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Emmy Watch 2016: The Reality Behind “Face Off”

By: Marjorie Galas

There’s a reason makeup artists Dick Smith and Rick Baker have recognizable names.  Smith created the transformative prosthetics that turned young Linda Blair into a haggard demon in “The Exorcist” and Marlon Brando into jowly Don Vito Corleone in “The Godfather.”  An apprentice of Smith, Baker was the mastermind behind the wolf and ghouls in “An American Werewolf in London.”  People love the transformative powers special effects makeup holds, and is the key to the success of Syfy’s “Face Off” – a reality show still going strong after ten seasons.

Creators Mary Celenza and Derek Atherton had been working in variety and reality production for years on shows including “America’s Got Talent”, “Last Call with Carson Daly” and “WCG Ultimate Gamer.”  Both fans of special effects makeup, they saw the potential it had in the growing reality format and developed a pitch that was snapped up by Syfy.  It took some experimentation: for instance, one day proved too short a period of time to give contestants for the intricate effects creations.  After the show debuted in January, 2011, they continued refine what they had.

“We hoped we’d come back after the first season, but you are really lucky if you get a second season,” said Atherton.  “We were just always trying to make the show the best show we could.”

Prior to heading into the second season Celenza and Atherton closely reviewed the first season.  They had a dedicated focus on the interactions and dynamics between the contestants, fortifying the reality aspect of the show.  They concluded season two would take a different direction.

“We toned back the reality component, we didn’t like the direction the show was taking,” said Celenza.  “We wanted to focus on the creative element, not the interpersonal conflict.”

Music has played an important role in the show from the start, and continues to do so.  In fact, it drives the storytelling process of each episode.  Celenza and Atherton screen every piece, and select roughly ninety percent of what’s heard in the episodes, then work with a team of editors to cut the episode to the music track.

“It’s one of our favorite things to be involved with in the show.  We started with a rock edge.  It has evolved, it’s more modern and electronic, but it isn’t edgy,” said Atherton.   Noted Celenza, “It adds to the feel but doesn’t take away from the excitement.  It’s all about showcasing the art and the process.”

To capture the process of the contestants’ art and techniques, up to seven cameras are constantly shooting, capturing ten hours of footage a day.  Story producers are constantly writing down quotes and events, communicating specific elements that need to be focused on throughout, and additional support staff take field notes.  Celenza and Atherton hired editors familiar with the prosthetic process, and working together with the notes and footage that is delivered, they find the best story threads to develop.

As the seasons have progressed, Celenza and Atherton remain focused on finding ways to keep the show fresh as well as avoiding redundancies in the contestant’s challenges.  In season nine, with the support of Syfy, they introduced short form films.  Six short form films appeared throughout the season.  The format allowed the contestants to work with up and coming directors, incorporating the art form into three minute narratives.  There were ten short films created in season ten; all of which are viewable on the Syfy website.

Always looking for additional ways to keep the show fresh, Celenza and Atherton keep an open dialogue with makeup companies.   Working with sponsor Kryon Makeup and keeping an eye on industry news, they review the latest products and techniques, always ready to find the next inspiration for a contestant challenge.  While there is nothing Celenza and Atherton would confirm “Face Off” fans will be seeing next season, there are a few innovations they are keeping their eye on.

“In a broad sense, 3D printing is set to revolutionize the makeup industry,” said Celenza.  “We’ve been talking about this new technology.”

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