Opening Up with the Monster In The Closet: An Interview with FX Artist Jeremy Selenfriend

Opening Up with the Monster In The Closet: An Interview with FX Artist Jeremy Selenfriend

Jeremy Selenfriend is a New Jersey based family man who’s the Owner and Head Artist at MONSTER IN MY CLOSET, a special effects studio specializing in make-up, prop fabrication and much, much more. His efforts behind the scenes are what deliver many of the scares we love to see on-screen. These effects are hyper-realistic, dripping with blood & fun, and painstakingly crafted to journey to the furthest limits of our twisted imaginations. Jeremy took a bit of time from his busy schedule to offer a peek into the world of monster making.

How did you get your start in special effects make-up?

My unofficial and official start are two very different things, I started first at 9 years old (Inspired by WPIX Ch. 11’s October, edited for TV Horror flick screenings) by decorating my house for Halloween. Cutesy wouldn’t cut it though, so I would stuff sweat pants and sweatshirts to make my very early attempts at headless corpses, using red fabric for blood since I didn’t want it all to wash away outside.

My proper start came many years later in my teens when I started playing around with video cameras making home movies and the like, and eventually assisting and doing make-up and FX on school plays. I played on that volunteer level for many years working on student and low budget projects in exchange for materials and photos to fill my book with. All the while, I was also working as a Production Assistant on major studio projects shooting in NY & NJ which allowed me to make some amazing and necessary connections in the film making world. After getting some formal training from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and Dick Smith’s course, I sought out internships in working shops. I found those first with a shop called Peru Meridian, then with makeup fx artist Josh Turi (now an Emmy winner for his work on Saturday Night Live). Josh was one of many talented artists who has been instrumental in helping me understand how the film industry works in relation to make-up artists and FX work.

How do you approach the beginning steps for the build of a project? Do you tend to involve others in this process or strictly delegate?

It really depends on the project. because I am working on many different levels of project (from shoestring budgeted indies, to well funded indies, to studio fare etc), each has its own rules that apply when starting let alone when seeing it through to completion. In some cases, a fully realized idea comes to me with no question as to what they want to see, in other cases, its just a vague idea in the script that needs to be fleshed out. I do most of my own design work, but on occasion I have out-sourced concept designing to other artists if it is an area I know they are particularly good at and if I feel they may present a fresher take on something than I can give.

What inspirations do you draw from as an artist, both Horror related and non-Horror? What other research goes into your process?

No matter how hard a sculptor or 2D artist tries to avoid, hints of things they have seen will always work their way into the work. We are subliminally inspired by such things and its hard to keep track of every great make-up or creature we’ve ever seen to know its 100% unique. The best we can hope for as artists is that we give a fresh spin on an idea every time we do it. We’ve all seen 1000 different zombies and werewolves and vampires, so it can definitely be hard to find a unique spin, but there’s always something to change it up a bit. I like to get my practical inspiration and reference from real world things that may not be directly relevant, but still connect on an anatomical level. For example, I used elephant skin as a reference for an ancient humanoid alien. The two had nothing in common, but the extreme texture worked out very nicely.

What’s been one of your most challenging effects?

In the new world of HD all effects are challenging. The RED camera system in particular has made for some very stressful situations where things that the naked eye doesn’t perceive are all of a sudden visible on the monitor and you have to figure out a means to disguise a seam or hide a tube in a new way. Fortunately, CG and VFX assistance is around, and when used in conjunction with practical effects can make for some really amazing results that level the field on those challenges. The same basic challenges are still the same though, watching appliances to make sure edges aren’t visible, disguising them as best as possible when they are and teaching actors safe ways to eat during lunch without completely messing up their prosthetics!

How do you feel being an artist of practical effects in a digital age?

There was a point when I was studying that I saw a new human face completely rendered and expressing dozens of emotions in CG. It was highly convincing (although bald) and I had great worries that the industry wouldn’t be around long enough for me to even enter, let alone make a career out of. Then I read how big name artists were coping with CG, their feelings, and just really kept my eyes open watching the big cg efforts of the time. This was 1999, so the first Star Wars prequel and the Mummy with their solely digital main characters were the major example I had to look at. They was good, great even, but they still felt false. Then I looked back at movies which utilized both cg and practical to great extent like Jurassic Park and Terminator 2, and those movies are mind boggling. The majority of the fx in each still hold up, while Jar Jar and the Mummy have grown a bit hazy in their believability. A good CG effect is fleeting, because the next great CG creation is only months away. A good practical effect is timeless, because real is real. There is no competing with the alien queen from Aliens, or Jabba from Return of the Jedi because they actually exist in all their massive glory.

