‘Halloween’ FX Artist Christopher Nelson on Getting the Michael Myers Mask Right

     January 17, 2019

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Re-designing the Michael Myers mask is not something to be taken lightly. Not in the world of the Halloween legacy. While the original mask was something of a crude construct (famously an inverted Captain Kirk mask painted white) made on a shoe-string budget, the merits and failings of the redesigns in the sequels that followed have become a trusted talking point among franchise fans. (Was Halloween 5 the lowest low of the Myers mask legacy? Or was it the CGI shot in Halloween: H20? The debate rages on.)  Obviously, when the folks at Blumhouse set out to resurrect the franchise with David Gordon Green‘s sequel, they knew they had to do it right.

To get the job done, they turned to Oscar-winning FX and makeup artist Christopher Nelson (Who’s worked on everything form Suicide Squad to Kill Bill: Vol. 1) a self-professed Halloween diehard, who took the opportunity of a lifetime and ran with it. His design is a love letter to the shape and shadows of the mask in John Carpenter’s essential 1978 slasher film, but intricately aged forty years. It’s easily one of the best in the series.

With Halloween now available on Blu-ray and Digital, I recently hopped on the phone for a chat with Nelson to talk about taking on the bucket list challenge of creating a new Michael Myers mask. Nelson discusses the surprisingly easy design process, the most surprising challenge, and the moment in the final film where he realized they pulled it off. He also names some of his favorite non-mask effects in the film and what he’s putting to the top of his bucket list now.

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Image via Universal Pictures

So, obviously, the big thing for you on this job was going to be the mask, and I’m curious in your process, how many designs did you come up with before you settled in on the final one? 

NELSON: Yeah, that’s really interesting, when I went into the project. When we started building and designing, we were expecting that part of the process to take a long long time, and go through a lot of different looks. But oddly enough, it didn’t really … It didn’t take very long. 

I think we landed on the second approach to it. We did that kind of was a lot more degenerated and weathered and old, and kind of crumbling and fall apart, and didn’t sit on that very long. Because we quickly realized that, first and foremost, what we needed to have was that classic face and shape. The more you weather it, and the more you take that away, the less you’re giving fans what they want. Which, you have to give them Michael Myers. The Shape. 

You have to have that familiar silhouette, so we quickly went back to that original look, and eased into the weathering very slowly, started very small, and then got to a point where we felt like, “Okay, we can’t go any further without distorting or taking away that silhouette and that look that everybody loves, and wants to see so much.” And it was very clear and very apparent early on, and I think we ended up on the second look, and that’s the look that you see in the film. It actually was a much easier and satisfying process than I thought it was going to be. 

What was, the directive you were sent out with by David Gordon Green and the team in terms of nailing the essence of Michael Myers and what they wanted with his mask? 

NELSON: It was, “Let’s not put our own spin on it.” We can put our own spin on it in other aspects of the film, in other departments and other aspects, in other books and things. We can do that in other places, but let’s not put our own spin on Michael Myers. Because, again, we’re approaching it with passion, and we’re approaching it as if we’re … not as if, but are huge fans of the original. Everybody on the project were huge passionate fans of Halloween, and we all went into it in a collaborative passionate thing. 

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Image via Universal Pictures / Blumhouse

So that was the directive: “Let’s not put our own spin on it. Let’s give everybody what they want. Let’s make what we want to see and how we wanna see it, and still, even after 40 years of dwelling on that original mask, we’ve had 40 years to do that. And we don’t have 40 years to do that with this. So let’s use that to our advantage, and give everybody what they want.” That’s the way we approached it. That was the directive. 

But of course, after 40 years of where it’s been within the context of the movie, you have to … it has to be a little different, so I think the only we really changed was, again, the weathering, the wrinkling and stuff, and what a 40-year-old latex mask may look like, but also, taking a little bit of cinematic license in order for it to work on film. But also, just making sure that we’re creating a screen for audiences to project their fears onto, and that’s what that mask is. And we gave it a little bit of a more tragic look, a little more sad, tragic look, ever so slightly. Little, you know, subliminal things there in that mask, to elicit a certain feeling within an audience member. I feel like we did a good job and accomplished that. 

I very much agree. When it came to executing that, either in the design process or on set during filming, what ended up being the most surprising challenge about getting it right? 

NELSON: In the original film, that mask looked different in every single shot, if you watched that movie, or you look at any of the stills from that film. It looks different in almost every shot. Just slightly. Just enough to throw your mind off, and gives you the essence of the boogeyman. I think that was the biggest challenge, and we consciously went into it to try to make it a little different, every shot, which meant padding out the inside of the mask, just slightly different, so it sat a little different on the head, every other scene. 

The painting and the weathering of the mask, you are basically painting an expression in there, and it changes with the lighting. It was an evolution throughout the film. The mask looks a little different all the time, and it looks different from the beginning of the film to the end of the film. Just by nature of that being put on and off every day, and sweated in, and just … it’s kind of like a baseball glove. It kind of finds its life, and gets worked in, on James’s head, and the way he wears it, and the way he looks. And also, him just getting in costume, to having this extra space on his head, and how to work it, and how to play it, and I thought James did an amazing, David and Michael Simmonds did an amazing job shooting it and lighting it. And we just stayed on top of it, and took it very, very, very seriously. 

