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How an Oscar-Winning Make-Up Artist Brings Wild Characters to Life

Making up Volcanalis, a character on NBC's Grimm

NBCMaking up Volcanalis, a character on NBC's Grimm

Volcanalis only appeared in one episode of NBC's fantasy show Grimm, but he certainly made an impact. A monstrous figure, he glowed lava-orange with a face that was cracked and charred at the edges.

Turning this impressive concept into a TV reality proved to be a challenge for Academy Award-winning special effects make-up artist Barney Burman and his B2FX team. They had two weeks to crank out Volcanalis inside B2FX's North Hollywood headquarters and transport the pieces to Grimm's Portland, Oregon set. Altogether, about a dozen people were involved in turning actor Brian Steele into a character who was, essentially, a walking volcano.

"I read the script and thought it was going to be this big CG character," Burman recalls. "The CG guys asked, 'Can you do this?"

Burman says that he hadn't been so nervous about a project since he worked on Star Trek, the 2009 film. That was a big deal, a project so grand and intense that he now has an Oscar to show for his efforts.

Grimm is a little different. It's an ongoing gig for B2FX and, in this particular instance, Burman was tasked with a character so conceptually wild that he wasn't quite sure how to approach it. After some brainstorming, the team kicked into gear, working in ways that they hadn't done before Volcanalis. They made a prosthetic suit. In addition, they made a light suit, a form-fitting piece to be worn under the prosthetics. They worked out a way to get the characters' mouth to light up like a volcanic eruption. "I had no idea that it was going to work until we got it on set and turned it on," says Burman. In the end, Volcanalis was a scorching success.

Barney Burman in his studio

Liz OhanesianBarney Burman in his studio

This is the crux of Burman's job. You give him a concept for a fantastic character. He makes something that will mess with the audience's sense of fiction and reality. He does this for TV, film, music videos and a host of other related projects.

Burman was raised in the make-up world. His grandfather made masks and other items -- "things that were make-up FX before they had a name for it," he says -- for film. His dad helped usher in the new wave of FX make-up in the 1970s and '80s. When Burman was a child, he had a fetus that his father crafted for The Other and would bring it to school just to get a rise out of people. By the time he was 18, he was working in the FX make-up industry while pursuing an acting career. Years later, when Burman hit his early 30s, he moved away from the on-camera facet of his career to concentrate on his behind-the-scenes work.

Hair application inside B2FX's North Hollywood studio.

Liz OhanesianHair application inside B2FX's North Hollywood studio.

When I recently visited B2FX, a small group of artists were working on various pieces to be used in Grimm when the third season starts this fall. Two people were carefully applying hair strand by strand to a sculpted head. More were working on other grotesque body parts. Outside of Burman, there are only two other artists who are regularly employed here. The crew expands and shrinks according to the needs of various undertakings.

The artists' talents all vary. Some are gifted sculptors and/or painters. Others excel in hair application and styling. All of their skills are required to make these spine-chilling creatures in a short period of time. For something like Grimm, they typically have between 5 and 10 days to complete a job.

FX make-up is a fairly complex process. Frequently, they start by making a cast of the actor. They'll do the head and, maybe, a set of hands. In the case of Volcanalis, they had to cast the actor's body, plus his head, hands, feet and teeth. From there, it's a series of tasks involving clay, silicone and a variety of other materials. Their actions build one on top of the other until, finally, they have a finished product. If they're working on a film, there might be a make-up test well before they show up on set. That's not possible in television, given the tight schedules. For Grimm, Burman heads up to Portland with another make-up artist for a few days every episode to take care on the on-set work.

Remnants of Volcanalis inside the B2FX studio.

Liz OhanesianRemnants of Volcanalis inside the B2FX studio.

There's always a chance that what this team makes might not actually end up in the final cut of a film or TV show. Burman points to Star Trek as an example of that. Altogether, they made 36 alien characters. He estimates that a dozen actually made it onto the screen. Out of that dozen, half, at the most, were featured close-up. "I had to learn to not make things for the camera and how long they would be on screen," says Burman. "I had to learn to make those for myself and for the directors and producers."

Burman learned his skills on the job and his work remains a constant learning process. There's a lot of trial and error involved. There's also a lot of research involved, even when the characters are nothing like what we might see in real life. Burman's office is lined with books. He keeps up by flipping through the pages of books on everything from anatomy to beauty make-up to forensic pathology. The constant research helps the B2FX team create characters that are as lifelike as they are otherworldly. That synergy between reality and fantasy is the core of Burman's work.

"I really try to make things look organic and natural, either as authentically alive or authentically dead, as I can make them," Burman explains. "I want to get to that point and then I want to just push it to a little bit of a fantasy realm, so you still have that believability, but it's still not something you would quite see in real life."

Update: Grimm returns to NBC on October 25 at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. Central).

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