Makeup Effects Veteran: Digital Cannot "Replace the Soul of an Actor Playing a Part"

Planet of the Apes (1968) - Gorilla guard, Kim Hunter - Photofest -H 2019
20th Century-Fox/Photofest

Thomas Burman, who will receive a lifetime achievement award from the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild on Jan. 11, looks back on his career, which includes work on 'Planet of the Apes' and creating disguises for the CIA, and looks ahead to the evolution of cinematic makeup.

Thomas Burman has met many monsters over his career. Of course, he's often the one who created them. The pioneering artist, who will receive a lifetime achievement award from the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild (MUAHSG) on Jan. 11, is credited with coining the term "special makeup effects." His work spans films such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Teen Wolf and TV shows like Grey's Anatomy and Nip/Tuck, earning him seven Emmys and one Oscar nom.

Burman, the son of a prop maker, began his career in 1966 when he apprenticed with Ben Nye at 20th Century Fox Studios, becoming an assistant to John Chambers on 1968's Planet of the Apes. Later, he joined his brother Ellis "Sonny" Burman Jr. and Chambers to start what has been billed as the first independent makeup effects studio for motion pictures — and also served the CIA.

Burman teamed with William Conlin on the upcoming documentary Making Apes: The Artists Who Changed Film (out Jan. 28), spotlighting the makeup artists and artistry of the Apes franchise.

Tell us about working on Planet of the Apes.

We were doing something that had never been done before on a scale that had never been done before. The studio was uneasy with it because it was going to cost a lot of money and they didn't know if they would be believable. On the biggest day, I think there were 40 makeups and it took four hours [for each actor]. There were a handful [of makeup artists] that had some experience but, generally speaking, most had none to little experience with prosthetics ... The makeups were designed like paint by numbers so as not to ruin continuity.

What did you do at your studio?

[In the early days] we could service the TV and motion picture industry, but really our main job was working for the CIA. We were developing disguises — maybe they had to get somebody out of country and had to do a real quick disguise on them. I wasn't involved in [the real-life events behind] Argo, but I was well aware of it because John Chambers [played by John Goodman in 2012's Argo] and makeup artist Robert Sidell opened a production company [front], and I knew he wasn't going to be a producer. I met with them where the old Columbia Studios is, and he told me about how they were going to try to get the people out of Iran. It was really something.

You hired one of the first women makeup artists, Charlene Roberson, for '70s series Barbary Coast. What was the reaction at the time?

There were no women makeup artists for years and years. It was during the 1970s that the union decided to eliminate the category of body makeup artists, so they were given the option to retire or become a makeup artist.

[When I hired a woman] I got a lot of calls from other men, "You screwed it all up." They told me women would be sleeping with director or producers to get the work … I didn't care.

What are your thoughts on digital makeup, including for de-aging?

I think digital makeup works great. I also think nothing replaces an actor and the little nuances and unexpected, serendipitous moments that an actor creates. … The makeup on Bombshell — those prosthetics are about as perfect as you can possibly get. If you had done it digitally, it wouldn't have looked as good, because there's an actor playing the part with all of the emotions and facial expressions. I didn't care for The Irishman, to tell you the truth. It just doesn't look right to me.

How is cinematic makeup evolving?

They will [continue to] find better ways to be even more perfect, and I think it will always be around. I don't think digital will ever remove makeup. Digital will [also] keep getting better and better, but I don't think anything replaces the soul of an actor playing a part.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.