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  Lee Romaire continually sets the bar to a new mark with each mask he creates.  Masks aren't the only thing he excels at.  Lee is a world class FX artist in Hollywood and has some serious hardware he recently won for his work on the HBO series '6 Feet Under'.  To talk to Lee, you would never imagine just what he has achieved because he's also very humble.  He is his own harshest critic and claims he has alot to learn.  Lee asked that we show his pictures in chronological order.  It's neat to see how Lee has grown and his work improved.

 

LMC: What were your early inspirations?

LR:  First, let me thank you for interviewing me.  It is an honor to be in such great company. 

My early inspirations are varied, but all point to the same thing- the imitation of life  through trickery.  Hyper realistic or cartoony, it all fascinated me. 

My parents took me to Walt Disney World in Florida the first week it opened.  I was 6 or 7, and it completely blew me away.  The worlds that this man, his brother  and their artists created still amaze me ( I  now have a year long  PREMIUM pass  to Disneyland).  I didn't just love the animatronics,  I loved the environments that enveloped you, whether it was the deepest darkest jungle or a dark and foreboding  river-front haunted mansion. I know that everything in the park is  stylized in a Disney way, and it's corny,  but it rings true to me.  In my mind The  Enchanted Tiki Room is a stroke of genius.  Same with Pirates of the Caribbean.  I also loved the walk around characters. Today, they don't get me like they did when I was 7, but of course,  I've seen a lot of amazing stuff since then.

Back to inspirations:   Walt Disney was definitely a huge inspiration.  Also, Ray Harryhausen, and his mentor Willis O'Brien.    Jim Henson-  I love puppets.   Sid and Marty Krofft.  I LOVED those Krofft Saturday morning shows- SIGMUND AND THE SEA MONSTERS, LAND OF THE LOST... I saw Marty Krofft in a restaurant  two years ago and almost  moistened myself.  As I got older, Dick Smith and Rick Baker.  Now, my inspirations are things I see in real life that interest me.

I think my interest  in things that looked real  led to my interest in taxidermy.  Frankly,  I was a country boy and taxidermy was the only art of that kind that I was exposed to. I didn't see a  Fangoria or a Cinefex until I was 18!    I would go to museums and just soak in dioramas.  I remember going to people's homes when I was younger and just sitting  there and staring  at the mounted deer on the wall instead of going out to play . I was a strange kid I guess.

The make-up or effects  moments that I think inspired me the most are in KING KONG (1976) when Kong  is blowing Jessica Lange dry.  That blew me me (no pun intended) away at how real it looked.  THE THING of course.   Dustin Hoffman's make-up in LITTLE BIG MAN fascinates me.  It's everything I love about make-up.  ET was amazing to me, the way his eyes moved and blinked.  Just brilliant.  And most recently, JURASSIC PARK:  the Tyrannosaurus paddock scene.  Excellent,  mind-blowing cgi.  It hasn't been done better since, in my opinion.  And of course THE WIZARD OF OZ.  That  movie is probably tops for me. Oh yeah, and that STAR WARS movie.  God, I can still remember stumbling out  of the theatre after seeing that.   I was a 12 year- old eye candy  junkie and George Lucas was my dealer.

It's funny how different our inspirations are.  Some of my peers hate the Muppets and are only interested in puppets if they are hyper realistic.  Not me.  Others draw their inspiration from serial killer movies- Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers,  etc.  I grew up before that whole scene, although I really dig THE TEXAS CHAIN-SAW MASSACRE.  I  think my inspirations come from a more innocent and less gloomy place.  That's not to place judgment on anyone; It's just to help explain  why I don't use a lot of blood or gore, and my subjects tend to be more creepy and fun  than horrific. Of course if I'm in the  mood, I can squeeze out the horror. I  think that I am more sensitive now  post  911   about what I  create.

LMC: How did your early years practicing taxidermy help in FX work?

LR:  I think it helped for a few reasons. You are trying to recreate life, so you focus on the little details that make things come alive.   I did taxidermy for 14 years, starting at age seven.   I  was pretty good at making my specimens look alive.  That is also very important in fx work.  The eyes are so important, whether it's in a fake head or in a make-up.  It's how you frame the eyes.  Notice that 99% of all age makeups look fake.  It's not because the sculpt or the application is bad.  It is because the youth of the eyes shine thru.  The artist did not spend enough time changing the shape and color of the eye area.  I think my Norman Bates-like beginning has given me perhaps a more finely tuned appreciation for organic  realism than time spent , say,  building models (of course, I did that too- I loved models.).

