Monday, 3 September 2012

Films, Fantasy and Features: Art for a Living

by Lottie Kent

Zoe Marsden, 32, is a prosthetics and creature effects artist who is also my aunt. She has worked on a wide variety of productions that includes the Harry Potter film series, Merlin, Prometheus and the upcoming movie adaptation of The Hobbit. Last week she agreed to let me interview her on the details of her fascinating career.

The Hobbit
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 Me: So, can you explain your job title and exactly what it is you do at work?
Z: My job title changes from job to job, but generally comes under the category of prosthetic/creature effects artist. I help to create and apply prosthetic make-ups and create animatronic creatures for film and TV and sometimes animations. However, this process is usually long and collaborative – my speciality is painting the prosthetics and the creatures. For example, for a prosthetic makeup, a cast will be taken of the actor’s face which a sculptor will then model onto in order to change the feature of the actor, e.g. to make them look older or more like a fantastical creature. This model will then be moulded and the sculpted areas, for example a lengthened nose or elf ears, will be cast out into silicone rubber. I will then receive them and paint them accordingly to either match the actor’s skin or the creature they are being made into. These pieces are then stuck with skin glue onto the actor’s face and the edges are blended into the skin and the whole thing is painted to look as one.

 Me: Can you give me an idea of your average working day?
Z: I generally work at film studios, which are based on the outskirts of London. The studio I work at changes depending on the project. My hours are determined by whether I’m working on the film set or in the workshop, but they’re generally from 8am – 7pm. When I worked on the Harry Potter films, I would get up at 6.30 and drive 45 minutes to the studio near Watford. I worked as an art finisher in the makeup effects department, so my job involved painting prosthetics for the characters

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Me: What projects have you worked on and which has been your favourite?
Z: From my first project, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I worked on the final four films, but in between each production I worked on other projects, including Holby City and Madame Tussauds. Since then, I’ve worked on various productions such as The Iron Lady, Prometheus, Come Fly With Me, Merlin, and, most recently, the upcoming film adaptation of The Hobbit, for which I had to spend five months in New Zealand. My favourite project has been Prometheus, a recent Ridley Scott sci-fi film, because Scott appeared to like using physical effects (as opposed to computer graphics). This allowed us to have quite a lot of creative freedom and be able to problem-solve and develop ideas.

Me: Are you always in employment?
Z: No, I’m self-employed so I do have periods of time when I’m not working. I reserve enough money to give myself a window of time, i.e. a few months in which I can support myself without employment.

Me: Is it easy to find work? How do you find it?
Z: Creatures/prosthetics is a relatively small industry in the UK. A lot of work comes to me via word-of-mouth through friends and colleagues. Either they tell me about the job opening and I submit my CV, or, if it suits my skills, I may be recommended for it and then approached to fill a position. Often the work is very confidential so I don’t always know what the production I’m applying for actually is! Also, new employers often want to see examples of my recent work, however, until a film is released, all imagery and information concerning it are confidential. This makes it difficult, in some cases, to show my work and skills from the more recent of my previous jobs.

Me: What made you decide that this was the career for you as opposed anything else you might have done with your degree? 
Z: When I did my degree, I didn’t actually know this even existed as a profession. All I knew was that I wanted to make things every day. I slowly found out about the job through friends and then set about trying to gain some work experience. However, my job isn’t entirely creative, as I follow other people’s ideas and designs. I do, however, continue to make my own artwork, within which I can have full creative freedom.

Me: At Art A level, you received a D, but still went on to do an art foundation course and a degree in fine art.  Do you think your A level result was relevant? What motivated you to continue with art?
Z: I don’t think my result was relevant. It was necessary for me to do an Art A level to get onto the foundation course, but I found the exam course limiting and the way in which it was taught discouraging. I felt I didn’t produce the type of work that conformed to what was wanted. I got the interview for the foundation before my result and received an unconditional offer on the basis of the work I took to the interview and therefore my result didn’t matter. In contrast, the foundation course was inspiring and allowed me to be a lot more creative. I also benefitted from the encouragement of my tutors. I’ve never actually been asked for my A level result since a few days after I received it.

Me: Do you think Art exam courses, at levels such as GCSE and A level give students the practical and relevant skills that, realistically, would be needed for an art-related career?
Z: I think Art GCSEs and A levels are good stepping-stones to get to a foundation course. I think they are a good beginning for the skills you’d need for an art-related career, but really the foundation is where you can experiment broadly enough (with media such as modelling/sculpting/graphic design) and find your own specialism.
Me: Brilliant – thanks for talking to me!

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