When a movie or TV show needs to transform an actor on set—to show heroic battle wounds or their transformation into a hideous creature, for instance—the production will hire special effects artists. Skilled in the disciplines of makeup and prosthetics application, these artists are capable of executing detailed character designs that raise dramatic stakes or provide clues to a story.
Such skills are hard-won, demanding a colossal amount of practice and learning.
Teaching Music City’s future special effects talent is Nashville’s Academy of Make Up Arts (AMUA). Founded in 2010 by makeup artist Ashley Lords, the AMUA has graduated students who’ve gone on to work for Marvel Studios, TPAC, Madame Tussauds, and Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group.
Director of SFX Makeup Ben Rittenhouse serves the AMUA as both an administrator and an educator. A special effects makeup artist, prosthetics artist, and props master, Ben’s makeup work on the 2010 MAX (HBO) miniseries “The Pacific” was recognized with an Emmy Award. He’s worked alongside some of the biggest names in Hollywood for films like “Sin City,” “CSI,” “R.I.P.D.,” “Star Trek,” “Kill Bill: Volumes 1 & 2,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Mist,” “Hostel,” “The Hunger Games,” “Anchorman,” “Hulk,” and “Avatar,” as well as our locally produced “The Legend of Lake Hollow.”
“Many of the projects I’ve worked on over the last 28 years are unlisted,” Ben tells FilmNashville Foundation. “Anyone who looks up my IMDB profile only sees a quarter of what I’ve worked on. Even though you might work on a project, some places don’t credit you unless you’re physically on the set.”
“Demons to Some…”
It may sound macabre, but Ben’s desire to play with blood and guts dates back to when he was ten years old. Growing up in Farmland, Indiana—a town close to Muncie whose population as of 2021 was approximately 1300—Ben didn’t have many entertainment options.
“My dad and I used to watch old monster movies like ‘Frankenstein,’ ‘The Creature From the Black Lagoon,’ and ‘Godzilla,’” he says. “I got really fascinated by the creatures. I was a huge monster kid, basically.”
When he was thirteen, Ben was exposed to a television docuseries entitled “Movie Magic” (“Mega Movie Magic”), which was part of the Discovery Channel’s Sunday youth programming. This series took viewers behind the scenes of films, showing them how special effects were created.
One episode in particular stood out to Ben for featuring Pinhead, the primary antagonist of the iconic horror film “Hellraiser.” This episode showed how the special effects makeup for the character—which included a gruesome grid pattern of nails protruding from his head—were applied to the actor.
“Watching that show, it hit me for the first time that there were people who actually built the monsters for my favorite movies. And that those people got paid to do that,” Ben says. Interested in makeup work as a career option, he started researching special effects, learning about the top effects artists in the industry, their techniques, and what materials they used for their work.
Many of the materials used by professional effects artists were unavailable to consumers. So, Ben improvised his own makeup concoctions. He says, “The way I started was grabbing things out of the kitchen cupboard, using my mom’s beauty care makeup to make wounds, or getting mortician’s wax to make fake cuts on my forehead and scare people.”
While practicing with makeup, Ben also painted models of horror and sci-fi characters, adding his flourishes after the models were assembled.
“I would say that this is truly my first gig making monsters,” he says.
This gig came about when Ben was sixteen. He was visiting his local shopping mall one day, picking up some magazines. In line, he was approached by another customer.
Ben recalls, “This guy saw my copy of ‘Model Builder Magazine’ and asked me ‘Do you make models?’ I told him I did, and he asked me if I could paint his Predator model for him since it was beyond his skill level.”
Ben jokes that this would be his first paid gig making monsters. After getting the customer’s telephone number, Ben coordinated to paint the model. This customer was over the moon with the quality of Ben’s work and would commission about 30 more models from Ben. “That got me thinking ‘Oh, I could really make money at this!’”
A Pound of Flesh
At 21, Ben followed one of his peers into enrolling at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, which is now defunct.
“I joined under the industrial design program,” he says. “In this program, they taught special effects for theater, film, and television.”
Regrettably, The Art Institute of Pittsburgh did not live up to Ben’s expectations. But that’s not to say that his time there was wasted. Ben made the most of his postsecondary experience, investing extra time in learning what he needed to know. Indulging his obsession with foam latex, Ben learned about the many different things an effects artist could do with it. Becoming proficient with foam latex casting, he developed a side hustle in which he would charge students $20-30 to make foam latex via the batch process of production (known as “running” foam latex).
“I would run all of their pieces,” he says.
There were a few worthwhile instructors at the institute, but not enough to justify the time and cost of attendance. After learning all he could, one of Ben’s friends dropped the program altogether, as he was already entertaining special effects work offers.
