Man of a Thousand Faces
SyFy’s Face Off boosts career of ENG grad| From BU Today | By Amy Laskowski
Rod Maxwell (ENG'87) works on the head of his alien creation for Face Off. Photo by Nicole Wilder/SyFy
Lately, Rod Maxwell’s been dreaming up some horrifying stuff. One week it was a red-eyed dragon, the next an evil queen, and finally a decaying pirate. Chances are, you may have seen the products of his vivid imagination.
A visual effects artist whose award-winning 30-year career has spanned movies, television, and computer graphics, Maxwell (ENG’87) was recently selected as one of 11 contestants on the third season of Face Off, the reality competition on the SyFy network where contestants execute special effects makeup challenges using tools such as prosthetics and eye enhancers to create three-dimensional monsters and creatures. While he made it only until week seven before being voted off, he calls the show a “career changer.”
“Face Off has been truly one of the best experiences,” the 47-year-old Maxwell says. “I always dreamed of doing special effects makeup when I was a kid, and the show let me make movie magic again.”
Maxwell (his stage name—his birth name is Rod Altschul) grew up loving movie makeup and sculpture. A childhood trip to Disney World sparked an interest in animatronics, and that led to a decision to study mechanical engineering at BU. After creating special effects for several student-directed films, he became frustrated with the high prices charged by distributors for makeup supplies. So he began his own mail order special effects company from his dorm. The company soon grew to the point that he was fielding orders from famous artists like Dick Smith (the Oscar-winning makeup artist for The Godfather and The Exorcist) and a young Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) for his latex, makeup, and electrical cables.
After graduating, he moved to Los Angeles, where he dabbled in 3-D software and the relatively new field of computer-generated imagery (CGI), which led him to video game production and interactive displays. “Before I knew it,” Maxwell says, “I was creating special effects for the 1998 film Godzilla, music videos by Alicia Keys and R. Kelly, and displays for Amsterdam’s Heineken Museum. But I missed creating tangible, three-dimensional special effects.”
Maxwell (left) and fellow contestant Roy Wooley with their alien creation. Photo by Nicole Wilder/SyFy
The opportunity to do just that arose in 2005 when he created the short film The Wishing Well. The comedy featured 26 characters, all played by Maxwell; he also directed, produced, and was his own makeup artist. The film screened at France’s Festival du film de Sarlat and was named “Best Animated Film” at the Boston International Film Festival and “Best Experimental Film” by the American Motion Picture Society. Working on the film renewed Maxwell’s love of prosthetics and makeup and earned him a reputation in the industry as he shopped the film at different film festivals across the country. When Face Off launched on the SyFy network in 2011, friends urged him to audition. Maxwell tried out at the last minute for this season and was chosen.
Face Off requires contestants to use full body makeup that works with that week’s theme—ranging from sea monsters, fairy tales, and Star Wars to Chinese dragons. Judges are industry veterans who have worked on such films as Pirates of the Caribbean, Edward Scissorhands, and The Hunger Games.
Contestants must work under extremely tight deadlines. Maxwell had only a few hours to sketch, design, and craft a monster for one episode. On a movie set, that process could take up to several weeks.
Unbeknownst to fans of Alien or Harry Potter, prosthetics and foam latex masks are much trickier to engineer than they appear. “First you have the design and concept, and then you have to take a cast of the model,” Maxwell explains. “From the head cast, you need to sculpt the prosthetic. You form the face using different clays and materials, and hand paint on top of that, using wigs, colored contacts, those sorts of things.”
In the video above, Rod Maxwell’s auditions for Face Off by talking about his film The Wishing Well.
One of his favorite challenges after Face Off has been the special effects work he’s created for the anti–tobacco industry website Truth. As part of a campaign designed to show how cigarette manufacturers target teens and young adults by adding flavorful additives to their tobacco products, Maxwell transformed a model into a huge, evil-looking strawberry for one of the company’s public service announcements, and then re-created it for this year’s Comic-Con. Working on the PSA had special significance for Maxwell, because a close friend and collaborator, Carol Meikle, died of emphysema in 2004. She was a hairstylist who had worked with actors like Richard Gere and Michael Douglas and had helped Maxwell create the hairstyles for The Wishing Well.
What’s next? Maxwell says a little bit of everything, from cause-based projects such as Truth to a Family Guy–like animated series he is currently developing to helping with the makeup on a yet untitled film to be directed by Danny DeVito.
Face Off, he says, provided a creative shot in the arm and made him realize he has to pursue opportunities working in prosthetics and makeup.
“Being on Face Off fulfilled so many childhood dreams,” Maxwell says. “It pushed my limits and helped me to fall in love with makeup and prosthetics all over again. It’s scary to think that I almost forgot a dream because I was working on life.”