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Exclusive: FX Artist Todd Masters on HEMLOCK GROVE & TRUE BLOOD

Makeup effects maestro Todd Masters (pictured above) has lent his skills to projects as diverse as Tales from the Crypt, Fringe, Slither, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, and True Blood — for which he’s worked on all seven seasons. His latest assignment, however, brings him back to his hardcore horror roots, with nary a sparkly vampire in sight. Masters and his team were brought onto Netflix’s Hemlock Grove for its second season when the show’s producers decided to take a less-CGI heavy approach to its visual effects. As Masters demonstrates for us when we catch up with him in LA, his team’s technique involves integrating practical and CG effects into a seamless whole, resulting in some of the most realistic supernatural horrors yet put on television.

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“This is Olivia,” begins Masters, referencing the above creation. “At the end of the first season she [as played by Famke Janssen] gets her tongue ripped out. So this year we had to show it sutured back together. So if you look carefully you can see the sutures in there. This was used for a big close-up on her face to really sell that.”

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“This is Bill Skarsgard,” Masters continues, shifting his focus to a head on his worktable. “It’s for a close-up that you’ve probably seen in the trailer where his eyes get sucked away. I did this because Bill obviously doesn’t do that with his own eyes.”

Another character Masters worked on this year was Shelly, the sister to Skarsgard’s Roman, who’s played by a new cast member in season 2. “Shelly is played by Madeleine Martin this year, and she really rocked the performance. In the first season she was really kept in the shadows and the makeup was rough and wasn’t so good. This year they really wanted a real performance. So we upgraded the makeup. We actually animate the eye so she comes alive. We didn’t do season 1. We only did season 2, and we were really brought in with a mandate to raise the bar, to see what we could do better.”

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Masters again focuses on the creations lining his table, including the model above. “This here is Landon Liboiron, who plays Peter. This is a cast of his face that we actually used for him to transform. So this puppet actually comes out of his mouth, and we filmed this in the same lighting. We now use practical and digital and mix them together.”

“We do these tests and use our staff – our Masters fx team – to show how we can show real effective eye blood. And the effectiveness of digital combined with practical. Johnny puking up a werewolf initially gave us the idea, ‘Why don’t we do it this way, guys?’ My producer saw this test and freaked out. Because he didn’t know we could do this kind of stuff. All the jiggling comes from taking this material… For Landon, we actually shoot him emoting and getting all his energy out. What we’ll do is then track his face – we have a 3D mesh on top – we’ll actually track every movement. We’ll save that data. We’ll use it on top of this fake skin and muzzle on top, and them composite it. It allows for the best of both worlds. We get the feel of it actually happening to him along with a real organic look.”

Regarding the show’s move from digital to practical, Masters says, “Some of the producers wanted to keep it all digital. Others were like, ‘Let’s make it like a send-up of American Werewolf in London. If Rick Baker had all of those tools at his disposal back then he would probably do a transformation like this. So we wanted to use the best of both. CGI is mostly used as an additive, but we really kind of lead with the practical stuff. It’s not really about practical or digital, it’s really trying to mix them for whatever’s best. So we’ll storyboard stuff, and we’ll figure out what shots play best with what technique. Then by marrying them together sometimes you’ll get a look that no one else can get.”

“The werewolf transformation should blow people away. There’s a couple of these throughout the season. The opening episode has the transformation I think that’s gonna be really spectacular. That’s gonna be the real showstopper. The people who love the American Werewolf and Howling transformations, they’re gonna love this one.”

We tell Masters we’ve visited many film sets on which effects were done practically, only to be thrown out and replaced with digital effects in post-production.

“Yeah, it’s erased,” he says. “Not us. We’re all in house, so we actually use it as a tool, both practical and digital. They’re both tools for us to create the final image. That’s really where you get the best stuff. Practical is just more persuasive. You actually believe it. If you can do really good skin – like the hand-punched skin we use to make it look like hair’s really growing out of it – you can really sell that. That’s gonna be more believable. It looks real because it is real.”

“We’re totally unique from every other monster shop, no one’s using techniques like we use. It really makes it a lot more fun for us, because we don’t just do part of it and then give it over to a visual effects house. We can really take it all the way through the process and really make some unique images.”

As for what’s next for Masters, he tells us, “With our process here, we actually got a movie green lit. So we’re doing a movie called Master Cleanse. It stars Oliver Platt and Anjelica Huston. We’re just literally starting to shoot that tomorrow. It’s directed by Bobby Miller. I’m an executive producer on it. Our company is presenting it. We just literally wrapped season 4 of Falling Skies, and we’re just starting up on season 5. We’re just today and tomorrow wrapping True Blood forever, which is kind of freaky. We went from Six Feet Under, working with Alan Ball, and then we started up on True Blood and kept going with him. He left a couple of seasons ago unfortunately, and we just kept going and kept killing more vampires. I always thought True Blood was kind of the show to do for all of this, because of the sex and blood. But it kind of lightened up the last couple of seasons, and Hemlock Grove came along and really allowed us to play however we wanted. They were interested in ideas, they were really engaged in the kind of work we could bring them.”

When we ask Masters what we can expect from this final season of True Blood, he replies, “A lot of dead vampires! It’s like what we’ve been doing every year. But this year I think there’s a more exclusive body count. We’re taking out the stars this season. In some cases, we’ve had to bring back actors – I can’t say who – that we haven’t seen since the beginning of the show. We brought back actors that we really hadn’t had to deal with since the origin. So now it’s kind of sad to see them being bumped off.”

In describing the differences between his work on True Blood and Hemlock Grove, Masters says, “Typically the way it works is they do a lot of CG werewolves on that, as opposed to Hemlock, where it’s a lot more practical. Actually, I think the werewolves are better on Hemlock.”

Looking back on the last seven seasons, Masters names his favorite effect. “Nora’s death was really cool. When he twists Miranda’s head around when he’s having sex with her, that was one of our favorites. I think that’s the real True Blood water-cooler effect – that’s sex and violence altogether. That actually came out of an idea that we pitched for a neck break. The same kind of thing – practical-digital, where we’re using a practical head to twist and then adding the face. That’s the kind of really fun things we can derive from using this technique. So that’s stuff that’s even gone into True Blood as well.”

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