When you ask anyone about Ray Shaffer, industry professional or student alike, they will tell you that he is the kindest, most genuine, and hard-working man they know. He is the gentleman of this profession. His road to make-up wasn’t a direct course, but that’s what has made him an excellent artist and a phenomenal teacher.
MUD: What was growing up like? And what led you to make-up?
Ray: I was born at the Submarine Base in Groton, CT. My Dad was in the Navy at the time and worked on nuclear submarines. Part of my childhood was very residential, and part of it was moving around a lot because I was part of a navy and a coast guard family.
I first got interested in make-up when I was very, very young. My mom was and still is a nurse. She’s been a trauma nurse for about 54 years, and she’s finally going to retire this spring. She used to work the 3-11pm shift at St. Vincent’s Hospital. She would get off work around midnight or so, and come home to get me out of bed to watch Mission Impossible reruns together. There were lots of disguises in the show and my head just smoked at the idea that people could be different people. My dad wasn’t into monster movies, but when I was 5 or 6 he would stay up with me to watch the Creature Feature at night. That was really cool because he’s a very down to earth guy and monsters really weren’t his thing.
MUD: What was your first introduction to make-up?
Ray: I remember when I was 12 or so, Dick Smith had a Monster Make-up Kit that you could buy at toy stores. I was saving up from my paper route to buy it, and I would go into KB Toy Store and look at it longingly. My birthday is in October and I was hoping to have it in time for Halloween, but I knew I was going to be a few bucks short. Well, on my birthday, my grandparents came over. My Grandpa drove a big green Chrysler and I was feeling bummed when he called me over to it. He pulled out a box and he had bought me the Dick Smith Make-up Kit!
Basically, the kit was vacuform molds and you made your own appliances out of gelatin (Dick called it flesh flags). He was looking for something easy to use and relatively non-toxic, which it was. The whole heating it up thing was a little weird. You probably couldn’t get away with that now. But the first make-ups or appliances I did were out of the Dick Smith Kit. Later on, I found “Stage Make-up” by Richard Corson in the library and that put me up on a different level.
I remember the first appliance make-up I ever tried to do on my own was a Rocky Balboa make-up. I was 14 or 15 trying to recreate the boxer damage makeup. I remember being very happy with it at the time. I lost the pictures, but I’m very glad because it was probably awful. It was a lot of fun. Later, I remember what a thrill it was to meet Mike Westmore when he came out to MUD to talk. He had been the make-up artist on the first few Rocky movies, and on First Blood and Raging Bull, and all these cool films, plus Star Trek. It was really cool!
MUD: How did you turn your interest in make-up into a career?
Ray: I started out wanting to act. I’d always loved make-up, but being from the east coast, I may as well have being talking about being a rocket scientist or being a ping pong player in China. I didn’t understand enough about the field to figure out how to make that happen. Because I wanted to act, I used make-up to augment my range as an actor. I’m a pretty unique looking guy, so unless I just wanted to wave a steak knife, or be the guy yelling, “die, grandma die!”, I needed a little help to make me believable as other characters.
In the course of working in theater in college, I was working on a type of play called a reconstruction. It’s where you take a classic text and rearrange it. It’s usually experimental theater. My college did Hamlet, and my roommate was playing Hamlet’s Father. Our director had the idea to make him a Viking Chieftain. And what do they do when a they die? They’re put in a funeral pyre. So we needed to have this crispy critter corpse kind of guy. A role like that is an awful lot for a 20 year old actor to wrap his head around. He tried different things, but wasn’t happy with what he was doing. So I built the mask for him.
I remember him putting it on and staring in the mirror and being very, very quiet about it. When you see your face burnt down to the skull, the whole idea of how much you’ve been violated hits you. That night at rehearsal, he was a whole different cat! I remember him walking off the stage and hugging me. I was so emotionally overwhelmed by that — it was probably at the point I jumped ship. I felt I was doing better work influencing other performers than I was enjoying acting myself.
MUD: How was your career starting to take shape at that point?
Ray: I sort of divide my career into East Coast and West Coast. My first prosthetic makeup job ever was in a theater in Massachusetts. I remember they thought I could age a whole cast for $50. And I did it! I ended up having to augment it with cotton and latex.
My first job on the west coast was for Rob Burman. It’s funny because it just got released! Andrew Getty, who was the grandson of John Paul Getty, was a sort of auteur. He wanted to be a film director. He had some very nightmarish visions and he tried to write a narrative around it. Basically, he picked away at this film for a long time. He would shoot it a little bit, then he would get upset and stop, then he’d start again with a different crew…and so on and so forth. He passed about 2 years ago or so and his estate had the work completed since he was in post-production, and just released it on DVD and Video on Demand. It’s called “The Evil Within.” There was some creepy stuff in there. There was a spider that was stitched together from human body parts. Lots of practical gags and lots of in-camera tricks, things with perspective. I’m not sure if there was any CG at all. But that was my first film. That was also my first job for Rob Burman.
