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The Zoidberg Project, Part 6: How I Got Started

By Frank Ippolito

One of the frequent questions Frank gets asked, but leads into a discussion of how he collaborates with other artists and suppliers to improve his own craft. Zoidberg continues!

A question I get asked often is how I got start off in this industry, creating make-ups and working on film projects. This is a much more complicated question than most people realize. There seems to be a misconception that you need to get formal schooling to do anything professionally, but it’s easy to forget that many of the makeup masters we look up to actually didn’t. I did go to a trade school for a little over a year for industrial design. Right out of high school, I skipped the idea of summer break and started formal education immediately. I wanted to draw cars. I learned a lot about basic aerodynamic theory, some typography (which I have grown to love), and techniques on how to do some various kinds of drafting and sketching.

But before all of that, I fell in love with monsters. As a kid, my Dad and I would watch sci-fi and monster movies all the time. Around age 10, I saw the “Making of Thriller” on HBO, and recorded it on a VHS tape. That’s when I knew I wanted to make monsters. I scoured my neighbor’s Fangoria and Gorezone magazines and came across an ad for Burman Industries. They were a special effects supply store and had a catalog! So I sent away for the catalog and read it about a million times.

What I ended up wanting was a VHS how-to video for mask-making, and begged my parents to get it for me. After watching this tape until it wore out, I looked in the Cleveland phone book and saw a supply place about 30 minutes from home called Monster Makers that had clay and plaster for making masks! I hit the Jackpot. My grandfather drove me to the west side of Cleveland and we picked up some materials. A friend and I sculpted an alien mask in my basement for the next few weeks, and then molded it and cast it out of latex, and painted it. BOOM. All before the internet, all without school or a classroom. Just a worn out VHS tape and some determination.

That, in my opinion, is how you get into this business: sheer determination. You have to want it so bad that every waking moment and every spare dollar is put towards your goal. If you keep practicing, keep learning, keep reading, keep researching, keep failing, keep trying, and keep succeeding, you will reach that goal. After making that first mask, I was hooked. I made another, got more books, bought more makeup, and made more messes in the basement. Rinse and repeat. Now I just have a bigger basement in the form of my shop. I made a lot of mistakes and made a lot of mediocre creations, but kept at it for years.

Luckily, I also met some other wonderful and helpful makeup artists in Cleveland that helped me along the way. Carl Taliaferro, Scott Gamble, and Arnold Goldman deserve shout-outs. They showed me what I was doing wrong, gave me opportunities to learn, and are the foundation of my core skills. If it wasn't for learning early to collaborate with my friends and people that I met, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

A sculpture for Reign of Fire that Frank worked on molding and casting.

In the fall of 2000 I moved to Los Angeles to pursue my dream of working in the movie industry. The first shop I worked at was Film Illusions and my first film was Reign of Fire. My job was to mold and cast the dragon sculptures that Miles Teves did for scanning to turn into CG creatures. When I was there, I worked with an animatronics guy named Terry Sandin that welded some of the frame work that went into these dragons. Fast forward to about a month ago, and I get a text from Terry. “Dood, who's doing the animatronics for Zoidberg”? 13 years later and we're working on a project together again! We'll get more into what Terry has been up to and the animatronics part in a future story, but the best thing that happens on these kind of cool projects is the opportunity for collaboration.

Another important part of this industry is networking. I don’t mean schmoozing with wannabe producers at silly hipster parties in Hollywood, but connecting with other artists. Going to events like makeup trade shows or horror conventions is a good start, and I have met plenty of people that eventually hired me--or whom I hired later. You never know what kind of project people might have some day, and keeping in touch and being social will sometimes yield adventures!

From the get-go on the Zoidberg project, I have been working with my pal Rayce Bird on the designs and maquettes. Then he and Miranda Jory helped out on the full-size sculpture when we were all in the shop hanging out one day. I met Rayce through the TV competition show we were both on, Face Off. He won the second season and we have been pals ever since we met!

