Gruesome injuries, dangling eyeballs and dripping blood. This is the world of SFX: special effects makeup. It is also the world of Grace Emden who is making a name for herself as one of Baton Rouge’s up-and-coming special effects makeup artists. With a flick of a brush and a vial of stage blood, Emden proves that she can turn a lovely face into a monster.
Before Emden began her work as a special effects makeup artist, she started out as a sculpture artist, using clay to create her works. Her talents led her to a career as a pastry chef where she sculpted cakes for five years. It was during this time Emden was hired to do prop food for a film in town, and while on set, she fell in love with the makeup side of filmmaking as they used similar techniques such as sculpting clay in order to create prosthetics.
“It was easy to transition from working with fondant to working with making prosthetics,” Emden said. “My background was just in sculpture, and I worked it into various mediums.”
Over the next five years, Emden found herself hired to do a few different films as well as working at the 13th Gate as one of their special effects makeup artists. During the haunt’s offseason, she primarily works on commercials and films or does videography for weddings.
Her passion for the craft comes from various reasons. Ultimately, she favors special effects makeup as a way to express various art forms that she enjoys, such as painting and sculpting. The adrenaline and having to work very quickly also adds to her to the enjoyment. And because she is very attentive to detail, she enjoys creating looks that will fool people into thinking they are real.
“I like making things look as believable and realistic as possible,” Emden said. “But the passion is that I love art in every shape, way and form, and special effects give me an outlet to be able to express that.”
Emden’s talent is completely self-taught from learning trial and error or forming techniques that she’s used with clay to sculpt prosthetics.
“Everything that I’ve learned has been learning from other artists, kind of working hand-in-hand with some really talented, established special effects artists and just trying things really,” Emden said.
The make-up artist also nurtures her skills by creating YouTube videos for her channel Makeup Monday and experimenting with homemade materials for her special effects.
“I’ll do makeup on people and try things out and show [to the best of my] ability how it’s done for people who want to learn,” Emden said.
Anytime Emden gets to do really elaborate prosthetics is always fun for her due to her love of sculpting and being able to add on to someone’s face, or sometimes even to take elements away, such as creating the look of missing flesh. As zombies are a favorite look, she has trained herself to create zombie makeup looks in five minutes or less.
One of the most complicated makeup looks Emden has ever done wasn’t for a film job, but simply for fun. A friend of Emden’s was born with a congenital amputation, where the lower part of her arm is missing, and Emden sculpted a robotic prosthetic arm for her.
“It sort of looked like a Terminator’s arm, and we turned the side of her face into a Terminator-esque look,” Emden said. “So she seemed like a robot with peeled back skin, and I sculpted over her hair, so it looked like bald patches like she had been wounded and burned. So that was a lot of fun.”
Emden’s film credits include “Smothered,” “Dead Still” and “190 Proof.” One of Emden’s favorite film moments was getting to work on the film “Smothered,” directed by John Schneider.
“[Smothered] had a lot of horror stars in it such as Kane Hodder who played Jason Voorhees…and that was a lot of fun; to do horror makeup on some of these people who are inspiring in that field and had a lot of elaborate makeup on them through their lives,” Emden said. “It’s kind of fun to work with people who have been in the industry for a long time.”
Emden has also done makeup on herself, and her skills have proven just how life-like they can be.
“My first year working at the 13th Gate I acted as well, and we opened the last week or two in September, and people aren’t always in the mindset of Halloween being just around the corner,” Emden said. “One time I showed up at Radio Bar, and a friend of mine opened the door, and I still had some of the makeup on, and he legitimately thought I had gotten into a car accident or something, and I told him, ‘No, I just got off of work.’”
This reaction is not an uncommon one for Emden, even when people are watching the makeup transitions from start to finish.
“It’s because it’s just disturbing things that people don’t normally see on a regular basis,” Emden said. “Even for the actors themselves, they’ve never played roles that require such makeup or wounds or prosthetics. They’re almost disturbed for a moment before they get used to it.”
Emden’s process begins by talking with the film’s director and getting the needs for the movie down on paper, usually by creating an original creature or makeup look that fits the director’s vision. She uses a lot of latex and foam latex in her work but begins by creating a sculpture of someone’s face and then adds the intended makeup looks with clay to get the initial mold for the prosthetic piece. She also uses airbrushing and out-of-kit effects, where looks can be created using scar wax or tissue paper.
“I’ve been asked to do some things that have been completely ridiculous, but I work well under pressure, and I can usually crank out some crazy things on the fly,” Emden said.
One of these moments was during a film Emden was working on that involved a car chase scene. Unplanned, the actor hit the windshield, which broke and was caught on camera. Though nothing was wrong with the scene and the actor didn’t sustain any injuries, Emden had to quickly make wounds that resembled a head wound from bumping on a windshield.
“I have a very realistic approach to special effects, and even with zombies that are very unrealistic, I like to think about how the wounds and things happen,” Emden said. “A natural process like a bruise, I like to think [about] how it got to that point so that it’s very believable and realistic-looking.”
As for the future, Emden really enjoys the here-and-now with her career and looks forward to her future projects.
“I like being able to work hard and pretty much sleeplessly for a few weeks at a time and then be able to do what I want for the rest of my time,” Emden said. “I enjoy the film life, and I’m certainly happy just doing what I’m doing. I’ve chosen a career and molded it into a life that makes me happy to wake up every day and do it.”
For more information on Grace Emden, her website.
Photos by Greta Jines.