Ben says, “He called me up and said ‘Listen, I’m moving out to LA. I’ve got a futon, and there’s tons of work. If you get out here, I could probably get you a job!’”
It was obvious that Ben’s friend was destined for success. Ben recounts throwing this friend a going-away party and having “the Sultan of Splatter” Tom Savini show up to wish this individual well. Tom had already had the pleasure of working with Ben’s friend as an assistant for his mold-making projects.
“Having Tom Savini show up at my doorstep was pretty incredible,” he says. “That was amazing. I could tell that this guy was going to make it happen!”
Picking One’s Brain
In 1997—just before leaving for LA—Ben was hired for his first special effects job for film. This was the horror film “Operation: Nazi Zombies,” a production shot in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
“It was a really interesting experience, and everyone seemed to love the makeup for the film,” he says.
This film would ultimately be in post-production limbo until 2003 when it finally saw its release. The experience on this set would give him the confidence to move out to Tinseltown, which Ben did in 1998. Work did indeed come quickly for Ben, along with a huge opportunity in 2000.
“I was very fortunate,” he says. “I was working for Captive Audience Productions, which was Greg Cannom’s special effects company. Cannom did the effects for Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ music video under Rick Baker. Cannom’s Captive Audience work was recognized by fans of films such as ‘The Lost Boys,’ ‘Titanic,’ ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula,’ ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ and a bunch of other stuff. My friend had told me that Captive Audience was in need of lab techs for the film ‘Hannibal.’”
The critical and commercial expectations for “Hannibal” were very high, as it was a sequel to one of the most memorable psychological thrillers ever made. Cannom was brought onto the project to deliver top-notch special effects.
Ben was hired for “Hannibal” as a lab tech to support other special effects artists who were designing makeup applications. Recalling the experience, he says, “Meeting Rick Baker was simultaneously fantastic and intimidating. Especially that early on in my career, when I’m seeing these magnificent builds through the eyes of an inexperienced artist. I used to tell myself, ‘I will never be as good as these people.’ Then one day, I woke up and told myself ‘I’m missing the plot here! These people are not only the best, they’re insanely nice! I need to start asking them questions instead of being worried about sounding stupid.’”
One could argue that Baker saw a bit of himself in every young makeup artist at his studio. He had developed a soft spot for budding talent. Baker’s mentor in the special effects trade was Dick Smith, “the Godfather of Hollywood Makeup.” The two had worked together on “The Exorcist,” with Smith passing on every piece of information he could think of to Baker.
This learning approach dictated how Baker treated young artists like Ben, with Baker being incredibly friendly. While Baker made monsters, he treated everyone on his team with respect. Baker’s demeanor in the studio is now Ben’s philosophy on teaching.
“As an educator, let me stress that it really, really matters who your instructors are. Their background is important, as it’s what they pull from when they teach you. Without a strong background, educators aren’t nearly as effective as they should be in the classroom. You want someone who has the diverse experience that comes with a past career. Not simply one or two credits that barely qualify them,” he says.
“Did You See Its Face?”
Absorbing every little tip and piece of wisdom that he could, Ben became more confident in his artistry. And working with the Cinovation team gave Ben a feeling of pride. “Every day there, you just felt like everyone was working hard towards the same goal,” he says.
This work is rigorous, and highly technical, and maintains that a certain workflow must be observed by its team. Starting the process, the director will give notes to a special effects company on how a certain character design should look. Once those notes are received, a staff sculpture artist will conceptualize the design via a rough sketch. Upon approving that sketched design, the sculpture artist will then make a highly detailed sculpture, which gives the director a three-dimensional look at the character design. Next, that sculpture has a mold created around it, and the individual moldings are sent to the special effects studio’s foam latex department. From those individual moldings, members of the foam latex team will pour castings to create latex prosthetics. Finally, these pieces will be adhered to an actor to make them resemble the approved sculpture.
“It’s a tedious job,” Ben shares. “It becomes tedious when you’re dealing with complex, higher-level builds.”
Part of what makes the process so tough is the amount of chemistry involved. For foam latex production, the synthesis of seven to eight chemicals is necessary to get the castings to come out right. Once the solution is mixed to consistency, it is injected into molds to create castings. After the injection process, a technician must monitor the humidity and temperature of the prostheses to prevent them from getting damaged.
Offering his own work experience as an example, Ben says “Every day that Marv is needed on the set of ‘Sin City,’ those appliances get taken off of Mickey Rourke and thrown away. They’re only good for one day. Fresh appliances have to be created every single day that character is on set.”
Even for veteran artists, the creation of makeup effects can be highly stressful. But the stress and the fragility of the appliances are what make the job highly rewarding. “I love it to this day! And that’s why I teach it to my students,” Ben says.
