Jonathan Thornton Interview
Special Effects Makeup Artist
by Jean Marie Ward
Hello , this is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com. With me today is special effects make up artist and prop maker, Jonathan Thornton. Please Jonathan, tell our viewers what you do for a living.
Jonathan Thornton: I kill people and make monsters.
JMW: So are you always killing people in films or are you doing other things like playing with dead bodies?
Jonathan Thornton: Well, I don’t know about playing. There’s many things that effects artist are asked to do. Killing is just one of the many things. Devising ways for people to die. Creature creations, full creature suits, corpses, dead bodies, there’s so many things that we as special makeup effects artists are asked to do for the industry.
JMW: What’s a creature suit?
Jonathan Thornton: A full creature suit, well nowadays a lot of creatures are done with what’s called CGI, or computer generated imaging, but starting from way back in the day. They would take a live cast of a person’s body, generally a male person stuntman, and they would sculpt what they want the creature to look like and make a cast and make molds and at the end of the day you have a creature suit made out of foam rubber. A fine example is the alien in the Aliens movie. I did a creature for a movie called, [Interplanetary’s] a full creature suit, he was very scary and reptilian.
First and foremost a makeup effects artist has to be extremely creative you have to be thinking outside of the box 24-7. For every effect that a producer or a director asked for you to do there’s hundreds, literally hundreds of different ways to approach it. Many times the budget will dictate which way you go with that. If then you’re going to obviously use the best materials out there. Like silicone is the industry standard for prosthetics nowadays. It just looks so much more realistic under the Hi-Def cameras that people are shooting on and nowadays.
You said something about when some one gets shot. In the old days they used to use something called a squib. Which is a pyrotechnic explosive that they would put on either a leather or metal plate that would be between the skin of the actor and under the clothes to protect the actor and on top of that they would have a blood bag, so whenever the ignition switch was detonated on the detonator, boom it would explode and below blood out.
Well nowadays there are so many other safer alternatives than that. I mainly use what’s called an air squib which is a cannon that you use with a compressor and you basically rig up of blood pack under the shirt or wardrobe or whatever even a prosthetic if you put over that if you want to see bare skin and it works every bit as good as a pyrotechnics squib, but many times, in the industry they go back in use, again what’s called CGI. It’s just so much safer to do that nowadays.
JMW: From what I saw though in the movie that was premiered here at DragonCon’s Independent Film Festival you weren’t using CGI. That was a movie called Transfers. So, could you tell us a little bit about the work you did on the movie called Transfers?
Jonathan Thornton: Oh, great. Okay. Yes, my friend Chuck, Chuck Hartsell he wrote in directed the film, he contacted me a few years ago and he had a very minuscule budget and I have worked for him before on other productions it just so happened that I’d just come off of a big production and had a lot of materials left over and needed to use them before they went bad.
So I was able to do quite a few big effects for the film. I don’t know if you remember, Chuck said he wanted a woman tree, but he goes, I don’t want you to have a tree stump with a woman standing in the middle. I never took it that way, well, what I did is I actually it was the simplest, but one of the more impressive effects in the film. I just took a female mannequin and took a whole bunch of bark and glued on bark all over that mannequin and built a root base and had branches growing out where her arms should be, and hung moss on it, and designed the face on it and everything.
And then, for the close-up shot I had taken a live cast of the actress which actually this time was my niece, and I sculpted what I wanted it to look like, to match the bark pattern that was on the prop tree, that I made. Colored it and applied it, and it worked. You saw a living tree there. He was impressed and it didn’t cost him anything because I all ready had the materials.
JMW: So really an effect can be made of almost anything. You’re talking bark here, you’re talking latex. What are some of the more unusual materials you’ve used?
Jonathan Thornton: Chili.
Jonathan Thornton: I’ve used chili off of the craft services. I’ve used actual pig and cow entrails for the movie, Blood Feast 2, because they wanted, Herschell Gordon Lewis wanted the real thing. After that I started saying you know I can sculpt and mold stuff that looks just as realistic as this and I started doing that. Mainly for health and safety reasons, and because…
JMW: It doesn’t smell as bad.
