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When David Scott was a young boy, he and his brother got a Super 8 movie camera. They wanted to make sci-fi and monster movies and had to figure out how they were going to make the creatures from their films look realistic. Now one of Canada’s premiere makeup artists, Scott says there was no professional school to train and hone his skills.

“It was the school of hard knocks in my parents’ basement, messing with stuff from the art store and anything I could get my hands on,” he tells Toronto Film Scene. The few makeup books he found in his school library were like bibles to help him pursue the art and craft.

Today, Scott has his own special effects makeup group, Form & Dynamics, and works on shows like Murdoch Mysteries and Remedy. Meanwhile, he is also finally at a professional makeup school – although as an instructor. He works at CMU College of Makeup Art and Design.

Formerly known as Complections, the Toronto college is the primary training ground in North America for those looking to make it as a makeup artist in a variety of fields, from fashion to film. Since its inception, more than 4,000 students have graduated from CMU.

“It’s been very great for the makeup industry in Toronto, Canada and internationally,” Scott adds. “Teaching [at CMU] is like a great head-hunting opportunity for me. I can scope out the upcoming talent. A lot of the kids that come here end up working for me or other shops around town.”

Schools that focus specifically on this type of art is rare, and rarer still is one that takes such an in-depth approach. Students who go through CMU’s 32-week program – the most popular and comprehensive class, according to college president Barry Patterson – are expected to learn seven disciplines of “transformation through makeup artistry.” Those disciplines are hairstyling, fashion, theatre, facial hair knotting, film & television, prosthetics and creature design.

Photographs taken by CMU students adorn the walls of the three-story Old Fire Hall on Lombard St. Students are marked on the quality of their makeup creations, and then can then use these photos as part of a portfolio.

Photographs taken by the in-house photographer at CMU are displayed in a three-storey heritage building on Lombard St. Students are marked on the quality of their makeup creations, and then can then use these photos as part of a portfolio.

“I think people often think it’s easy to be a makeup artist,” Patterson says. “It’s very difficult. You’re interpreting a story, you’re a key part of the narrative.” He mentions how Stephen Lynch, who teaches film and TV for CMU, is the key makeup artist on Orphan Black. Lynch came up with the looks for all of the clone characters on that series, in consultation with the show’s creators.

The environment at the college is both friendly and fast-paced. Students working on creatures, which they craft with foam latex and gelatin, do not hesitate to explain their creations and designs to TFS. However, they also comment on how the work is often tedious.

Regardless, the school seems to thrive on perfectionism. Students are marked on photo shoots done at the end of each section. Subsequently, they can use these photographs to build a portfolio of work to help market themselves around town.

“The learning environment is really unique because it’s hands-on and studio-based, mixed in with theory and kind of a professional, entrepreneurial, critical theory approach to being a makeup artist,” Patterson tells TFS. “Being in filmmaking, you have to be very entrepreneurial.”

Locally, the school provides recent graduates of the Complete and Comprehensive programs one year of access to the job posting system. Grads of shorter programs receive several months’ access.. CMU’s partnership with the Canadian Film Centre also ensures that these young artists get production work to add heft to their resumes. CMU graduates have further helped out on several shows shot in Toronto, including Hannibal, The Strain and Hemlock Grove. Past movie credits featuring the college grads include a variety of titles filmed in town, including Pacific Rim, Hairspray, Kick-Ass, Enemy and The F Word.

With its stellar reputation in the Canadian arts and entertainment industry and abroad, CMU attracts students from places as diverse as Taiwan, Chile and Turkey. Patterson estimates that 20 per cent of the student body comes from outside of Canada. Men make up roughly one out of every 10 students, he adds.

Ryan Louagie, a special makeup effects artist for Evil Dead: The Musical, transforms an ordinary girl into a terrifying zombie. CMU has hosted a Zombie Makeup Workshop for four years before Halloween and the Zombie Walk.

Ryan Louagie, a special makeup effects artist for Evil Dead: The Musical, transforms an ordinary girl into a terrifying zombie. CMU has hosted a Zombie Makeup Workshop for four years, taking place before Halloween and the city’s Zombie Walk.

For the high number of genre films and shows shot here, the last 15 weeks of the 32-week program are especially important. These modules are focused on prosthetics, creature design and out-of-kit special effects – meaning all the gory details that one can apply easily, from burns to bullet wounds.

Some would expect that the role of practical special effects makeup has diminished. The advent of CGI means one no longer has to make full-scale animatronic creatures. These models can be very expensive, so big-budget productions may sometimes save money by giving the job to a visual effects artist. Regardless, prosthetics is still a big part of making low-budget shorts, films and television programs – the projects many film-oriented grads find work in when they graduate.

“Our [program] is very tailored toward the industries we work for,” Patterson says. He adds that even video game designers will sign up for the creature design module to gain expertise.

Originally known as Complections, the school is going through some cosmetic changes of its own. With Patterson’s advice, the school changed its name and re-branded itself as CMU. The Old Fire Hall, a heritage building on Lombard St., is the new home of the school.

As for Scott, the power of teaching the art and craft to others has been transformative. He tells TFS that after he got a job in the film industry, he took an advanced professional makeup course. The course was in Dick Smith’s name. Smith is a special make-up effects artist known as “The Godfather of Make-Up.” (That was probably due to Smith’s work on The Godfather, although he also helped with defining key character looks on the sets of Taxi Driver and The Exorcist.) Scott never met Smith, who died in July at age 92, but says he spoke with him frequently on the phone.

“Dick Smith was incredibly generous with his knowledge and his time,” Scott says of the Oscar-winning makeup artist. “You could just call him and say, ‘I’m having problems with this technique. I don’t know what’s going on. Can you help me out?’ Somebody that giving and generous has helped me along a lot. I wanted to give some of it back.”

How would you like this ambitious creature design adorning the walls of your college? This insect scales the wall of CMU, as students wonder whether it is an apt metaphor for participating in the work-heavy, 32-week program.

How would you like this ambitious creature design scaling the walls of your college? CMU students probably wonder whether it is an apt metaphor for participating in the work-heavy, 32-week program.

The odds are good that if you have been to a movie recently, at least one of the films playing at your theatre had CMU grads or instructors working behind-the-scenes. Ian Morse, who is an instructor, did the special effects makeup for Fury. Instructor and CMU advisory board member Donald Mowat worked on Nightcrawler. Fellow TIFF selections An Eye for Beauty and Bang Bang Baby all had the college’s graduates working behind the scenes.

“I’m not bragging, but we have a very high reputation amongst makeup art and designs schools in the world,” Patterson claims. “We’re definitely in the top three, I would say. The majority of the people who are working or starting their careers in makeup art and design [in Toronto] probably have come through this school.”

Meanwhile, during our tour of the CMU building, Patterson mentions Charlie Chaplin. When choosing the wardrobe and makeup for his Tramp character, the great silent film star said, “The moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked onto the stage he was fully born.”

It is just that visceral reaction, which comes from the power of transformation, that Patterson hopes students strive for.