I met Dennis a couple of years ago while in the early planning stages for my own short horror film, Toad Boy, which is screening at genre festivals this fall. The artistry and enthusiasm he brought to the project was instrumental in our early success and led to acceptances by Toronto After Dark, Telluride Horror Show, and Knoxville Horror Film Fest, to name a few. He was even nominated for Best Makeup Effects from HorrorFest International in St. George, Utah.
It was an honor to collaborate with Dennis and a blast to catch up with him for this interview.
PHIL MCLAUGHLIN: Were you always drawn to horror films? What are some of your favorite movies?
DENNIS PRESTON: I honestly didn’t start watching horror films until later in high school. I always thought horror films were just dumb and not my thing. This, of course, was because I had never actually watched a horror film. A lot of them are dumb (which I think is part of their charm), but many are brilliant and can inspire some unique conversations. I truly believe that the horror genre has the largest and most loyal and loving fan base. You just don’t get the same kind of community with comedy or action. As for my favorites: Aliens, The Descent, Chucky, The Feast, and Rubber.
PM: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in practical and special effects? What sort of training or schooling did you pursue?
DP: I attended the American Academy of Art in Chicago, where I got a BFA in Illustration. While at school, I came across a promotional flyer on the community board from J. Anthony Kosar, an alumni who was teaching mask-making classes. I took the half-mask course, full-head mask-making, airbrush, and then the makeup effects class where I learned how to sculpt, mold, mix, pour, and apply my own foam latex prosthetics. It was during this time that I worked on my first film as a special effects makeup artist. The film was never released, but after that experience, I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.
PM: Are there specific artists, films, or television shows that directly influenced or challenged you?
DP: Character designer and sculptor, Jordu Schell, has definitely
influenced me in how I go about my sculptures. But I don’t think there are any specific films or TV shows that directly influence me. Anything that has a cool makeup or practical effect makes me excited to try it for myself—and make it look realistic.
PM: What’s the most challenging build or effect you’ve done? The most fun?
DP: Every project presents new challenges that I welcome with open arms, but I would say that Toad Boy was my most extensive and challenging makeup to date. It was the first time I needed to break up a sculpture into pieces and float it off the initial lifecast. This means after working for hours upon hours on the creature sculpture and perfecting it, I had to take a knife to it and cut it up (strategically, of course). The fun part was actually figuring out the best places to cut the sculpture so that during application with the actor, I could create a seamless edge as if it was still one complete piece. It was a lot of fun! That’s the best part about projects—not only designing a creature or character but figuring out the best wake to make it a reality. Although very tedious at times, I truly enjoy it!
PM: How has your process evolved over time? Are there resources you turn to when taking on a new project?
DP: My time management and efficiency have improved immensely. As with anything you do over time, you get better at it.
As for resources, I’m lucky to have a great network of friends I can reach out to if I have questions about something that I am unfamiliar with or unsure of. There are also numerous books I can turn to, and the Stan Winston School has an enormous library of courses available online. I’ve been doing special effects for ten years now, but I’m always learning.
PM: What about Toad Boy drew you to the project?
DP: Honestly, I was excited to meet when I learned you were an editor on Fear the Walking Dead because I really enjoy the show. But as we talked more and more abut what you were hoping to achieve with Toad Boy, I knew I wanted to get to work and design this character. I love projects that present a challenge and allow me to explore a new process or technique.
PM: What was the process for the hero makeup effect in Toad Boy? From design to production - and what happens on the day?
DP: First, we went back and forth discussing the look of Toad Boy with reference images. I then used those images to develop sketches and color studies until we were satisfied with the look.
Then, before I could move on to sculpting, we needed to make the lifecast of the actor. This is the process of taking a mold of the actor’s head, neck, and shoulders so I can sculpt the prosthetic directly onto the mold. This process allows the prosthetics to fit perfectly on the actor who will be wearing them. Once I have the initial positive of the actor, I make necessary corrections, clean up imperfections, and then make a second mold so I can have a proper bust to sculpt on.
After the sculpture was complete, it was time to figure out how to cut it up into sections—making a one-piece prosthetic wasn’t practical. I ended up cutting the sculpture into four pieces and then floated the sculpture.
We now move onto a second bust of the actor (this bust is able to be put into the oven). I use the four floated pieces and apply them to the stone bust before making “snaps.” Snaps are individual molds made of the pieces or sections of the sculpture that were cut in the previous steps. Once the molds are made, they are filled with foam latex and sit in the oven for hours.
Now we bring our four foam latex pieces to set. We applied a bald cap to the actor, Cliff Chamberlain, to keep his hair clean and then, like a puzzle, we added each of the four pieces to the actor. The edges were blended, then painting started with a base coat before airbrushing. The toad eye was hand-painted and finished with a coat of clear epoxy to make it look glossy. Add a wig piece, and we had ourselves a monster.
The process on set took almost 8.5 hours. I’d like to add, Cliff Chamberlain was phenomenal, sitting as still as a statue for those eight hours. One of the best I’ve ever had in my chair.
PM: You also constructed our reptilian homage to the Necronomicon, the Necromagica, as well as helped with some dead body makeup and scarring effects. Is the process any different with these?
DP: It’s definitely a lot less intensive. More out of the kit than requiring any in-shop prep.
PM: Still, the level of detail is evident, even in these less intense effects. Thank you again for bringing your expertise to the project. Your work is a significant factor in the festival success of the film and the leading subject of praise from festival programmers and fellow filmmakers.
Looking ahead, is there an effect or build you’ve always wanted to do?
DP: I really want the opportunity to create something large, like Jurassic Park T-Rex large. Or maybe Lake Placid crocodile large. Something that requires an entire team of artists to bring to life!
PM: Last question: store bought blood or homemade?
DP: I prefer to make my own blood.
For more information, pictures, and links to Dennis Preston’s social media, please visit prestonperspectives.com.
For information on Toad Boy, including a trailer and upcoming festival screenings, please visit toadboyfilm.com.
Art copyright © 2023 Dennis Preston