Interview With . . .
by Alyssa Laube
About: Meet Claire and Damien Brooksbank – one of Portland’s most talented duos. This married couple is anything but ordinary, specializing in makeup, costumes, and special effects. They own and operate DSD FX Studios, and are the recipients of many prestigious awards for their work. For more information, please visit DSD FX Studios on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/DSD-FX-Studios/128132451267
What is it like working together as a married couple?
My husband and I have always worked together, from day 1. Without each other, neither of us would have gotten into makeup artistry at all, let alone body painting and special effects. Nowadays, I do actually work more on my own than as part of a couple, but I definitely prefer it when my husband is working with me on a project. While there are definitely challenges working professionally with someone with whom you spend the rest of your private life, I find that having my husband with me works as a means of balance – when I’m stressed out and unable to work myself out of a jam, he’s there with a solution and keeps me calm, and vice versa. That’s not to say I’m incapable of troubleshooting on my own, but it’s definitely easier with him around. It also means that we can continue brainstorming and creating in our private time, as well – we are constantly discussing projects, no matter what time of day or where we are.
You are involved in such a variety of practices, how do you keep your skills sharp for all of them at the same time?
All of the skills we use tie into the others or apply to all of the fields we work in. I use airbrush techniques in everything – body painting, special effects makeup, beauty makeup, prop making, costuming, and even painting on a canvas. I use brush techniques in the same way. The anatomy skills we use are useful in all of them. Also, because we hybridize genres so often, we’re frequently using skills and techniques from one genre in another (for example, combining high fashion beauty makeup with prosthetics or body painting). The fact that we’re always creating something, whether for a client or on personal projects, keeps us on top of everything and constantly improving. As a matter of fact, my airbrushing skill really improved while working on set painting at a haunted house.
Do you each consider yourself to have your own specialty?
Absolutely. We’re each competent in everything we do, but we definitely have our own personal areas of excellence. My husband is a much stronger sculptor and fabricator than I am, and he’s the first to tell everyone that I’m the stronger painter and airbrush artist. The fact that we each specialize in different areas means that as a team, we’re so much stronger and can rely on each other on a project instead of trying to take it all on ourselves. Recently, while working on a prosthetic makeup for a friend of ours, I was doing the sculpture portion of work and got frustrated in the detailing process. Instead of getting totally fed up and not enjoying working on the project any more, I was able to hand it off to my husband to work on while I moved on to other aspects of the project. Not too many people in our field have that opportunity.
The use of collaboration seems to be greatly important to DSD FX Studios. Can you describe this relationship and why it is important to you?
Collaboration is vitally important to us. The artistic community will never grow or be stable so long as we’re all off doing our own thing and not interacting with each other. By collaborating with other artists, we network and foster friendships, which strengthens the community by creating a positive bond instead of focusing on competing with each other. One would think that maintaining that kind of competitive nature would mean that we would be able to snag more work for ourselves, but in fact, the opposite is true. We started getting more work when we started really trying to be friendly with others in our field. Also, when we collaborate on a project with someone, the attention received benefits us all. We believe that “a rising tide raises all.”
You’ve won a number of awards. How does it feel to have your name be so big in the business, and did you ever expect to win them?
It’s indescribable. The recognition is just amazing. It’s also totally surreal. When we won both our awards, I truly thought we didn’t have a shot. For the Portland Fashion and Style Awards, I actually didn’t attend the event because I was so totally convinced it would go to someone else. I was actually out doing makeups for Halloween parties that evening, and found out long after the fact that I’d won (I had sent a friend of mine in my place, but just figured she’d be a place holder). With RAW, we decided that no matter what, we were going to go in and have a blast and make cool things for the hell of it. We figured it would go to a “straight” makeup artist instead. The fact that we’re winning things tells me we’re heading in the right direction.
How has the makeup/effects industry advanced since you started working in it?
The makeup and effects industries are constantly shifting and changing. New techniques and materials are popping up every time you turn around. To be fair, though, we started out late and somewhat in a bubble, so we did turn onto certain things later than some. We’ve seen the development of transfer appliances (a 3D piece on water slide paper that applies like a temporary tattoo), though, which has been a game-changer. There are beauty makeups now with a silicone base, whereas before the options ran to water and alcohol solutions. It means we have to be constantly on top of new methods so that we stay current. There have been notable changes in the industry as a whole, but not necessarily advancement. In fact, the industry is much more difficult to stay afloat in, with so many productions turning to CG as a cheaper option to special effects and the easy availability of digital cameras making it possible for virtually anyone to make a movie – a lot of productions work on ultra-low or no budget. In addition, shows like Face Off, while simultaneously boosting a return of popularity to practical special effects, are resulting in an over-saturation of aspiring makeup artists which makes it even harder to compete and still be financially solvent.
