In Season 10 of Syfy’s FACE-OFF, Mel Licata went the distance. She managed to make it through countless obstacles and landed a spot as one of the final four contestants of the season. Mel’s infectious enthusiasm and sense of humor quickly made her a fan favorite in her season. I sat down with Mel Licata to discuss the challenges of creating make-up under duress, her make-up experiences before and after television, and why she became a make-up artist in the first place.
ComicsVerse: So let’s start with your background: how did you get into effects in the first place?
MEL LICATA: I went to Rider University on a theater scholarship and I had to be involved with the theater, but I wasn’t an actor. So I got involved with make-up as a sort of brush off position. But, I ended up really falling in love with it and getting to do a lot of creative things. Being at Rider as a freshmen, I became the head of the make-up department, which was not a coveted position. No one was fighting me for it. It was exciting because as I got better, directors started being able to do more with me.
CV: How did you end up becoming the head of the make-up department? Were you the only one doing the job?
MEL: My freshman year…someone was the make-up head. She bequeathed it to me…I always dreaded my involvement in the plays prior to make-up. I had to audition for them.
CV: But you weren’t interested in the acting portion?
MEL: I had to audition to fulfill my scholarship requirement, but make-up was how they kept me involved. And while it started with corrective and beauty make-up it evolved… [director and head of the theater department at Rider University Dr. Chmel] was directing a show by Tracy Letts [BUG]. It’s very violent and the characters in it are scratching what they believe to be bugs out of their skin. He gave me a copy of the script before he cast it and asked me if this was something I thought I could do because I had worked with him on CABARET the year before on the Emcee.
CV: And you were primarily doing cosmetic make-up for CABARET?
MEL: Yeah…for all the plays I was doing just basic theatrical make-up. And working on the Emcee was the first time I did something that was somewhat exceptional…and that was the first time I felt like I could be a make-up artist as a career…and it just sort of developed from there.
CV: They were like “we gotta give you something, it’s gonna be make-up” and now it’s-
MEL: Now it’s my life! [laughs]
CV: So you do BUG, you graduate from Rider, where do you go from there in terms of your make-up effects career?
MEL: In school I had my first professional make-up position where I was paid to do BEAUTY AND THE BEAST for a high school. I would do make-up for my friends’ productions, school productions, and very low-key things, but I wasn’t doing it professionally at all. It was just something I was interested in and then if somebody needed something they would ask me for it. Then I took a couple gap years in China and then I found myself looking for opportunities in make-up overseas. We actually had a zombie themed party where I did everyone’s make-up…and even though I was in China…all my goals were like “if I make enough money here, I can pursue that career,” because for me pursuing make-up seemed like a sort of an illogical career. Not that what I was doing in China was logical [laughs]…in my brain it felt like a more certain path to study another language in a competitive country. I decided to come home…I went back to school and I’ve been pursuing it professionally ever since.
CV: What school did you go to when you came back to America?
MEL: I went to Tom Savini Special Make-up Effects program. It’s in western Pennsylvania. It’s like Hogwarts.
CV: [Laughs] What made you enroll in that particular school?
Mel: I did a lot of research on different schools and…it’s the only degree program in the United States [for special effects], most of them are certificate programs and they’re less than half a year. Tom Savini is a two years associate program. And I felt like, to learn everything I needed to know, I needed more than a few months and I knew basic out-of kit-effects [basic effects that don’t require sculpting or molding] so I was learning more complicated things and I wanted to be in an environment where I would have time to foster those skills.
CV: When you got there did you feel like, because you’d taken a sort of “off the beaten path” trail to make-up effects, “wow, I’m totally out of my league” or did you feel like everyone was kind of on an even keel with each other?
MEL: There’s no requirements you need to get to enter the program…there were people that were much better than me and there were people who were much worse than me. It was just sort of, you go in, and they teach you ground up regardless of your level of experience…I was home for a month from China when I went there, but I didn’t feel out of my league competence wise…only in speaking English [laughs].
CV: You weren’t really familiar with the larger scale prosthetics (going to the Savini School), the kinds of things you did on Face-off, did you have any concerns going into that?
MEL: I never sculpted in my life before, so I was very…I was sort of just rolling the dice on my whole life that was something I was just going to figure out. Because if you can’t sculpt you’re pretty limited.
CV: When you got to Savini school, what did you feel like your biggest challenge was there?
MEL: Something I’m still working on now is silicone. Silicone is the new industry standard; it’s pretty much what everyone is using in film and television, and I feel like I didn’t dedicate enough time to it in school. You’re allowed to put your interests where they lay, which is kinda cool because you really get to develop certain skills, but if I had known how valuable silicone was I probably would have spent more time doing that. I got really strong in foam application and sculpting and painting and I missed some things that could be very helpful for me now, but in general…I already went to school and had sort of a normal collegiate experience where I partied and, y’know, stayed up all night and turned in papers late. This was something I went into taking very seriously. I would stay up late, I would work extra hours on things, I really cared about what I was doing and I knew I was there for my career. I think a lot of times people leave Savini being like “I wish I had taken it more seriously;” it’s something I’m grateful for was going in, deciding to take it incredibly seriously and annoy all my teachers. By the time I left there wasn’t much more I could have done.