Jonathan Thornton: It doesn’t smell as bad. Actresses are like you’re not touching me with that stuff. I do remember the movie, Homesick that I worked on, the director-producer had seen Blood Feast 2, and they loved the guts and they said, look, we want the same thing, and instead of getting cow or pig gets which are just tremendously big, a friend of mine, it was deer season, it was deer season. He had killed a few dear so I saved the guts from that.
I put them in my freezer to freeze them, I bet a big standup freezer just so they don’t rot and stink. So this is a scene where there guts are in a tub. I don’t know why just their guts were laying in the tub, but I don’t write the stuff. So I proceeded to thaw out the guts, and when they thawed depths thought out the smell was so bad. I mean, they were begging me to take the guts away. Oh, no. You wanted this. This is what you wanted.
I mean, I cleaned the guts out, I sterilized them with Clorox and cleaned them, got all the waste out and still , it smells like rotting guts. So anyway, other things of course other things of course you start off with cotton and latex and tissue paper and I made my own blood most of the time. Well I used to, here nowadays . I let the manufacturers make the blood . So if an actor or actress get something in their eye, like the blood gets in their eye…
JMW: There’s no liability.
Jonathan Thornton: I’m not liable for it, the manufacturer is. So the more professional you get, the more you try to cover your tracks.
JMW: Your behind, yes. How did you get into this crazy business?
Jonathan Thornton: Because I can’t do anything else.
JMW: Oh, no, that’s lying.
Jonathan Thornton: All my life I’ve been fascinated with monsters, I’ve love monsters. I don’t know why because my mom never has nobody in my family has. I was always the weird outcast. I drew monsters, as a matter of fact my guidance counselors at school were quite…
JMW: A little worried about you?
Jonathan Thornton: Concerned. But I always wondered how they made Frankenstein’s head square, how do they make the Wolf Man change and have hair all over the place. Of course, as I got older I researched, this was back in the day when there was no Internet so, I would give whatever magazine and books I could find that would at least give me a kernel of knowledge.
And I’m going to give props to a man who really doesn’t get the respect nowadays, that he should. It wasn’t until Grande Illusions came out by Tom Savini, that my eyes were opened up. And that book taught me so much to get me on the right track, and then I applied for the Dick Smith course who is the grandfather of all makeup effects. He’s done movies from the Exorcist, he got an Academy award for Amadeus, he’s just a fountain of information.
JMW: What are you working on now?
Jonathan Thornton: I’m working on a movie called, The Devil’s Hand. It’s about a politician who on the outside looks like a very straight laced, religious God-fearing politician and deep down inside. When we see what he’s really like he’s just the opposite. And he gets into a car wreck and he’s paralyzed from the waist down and a woman appears to him in a business suit, and when she’s walking through the shadows, you actually see what she looks like, and you see this demon.
And he says, look you can have it all. All you have to do is make a deal with me. I’m not even asking for your soul I’m just asking you to follow my agenda, and he wakes up and now he writes with his left hand instead of his right hand and now he has this agenda he has to follow. And so that’s what am working on now.
JMW: Can You share with our viewers, one of the funnier stories of your life in makeup? And effects.
Jonathan Thornton: Let’s see, there’s the one where the state trooper pulled me over and saw the corpse in the backseat, but we’ll talk about a different one. We’ll leave your viewers kind of wondering about that one. I was a manager at a furniture store and this was just as I was just starting to make a name for myself. I had just worked on the movie, Blood Feast 2.
JMW: This was before you went full-time props.
Jonathan Thornton: This was before I went full-time, I had worked on Blood Feast 2. I was the assistant makeup effects artist and was just as happy as I could be to work on my first real film. And it just happened to be in October and they were having a mattress sale, and we had a meeting. I was one of the managers there, so we had a meeting and we’re all supposed to toss in our ideas for the mattress sale.
Well my mattress idea was to have a guy in an electric chair with his hair all singed and his skin all burning up and bubbling up and his eyes popping out of his head, and he sitting in an electric chair being shocked. And the slogan was going to be, our mattress sale has prices so shocking you can finally rest in peace. Oddly enough, they liked that. Everybody liked that, so you know, a couple of days later I bring in this very gruesome corpse, and everyone was like, we didn’t know was going to look so realistic. Well I mean, hello that’s what I want to do for a living. So they put this thing out when you first come into the store, it’s right there.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.