How have you, collectively and individually, improved over time?
Well, one always improves as one repetitively uses skills. Obviously, when we started out, our work was incredibly rough in all areas, from prosthetic appliances to body paint to specific skills like airbrushing. Over the years, we’ve worked out the kinks, and there’s much more finesse in the work. I suppose the best way to answer this is to say that we learned from copious mistakes and continue to use mistakes as a learning opportunity instead of treating them as failures. We also seek out all possible educational opportunities, such as classes from other artists, tutorials, and books. In addition, we use collaborative experiences and trade shoots as an opportunity to try out something new or to hone a particular skill and seek to find ways to apply current skill sets to other areas – I actually personally bloomed as an airbrush artist while painting walls at a haunted house. While I was painting fake cracks and holes on a “stone” wall with the airbrush, the light bulb switched on and I suddenly had the feel for how to get incredible detail with the airbrush, where before I might have leaned on a use of a fine detail paintbrush instead. We use 3D sculpting techniques in everything – you can take the idea of shaping clay with a tool to carving foam, or moving around acrylic gel on a canvas. I use prosthetic blending techniques to make multimedia recycled art pieces (like my Monster Boots – I attached a bazillion fake eyes to them and blended them down to the boot to make them look alive).
There has been a great deal of censorship on the work of body painters. How do you feel about this, and what actions to you think should be taken in response to it?
Most often, body paint work gets lumped in with sexually suggestive or downright pornographic content, between which any rational human being with eyeballs for the most part can easily distinguish. Now, one would think this means that no hardcore pornography would exist on these sites, but that’s just simply not true. I haven’t done any experiments on other sites, like Google+, but I know that on Facebook alone that the search term “XXX” brings up pages upon pages of hardcore pornography. Meanwhile, countless body painters, photographers of body paint, and body paint models are having their images flagged, removed, and in many cases, having their user accounts banned from using the site for spans of time from 24 hours to months. Also, friends of mine have done experiments on the enforcement of standards by seeking out pornography and reporting it, and in many cases, the images are not removed. Also, more commercial applications of body paint (such as in advertising for national brands) are allowed to remain. What’s unsettling and frustrating is that much more sexually evocative images are allowed to remain in full view of everyone – modern pinup girl images frequently involve much more nudity than the average body painting, if one takes into account the revealing nature of most lingerie, and the tone of the images is far and beyond more sexually suggestive than virtually any body paint photo I have ever come across (obviously, there are exceptions to every rule).
In response to this, some of us have taken action in a variety of ways – some have started and circulated petitions to ask that the websites evenly uphold standards and either enforce them across the board, or to stop removing body paint images and to stop banning body painters’, photographers, and models accounts. Others have simply begun to boycott the offending sites, moving their work to platforms that are more tolerant, such as Tumblr. Still others have become vocal about the issue and have taken it to media outlets, gaining public attention, at least on a local level. I am one of the latter type – when my friend and mentor, Matt Huntley, had images removed and was banned for 30 days, I started raising hell. I wrote to every news outlet I could think of, and started up a Facebook page – www.facebook.com/bodypaintersunited – in protest of Facebook’s handling of the situation.
I could go on and on about what I think needs to change in order to fully stop the issue of censorship, but I think some of that may be a topic for another time (things like completely changing the sexual landscape of society, from one of repression and abstinence to a more open-minded approach and whatnot).
Is there a difference between working with theatre and film?