You talk about how it changes the course of the film. How many versions of it did you have to make? 

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Image via Universal Pictures / Blumhouse

NELSON: We made three masks in total, of the 2018. One was a hero mask James wore a lot. Another was a stunt mask that got screen used by Nick Castle, and also was kind of a standby for various stunt shots and things. We had a third one that was kind of more of a set dressing mask, for when a guy takes it out of the bag at the beginning, and shows it to an unmasked Michael at the sanitarium. And then, a couple other scenes, where it’s laying on a bed, or in a bag, or whatever. But I don’t know if we saw … those scenes might have been cut. But there were three in total. 

Something else you talked about, which I loved too, was James Jude Courtney’s performance. How much did you have to work with him on figuring out how to perform in a mask like that, and what was that process like? 

NELSON:  You know, James came into this really super serious, and analyzing, and really wanting to capture the essence that Nick Castle captured in the beginning. So it wasn’t like I had to work with him that much. I did remind him a lot, at certain times, because he knows I’m a huge Michael Myers fan, and a Halloween fan, so we did work together making sure that he stayed on point, and some things … the way Michael would move, and the way he would turn his head, and the way that he’d walk … But, again, that, I can’t take, really, any credit for that. That’s all James, and he did a fantastic job. But we did talk at length about it throughout the film, and really tried to dissect it, but not overthink it, and keep it simple. 

We both had a great time. James and I had a great time working together, to make sure that the movements in capturing it worked to … there’s always, you know, when you’re wearing a mask, and something that’s impairing your vision, as well as an appliance underneath a mask.He only had one eye throughout most of the film. It’s just a technical aspect of reminding someone to keep your chin down, even though you want to tilt your head back to look through the eye holes, so you could see clearly, but it changes the whole silhouette and the way that the stance and the cadence of what Michael Myers would be. So you have to dance around that, keeping the chin down, keeping the shoulders down. Not making it so athletic. Michael Myers isn’t an agile, experienced, stunt athletic person. He’s a guy, so it’s just keeping those things in check. But we had a great time working together and doing all that. 

When it came time for you to finally watch the finished film, was there a scene in particular where you went, “Holy shit, we did it. We nailed it”? 

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Image via Universal Pictures / Blumhouse

NELSON:  Yeah. In watching the final film, when we puts on his mask, from when he finds his mask for the first time, pulls it out of the trunk, and the way that they shot it … the way that the music — John Carpenter did the music at that scene, the way it was slowed down, the way that it was cut together. And when he shuts the trunk, and you see him there, revealed for the first time, Michael Myers has his mask back, that was the moment where I was like, “Yes! I think we might have pulled this off!” It gave me goose bumps, it gave me chills. 

That was the moment for me, that I loved so much, and then also, the scene … the one-take scene, where Michael’s walking down the driveway and into the backyard, through the houses out front. That whole scene, that was another moment where I went, “Yeah, this is what it’s supposed … this is exactly what it’s supposed to be.” 

Aside from the mask, what were some of your favorite effects and moments to work on? 

NELSON: I loved Drew getting impaled on the fence. I thought that turned out great, even though you didn’t see a whole lot of it in the movie, I still think it’s super effective. We were going to shoot a version where you actually see it happen, but due to time and stuff, we just couldn’t do it. And we shot that at the last minute, at 4:30 in the morning in the rain, you know? And it was so quick, but I’m really happy with the way that turned out. 

I’m really happy with all of it. I’m really thrilled with the way … the balance between the gore that some fans want to see, and the reveals that some fans don’t want to see. So I thought we accomplished that pretty well, and I’m really thrilled with all of it. I can’t complaint at all. 

Well, when it came to gore on set, did you shoot a little extra knowing that you could cut back in the edit? Or did you shoot to exactly what you guys wanted? 

NELSON:  If I can remember right, we shot pretty much exactly the way it was scripted. There wasn’t really anything that we shot more of that you don’t see. It was all very, very calculated, and very thought through and talked about before we even started shooting at length with David Gordon Green and Michael Simmonds, and everybody at Bloom House. We talked it through. It was all a really good balance. There was nothing that got cut out because of MPAA, as far as I know, or that we drastically altered, because of any of those reasons. It was all very balanced and thought out. 

Now that you’ve done the thing, you did Halloween, you made a Michael Myers mask, and it’s good! What is on the top of your bucket list now? What have you replaced it with? 

NELSON: That’s a really good question. People have been asking me that. My friends, my peers and co-workers, have been asking me that. I’m like, “Oh, God. I don’t know. I have to think up this cool stuff, because that was one of the biggest!” I would say, I’d love to tackle, maybe another … two things. I would love to maybe tackle another iconic horror franchise, like a Nightmare On Elm Street, or a Friday The Thirteenth, for sure. 

But better yet, I would love to create an iconic killer, or whatever you want to say; something coming up that would last 40 years. That’s a tall order, and I don’t know. It’s a perfect storm, and you’re lucky if you ever accomplish that in your entire career, but I would say that’s a bucket list. Maybe creating something new that will last for 40 years. That would be great. 

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