Mike Elizalde had the sudden realization that his life calling was to be a special effects makeup artist during his 8-year career in the U.S. Navy.
He says he originally thought the Navy was going to be his lifelong career, but as he got into his second enlistment, he started getting tugged by the memories of the monsters he so loved as a kid.
“I was thrilled by watching old horror films with my dad on Friday nights,” says Elizalde, who immigrated to California from Mexico when he was 5. “‘Bride of Frankenstein,’ ‘The Wolfman,’ ‘The Mummy,’ all the movies from Universal in the 1930’s were my absolute favorites.”
As he grew older, Elizalde says he started experimenting with paint and started painting his face like Dracula. And once he had his eureka moment, he says he started taking out books from the library. One called “Techniques of 3-Dimensional Makeup” was especially informative about creating prosthetic effects.
“I ate that book up and started buying the materials they recommended,” says the now award-winning artist. “I glued them on everybody and took pictures of them and sent them to studios in Hollywood. I got out of the Navy on an honorable discharge, and about three months later, I got my first makeup job…they hired me on the spot…I had no doubt this was my calling. It felt really exciting.”
Within several years time, Elizade says he had the opportunity to work in many prominent studios, and he is grateful to his esteemed colleagues who he learned a great deal from and helped him move forward.
“Probably 12 years into my career, I was assigned to ‘Blade 2’ by Guillermo del Toro,” he says, recounting how he met his director friend. “He’s my paisano…After working on ‘Blade 2,’ he offered me to do the effects for ‘Hellboy.’ So I did, and I opened Spectral Motion in 1994.”
He says ever since he established his own makeup and creature effects studios, opportunities started coming at him “fast and furious,” and he’s still very busy today.
“I really enjoy animatronics…I love all of it…prosthetic makeup and sculpture,” says the 52-year-old, who still sounds as excited about his career nearly three decades later. “Being in the Navy, I had a year-and-a-half in technical school. So I did understand physics and mechanics. I didn’t have a college degree, but can I fix my own car. I’m good with tools.”
As far as materials, he says he uses almost anything you can think of, from carbon fiber, silicon, foam, latex, clay, resin, epoxy, and leather.
“Creativity is the key to simulate something that is alive,” says the master monster creator, who is often extremely busy guiding the approximately 60 artists and technicians he has working for him. “Every day is really different…but I work on a sculpture, that’s my outlet. You really have to put some effort to stay creative. So I do. I keep my hands in the clay a little bit.”
When the team is working on a film, Elizade says they get up at 4am and shoot for about 12 hours, and the day ends at 12 or 1am.
“Sometimes during those tough weeks we hardly get any sleep, but when you see your work up on the screen, it’s all worth it to see a creature that makes the audience gasp — that’s what makes our job worthwhile,” he says.
Out of the more than 65 feature films he’s worked on, Elizade says the new “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” has been one of his favorites, besides “Hellboy I and II.”
“It was so much fun,” says Elizade, mentioning that it was filmed in Berlin, Germany. “It was one of those wonderful experiences where you have a perfect relationship with the directors — and they give you freedom to create. We had a production team who understood us — that’s so valuable.”
He adds he got to apply a lot of witch makeup, and he enjoyed that the director and producer had them create everything in front of the camera, instead of using the more standard computer graphic digital effects. He describes one of the characters he helped design — Edward, the 8 foot tall troll.
“It was a huge character with giant hands and a huge padded suit,” says Elizade. “An actor was inside wearing an animatronic suit — making the face and hands move — the actor does the acting, and four puppeteers are in charge of the movements.”
Elizade believes there’s a certain magic in using practical effects rather than digital.
“It feels like the monster could be in your backyard,” he laughs. “We’re doing a lot of interesting stuff — just finished the first season with the SyFy channel for a show called “Robot Combat League” — where 8-foot tall monsters beat each other to death.”
Work on the second season will be starting soon.
“There’s a lot of stuff happening, but films are my first love,” he says — you can almost hear him smiling.