Zombie Q&A: Todd Debreceni, effects guy
Debreceni can speak with authority about the differences between the look of a zombie and the aesthetics of a werewolf. Debreceni, who runs Back Porch FX out of Aurora, has spent the past three decades developing his ability to create illusion on stage and on film. A makeup artist and prosthetic fabricator, Debreceni has done effects work for TBS, 20th Century Fox Television, Warner Bros., Walt Disney and other companies before setting up his own shop in Aurora. Currently, he juggles his time between teaching at the Rocky Mountain Art Institute, doing work for local theater companies and tackling national television and film projects.
He also helped create the look and feel for the costumed characters in PHAMALy's current production of "Beauty and the Beast" at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and he's planning several upcoming television and film projects. Westword caught up with Debreceni to catch up on his next projects, get a sense of what goes into creating the illusion of a massive body injury and understand the challenges of creating believeable effects in a live theater environment.
Westword (A.H. Goldstein): To start, I just wanted to get a sense for your background in makeup effects and a brief history about your workshop.
TD: I've been working in film and television and theater for 30-plus years. Back Porch FX, which is the moniker I'm doing business under now, didn't come into actual existence until 2006, though I've been doing makeup effects for longer than that.
WW: What are some of your immediate projects? Are you focused solely on sci-fi effects, or do you find opportunities to spread your wings a bit?
TD: I'm doing a 60 Minutes story coming up Aug. 16. It's OK to talk about it, because they haven't done any background checks or security stuff on me. I'm doing some makeup work on a couple of federal undercover agents to protect their identities during an interview.
WW: What's the challenge of that sort of work compared to your film and theater work?
TD: The viewers will know that these people are in makeup, but they still need to look good, because it's being shot in HD and there are close-ups. It's just part of the way 60 Minutes does their interviews. They need to look good and not obviously look fake.
In terms of specifics, I will probably get to meet these guys the day before we shoot. I don't know whether they're young, fat, thin. I have no idea what these guys look like, so I will work out of the kit. It's amazing how much you can change someone's appearance with a nose, for example.
The other project I'm working on is for Starz ... I'm going to work on their Halloween campaign; that is literally going to shoot the very next day after the CBS piece. I'm still waiting for storyboards. Last year was monsters, this year is people that have had some mishaps -- autopsy, stitches, that sort of thing. Possibly some zombification.
WW: So how does creating the illusion of bodily injury or "zombifying" someone rank on your list of favorite effects?
TD: It's great fun. The sky is the limit. One of the things that Starz was asking about were prosthetics so that facial expressions can really come through, which is not a problem. We had some pretty heavy prosthetics last year with the materials that we used, facial expressions were not a problem through any of the prosthetics.
One of the things with prosthetic makeup is that you can add, but you can't really take away. So, making something look as though you've ripped away someone's face without making the face look obviously built-up on is a fun challenge.
WW: Since so much of the entertainment industry is tightly centered in Los Angeles, has it been a challenge maintaining business working out of a Denver suburb?
TD: Absolutely. The adage "out of sight, out of mind" definitely plays into this type of work. If you're living in L.A., things can literally happen at a traffic light, or the gym, or a grocery store. You'll run into somebody and arrange a meeting on a project. That can't happen if you're not there.
It just makes the marketing effort a little bit stronger. That's one of the reasons why social media is so key. You can contact other makeup artists who are literally on the other side of the planet.
WW: Is it difficult juggling teaching with maintaining the makeup business?
TD: Yes and no. I love teaching, I'm just not really teaching much of what I actually do for a living these days. I'm between a curriculum that I'm not pursuing professionally and work that I am pursuing professionally. I'm probably better known outside the Denver market than I am in here for makeup effects.
WW: In terms of your overall slate of projects, is there one particular set of designs or one group of makeup schemes that stand out to you as your favorite? Anything that you think that really set a high standard for your own personal work?
TD: I think that some of the stuff that I've done for theater has really pushed the bar for me, mainly from the standpoint that for a live theater production, you still want to have your work look as good as possible. In a lot of theaters, the audience is really very close. In film, you have close-ups where you can see detail up close; in live theater, the audience is sometimes 10 feet away from an actor in makeup and it still has to be as believable.
The biggest difference in film is that if someone's makeup comes off, you can always call out "cut." If you're doing live theater and something starts to come loose during a scene, the scene becomes about keeping a prosthetic in place and not about the scene anymore. That's just the nature of life, a mustache comes off or any number of things.
Our biggest problems with "Beauty and the Beast" have been some of the large, fantasy costume pieces, wardrobe pieces. But by the time we opened, we pretty much had stuff all worked out. The beast makeup itself has worked pretty flawlessly from the get-go.
WW: You mentioned "zombification" earlier. Is there any specific effect that you think is more enjoyable or challenging?
TD: I think changing someone's age or gender is an even bigger challenge. It's making it look realistic. One of the problems with a lot of those young artists who are trying to do this stuff is the importance of anatomy, actually understanding human anatomy. It's how skin wrinkles because of muscle movement beneath it. There are things that happen to everybody as we age. It happens faster to some people than others.
But all of these things happen to everybody ... If you understand human anatomy, it's pretty easy to guess what someone is going to look like as they get older.