It doesn't stop there--I'll often confer with my shopmate Mike Hill (who is a ridiculously amazing sculptor) about anatomy, proportion, and symmetry. It's always nice to have a sharp eye give a peek at your work and point out things that you missed. I first met Mike at the convention Monsterpalooza a few years ago, and just stayed social with him and then one day he started hiring me to make molds for him. And now we share a shop. Funny how these things work!

Jumping ahead a few steps, I also rang up prop maker Harrison Krix to cut some things for me on his laser cutter for the eye forms, and I’ll tell you all about that when I get closer to finishing it. I have been a long-time fan of Harrison’s work, and we met last year through a Google Hangout with Make Magazine’s Makercamp. We then hung out a ton at Dragon*Con and have been bouncing ideas and techniques back and forth ever since. Next week I have a meeting with Roland Blancafour to make sure that my plan for molding will make his job of filling it with foam latex go smoothly. Roland has been the top foam runner in the industry for a long time, his resume is like a who’s-who of cool monster and effects-based movies. I still need to figure out the wardrobe end of this project, so I'm not done collaborating yet!

Collaborating extends beyond working with other artists--you also have to build a relationship with the people producing your supplies. I work closely with a lot of my vendors like Smooth-On and their local distributor Reynolds Advanced Materials (or if you are in the UK, Bentley Advanced Materials). The people at these places are incredibly valuable when I'm trying to problem-solve and decide what materials might be appropriate for a project I'm doing. It feels like I'm at these suppliers a few times a week buying different materials to mess around with or to figure out what I did wrong when something doesn't work. That’s the cool part of trial and error.

Needless to say, I'm getting a lot of help and advice from some really talented friends. So, back to the status of Zoidberg...

The sculpture has gone through a lot of little changes since I showed it to you last. He had nostrils for a while but then I got rid of them. I added deeper eye-bag shapes and I even dug out a trench in the back of his head while I was considering if it would be possible to build in his retractable fin. Ultimately, I don't think I will be putting that element in. (And no ink-sacks either, sorry). In order to incorporate a fin that could stand up and retract, and still be relatively seamless would probably take a lot of R&D that this budget and time schedule just doesn't have the room for. I would rather focus on making the character look good and the tentacles move well.

I have also been going back and forth with how I'm going to mold the face tentacles and his mouth section. You can see in some photos I cut them off--this was partially to work on the sculpture of his mouth, and partially because thats where I was thinking of separating them. Because of the low overhang of the tentacles, I wouldn't be able to mold them all together, so they would have needed to be cut off later anyway. Now I’ve re-thought where to make that cut. I think it will be cut from the corners of the mouth, up under the eyebags and across the bridge of his nose-area. One clean cut so all four tentacles are grouped together. This is for a couple reasons: seaming four tentacles on is probably more time consuming that one line across the face. And when Terry is building the animatronics to move those tentacles, it will be easier to make a core and for him to figure out the electronics fitting with the whole part separate, and it will only be one extra mold instead of four.

I’ve also been working on finding a balance between a realistic looking decapod-humanoid and the cartoon character of Zoidberg...and it’s not easy. It’s easier to make something horrific or to make up something off the top of your head. But to stay relatively on-model and still incorporate some realistic elements is a tricky balance. I scraped off all the little test patches of texture and just focused on primary form and silhouette. When I started sculpting I was beating large chunks of clay onto the sculpture and using large rake tools with big teeth to cave away large shapes, but have since moved onto smaller rakes and smaller pieces of clay to adjust the subtler forms. When I was working on his neck earlier in the week, Mike Hill recommended that I wrap a piece of paper towel around the neck to simulate the collar of his wardrobe. This helped me visualize how the entire piece will tie together when it’s put on an actor. Zoidberg’s form is getting real close and the next major step will be to find a texture that will work this approach.

Thanks to Iwata-Medea and Smooth-On for providing materials and sponsoring this project.