Meet SFX Master Kenny Myers: From Star Trek to The Last Samurai
The behemoth stand for Premier Products Inc (PPI) dominated the north wing of the hugely successful United Makeup Artist Exhibition 2016, last weekend in London.
The PPI stand was not only impressive in scale but also in calibre. It showcased some of the biggest names in special effects makeup, from the global film industry.
In partnership PPI and Skin Illustrator launched a new palette with Oscar nominated Love Larson and Eva Von Bahr, during the fantastic two day event that brought together the best of the industry.
At the helm of Skin Illustrator is multi-nominated and award winning makeup artist Kenny Myers. He is the ‘godfather’ of special effects makeup products and creator of the original Skin Illustrator SFX palette.
Dressed in a floral shirt Kenny Myers is disarmingly laid back and his deep, rolling laughter is infectious. You’d also be hard pressed to find a more honest voice or a man of more integrity in Hollywood.
Kenny and PPI want the stand to ‘feel like a big living room’ so everyone can get up close with the artists without feeling crowded. He especially enjoys the UMA Expo because of its relaxed, yet highly professional atmosphere. But most of all he says he ‘just loves meeting new people and talking shop’.
This is the same man who has worked with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood including Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Hugh Jackman to name but a few.
Kenny Myers has also worked on some of the most successful films of our generation; Back To The Future: Parts II and III, Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End and On Stranger Tides, The Last Samurai, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Star Trek: V and VI, War of the Worlds, the list goes on!
Listening to Kenny you are enticed by his passion for the craft and enchanted by his irreverent love of the often wild, yet wonderful world of film making.
Impact of Star Wars on SFX Makeup
He started in the business in 1979 after graduating with a Masters in Theatrical Design. Kenny explains, “I came out of college when Star Wars ricocheted around the planet and special effects exploded with such ferocity because of that movie. I happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
“I know George realizes the impact Star Wars had on our culture but I’m not sure if he fully understands the impact it had on the makeup effects industry. Up until that point there weren’t that many people involved. Of course there was Stuart Freeborn and maybe a handful of other folks around here and even less in the States.
“But Star Wars lit a fuse with every little kid (which I wasn’t at the time) but it literally lit us all up. It made it possible for this industry to explode the way that it has.”
Having recently finished a world tour for Star Wars with Harrison Ford, at 64 years of age and given his remarkably successful career, I ask Kenny what still excites and motivates him to keep working.
“Well how often can you say you get to fly with Han Solo, much less powder his nose?” says Kenny.
“Just when I get cynical or totally beat after an eighteen hour day and drive home thinking what the hell am I doing, all it takes is one right word about an idea or a project and I think oooh that sounds like fun. I’ve never done that before and I go right back to it.”
Kenny is very honest about the challenges of being a makeup artist, especially when dealing with artists, “Nine times out of ten they’re just as scared as everybody else but they all show it in different ways, sometimes they’ll be snippy, sometimes unfocused, sometimes they turn to a little help.”
However Kenny points out that often those artists feel like they are carrying the weight of a multi-million or even multi-billion dollar movie so the pressure is immense. He explains that it’s vital to create a safe haven for the actor in the chair but never to lose sight of servicing the producer and the director.
It is often a volatile environment, “It can be an exciting atmosphere but it can also be ‘Oh no you don’t really want to do that do you? Oh god that’s so wrong!’ But you suck it up because that’s your job, to please them not you.”
“If you can take something positive from it good for you but if you fight it you’ll blow your brains out. But you know they don’t teach any of this in the makeup schools,” declares Kenny.
He is brutally honest about artist education and protecting new entrants to the industry;
“Schools need to stop lying to students”
“Schools need to stop lying to students. I’ve caught some of them saying ‘come to our makeup school and you’ll be a makeup artist and be able to make this kind of money’. That’s just not going to happen so easily as that.”
Kenny is adamant that there is no such thing as overnight success in this business.
“Graduating out of a makeup school means nothing other than now you’re prepared to begin to start all over.”
