Have you ever wondered what it takes to be a Make-Up and Special Effects Designer? Whether it’s creating flesh-eating zombies from Dawn of the Dead to the visceral creation of Kuato from Total Recall, what does it take to get into the mind-set of someone so close to pushing the human anatomy beyond reality?
To find out I visited my friend Sammm Agnew. She is a professional Make-Up and SFX Designer and has worked in the film, television, music and theatre industry for over 8 years. Her room is cluttered with numerous boxes of make-up, a closet full of wacky outfits and a laundry bag full of wigs.
“It wasn’t so much of a decision to become a make-up SFX designer,” says Sammm.
“I started clubbing quite early on and, like any 14 year old girl that wants to get into a club, I put loads of make-up on!”
“I made myself into a crazy Goth drag queen or a Disney villainess and things kind of escalated from there. Soon I got fed up with the limitations of make-up and that’s when I got led into prosthetics because there’s only so much you can do working in two dimensions.”
Sammm’s family played a part in her interest for working in the film and television industry.
‘I have loads of family in the industry, but our work doesn’t really cross over. My father is a stage and charge hand at Pinewood and Shepperton Studios. Whilst studying, I had a work experience on Holby City in BBC Elstree and on the film Golden Age by Warner Brothers at Shepperton Studios. I was also on the Foam Run on the set of The Fantastic Mr Fox”
Sammm’s living room is home to loads of mini-sculpture projects. A severed hand sits comfortably near the fireplace, whilst an unfinished sculpture-head remains wrapped in cling film, awaiting its master’s next touch.
With an impressively gruesome portfolio under her belt (including multiple credits for Metal Hammer and Kerrang), Sammm doesn’t tire from her innate fascination of anatomical illusion.
“I think it’s fantastic that something our bodies naturally produce, we can make out of completely synthetic materials. You can make it look so real. On the other hand I’ve wanted to reproduce areas of the body that are edible. And glammed up in a way that makes them less real, using glitter blood for instance.”
Despite a penchant for fantasy, Sammm is no stranger to reality. She’s worked with the SAS, Army and Navy, training troops to handle casualties on the front line.
“You can use prosthetics to test the effect injuries have on soldiers. I was quite unaware of how realistic they were until I saw other people’s reactions. One guy saw the make-up I had used on a real amputee – I made it look like the person had just been amputated – and the guy ran away. I’ve seen people throw up and swear. Even the people who are meant to be treating amputees backed off as if they didn’t want to treat them – another guy went into shock for 12 hours…so that was something.”
A severed foot now rests comfortably on the floor.
“Wounds have always been easy to do and because of that I enjoy it, but it means I can take it a step further. For example, put a bone in there or add a joint. It’s really nice to be able to alter the human body in that way.”
Gore aside, Sammm’s inspiration for creating new pieces comes from reoccurring childhood dreams.
“I used to imagine a type of material that didn’t exist. The closest thing to it I’ve seen is aerogel and when I came across it recently, I thought to myself, that’s almost like what I’ve dreamt of. Dreams like this filled me with the urge to develop strange ideas that can be used in film and television projects.”
At this point Sammm’s partner Christopher Clark, from heavy Metal Band Xerath, pops his head around the door, “There’s another doll on the drive.” We rush to the window where lo and behold a doll lays smashed and decapitated.
“It’s been happening a lot recently – there was another one across the street last week,” he mutters before going out again.
The doll-gangland-warfare all seems quite apt for the Queen of Gore… “And creepy,” she shudders. Dolls aside, Sammm delves into the here and now of prosthetics.
“I really like the way they did Pinhead from American Horror Story Asylum, that was very effective – they’re clearly a bunch of fantastically made prosthetics and the way she was acting really brought it to life. It’s really nice to see a character come to life within make-up. You can always tell good make-up because it doesn’t look like make-up, the person and the materials become one. It’s only make-up if you notice it.”
A bag of limbs has now come out storage. ‘Baby’ rests peacefully on the table.
“Eraserhead is my favourite film without a shadow of a doubt. I love it and continue to do so. Eraserhead is a film that manages to illustrate a sense of state, a dream state as it were, where anything is possible and nothing is as its seems. It also shows what perhaps it’s like to be in a lucid dream.”
Having recently finished a project with Scottish Folk/Pop group Admiral Fallow for video Paper Trench and actor Jeremy Hill, Sammm is always up for a hearty challenge.
“Jeremy is a fantastic guy – he plays all the long shots of Hagrid in Harry Potter, he’s 7ft tall and we had to turn him into a tree. That costume was in production for a long time – like 24 hours a day for a week! It was made of tree, wire, plaster and real bits of bark. He also had a latex facial prosthetic and we covered it with powder for a really nice texture and moss for the intricacies of the face.”
Sammm talks passionately about how Hollywood make-up maestros Dick Smith and Tom Savini are the precursors of everything that is prosthetics.
“They are a massive developmental machine to the industry that is prosthetics, they were the forefathers as it were.”
Having worked on up and coming short film Dregs, Richard Hammond’s Secret Service, UFO starring Jean Claude Van Dam, promo for Resident Evil on the Chop Shop Playstation game and Hellraiser’s 20th Anniversary promo, Sammm Agnew is a growing force in the world of horror. Her artistic direction and creation is limitless. She’s a machine in her own right and continues to devise a diverse collection of work through film, television, theatre and the music scene.
“I’m really interested in things that are meant to be cute but also scary, like something you really want to look after, but can just turn around and bite your face off…you don’t know its capabilities and I think that’s really exciting.”
As I’m about to leave, Sammm unpacks the bag of limbs, ready for rental on a feature film this week. They look so very real I can almost smell them…
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