CV: Speaking of the time you had off, what did you do after Savini school, before FACE-OFF?
MEL: I graduated from Savini on a Friday, and that following Monday I started esthetics school. This is because my ultimate goal is to be a make-up artist in the union, and in order to be in the union they have your esthetics license so that you can…being an esthetician is a skin care expert. The board of the union wants to know that you’re not going to be hurting people’s skin that you’re touching when you’re working on major motion pictures.
CV: So you’re working towards that license, were there any particular jobs or anything that you picked up in that time or was it mostly focusing on the union?
MEL: Well, I graduated that Friday, Monday I went to esthetics school [for four months], and then two weeks later I went to FACE-OFF.
CV: What was it that made you want to go on FACE-OFF?
MEL: It’s something that obviously is talked a lot about in our industry whether it’s positive or negative, a lot of people have an opinion about it. My teacher Drew [Talbot, Season 7 contestant] had been on the show…and he had such a positive experience on the show and coming back it got him so much work that I felt like it was something I would go for. For me, FACE-OFF was always a short-cut; it was never a destination. It was not why I got into effects, but I felt like if I could do it, and the timing was right, it could only serve to benefit me…so for me, having this ridiculous timeline of school-school-FACE-OFF-
CV: It doesn’t seem so crazy-
MEL: There was nothing standing in my way for not doing it.
CV: Besides your teacher, were there any other friends of yours who ended up on the show?
MEL: Yes! My friend Nora [Hewitt] was actually the winner of season 9…my friend Caleb who I went to school with was actually on my season.
CV: You get to FACE-OFF, what was that experience like? We all watch reality TV and I’m sure some of us wonder how weird that must be. FACE-OFF is not as invasive as some reality shows are, but what was that experience like for you? Did it totally change what it was like making make-ups versus when you made them at Savini school?
MEL: Well, I mean everything is sped up to such an enormous degree, I don’t think people at home realize how insane it is where something we do on the show in 20 hours, in the industry we do in a month.
MEL: So it’s really…it’s a big time leap. And for the show, I didn’t know how it was possible, a lot of people ask me “how is it possible you do that?” I really didn’t know how I was going to do that.
CV: It’s funny that people who know make-up say “how is that possible?” because to me, the viewer who knows nothing about it, is like “yeah, 20 hours seems like a reasonable amount of time to have to spend working on that!”
MEL: [Laughs] That’s also some of the issue and what’s interesting about the show, y’know, with great pressure and great limitation comes, sometimes, amazing results. Some people, it’s like, y’know, turning coal into a diamond and you get these amazing results under that sort of pressure. But, when people do really poorly, that’s what should be expected. The amazing ones are miracles, but because it’s possible and people know it’s possible, the whole group is held to that standard…it’s a weird experience because your perspective of what you’re capable of is dramatically different. Before the show, I was pretty “Bambi-legged” about my abilities…and people would ask me “can you do this?” and I would make excuses for myself or say “someone can do this more” and undervalue myself, but after being on the show, I say “yes” to everything and just figure it out later.
CV: It was a beneficial experience you feel for you overall?
MEL: A hundred percent. The negative parts of the show pale in comparison to how positive it’s been for me socially and professionally.
CV: What do you feel like, looking back on the show, was the week you showed the best side of your creativity?
MEL: I think probably The Gauntlet just because the show itself is high pressure, and after ten seasons they were like “how can we make this high pressure situation more high pressure?” and having to make three cohesive, complete looks in five hours was something that people who are doing impossible things on the show thought was impossible. So I feel like doing that, rising to the occasion, doing well, and having the judges…Glenn Hendricks said it looked like something he would expect a team of people to do. That’s something where I felt incredibly empowered. If you watch the show, you see I’m a natural double thinker. I tend to start over a lot. I worry and I over-analyze. But doing it in that short a period of time I had no other option but to create immediately and just sort of trust my instincts, and getting to work where I had to trust my initial instinct was kind of relieving and fun and something I haven’t been able to simulate in my life outside of that direct instance.
CV: You were saying earlier how it’s acted as a great foot in the door for a lot of people. How has it been for you now that the season is over?
MEL: It’s been really good for me actually. I freelance in New York City and I always apply to a lot of things. I’m constantly networking. Since the show, I’ve gotten about as much work as I had been, except I don’t apply for it. It’s more people reaching out to me with opportunities. Which has been a big change. It reduces the direct amount of hustle I have to do every day. It’s nice that people get to see your work and sort of “try on” your personality before they hire you.
CV: What are some of the things you’ve worked on?
MEL: Being a non-union make-up artist, I can’t work on major productions. But I’ve had the opportunity to work on a feature-length film; I’ve worked on several student films. I’ve worked with JonTron who is a YouTube sensation. I work with him on a semi-monthly basis. It’s nice because I get to build my network and every one I get, gets me other jobs.