“The smartest thing you can do is go find a working artist who will let you sweep their floors, if they want to take on the liability of it. Then you clean the toilets until someone says ‘OK come here I’m going to show you how to make this mould’ or ‘hold this’. That’s the only way, be an apprentice.”
Kenny is equally dismissive of your chances of breaking into the industry by being a contestant on the likes of television’s Face Off.
“It has launched a couple of successful people but for the most part that’s not the way to go. Why? Because they’re not prepared. A game show is not really preparation or substitute for ten or twenty years of working in the industry and learning your way around.”
Kenny started out with a traineeship with Academy Award winner Chris Walas (The Fly, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and was part of the early years of experimentation within the burgeoning special effects community in Los Angeles.
It was whilst he was working on television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer that he began experimenting with products for special effects makeup. He and the team were looking for long wearing skin tone colours that would work better on prosthetics makeup.
The birth of Skin Illustrator
The journey to Skin Illustrator was born out of experimentation and necessary invention for a makeup tool that was missing. At the time there was another product on the market known as Tattoo Colours by Reel.
Kenny explains, “We needed skin colours but I couldn’t get them to pay attention so I started experimenting. I got deep into chemicals and mould making materials throughout the 80s. I taught myself how to break down all the various compounds and ended up creating my first palette.”
The team on Buffy were so impressed they requested palettes for themselves and so Skin Illustrator was created. Kenny’s new alcohol based colours were extremely long wearing and needed little repair during long filming days on set.
Constant testing on productions by working artists meant word of mouth soon spread. What really set Skin Illustrator apart was Kenny’s burning desire to produce it according to FDA guidelines. At that time many special effects makeup products were still being produced ad hoc in garages. He wanted a legitimate stamp of approval that proved both efficacy and ethical production methods.
“I struck a deal with Premier Products who are an FDA licensed manufacturer. To this day my wife and I still mix the colours ourselves. We have no life but we still mix every single colour!”
His collaboration with PPI for Skin Illustrator was just the beginning. He now has an extensive range of makeup products that you will find in most SFX artist’s kits, from the Green Marble Sealer Spray to his range of Fleet Street Blood products.
Despite his remarkable success Kenny still credits his achievement to working with other exceptionally talented people. He is an unashamed fan of the Oscar winning makeup designer Lois Burwell, with whom he formed a lasting professional partnership.
“Lois is sweet but a real feisty bag of stars!” says Kenny.
They would work together on the Last Samurai when Kenny was keen to be part of the crew in order to join his wife in New Zealand, who was also working on the production. Otherwise it would have meant six months without seeing Karen, who is also an award winning makeup and hair artist.
Lois initially turned Kenny down as the production was already fully crewed but due to last minute changes a vital space opened up on the team. Lois wanted Kenny to work with Tom Cruise. Kenny wasn’t interested and as he says, “I didn’t want the stress,” so he politely declined.
Lois later told Kenny that she was thinking, “Oh really! I’m going to smash you in the face.”
The next day she marched up to Kenny and declared, “You’re doing Tom with me and I don’t want to hear another word out of you.”
Kenny says he simply answered, “Yes Ma’am.”
As it turned out Kenny hugely admired her working style and the way she developed her creative team, especially as Lois insisted on precious pre-production preparation for the entire makeup department.
Kenny tells me, “Lois is the finest department head I’ve ever worked with.” They would also go on to collaborate on the Fleet Street Bloodworks product range.
When asked about his career hi-light he throws his head back with that deep, infectious laughter of his, “I can’t just pick one, that’s like saying you have a favourite child and neglecting the others. The films I have done feel like my children. I’ve loved every one of them, even as challenging as some can be at times.”
Kenny is technically only a few years away from retirement but it’s hard to imagine this power house of energy sitting on the porch with a pipe and slippers any time soon.
As if reading my mind Kenny says, “I still get lit up by the idea of a collaborative creation. And I still learn something new every day. I’m 64 and I’m not done yet. I don’t know if I’ll ever be done!”
Discover the full range of Skin Illustrator products for yourself at www.skinillustrator.com
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