There is a huge difference between working a theatrical production versus a film. In a theatrical production, one’s work must carry to the back of the house in a low-light situation, and leans to an extremely cartoonish appearance when viewed up close. In film, you’re generally working in an extremely close-up format, and work must be much more subtle to play well. In addition, film is starting to trend towards HD filming which brings in a whole new set of problems for not just special effects artists, but cosmetic makeup artists as well. Foundations much be much softer and lighter. Blending has to be spot on. Theatre can be really, really forgiving – no one is really going to be right up close on the actor while they’re giving their performance, so minor flaws disappear to the audience. Film is not so much. There’s actually a great anecdote about prosthetic makeups in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films – the prosthetics used on the dwarves actually have a Pepto-Bismol pink base tone due to lighting challenges in combination with the particular type of HD cameras they were using to film. The special effects department head found that without that pink base, there was an obvious transition between living tissue and the silicone rubber appliances on screen – living tissue has a pink tone to it because of blood flow. He quickly adapted to the situation and found a way to fake that blood tone in the appliances which lead to the much more believable makeups you saw on screen.
What is your favourite type of makeup?
I really, ridiculously enjoy creature makeups – making some fantastical being come to life is just amazing. I mean, gore and trauma can be really fun. Who doesn’t like playing with fake blood? But there’s just something special about creating a creature and seeing it in front of you. I love all makeup. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t. But I’m definitely happiest when turning someone into a something fantastical, whether it’s face paint, body paint, prosthetics… it doesn’t matter.
How did you receive your training?
I’m 100% self-taught. I’m an experimenter. It started when I was a kid, playing with my mom’s makeup, continued into teens (that’s when I learned how to block out my eyebrows), and on until today. I didn’t even know there were schools you could go to for makeup artistry until just a few years ago, and by then, I was already knee-deep in this stuff. I learn best by trying something and tweaking the process until it makes sense to me and I get a good result. I’m also a voracious reader, and I devour Makeup Artist Magazine every time it comes out. I collect text books on theatrical and effects makeup. The pride and joy of our collection is a trilogy of Japanese Special Effects books – we found the first one in 2009, and the rest is history. We learned a lot from them. We also subscribe to the Stan Winston School channel and buy their videos whenever we can. I have great relationships with a number of makeup artists, body painters, and special effects makeup artists, and I’m totally unafraid to ask questions.
What is the most challenging work you’ve done?
Every piece I do has its own unique challenges, each unlike the next. More often than not, the biggest challenge is beating the clock. You often don’t get as much time as you’d like to get a makeup done for film, theatre, or photo shoots which can lead to rushing and little mistakes that stick out like a sore thumb to you after you’re done. Otherwise, I have run into personality conflicts, lack of communication… all kinds of hiccups that can make the job more stressful than it needs to be.
I think the most challenging makeups we have done were for the Portland RAW Artists semi-finals, though. It was a pretty ambitious project – we took four models, made costume pieces for them, and applied the makeup for the runway show. We couldn’t have done it without our two extra hands – Cody Shaw and Matt Huntley.
A lot of your work with costumes is very unique and fantastical. What is the strangest piece you can remember working on?
I really can’t think of anything that truly qualifies as “strange” to me. I deal in the fantastical, so nothing is really too weird in the moment or after. All of the costume work is like a big puzzle to me- it’s just a matter of putting all the pieces together in the correct order.
My favourite, though, was a costume we made for a haunt actor in Salem, Oregon. He commissioned it from us based off Diesel punk ideas. It was also probably one of the hardest costumes we’ve made, too, because it had several LED features, and figuring out how to wire them and disguise the switches was uniquely challenging. It came out really well, though, and he was a very satisfied customer. We got to see it in action that season.
Considering you work with films, are there any movies or directors that have greatly influenced you?
I am absolutely influenced by the works of Clive Barker. His aesthetic and thematic components just click in my brain. Nightbreed is just gorgeous – probably some of my favourite monster makeups in existence. I’m also a huge fan of Tim Burton’s work. Jim Henson’s creatures have also been a huge inspiration since childhood, along with films like Legend, The Addams’ Family, and The Never-ending Story. I’m also heavily influenced by fine artists, comic books, video games, and books (yeah, I know that’s a weird one).
Has the rising popularity of zombies brought any business for DSD FX studios?
I. Am. So. Sick. Of. Zombies. Enough already!
But in all actuality, yes, zombies have been pretty lucrative over the years. One of our first big solo gigs was doing makeup for a zombie opera. Since then, haunted attractions, Halloween makeups, and Zombie 5K’s have all brought zombies even further into our lives.
What do you hope to explore in the future?
I hope to one day have the opportunity to work on a big-budget feature film, either contracted independently or as a part of an FX shop. I also am working towards competition on a more regular basis in body painting, culminating in attending and competing at the World Body Paint Festival in Austria. Until then, I will keep poking around!