She also does less gruesome stuff, like sculpting wrinkles and set design—but all of it takes some serious skill.
Interview by Kati Young
Prosthetics and special effects makeup function as an unusual symbiosis of arts and entertainment, drawing on sculpture, technology, and everything in between. The profession can also come across as a bit a mysterious or obscure: we see the finished product of the work on stage and screen, but rarely get a glimpse of what goes on behind-the-scenes. It’s also largely temporary: like the monks who spend hours on their sand mandalas only to destroy them afterwards, prosthetics can take hours upon hours to craft and are usually only survived by the film or photographs in which they were captured.
Though the work is fleeting and largely unseen, the profession itself is swarming with an amazing amount of dedication and experience. Alice Soro Cillara epitomizes this to the fullest. In addition to being a set/interior designer and an all-around pro, she’s worked as a professional prosthetics artist for movies, advertising and theater for almost a decade. First working in various cities throughout her homeland of Italy, she spent the past four years working in the indie film industry of the Philippines and has now relocated to Denmark.
“I always like to just go with the flow,” as Alice explains. “Of course I always check what the opportunities are because I am very career-oriented, but I really like randomness.” We decided to have a chat with the talented and determined prosthetic artist and designer herself to hear more about what’s next for her, what drives her and what her chosen field looks like from the inside.
GIRLS ARE AWESOME: Hey, Alice. How did you get started with set design and prosthetics makeup together?
Alice Soro Cillara: I also do scale models, decoration, props, and so on, but I studied set design. While studying, this friend of mine told me that there was a school in Milan where they taught prosthetics and suggested that we go. I never had seriously thought about doing prosthetics, but I figured, why not, let’s try it. I took a five-month course, and my professor and I got along really well, so after I finished my degree I went right to work with him. At that point, I had my degree for prosthetics makeup, but I still needed two more months for my degree in set design. I told my professor that I would be his assistant for free before I had to move on, and that he needed to teach me everything he knows—everything that he didn’t teach me in school. After two days of working with him, he said, “actually, I’m going to pay you and I want you to work for my company.”
You’ve moved around a lot, starting out in Italy and living and working for almost four years in the Philippines, and now Copenhagen. They seem radically different; industry-wise, how do the trends and expectations differ between them?
You can find a lot of similarities in the movie industry in Italy and Denmark, but in the Philippines it’s like a whole other planet. They are very strong in the indie movie industry – they won the Golden Lion in Venice this year, they’re winning so many awards lately – and they also do a lot of big blockbuster movies because they really love dramas and horrors. Talking about prosthetics, though, the industry is really not there yet. They don’t even have a course for prosthetics or the materials there, even like latex and basic stuff, it takes forever. There are just a few people who are good prosthetics, but I’ve noticed that since it’s a tropical country and you’re supposed to use less – because it’s too hot and the makeup melts – they actually do the opposite. They apply a lot—even with straight up, regular makeup, they’ll put on layers and layers of foundation, a lot of contouring, and so on. Here in the north of Europe we do quite the opposite. But it’s supposed to be the other way around, you know?
It can be very challenging working there with prosthetics makeup, because you’re working outside and it’s 35 degrees and everything is melting, and the actors aren’t used to sitting for five hours in a chair for makeup and then when they go outside they’re scratching and everything… It’s hard. But I can’t explain to you how talented and creative they are as well. They really try to make the most of what they have, and it’s something that I don’t see as much here in Northern Europe. We are very spoiled; we can just cross the street and buy whatever we need, without necessarily having to problem solve.
It seems like a tight budget can be really limiting in some ways, but at the same time, having limited means can really push you creatively as well.
Yeah, you have infinite choices to do whatever you want if you have the money. But if you don’t, you really have to try to make the most of what you have, and that can be one of the best ways to learn how to solve problems. I remember this time I was working on a movie where we were shooting for more than 30 hours and were sleeping in the makeup tent, and at one point I woke up and everything was floating. Everything was flooded and all of the makeup was floating inside of the tent. We didn’t know what to do. We had to fix all of the prosthetics and everything, but it was a Sunday so everything was closed. My two assistants used to tease me that I could teach a class about doing prosthetics in the Third World—like how to cast the face of an actor with only half of the supplies you need, or if you have the silicone but it’s expired.