As time went on, some directors fully embraced the digital 100%, but others look at it as a means of blending the best of both worlds to the highest possible art form. The Harry Potter films are great examples of each half of the FX puzzle being used to amazing success. The line is very often blurred in those films between what is CG and what is Nick Dudman’s amazing creations. I find now that most of my effects are enhanced, sometimes even sadly replaced, but they always begin on the practical side. Even a fully CG creature has to be sculpted in the real world first.

How did you establish your studio? What efforts go into spreading the word of Monster In My Closet?

It was a fortuitous chance really that my shop came into existence. I was working as an apprentice for the above mentioned Josh Turi, and part of that internship was spraying plastic/vinyl bald cap prosthetics for Alcone (a theatrical supply company in NYC). Josh had a shop in North NJ which facilitated his spray booth. After nearly a decade of doing it, Josh no longer wanted to deal with the bald cap aspect of his career and simple asked if I would like to take it over from him. I jumped at the chance, as aside from the caps turning from an internship into a full time responsibility, it also gave me capitol to run a proper FX shop as opposed to working in my freezing garage like I had been till then. Having my own shop meant forming a proper business (an LLC in my case) and taking on advertising and the like. I had never taken a business class in my life, so everything was brand new to me. I don’t think I would have been able to do this in an age prior to Google! Advertising was easier, as I just utilized the websites and listing I was already looking at to get work, now Instead of using them as free listings, I was just paying for ad space. In the beginning years, I would say 75% of my work came from Internet and local publication advertising. Now in my 8th year, its a steady mix of advertising, word of mouth, and simple familiarity.

What are some of your favorite Horror films?

My first horror love was and will always be Freddy Krueger. Elm Street 3 affected me so deeply, that during a stay in the hospital when I was in 3rd grade, I was often unable to sleep, convinced I was going to either wake up on a window sill with my tendons being use as a marionette or that the TV would sprout arms and yank me out of my bed. Aside from their ability to scare the crap out of me, the Elm Street flicks also showcased mind blowing FX (most of which still hold up to this day). Some others on the roster are The Exorcist, Poltergeist, Candyman (I still think of the scene with Tony Todd whispering “Helen” in the parking garage every time I am in one and pick up my pace a tad) and Pet Cemetery. The main plot of Pet Cemetary didn’t really get me, but the image of the car struck Victor Pascow, and Rachel Creed’s sister Zelda really got under my skin. That and the sliced Achilles tendon…

Its tough to find a bad… I mean unwatchable horror film. Even the worst horror films comes with a remarkable charm. No one sits around watching bad comedy or bad dramas, but a bad horror flick is an event, and the worse it is, the more fun it can be. I’ve certainly worked on my fair share of crappy horror, and those are often way more fun to watch than the successfully terrifying ones.

Can you explain some of the challenges of working on a film set?

Set work and set etiquette is tough to learn. This is why my time as a Production Assistant was so crucial as I was able to learn my way around a set, what is and isn’t appropriate, even the proper walkie talkie lingo. Every kind of set is totally different though. An indie set is worlds away from a studio set. Studio sets come with chain of command, and multiple opinions telling you different views, etc etc. On an indie, I can walk right up to the director and say here’s what I think about the shot, what I like, what I dislike, because I’ve been in constant touch with the director all through pre-production and filming. On a studio set though, I talk to any number of producers and Assistant Directors, but rarely the director themselves. I have never had the pleasure of being department head on a major studio feature, so I don’t know the exact level of direct involvement an fx artist has with the director during pre-production, but I’ve been on plenty of studio sets as a working makeup and fx artist and have only rarely seen my department head have direct correspondence with the director. This sort of thing was important to know, as a slip up or mis-timed comment can give an artist a bad reputation. No one wants to work with an artist who says things like “hold on”, or “give me a few minutes” or is never there when needed because they’re hanging around the crafty table. Fortunately, my union provides artists with the basic guidelines, but the rest is up to each of us. One good rule of thumb, don’t wear white on a day when you’re working with a lot of blood!

What initially draws you to a project?

