British animatronics and prosthetic specialist Neill Gorton has developed a name for himself on the sets of Saving Private Ryan (1998), Children of Men (2006) and Doctor Who (2005). Starting at only 17 years old, he has won the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Awards four times with six nominations, and won the RTS (Royal Television Society) Awards two times with five nominations.
Having grown up watching other renditions of the same monsters he now recreates for Doctor Who, Neill Gorton’s successful makeup career is a childhood dream come to life. Now, with Doctor Who as a career-defining project, he spends much of his time on set redesigning his own characters rather than those of years past. The show’s humanoid robots “cybermen,” for example, have already been reimagined and recreated three times. This opportunity, he says, is due to working in TV instead of film: “you can take a great character and start exploring different directions.”
But Doctor Who isn’t Neill Gorton’s only career milestone. “In my teens it was working on Hellraiser II and Nightbreed…in my twenties the next big milestone was Saving Private Ryan…[and] in my thirties when Doctor Who came around it’s just ticking off all these great things” he says. Here’s some of his best stories and advice:
- When recreating a character, do your research. “You have to show respect to the source” says Gorton. As he finds himself reinventing characters that have been been previously featured on Doctor Who, he says it can be difficult to find a balance between an old design and a new update. Thus, instead of completely reimagining something, he advises artists to reference back to original designs and focus on carefully tweaking it for a modern setting.
If big productions aren’t for you, try TV instead of film. Although Gorton has had the privilege of working with some great directors, working on film felt to him like he was just a “cog in the machine.” When working on The Wolfman, for example, Gorton says he went to a production meeting with almost 120 people. “You can’t even have a conversation because you have to shout at everyone across the room” he says. In television, however, a makeup artist is able to work with a smaller crew and take on a greater variety of projects.
On working with Steven Spielberg: Gorton says working with Steven Spielberg was one of his most exciting jobs. “He could edit in his head” says Gorton, and “there was so much attention to detail because you only need to do one thing wrong in one of those movies and there will be people pointing it out.” After life casting all the crew for Saving Private Ryan’s deadly battlefields, for example, Spielberg stopped him because he had made the bodies look British rather than American–something that had never occurred to Gorton. Working with that level of film craftsmanship was inspirational in his career.
On the future of special effects makeup: Although the onset of CGI might scare a young makeup artist interested in special effects, Gorton gives us a comforting dose of reality: “people love new new toys,” but “then when they see something live they go: ‘hey, there’s something else there: it’s on the set, I can light it, I can perform with it, I can do something else.’ “ When Jurassic Park was released, there were all the same fears circulating through the industry, and now 25 years later there are even more professional artists doing special effects. According to Gorton, all that’s going to happen in the industry now is “closer collaboration” between technology and makeup artists.
Thanks for talking with our students, Neill!