It’s totally different here, but when you work with someone who is educated about prosthetics…it’s rare, but then it’s easy. But when you work with a director, they have no idea. I worked with this director once who decided that the very next day he wanted to change the plan and cut the throat of an actor, with blood spurting and all of that. I was like, no, we can’t do it tomorrow; I have to cast his neck, do a prosthetic, buy the silicone and so on. It would take at least five days just for that, but he had no idea what he was asking. Also – and it doesn’t matter where you’re from – if you don’t have the experience about what is involved, then it’s just hell for everybody. Pre-production has to start at least two months before shooting; if you want to do something within a few days, it’s just not possible. People can be so ignorant about prosthetics, they just watch a tutorial on Youtube and think they know how it works. Especially if you want something to look realistic, with all of the HD cameras that they’re using now and closeups—the preparation is just long, and if you want to invest in that, then it’s going to take time.
I’m very lucky because I can always pick the projects I work on. I don’t have to always work, so I can pick something that I really like and want to be involved in, and that’s what drives me. And I’m also lucky because I don’t just do prosthetics. The last job I had, I was painting the ceiling of an African king in Swaziland. It was interesting. But especially with prosthetics, I really can’t stand boring or shitty productions: I don’t like blockbusters and I rarely do zombies. In the Philippines I was only working in the indie industry, and it was really interesting, and it’s tropical there so that was new to me as well. I was really into that, it was like a breath of fresh air.
How much overlap is there between set design and prosthetics, and any of the other jobs that you do?
Not that much. If you do prosthetics, you basically need to know how to build, how to paint, how to sculpt, how to cast and mold. Extreme prosthetics are called animatronics, so there’s like a robotic soul inside—like Jurassic Park. When you do a set design, like for theater, most of the time it’s like building a structure that has to move, because you’re limited by only having the stage. In prosthetics it can be exactly the same, so in that way it’s also very connected.
Do you have a preference?
Not really, I enjoy doing everything, just as long as it’s not the same thing. I like to jump around. I’m very into details—I really love doing textures, like when I have to do an ageing makeup to make an actor look older. I love doing the texture of the skin, it’s so satisfying, and it really helps the actor: it’s completely different to act like you’re yourself as an old person with the proper makeup. You can see yourself that way, the other actors can see you that way, and overall it’s easier to get inside the character. Especially compared to if you only have a green ball or some dots, like with CGI.
With CGI getting better and cheaper, do you think it could ever come to endanger your work or replace what you do with makeup and prosthetics?
No, I’m not worried. I don’t think it can reach the reality of what we do; I don’t think it’s going to be possible, even in a hundred years. The quality of CGI can be amazing, and if it’s well done it doesn’t disturb you when you watch it. But still, it depends: like, what’s the genre? For example, if you ever watch Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, other del Toro films—he used to be a prosthetics makeup artist, and he knows that if you want to reach that deepness with your images, you can’t just use CGI. It’s like when you’re in love with a person and you have his picture: you look at the picture and it’s exactly the face of the person you love, and you can close your eyes and have your memories. And then you have the real person in front of you. It’s a whole other planet. CGI cannot reach that deepness—it’s 3D and everything—but the textures, the details, the soul…I don’t think that will ever be replaced by CGI.
The thing is, we need to combine the two things: prosthetics with CGI. They have to work together, and that’s what gets the best result. I can’t do a fake hand walking on a table, that kind of thing is just better with CGI. It’s the same the other way around. Like with Benjamin Button, all of the makeup was real, and then on top of that they added CGI. It’s like coffee and a cigarette: it’s a marriage, and you can’t disconnect those two things.
So do they also teach CGI in prosthetics classes, as part of the curriculum?
Unfortunately the school where I went wasn’t like that, but there are some crazy-amazing schools out there where they teach you everything. It’s mostly in the US and New Zealand, or here in Europe some of the best are in London. For me, I just started working immediately after, and that’s how I was taught everything I know.
It’s very much based on experience, but also it’s so much about your team. You need to work with trusted people. You can’t just do a sketch about a possible concept for a play, for example, and get along with that. You need to have all the suppliers of fabrics, materials, all of that, and then you need the painter, carpenter, everything. You can’t just jump from being a set designer to being a prosthetics artist and then a decorator. If you want to be a set designer for theater, you have to follow that path, and that’s it; you can’t do anything else if you want it to be your career.
I was just lucky, because when I started working with my former professor, it was part of a company where he was handling the prosthetics and body painting parts, and there was a person that was doing scale models and props, and then another who was doing set design and interior design. They needed an assistant, and I was jumping from one person to another. I didn’t have a free day ever, but that’s how I learned everything I know. I was just in the right place at the right time, but it’s not at all common. It’s actually nearly impossible to have all of these different types of training and the scenario for these possibilities in your life. It’s not the usual path, but it was amazing, and I’m so grateful.