traditional kabuki-style makeup to differentiate them and draw attention to their class. The two main characters, however, were given a more toned down look to enable the audience to identify more closely with them. Whitaker and the costumer coordinated their efforts to make sure the colors of the face paints worked properly with the costume design. When effects come into play, the relationship between makeup and costume can become even closer.

One of Whitaker's most notable effects was a severed head done for the guillotine scene at the end of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Whitaker made a live cast from the actor's face and head, then used that to make a negative mold which he filled with expanding foam. He painted and wigged the foam head for a finished special effect that certainly had a memorable effect on the audiences. "We did two showings for high school students that were particularly vocal," Whitaker recounts, chuckling. "There were oohs and aahs and some cheering. It was pretty gratifying."

Though Whitaker is aware of the public's appetite for gore, especially around Halloween, he prefers to lean toward makeup concepts with a little more imagination. His favorite production was a world premiere entitled, "Life as a Dog", where he had a rare opportunity to build something from the ground up without the audience or director expecting a visual allusion to a pre-existing Broadway play or prior production. "It was brand new. I got to design everything from scratch, so it was all me," Whitaker says of the experience, "It was the first time the play had been done. I wasn't taking ideas from anyone else."

The makings of a makeup artist.

How does someone get into a career like that?

Whitaker got his start at Cal State Stanislaus with a bachelors in Theatre, but his love for the art goes back much further. At the age of fourteen -- perhaps even on a dark and stormy night -- Whitaker came across a copy of Dick Smith's Monster Makeup Handbook. The book gave him the power to turn his friends into skull-faced cadavers, werewolves and monsters straight out of Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory. By his senior year, he was doing makeup for Davis High's drama club and moved on to continue working with theatre productions at Modesto Junior College.

"It was the 70's," Whitaker recalls. "They were wild productions with wild makeup. There was a lot of room for imagination and experimentation with the makeup."

In 1976, Vance Whitaker headed south during the summers to work with the Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts. He spent a year as an Assistant Wig Master, studying how to create realistic wigs, beards and mustaches. The next year, he was hired back as the Wig Master. "They paid us just enough to eat and rent a room," Whitaker says of the experience, "but it was a lot of fun and a great chance to do just theatre and not worry about needing a day job."

In '78, he graduated from Cal State, but soon after that, Whitaker put his dreams of working with theatre on hold and joined the normal workforce. For years, he put in his time, getting married and raising a family.

Eleven years ago, Whitaker and his wife realized that half their income was going toward day care for their sons. They agreed that it made more sense for one of them to be at home with the boys, and Whitaker was elected. It wasn't too long after that the stay-at-home dad got a call from his friend about the straight blades that squirted blood. Whitaker was able to use that gimmick to do makeup and effects for a theatre production of Sweeny Todd. He was called back to do the kabuki-like makeup for Madame Butterfly, and Whitaker has been doing makeup and effects ever since.

Being at home with his sons gave Whitaker the flexibility to start small, but as they've grown, so has his return to theatre. Now in addition to working with the nearby Townsend Opera and Modesto Performing Arts, Whitaker works with other regional theatres, schools, libraries, costume stores and is even available to the public by appointment. It's not uncommon for Whitaker to get a call to do makeup and effects for private events, especially during the Halloween season. "I'm doing ten zombies for the Hughson Elementary Haunted House," Whitaker smiles. He also appears regularly at Turlock's Masquerade Madness, where he will apply makeup and prosthetic devices like fake noses or "partially embedded" ninja stars for a modest fee.

"I'm busier now than I've ever been," Whitaker notes. "It's like now that I've turned fifty, I've finally found out what I want to do when I grow up."

Article © Alexandra Queen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-10-23
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