Our Bloody Valentine
Movie makeup artist Matt Valentine reps Austin on SyFy's reality competition show 'Face Off'
It was Halloween at Elysium, and a monstrous, decaying hand tapped me on the shoulder. That ghoulish pallor, that fetid skin, the demonic uniform, and the half-chewed stogie: It could only be Sgt. Graves, one of the freakish trademark creations of local practical FX innovator and costuming conjuror Matt Valentine. The Sarge (as he's known to his friends) had a message for me: His twisted creator is a contestant on season two of Face Off, SyFy's reality TV competition for movie makeup artists and costume creators. For Valentine, what's important is not that he's a makeup artist, but that he's an artist – period. Yet his creations are different from most works of art. "It's not in a museum," he said. "It walks around and interacts with people."
I remember my first visit to Valentine's Austin workshop back in 2007. He was preparing for Halloween, surrounded by latex guts and foam severed limbs, crafting costumes to terrify. It was a candy-coated corruption, part Mario Bava, part Dr. Seuss, and Valentine seemed an unlikely ringmaster for this torture circus: quiet, serious, as likely to reference Francis Bacon as Freddy Krueger. Four years later, he and his brother, Mike Garcia, now run their own haunted house and movie effects firm, Global Fear Enterprises, and in March, they head to St. Louis to unveil their new collection of props and costumes at Transworld, the Halloween industry's biggest trade show. Valentine seems as surprised as anyone else at this evolution, and that he will be splashed all over national TV for the next two months. "I'm used to being introverted, the brooding, tortured artist in my studio for a week or two, not seeing any people and not seeing any sunlight," he said. "Getting thrown in front of these cameras and interacting with other people in the house, it's really mind-blowing, and I totally didn't expect it to be the way it was or affect me the way it did."
He almost never competed. A Global Fear client in Buffalo, N.Y., told Valentine about the first season and recommended that he audition for the second. Valentine said, "It seemed really interesting, but I thought, 'These guys are really good, and I'm just not at that level at this time.'" After a few prompts from friends via Facebook, he finally watched some episodes, "and I thought, 'This is really cool, and you know, maybe I could stand a good chance.'" The day before the submission deadline, he finally emailed the producers and got a call back almost immediately. He called what he signed up for "makeup boot camp ... creating full-body characters in 12 to 15 hours from concept, sculpting, to application and painting." He also had to contend with living in a houseful of strangers, both competitive rivals and creative peers – an odd situation for a man most at home drawing, carving, and pouring in isolation. Being self-taught and after being his own boss for so long, he said, "It's almost like The Wizard of Oz. ... It felt like being in a dream world to the point of being on the show; it felt like reality was a dream. Did I really live in Austin? Was my family still here? Then after the show it felt like: 'Was it real? Was I really on it?'"
This blood-drenched feel-good story is a nightmare away from his gore-deprived childhood. Growing up in a very religious household, Valentine said, "It was hellfire brimstone preaching that we couldn't celebrate Halloween. So as I got older and was out on my own, I was able to get back into that and experience that Hallow's Eve spooky feeling that I had missed out on as a child." Not that there were no fantastical influences on his infant mind: Classic Eighties kids' cartoons and his brother Mike wove their spell, too. Valentine said, "He'd draw ThunderCats and He-Man and Transformers, and I was a big fan of those shows as a kid, and I'd try to copy him." As time went on, his mimicry exceeded his brother's work, and from there he added depth, "just messing around with Play-Doh and Sculpey and papier-mâché, and it all just blossomed into creating artwork that doesn't just live on paper. It becomes three-dimensional and lives and breathes." The last component is to give his creations a story to tell: Even as a child, he was driven to create histories for his playthings. "It wouldn't particularly be connected to the actual storyline of the toy, the cartoon, or whatever," he said. Even now, he tries to create an internal logic for all his creations, from aliens to zombies, so that the unreal feels real. "It's important to have a backstory," he said. "Otherwise they can be the most amazing, visually appealing image, but if there's nothing behind them, they're very bland and only one-dimensional."
Now the show spotlights his distinctive designs, a mix of Saturday morning cartoon sugar rush, performance art, and high fashion that he calls "dark, avant-garde horror that's not your mainstream, spooky-boo, creepy horror that's more prevalent in the industry." Valentine hopes that, by the end of the season, viewers will know his work when they see it. He said: "I have clients all the time telling me: 'I want this, this, this, and that, but give it that Matt style. Give it that flair.' They have a hard time articulating what it is, but I love that, because it's almost like they're branding me." Whatever it is, it surges through characters like Sarge and his signature creation, Mr. Creep – the necro-icon, the pimp of darkness, and a "Best of Austin"-winning Halloween institution. "There's some Tim Burton, some Michael Jackson, some Sean Connery, Willy Wonka, the Cat in the Hat – just a bunch of my inspirations all mixed up into one and poured out with this crazy, kooky character that really went over well with a lot of the fans."
All it takes to trigger a creation, he said, is one little, twisted idea. "David Lynch talks about it: You just need one fish, and you throw that fish out in the ocean and the other fish will catch on. The other fish are bigger ideas, and you want that one big one that's sitting at the bottom of the ocean. Once you get all those little ideas, then the story will form around those, and it will be very cohesive and appeal to the masses. That's how I work. I pick little things that are visually stimulating and to me stand out, and if you get enough of them of them you will get this amazing piece of work."
The first challenge of the first episode of Face Off tested that skill. The competing artists had to dress their models in costumes that summed up their individual styles and influences, selecting their clothes, props, and makeup pieces from a pile in a trailer. "When the time starts, everyone runs straight for their models. Well, I run straight for the trailer because I want first pick," said Valentine. "In your mind you're thinking, 'You've only got two hours, you've got to conceptualize this character, and you've only got one shot.'"
No matter who wins the show, Valentine argued that the makeup artist's craft is the real victor here. "We've never been put out there as an industry to this level," he said, and he credited SyFy for "giving that young, youthful, glamorous gloss to the makeup industry." Valentine tips his hat to pioneers of putrescence and icons of ichor like Jack Pierce, who flattened Boris Karloff's head for Frankenstein, and Rick Baker, who made an American werewolf's fur fly all across London (see "Rick Baker: Monster Maker," Sept. 23, 2011). Those innovators did their greatest work before DVD extras could chronicle their labors and were never celebrated at prime time. Valentine said, "They never had that chance, but through their work they've inspired these younger generations, and we're the new rock stars, we're in front of the camera showing our best work to a younger generation that's going to be rising up."
He continued, "I'm extremely proud of every piece of art that I brought to life on that show. Each one of them, I've put myself in it: All my inspirations, all my influences were brought out, and I never compromised once. I'm particularly proud of that."
The second season of Face Off continues Wednesdays at 9pm on the SyFy Channel.