Terror and Wonder in the Lab
“We shot this in The Bahamas,” he says. “The actress was in the ocean for eight to ten hours a day wearing her costume and this tail. The tail was made of urethane, so it didn’t absorb any of the water. But this made the tail buoyant, and we had to add weights to it to keep it from floating to the top.”
“Power Rangers: Lightspeed Rescue” was a career milestone for Ben in that it was his first time being on set. It was followed by another milestone, which came courtesy of the Snoop Dogg horror vehicle “Bones.” The work on “Bones” was much more serious, showing off what Ben could do. Being a great showcase for his work, “Bones” led to much bigger projects, including Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of “Planet of the Apes.”
Ben’s time at Cinovation was short-lived, and he would find more work in 2001 with Greg Nicotero’s KNB EFX Group, Inc. (KNB). Under Tom Savini, Nicotero’s makeup was also introduced to the world with a George A. Romero zombie film: the 1985 cult classic “Day of the Dead.”
Explaining what brought him to KNB, Ben says “We had wrapped out ‘Men In Black II’ at Cinovation. I didn’t have much in the way of work around this time… a good friend of mine named Rob Friedas told me that KNB was looking for a department head/foam runner. After Rob vouched for me at KNB, I went in to interview. I brought a bag in with me for everything I needed to run foam—just in case they wanted me to audition or something—and I remember the supervisor saying, ‘Wow! No one’s ever brought their foam mixer in for an interview!!’”
After acing the interview, Ben was hired for a two-week probationary period to be the head of the foam department for “Austin Powers in Goldmember.”
Ben joined KNB just as it was transitioning into larger, more mainstream projects outside of the horror genre. Making himself an asset for these projects, Ben stayed with KNB. He graduated to the role of department head for foam latex, overseeing up to eight people. He would stay with KNB for approximately eight years before leaving in 2009.
Per Ben, there’s an enchanting quality to working with foam latex. Its use in the film industry dates back to 1936, and “The Wizard of Oz” is credited with its first extensive use in 1939.
But in an era of computer-generated imagery (CGI), are such practical effects still needed?
“Absolutely!” Ben says, adding that there are several benefits to using practical special effects over digital effects. Characters that are meant to be iconic—such as ‘The Mandalorian’ character Baby Yoda (Grogu)—don’t translate as well to the screen when they don’t have a physical presence in their scenes.
“That character became a worldwide sensation thanks to how the design was executed. If you think that Baby Yoda would have been just as popular had it been done in CGI, you’re dead wrong!” Ben says. He offers that many people will instinctually reject digital effects, as they can detect that there’s something inorganic in their result.
Ben says, “CGI may look real, but it still feels fake to an audience. Whereas practical effects may look fake but can still feel realistic.”
The feelings of the audience aren’t the only emotions to consider when justifying a production’s practical effects. “When a performer can see it, can hear it, or can even touch it, it gives them guidelines on how they should act. If the actors have to act next to a green tennis ball, it’s a lot harder for them to, say, get scared without a character like the Pennywise monster from ‘It’ actually being on set.”
Many people in the industry favor practical effects over digital, preferring how such effects may look when viewed on newer screens. But CGI has many advocates in Hollywood, as time, labor, and cost are all still factors to consider when making a movie. Because of this, the two schools of thought have been at war for decades.
Ben says, “By the time my career started taking off in 2000, I had special effects veterans walk up to me and say, ‘Why are you jumping aboard this sinking ship?’”
Decades later, practical effects are still used in production. And some of the tools of the trade—like giant puppets—are presently experiencing a renaissance prompted by a new guard of filmmakers that recognize the shortsightedness of the “We’ll fix it in post” mentality.
“People have gotten bored with the tool of CGI. It was popular for a while because it was new. But the novelty of that has worn off, and many filmmakers want to explore the old territory of practical effects since it feels new to them. Only this time, it’s not a tool, but a color on their palette,” Ben says. “And they’re seeing the benefits of practical effects in the praise that their films are getting!”
Ben’s philosophy is that practical and digital special effects techniques can offer the best of both worlds. “That’s where the real magic happens!”
Tour of Duty
While still working for KNB in 2007, Ben got the job to be the on-set supervisor for “The Pacific.” This would be a companion piece to HBO’s 2001 miniseries “Band of Brothers,” which was also produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.
Following the production, Ben temporarily relocated to Australia for a year. He was what the team called a “road dog,” traveling wherever KNB needed to supervise special effects. During this time in Australia, Ben learned that he was becoming a father.
“I was super excited… And then suddenly, my thinking changed. My goals for the future weren’t just about me anymore. I was now thinking about what I was going to do as a dad. And I concluded that I didn’t want to be a dad that went to Australia for a whole year and missed all of the good stuff that happened,” Ben says.
