Emmy-award winner Ed French on his life in SciFi

Edward French was awarded an Emmy in 2017 for his work on the hit SciFi series Westworld. Photo credit: Ed French

When we read speculative fiction, our minds conjure up the most fantastic creations. Through writers like H.G. Wells we are able to transcend time and space, even envision the most terrifying aliens. How these creatures look, however, is entirely dependent on our own imagination. Ed French is an Oscar nominated and Emmy Award winning special effects make-up artist whose job it is to bring such dreams into the realm of reality. He has worked on some of the most successful science fiction franchises, Star Trek and the Terminator series, and now, more recently, on Westworld. We asked him some questions about his job in the entertainment industry.

Historyradio.org: How does one become a special effects man in Hollywood?

Ed French: Talent and perseverance. Luck plays a part. I think you have to love the whole process of film making . Most of the people I know that do this for a living dreamed about working in movies from an early age.

Historyradio.org: How much of what we see on TV and cinema is produced by make-artists and special effects men (and women), like yourself, and how much is the vision of the director

Ed French: On T2, James Cameron had a very clear, specific vision about every aspect of his him. He made his own drawings. When I worked on Star Trek VI, Nicholas Meyer wouldn’t micro-manage. He gave me complete freedom to create the alien characters the way I saw them. I’ve often worked on projects where I was contracted to create a character based on a drawing by an art director or rendered by a production artist. In the end though, when that character arrives on set, the finished work of the makeup artist will determine if the “vision” has succeeded.

Historyradio.org: Do you have a particularly well-developed imagination?

Ed French: I think that as A Special Effects Makeup Artist I’m a conduit for other people’s imagination. I’m a creative person. I feel as though I’ve come up with some imaginative ways to make characters or certain effects believable to the camera’s eye. Interesting question. Quite often I’m required to create an effect such as say, an autopsy makeup with an actor lying in a morgue with a closed, sewn up “Y incision” scar and 3 bullet holes in the chest. That should appear exactly the way the audience EXPECTS it to look.

Historyradio.org: How do you know if an alien is realistic on not? Are you inspired by creatures in nature?

Ed French: I don’t consider most of the aliens I ’ve done to be “realistic.” Star Trek is to realistic aliens as “The Wizard of Oz” is to realistic lions…perhaps the most “realistic aliens” were the ones in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” They were mysterious entities beyond our comprehension and Kubrick depicted them as such. Sometimes the alien makeup concepts I do will integrate elements from a creature in nature. I try to make them appear somewhat plausible. Organic.

Historyradio.org: Some of the make-up work is extremely elaborate. What is the longest make-up session you have had?

Ed French: “White Chicks.” It took almost 5 hours to turn Sean Wayans (an African-American comedian) into a white woman. And after that, constant touch-ups were required. I was trying to maintain a “beauty” makeup over prosthetics that transformed a black man into a hot young white woman. I would start at 3:30 AM and work till 7P.M. And then I had to clean the prosthetics and body paint off, which usually took about an hour. There were a few shooting days when the turnaround was about 6 hours.

Historyradio.org: You have worked with some pretty famous actors. Do you ever get star struck?

Ed French: I’ve worked off and on for 15 years creating the autopsy and “scene of the crime” trauma and casualty make-ups for N.C.I.S. spending a lot of time in “Ducky’s” forensics lab in scenes involving David McCallum. When I was kid, his early TV appearances on The Outer Limits and The Man from U.N.C.LE. made a huge impression on me. I’m always a bit in awe when I’m working around him. He was Illa Kuryakin!

Historyradio.org: What is your favorite type of job? Do you prefer regular make-up, aliens, monsters or period drama?

Ed French:  I like my job because I get to do all those makeup categories. I particularly enjoy creating historical look-alikes. I like to feel like I’m an entertainer. It’s magical when you make someone up to look like Albert Einstein or even the Frankenstein Monster. Everything stops on the set and everyone wants their picture with the character.

Still image from Westworld

Historyradio.org: How much has CGI and computers affected the special effects make-up business?

Ed French: It has eliminated a lot of “creature effects” that use “practical” makeup, prosthetics or creature suits, animatronic puppets and so forth. A lot of my colleagues have reservations about CGI being used to “touch up” their makeups or replacing makeup altogether. I think its fabulous if it can correct a prosthetic makeup that NEEDS a touch up.

Historyradio.org: In the series Westworld, the characters are human robots. Did this pose any special challenges?

Ed French: This is where C.G.I. hasn’t quite taken over completely. We had robot actors that required full body makeup. In cases where the robots went back for repairs we would apply prosthetics simulating the effects of massive trauma injuries. Chests ripped open, skulls partially blown off, arms missing, etc. There were some fun challenges. We did authentic period makeup for the “old West.” Facial hair and Beards for the men and cowboys. Native American makeup too. There were a few days when I got to do a Samurai makeup with a bald pate.

Historyradio.org: You are also blessed with a wonderful reading voice, and publish audio narratives on youtube. How did you get into audio production?

Ed French: Thanks. Through a circuitous route. I was a radio announcer for a couple of years back in the 70’s. I would have been more at home with radio during its golden age. Radio drama and comedy, all that stuff was long gone by the time I sat behind a microphone. I abandoned radio for theatre and as that career sort of fizzled out I found a niche in Special Makeup Effects just as it was gaining momentum in the 80’s. It was fortuitous. However, I never lost the urge to want to perform. I think it was 9 years ago (?) I discovered that the equipment to make professional audio productions at home was available commercially. When I was in radio everything was analog. We recoded on big magnetic Ampex tape reels. There was a learning curve with the digital software. I’m still astounded by what you can create with just a lap top, and audio box, Audacity WAV editor and a microphone . It has enabled me do my “Day Job” and play the storyteller on the side.

Historyradio.org: What is your favorite piece of speculative fiction?

Ed French: H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine comes to mind when you ask that. Or The Invisible Man. There’s a man with imagination. He wrote before the cinema invented, or at least before the techniques of film story telling had moved beyond the “staginess’ of the early silent movies. His work, particularly The Invisible Man is cinematic. When I was recording it I could see vividly how every scene would be filmed. Close-ups, wide shots, shock cuts.