LMC: Did Taxidermy teach you any important lessons on hairing?

LR: Not really, other than noticing how hair flowed and it's density and characteristics.

LMC: What triggered you learn to learn makeup FX when you went to college for something totally different?

LR: It was a situation where I grew tired of what I was doing and wanted a career change. I graduated with a B.A. in advertising with a minor in marketing. It was sort of drilled into my head  that I couldn't make a living from art.  And in actuality,  from the perspective  of the  small town that I,  and probably most of us grew up in, this is a correct assumption.   My particular small town had one artist.  He had a sign business and he had a hobby store and gave art lessons.  So he had the art market CORNERED!   This of course, was before the computer explosion.  I chose advertising because it was a happy medium.  I could  think and dream creatively but I  was still in "business".  So I made everyone happy.

The ads that I wrote or directed were pretty whacky. I used humor a lot.   My old boss says that I was ahead of my time- now you see all kinds of business using wacky ideas to sell products today  because they have to compete in an ever crowded media world.  But my work was hard to sell to a conservative audience so it was very frustrating.  I also had a desire to make things with my hands, or work with tangible, real things  if I wanted to.  That got me thinking.   I thought about it  hard for about three years.  Finally one day I asked myself, "What would you do if money was not an issue."  Special effects, making creatures and characters immediately popped into my head. What I loved as a kid but never considered as an occupation.    I mean it happened that fast.  It really just asked the same question I had been asking myself for three years differently.  And I  began immediately  after that. Now, the lesson to take from that is NOT that money is not important.  It is very important.  But when you ask yourself a question in a different way than you ever have before, you come up with some amazing answers.  Now that I have achieved a lot of my goals with respect to working in effects shops, I look to the future and think that now I'd like to take what I've learned and accomplished and create something special for people AND  make really good  money too.  I've just never bought into that starving artist nonsense.

LMC: Were your parents supportive at that point?  What about now?                     

LR: My parents have always been extremely supportive of me.  Of course, I was always one who was going to do what I wanted no matter what others thought.  I still am. Believe me, a lot of people thought I was crazy for just leaving home and moving to Hollywood with no job and no prospects for a job. I think it took winning an Emmy before some people actually  believed  that I was working on this stuff for real. 

It is also difficult for people who are not in the entertainment business to understand how it works.  When you finish a movie, you are unemployed. You can work on 5 different jobs in one year, or if times are lean, you can work on one.   Coming from a small town where everyone works at the same job their entire lives, the movie industry must seem insane. 

Support from others is important, but as I've gotten older, I have learned to trust my gut and not worry what others  think or want me to do.  Trusting my gut has never failed me.  The earlier you learn that, the better off you'll be.

LMC: What did you start out doing on your own to learn the trade?

LR:  I did two things simultaneously that helped me. One was taking Dick Smith's course and the second was switching to an occupation in my area that was  similar to FX work.  I remember this very clearly.  after I decided to pursue makeup fx, I was in a bookstore and I just happened to see Makeup artist magazine.  Never saw it before, but it popped out at me this time.  I opened it out pops this huge article about a makeup trade show.  Six weeks away.  So I buy the magazine , go home and purchase tickets.  I begin working on a corpse head and an old age makeup.  I use as reference for the old age a picture of the Jack Crabbe (LITTLE BIG MAN) make-up. How original. I used a #1 or 2 clay and smoothed  it down with PETROLEUM JELLY, not alcohol. I do not recommend this method of smoothing clay.  What a gooey mess.  Anyway,  I manage to finish these two little gems and I go to the Trade show. I was walking around, meeting people, and showing people these two horrible things in my portfolio. The first person I was able to trap to show my work to was Jeff Dawn, who for some reason feigned interest. This was a very important moment, because I took that little bit of praise he gave me and  actually believed it.  That encouraged me to keep going.  Then someone, I don't remember who, said, "You ought to show that to Dick Smith".  I said "DICK SMITH IS HERE??????"  The only makeup book I had owned as a kid was "Making a Monster" by Al Taylor and Sue Roy, which features a separate chapter on each  of the prominent makeup artists .  I would always go back to Dick Smith's and Rick Baker's chapters and stare at the pictures (sorry Stan).  Their work was different. Better. REAL.   Dick Smith was  THE GOD OF MAKE-UP (still is) .  So I go about my business, and I happen to see Dick walking out of the building.  I go up and introduce myself, and he asks to look at my portfolio.  He looks at my zombie, and says "well, these are pretty easy to do , aren't they? And this one isn't particularly good ".   Second most important moment for me .  Because at that moment  I realized that Dick was more than a make-up legend - he was a real guy in  whom I could believe.  No BS.   So then he asks me if I've heard of his course.  DICK SMITH TEACHES A COURSE!!??  I had no idea.  He gives me the details and gives me his card and I realized at that point that I was taking Dick's course whether he liked it or not!  I went home and worked on a few more things and sent an impassioned letter to him.  I got a letter back almost immediately saying I could take the course. I have it framed in my office.  Thus began the hard work.