I’m not picky. I don’t really care about the quality of the script or talent of the actors, if there are some good FX challenges in there, I’m all over it. Good dialogue and acting are great, but my work isn’t judged on those things. I’ve read plenty of reviews in my time with comments like “the only redeeming quality was the quality of the FX work”, aside from stroking my ego, it taught me that FX stand apart in a film. When you watch a horror flick, even a terrible one, you often read reviews like, “horrible movie, but lots of T & A and great fx, so check it out”. I do get tired of gore stuff, as all fx artists do (especially with the recent and now constant onslaught of home camera made movies with liquid latex and store bought blood generously heaped onto an actor and labeled as FX work) so I look for projects that have at least something else to offer besides constant gore. There are only so many times you can feature a severed head in your book of work. If there isn’t anything but gore, I do my best to try and mix up the gore a bit, and talk the production into going farther or more elaborate than they might have intended. Why just chop a head off, when it can be violently ripped off by hand? Why just stab someone when you can have the killer slam his hand into the victim and pull out a seemingly endless stream of entrails, etc etc.

I am at my happiest when a creature or monster or alien, or even great character prosthetic is in there though. One of my favorite make-up movies is Thinner for the sheer volume of prosthetics involved. Almost everyone right down to the gypsy that curses the protagonist is wearing a face full of great character altering appliances!

Then of course budget, either end of the spectrum is really exciting. Really nice padded budgets are great because you can do things you wouldn’t normally get to do both in size and in volume, and smaller budgets are fun because its always interesting to see what kind of challenges you can overcome as an artist. Using a careers worth of existing molds and old school tricks to create something screen worthy on a low budget can be very rewarding!

What advice would you give to aspiring directors when dealing with special effects and artists like yourself? What advice would you give to others that want to enter into your field?

For first time directors, unless they have experience with FX previously, take it slow. Listen to your artists and let them explain the process. Ask questions, it may annoy some artists, but in the end, an informed director is gonna give the artist the time and respect he needs to deliver. A director who has never worked with FX before is likely to be impressed by something not at the top of its game or not be willing to give something the adequate time if they feel its “good enough”. The fx artist has to be the one to explain how long things can take, and that they dont always go right in a single camera take. Its up to the artist to help the first time director understand that its not really feasible to plan a shooting day with 8 pages of dialogue and also 3 effects. More often than not, the fx will keep getting pushed and pushed towards the end of the night, and now the artist who has been waiting patiently for 12 hours to get his previously scheduled 2 hours of working time is told he has 20 minutes. Its not a completely avoidable situation, but an informed production leader can at least minimize these occurrences.

Its also the fx artist’s job to explain the limitations if any to the director. From their position, they asked for an effect, left your shop, then like magic some time later said effect is on set. The director is unaware of the sleepless nights, sliced fingers and piles of crushed coffee cups that are standard in any busy FX shop, so they must be made aware that sometimes last minute changes are not possible, at least not without some re-working of the shooting schedule.

As far as advice to prospective future FX artists goes, know that it is one of the most competitive fields there is in the film industry. No matter how good you are, there will always be someone better than you, and of course plenty of people worse who still manage to get good projects, It can be very frustrating. Stick with it though, thats the best advice I can give. Keep doing it. Learn anatomy and always have a sculpture going, do practice makeups on your friends and loved ones, read the trade publications regularly, take plenty of pictures of every aspect of the job from sculpting to mold making to hair punching. If you’re especially good at one aspect, use it to open doors for you! I have hired plenty of freelancers based on one specific ability. And for God’s sake, weed through your portfolio every once in a while and take the older stuff out! No prospective employer wants to see 50 photos of bloody zombies, no matter how good they might be! You are only as good as your worst piece of work, so keep that in mind as you put together the book that represents you as an artist!

Many thanks to Jeremy for his time. Check out the Official Monster In My Closet Website and their MySpace Page. Be sure to check out Jeremy’s YouTube Channel for make-up tests and other behind the scenes goodies.

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Born in the steel scrap-yards of Lorain, Ohio, Zach Shildwachter is a VHS Vagabond wandering the Cleveland landscape in search of the perfect Horror movie and Banana flavored snacks in preparation for the Zombie Apocalypse. Until the Dead walk, our Hero remains an Aspiring Filmmaker, Compulsive Writer, Self-taught Artist, and amateur Super-Hero.

One Response to “Opening Up with the Monster In The Closet: An Interview with FX Artist Jeremy Selenfriend”

  1. Stop the madness man, Jeremy’s work is awesome! Really great interview Zach.

    “A good CG effect is fleeting, because the next great CG creation is only months away. A good practical effect is timeless, because real is real.” Amen to that.

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