Behind the Scenes: Make-up and Creature FX artist Stephen Bettles (2001)

He may have started off making fake vomit in his Mum’s kitchen, but Stephen “Stevie” Bettles (26) now transforms everyday actors into mutated monstrosities as a Make-Up and Creature Effects artist. Between major projects like LOST IN SPACE and SLEEPY HOLLOW, he works on everything from TV series like FARSCAPE to low-budget horror films and music videos for bands like Cradle of Filth.

How did you first get interested in SFX make-up?

I used to be terrified of horror films as a kid, but I never liked being scared so I handled it by finding out how the effects were done. The more I got into it, the more I enjoyed it… and when I was 15, my Mum saw an article in the newspaper about an apprenticeship at Universal Studios in Florida. She said “Hey, how about doing it there instead of in my kitchen?”, so I went for it, got it… and it all started rolling from there.

What kind of stuff does your company do?

We do any prosthetics make-ups, as well as full-scale creature effects;- demons, monsters, robots, you name it. Sometimes we’ll design and sculpt something from the ground up, and sometimes the production designer gives us a drawing and says “Build that!”- it varies from project to project, but it’s always very collaborative.

Is CGI affecting the amount of work you’re getting?

Not really. It means we sometimes do bits of creatures rather than the whole thing, but people forget that CGI’s just a tool, not an instant solution. Actors prefer working with something real;- if they’re going to play an old person, they don’t want you to say “We’ll make you look old in post-production.” Like on LOST IN SPACE- Gary Oldman was against doing the Spider Smith character as CGI, because he felt it would just take his performance away and turn him into a cartoon.

Is he really as mad as he appears on screen?

The thing about Gary is he expects everyone around him to be as professional as he is. He’s not an actor who’ll throw a fit or stomp his feet, but he’ll speak his mind or point out problems, and if you haven’t done something about what he’s pointed his finger at, he gets a bit more emotional. He’s great to work with, though, 110% professional, and could switch on in an instant.

Ever had anything go seriously wrong?

There’s often something that doesn’t go as planned, but you just do your best to get it looking as good as you can. Prosthetics are re-made every day, so lots can go wrong- you could make the best one in the world, but if it’s lit or photographed badly, it can still look awful. What can be a bit frustrating is when something you’ve worked on isn’t used- it’s sometimes nearly three months work ending up on the cutting room floor.

How often does that happen?

It happens a lot, especially on big budget films. On LOST IN SPACE, for example, you were going to see the grown-up version of the little alien Blawp creature the Robinsons picked up. It was one of the first things I did on a big film, it got made and looked great… and they cut it from the final version. It’s a shame, because you want to sit at home with your mates watching it and go “I did that bit!!”… but, at the end of the day, you get paid and that’s the important thing.

What were you responsible for on SLEEPY HOLLOW?

Most of the stuff I did was on the decapitated bodies- getting the severed neck-pieces right, and weighting them so they looked convincing if they were carried. Also, the full-size animatronic horse that was built for Christopher Walken;- he has in his contract that he doesn’t ride live animals after a bad experience on a previous film. I puppeteered the horse while he was riding it, and he’s a brilliant character with a real “gangster” presence about him.

Wasn’t Ray “Darth Maul” Park one of the stuntmen?

Yeah- I remember, we were doing a cast of a part of his chest, and it was just before PHANTOM MENACE came out, so we were all “Ray, can you do some lightsabre stuff?” Eventually he went “Oh… alright then”, and ended up getting so into it that the guy I was working for, Gary Tunnicliffe, grabbed a broom and they ended up having this massive mock-up lightsabre fight in the workshop!

What have you got lined up next?

There’s THE FERRYMAN for Midsummer Films- it’s about the Grim Reaper, and there’ll be loads of fun creature stuff like Banshees. Also, we’re under consideration for work on a top-secret project later this year;- it’s for a major horror director, and we’ve got our fingers seriously crossed…

(Originally published in Hotdog, July 2001)