Work-wise, the first thing I did  unload my advertising clients.  I was a freelance creative director and writer.  I had a girl who did my graphic work, who is a great friend of mine who took over the clients that I had.  I went to work in the Mardi Gras business sculpting large props. I didn't care how much they paid me, I just needed to get my hands working.  The first company I worked  for demoted me after two weeks because I wasn't good enough.  They wanted to move me to a different department and lower my rate from $12 an hour to $7 an hour. I told them I had to think about it and at lunch I went to their competitor and got a job with them for $11 an hour.  And I steadily worked at that until I moved to Los Angeles.  I know when I left I was one of the highest paid sculptors in the Mardi Gras business, even though I was far from being one of the best.  I don't know how I did it.  I guess it was my southern charm. But this helped me get in the "groove" again after years of just writing.

LMC: Comparing your sculpting before taking Dick's course and after, what do you see different?  How did Dick help you to see and correct those problems?

LR: That's easy.  Before Dick's course it didn't look real at all and after it did. Anyone can see that. And believe me, in my mind, I'm still taking that course. I have a looonnng way to go.

Dick is as masterful a teacher as he is an make-up artist.  I worked really hard, every night, on those first sculptures.  After I would get them to where I liked them, I'd send him pictures.  He would at first give me general direction, but as I got better, he would critique closer and closer.  Today when I send him stuff (of course I still send him stuff) he is just as tough as he was before.  He pretty much tore up my Loomis mask ("Make sure you tell people this is a Halloween mask and not a fake head") which I love him for.  I mean, how can you ever get better unless you have some one who is very good  tell you like it is?  It is great for your ego for people to tell you your work is good, but it is WAY better for your growth  if someone who really knows are  to tell you the God's honest truth, just tear it apart.  You become better much faster. 

Let me say another thing about the course and learning under Dick.  It is not just about  make-up.  It is about learning self respect.  It is about problem solving. It is about learning discipline.  It is about learning about yourself.  It is much, much more than  just learning about make-up. 

Here is a great Dick Smith story.  Not too many people know this, but I entered the Make-up Artist Magazine Trade Show historical character make-up contest in 1998 (or '99).  This is before I moved to LA.   Anyway, I got Dick to help me think of a good character.  I wanted to do a gender transformation.  I had a male model who had really nice features that could be easily transformed into a female.  We thought and thought, and Dick came up with Carol Channing, the famous broadway actress, because her features lent well to my model.   At the time I thought it was a great idea , but in retrospect I would have chosen someone more famous and recognizable to the general population. Anyway, I get the make-up completed the day  before we leave for California.  I stayed up all night doing a trial make-up.  We get to the Trade Show and I apply it.  I manage to get it on without any catastrophes.  We go before the judges and Dick is one of the judges.  I wait for him in anticipation of what he's going to say.  Keep in mind that this is the only the second time I've met him in person although we converse on the phone. He comes out  of the judging room and I ask him what he thought of the make-up.  He says, "Well, I think you could have done more with the eye make-up and the mouth.  Nice try, but it really didn't cut it." 

Can you imagine the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach at that point?  I did not get first, second, third or honorable mention in a group of really bad make-ups.  I went back to the place I was staying and curled up in a ball until the next morning.  I was devastated.  My own teacher basically shut me out !!   BUT the moral of the story is any other teacher would have sold me out and voted for me.  But not Dick. He knew the make-up was bad and that it would  do me no good to have won anything.  And he was right.  I learned a lot from that.  And man, he was right.  It was a horrible make-up.

Dick introduced me to some really good artists who were also his students.  He introduced me to  Ken Hertlein, one of his  best students.  We have become good friends.   Ken is an amazing artist and has done some make-ups that blow me away to this day.  And I've seen some good make-ups since I've moved to Los Angeles.

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