MUD: When did the transition to teaching begin?
Ray: I came out to the west coast in the summer of 2000 and I worked intermittently then continually was a make-up artist, but primarily as a lab technician. That means I made molds, I did hair work, I did castings, sometimes when the sun shone in the right direction, I even sculpted. I did that for 10 years. In the late 2000s, a lot of things really depressed the film industry. SAG went on strike, and then the WGA went on strike. And then the banks crashed, and I navigated that as best I could but nobody was working.
I had to look for another opportunity. Also around this time my mother started getting sick. Mom is a tank so I knew if something was wrong with mom, then I wanted to be there. So I went back to the east coast to try to be of use to my family. In the course of wanting to stay busy, I was going through Craigslist, and there was an ad that the MUD NY was looking for instructors. At the time I didn’t even know MUD had a campus in NY! So I contacted them.
I know that I’m a patient guy, and I hoped that I’d be descent at teaching. I was surprised by how much I loved it! There was an adjustment. It’s challenging to take 20 people who are all at different motivation levels, ability levels and artistic levels and to guide them as a unit through things they sometimes don’t believe they can do. So there is a learning curve. What started out as something I wanted to try, turned out to be something I love very, very much. I think of friends back home who are knocking rust off of boats and making t-shirts and working in fast food stores, and I’ve got the best job on planet earth.
MUD: With having a career sculpting, molding, applying, and painting, what part of the process is your favorite?
Ray: What do I love doing? I love sculpture and molding. What is it that I love about make-up? I just love the whole idea that we can make things that never existed before, that you can sit down with a motivated actor, and a little artistic vision and hard work, and combine it with a bag of cement and a block of wax clay and turn it into people, and species, and creatures that the world has never seen before. It’s so creative and only limited by your skill set and your imagination. And there’s not a lot of that left in the world anymore. Everything is prepackaged. For us to be able to make something that is so unique and individual in this world is something else.
MUD: What has changed about the industry from your perspective?
Ray: I think computers have become a bigger part of it, but even that is cyclic. Now, there’s a big push back. I think make-up and computers are both awesome tools, provided they are used appropriately for their strengths. If I use a hammer to hammer a nail, it’s a wonderful tool. If I use a hammer to saw a table in half, it’s sort of a mess.
When all of the changes started happening was when Avatar came out. That scared the begezus out of all of us. There had been fun CG characters for some time, but Avatar was the first instance where a director could look through the viewfinder on the camera and in front of him were people in motion capture suits. In real time, he was seeing blue kitty people in the jungle. Basically when everyone saw that it was a huge hit, it freaked everyone in the industry out. Everyone making films at the time stopped and went into turn around mode. They wanted to evaluate this new option, and there was only one studio in the world that was doing work that good, WETA. Other studios caught up, but it took a while and in the meantime, nobody was working.
There was a time when every action or adventure film you saw was just filled with lots of cartoons. Then, there was almost a backlash against it. People were tired of watching confused looking actors standing around monsters that clearly aren’t there. The Star Wars prequels are a great example. People standing around in a green room looking confused. I think people missed what make-up brought to performances, like the physical space that they fill on screen. There’s a real tangible quality to them. If you look at the cast of Phantom Menace, they are clearly great actors but you look at how they struggled in that movie. Then you look at a movie like Alien, you have Sigourney Weaver in a real space with a guy in costume in a smoky alley with drool dribbling on her — that affects your performance.
Great make-ups in your presence effect your performance. All of a sudden, you feel like you’re in the presence of an alien, or a senator from another planet. That effects actors in a way that someone standing and talking to a mark on the wall does not. They’re effective in a way that CG often is not. It’s nice to see it come back. I think everything runs in cycles. In some ways, opportunities have declined, and in other ways they have not. There are far more people making movies these days — whether it’s a YouTube movie, Netflix, a feature, or a low-budget thing. In some ways, there seems to be more work!
MUD: What does the future hold?
Ray: I would be happy teaching as long as MUD is happy having me. I would be happy sculpting and creating make-ups. I’m getting better and look forward to continue to get better all the time. There are things I think are good or bad, but there’s always improvement that can be made.
MUD: What advice for make-up artists do you want to share?
Ray: Work hard and don’t quit. I know that sounds like such a stereotype. A lot of these pieces of advice you hear so often tend to lose their meaning, but I’ve seen wonderfully talented people not succeed when they only need to try a little built harder and not quit. A lot of time common sense and a work ethic are super powers. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it.
If I have no other gift, I hope as teacher, I have a gift to help someone who’s straight out of high school, or wherever they are in life, believe that they can get through a sculpture. And then they can get through fiberglass. And if you keep on trying, doors will open. All luck is your preparation meeting the right opportunity. So, don’t quit, and believe you can do it. The whole idea of being able to make something from nothing is very empowering. Rob Burman used to say, “once you learn you can make stuff, you’re never the same again.”