He learned that the struggle of keeping a happy home life while being on set was a common problem. Older friends in the industry warned him of the dangers of being away too much, sharing “Don’t miss out on your children growing up. Be home for them.”
Ben’s work on “The Pacific” earned him an Emmy (Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup For A Series, Miniseries, Movie Or A Special – 2010). This honor was like a silver medal compared to fatherhood, which felt like a golden trophy in Ben’s mind. After deciding that he wanted to be around more for his family, he chose to switch from makeup to work as a prop maker, which kept him in the Los Angeles area.
There was another problem, though. Post-fatherhood, LA didn’t feel like home. And being a prop maker wasn’t something that Ben wanted to do forever.
So after chatting with a friend who had gotten into teaching, Ben set up his own special effects night class. “I fell in love with sharing what I know,” he says.
Being a teacher was a virtual passport, giving him the freedom to move to other areas. It also brought him joy. Now that he had the means to relocate his family, Ben researched three growing cities that would support him as a special effects teacher: Austin, Portland, and Nashville.
Ben shares, “Randomly, I called the AMUA. Speaking to Ashley, I asked her ‘Hey are you interested in developing a special effects makeup program?’ She told me that she was, and recommended that I send her my resume, which I did. After that call ended, she immediately called me back and said ‘Okay, let’s talk this into existence.’”
For Ben, teaching at AMUA in Nashville sounded like a needed change of pace. It would provide a cheaper cost of living, a job that traded stress for purpose, and a friendlier environment to raise kids. Designing what would be AMUA’s special effects makeup program in 2014, Ben continued working in the industry as an effects makeup artist.
Trying to Get Away
In 2015, Ben moved his family to Middle Tennessee.
“I live in Pegram now, which is population 1200. It’s funny that I spent my whole young adult life running away from a small town, only to wind up in one. Having kids while working in production, you come to value the peace of living that you find outside of urban areas,” Ben says.
It’s not just the country life that Ben is passing on to his kids. It’s the childhood love of monsters. “I’m just now starting to watch Tarantino movies with my oldest son,” he says. I’m watching monster movies with both of them, showing them all of the stuff that I grew up with, like ‘Jason and the Argonauts.’”
“The number one thing that I teach isn’t the skill set of special effects makeup. It’s problem-solving. If you’re hired for a production and you, say, need to make a dragon or create the effect of slitting someone’s throat, how do you solve that problem? That abstract thinking is useful for almost everything we do in life,” Ben says.
As it turns out, Ben’s days of doing special effects work weren’t behind him. In 2018, Ben was approached by Chris Hollo and Mark Mosrie to make a feature horror film, “The Legend of Lake Hollow.” Finding Ben via the AMUA website, Mosrie and Hollo chatted with Ben about their project.
“They wanted me to build a wendigo for them!” he says. “I said ‘Yes! This is awesome!!’”
Putting his abstract thinking skills to use, Ben pitched several ideas to Hollo and Mosrie that were good enough to make them rewrite their screenplay.
Signing on immediately to work on “The Legend of Lake Hollow,” Ben turned this project into something for his class to work on. “They gave me a respectable budget. I was able to buy materials and have my students as my special effects crew.”
Four people on this team were tasked with designing the wendigo, with Ben operating as the chief designer.
“It was a fun project,” he says. “This was also a great learning opportunity for the students. Instead of being given class assignments, they’re working right beside me and learning a lot of old-school techniques to make this thing.”
Ben ensured that every single student who contributed to the project received a credit in the film’s production. He also arranged for every student to be able to visit the film’s set on the days that featured their monster.
“This was a superb experience and something that I want to do again. I’ve already discussed working on the next movie with Mark and Chris. Having the openness to collaborate with others instead of just following orders makes special effects work exciting,” he says.
Ben tells FilmNashville Foundation that he’s constantly looking for projects like “The Legend of Lake Hollow” to bring to his students. Ben says, “One of my biggest challenges is letting the community of Nashville filmmakers know that we’re here!” He adds that this is why AMUA will be hosting an open-house event on Friday, Nov. 10 to showcase the work of its students.
When not teaching at AMUA or spending time with his family, Ben is working in his studio. A visual artist who works in multiple mediums, Ben holds a Congressional Award (Outstanding and Invaluable Service to the Arts Community) from Congressman Brad Sherman, who chose to honor Ben for his visual arts work back in California. He had previously found success as a metal sculpture artist, selling work to clients throughout downtown Los Angeles.
“I have two passions. Making monsters and making art,” Ben jokes.
Ben recently held his first art show in Nashville. Entitled “Oddities from the Vault of Ben Rittenhouse,” the show opened in early October and featured Ben’s novel and otherworldly sculptural work.