CV: Do you have a dream job that you eventually want to accomplish over the course of this career?
MEL: My absolute dream job would be to work on SNL, and that’s for a few reasons. What got me into make-up was my love of theater…it’s changing every week, you’re working with different people every week. You have the speed of live theater, the quality of live television, and the diversity of a variety show. It seems like literally the perfect job for a make-up artist. I just think that would be amazing, consistent insanity and I just feel like I function off of high-level stress and that would be somewhere where I would do well. That being said, my next major goal: I would love to work just on a television show to have some sort of consistent income where I would get to pursue my own creative interests independently while still doing something I love.
CV: Now that you’ve been doing this for a few years now, has this impacted the way you watch movies and television? Are you constantly noticing if something is a good or a bad make-up?
MEL: Yes! In general, the good news is the make-up industry is developing faster than I can learn it. Which keeps me interested, and it’s nice because you’re always seeking to improve your craft and there’s always developments in the make-up industry and that’s what’s sort of exciting about it. I actually talked to Lois Burwell, who’s a make-up artist, about how I was scared because they were not going to be making a product I use anymore and she was like “welcome to it, honey.” Things are always changing in this industry. When we were watching the X-Men movie and they were all fighting each other, I got super emotional. Beyond the fact that all the X-Men had teamed up to fight together, literally thousands of people worked on that production. I think about the capacity to which I’m involved in film and television is so minor and I know how much work goes into a single shot for something low budget…compared to something like the X-Men franchise and just seeing that and knowing how many people touched that and worked on it, designed it, conceptualized it, and made it a reality. It’s moving. I don’t think people realize the amount of work that goes into anything including lights to make-up, it doesn’t matter. It’s that sort of cooperation that makes entertainment such an experience for the viewers.
CV: To build on that idea of it’s always changing, do you ever worry about the presence of digital visual effects versus what you do which are in the frame special effects? Do you ever worry that the digital aspect of it will overtake the tactile practical effects that you create?
MEL: A lot of people in my industry are afraid of CGI and the inclusion of digital media with what we’re doing. I really view it as a collaboration, like everything else. Digital really only serves to help what we’re capable of, and it’s a collaboration. I have a picture of a finished project I have and then a picture of what it looked like in the final product and it’s so improved by digital animation. It has wings and all this stuff…and it’s a collaborative process because the thing is it can enhance what we’re doing. And I think that CGI is amazing in conjunction with effects, and effects will never go away because quite frankly it’s just too expensive to have everything digital. I learned from a make-up artist John Goodman, he works on a lot of CSI shows, and they actually use the inclusion of green screen in a lot of make-ups now. They’ll put green screen paint on the actor so that the animators can work within the actual frame of [the actor’s] face. So there’s a lot of cool ways that we can collaborate digitally and I feel like why wouldn’t we include that in our industry? It seems foolish not to.
CV: What do you feel like is the most impressive make-up effect you’ve seen in a film or television show?
MEL: Bill Corso is one of my favorite make-up artists of all time. He’s so talented. He’s done, I think, over 73 motion pictures, most recently DEADPOOL…he was a guest judge on the show and I totally embarrassed myself. It was the only time on the show I really felt like I was going to cry. I was so embarrassed when I saw him there and I knew what my make-up looked like. His make-up in the film FOXCATCHER is literally the direction that the make-up industry is going. It was so subtle and nuanced. You could be half an inch away from this and be not able to tell it’s [Steve Carell]. I actually have a friend who’s a make-up artist, Christopher Patrick, who worked on that film, he was doing tattoo cover-ups for all the wrestlers, and he was on set and he wanted to meet Steve Carell. So he was asking around “has anyone seen Steve Carell?” and Steve Carell [in make-up] was standing right next to him! And he didn’t realize! It’s not a dramatic make-up, but it’s so transformative. And I think that taking someone that’s so likable and well-known and well-loved as Steve Carell and really transforming him with a centimeter of silicon is amazing and it’s tactful. It’s what I want to be doing.
CV: Any advice to anybody who is interested in pursuing the career that you are pursuing right now?
MEL: Honestly, just get started. When I started I was buying all my own materials from a convenience store, Wal-Mart, and just making it work, using a lot of food. And it’s fun. There’s cheap ways to get started in this, volunteer to do your friends’ music videos and local plays and just sort of get your feet wet. If you want to try this without going all the way in, Stan Winston’s School is an online school that offers classes taught by industry professionals. It’s a great way; it’s still a resource I use when I’m trying to learn a new technique. It’s a career where you’re gonna have to hustle. You have to sell yourself, you to have to value yourself, and remember you have a skill and that’s worth something.
While it can be easy to write-off a show like FACE-OFF as another reality competition show, it performs an importance service in showing audiences the Herculean efforts that go into the behind-the-scenes production of film, television, and theater. People like Mel are true artists who work because of passion, not for fame. Each of them creates a little bit of magic to transport the audience into a world of fantasy that wouldn’t exist without their work.