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The business of film, television & new media production in the Northeast
imagine magazine logo
The business of film, television & new media production in the Northeast

Ben Bornstein, Special Effects Make-up Artist in his lab at Creative Initiative Make-Up and Effects studio in Woburn, MA. Photo by Michael Devaney,

Most people go to Hollywood to become great actors or directors, or to sell their screenplays, but not Massachusetts’ own Ben Bornstein, who grew up in Peabody and North Reading.  By age eighteen he had figured out that he wanted to be a make-up artist. Not just regular make-up, but any and every kind of make-up, especially prosthetics and creatures. He went to great lengths to find out just what becoming a great make-up special effects artist would take and set out to learn his life’s work.

Bornstein explains that being a special effects make-up artist is like having three professions in one. You need to know make-up, props, and special effects. There are many disciplines to each.  At age 22, Ben decided to go to make-up school.

Ben’s first creature attempt was at make-up school as one of his assignments. “The challenge,” he said, “was to design a one piece make-up, which means to do a prosthetic make-up that will cover the entire face based on whatever design we chose. I did a re-creation of Michael Westmore’s Rocky Dennis make-up. It was challenging for sure and looking back on it, it wasn’t too bad, in my opinion, for my first stab.”

Make-up school gave Ben the courage to move to Los Angeles with his little portfolio of student work.

Three time NFL Pro Bowler Jevon “The Freak” Kearse and Ben Bornstein after make-up and lenses, photo shoot at GLP in Quincy, 2011. / Jonah in JONAH LIVES, 2011/ Some props Ben Bornstein made for a bar in Huntington Beach, CA, 2005. / Prosthetic make-up for a Gary Land photo shoot called “Possession.”

“In LA, I got a job after three months of searching and applying. Once I got my foot in the door, it took me a good two years to learn all the materials and get a better grip on procedures they will never teach you in school.” Ben said.

“When the writer’s strike happened in Los Angeles all production work slowed way down. My friend Katrina Parsons (local 481) had told me that Boston was blowing up with work around 2007-2008. I had gotten the experience in LA to go my own way and carve out my own future. It seemed there wasn’t a better place than Boston.There were no creature shops that produce anything better than Halloween quality work in all of New England. I thought why not try and bring the Hollywood quality of the work back so production companies can get a tax credit on top of it? It made so much sense to me and also allowed me to be closer to family and my oldest friends.

“So I moved back to Boston with $200 and just started working on whatever I could to make money. I saved up enough after six months of being back and opened up a full service lab for all of my builds. I was lucky enough to get in the make-up union to allow me to work on the Hollywood films that come through.”

Creative Initiative Make-Up & Effects Studio was born in Woburn, MA. “It has been a success and a dream come true.” Ben told IMAGINE Magazine.

Ben is a member of Local 798 Make-Up Artist and Local 481 Unions. It is easy to tell that he is very passionate about his work.“What I love is the creative freedom in my job,” he says,“It also gives me a regular opportunity to keep getting better at what I do. I never stop learning in this business.There is no ceiling to reach and there are no boundaries.”

But in addition to showing up on the set, knowing his craft and practicing his disciplines, Ben Bornstein must successfully manage a complicated business. He has studio rent, utilities, employees, insurances, maintenance, furniture, fixtures, and very costly tools and supplies. Silicone, for example, costs upwards $450 for a five gallon kit.

What is the life of a special effects make-up artist like? Ben says,“When a director or producer calls or e-mails about a project, I read the script twice, break it all down fx wise (this means make-ups and special fx sequences that need to happen on set). In pre-production, it starts with designs if the budget allows it, then I have to break down the labor and break down material costs. The next step is to schedule the work. Sometimes we do six day weeks at twelve hour days, other times we do 40-hour weeks. Some work part time due to their specialty, some are local friends that are extra sets of hands that are on full time with me. Every job is different, and every budget is different so that always renders a unique experience. Once the pre-production lab work is done, then my crew and I travel to location or set to execute the work.

For Union work there are standard rates for being on the set, of course. Non-union shows require individual negotiation. Budgeting and bidding is necessary because of the nature of very expensive materials like latex and fiberglass and the uniqueness of the lab work and intricate construction work required. Ben considers himself pretty successful at this process.“Most of the time I win,” he says.“Lots of times producers will want to pay a flat rate for all of the work, which I always turn down. Being in the lab and on set are two different animals.  Applying a make-up on set, touch ups, then removal can involve an eighteen hour work day. Let’s just say I’ve learned my lesson in the past with the flat rate nonsense. Hourly is the way to go, always.”

Ben finds every job rewarding.“Since we build things to be put in front of the camera, it’s gratifying to know that it came from our imaginations to something we proudly look at in person.” he adds.

And it appears he’s been getting plenty of business for his lab and crew. Filmmaker Paul Rogers brought Ben on his indie project CRYPSIS shooting in Gloucester. CRYPSIS presented a new challenge and Ben was immediately interested because he would be making a creature for the film. Building a suit wasn’t something he had done for his own company, but he had helped build many for other companies in Los Angeles and was eager for the opportunity. “We went through a rigorous design process for about a month, landed our suit performer and then it was a seven week build for me and thirteen workers.The suit not only came out beautiful, but is my proudest work to date. Look for CRYPSIS in 2013.”  Ben told IMAGINE.

Ben Bornstein has worked on many recognizable projects for other special effects make-up companies in LA. He was a lab technician on Films and Television Shows including THE DEPARTED, THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, SURROGATES, THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA,  FOUR BROTHERS and I AM LEGEND.

One thing Ben was solely responsible for that most in New England will remember was the prosthetic hand cast he made for Mark Wahlberg in the Academy Award winner for best picture,THE FIGHTER.

Ben worked on a horror film in Rhode Island this summer called BACKMASK directed by Marcus Nispel (THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, FRIDAY THE 13TH (2009) and CONAN (2011). “My friend Shaun Smith called me from LA to be his on set key special make-up FX artist. Shaun designed and supervised, I applied on set.That was really challenging and exciting.  BACKMASK should be out sometime in 2013.

“Next I worked on a film by Steve Wolsh called MUCK. Lot’s of cool make-ups and bloody violence. It was shot on Cape Cod and will also get a 2013 release.

“Currently, I am working on a few different projects that I’m excited about. One is called ONCE IN A BLUE PILL by Jeffrey Paolone and Lance Reenstierna. They are two local talented guys making an imaginative piece. The other is SEEDS by Owen Long, a Rhode Island native producing and directing a dark drama with horror elements in it.

When building a team for a new film project Ben Bornstein usually has to reach out to professionals in Los Angeles that he knows and has worked with in the past. Occasionally he hires from the region, but finds that can usually only be when he is in need of less experienced assistance with procedures that are not a “specialty.”

For those of you who may be contemplating becoming a Special Effects Make-Up Artist you may wish to touch base with Ben. He says, “I offer workshops a few times a year. That’s a great place to start.”  He strongly suggests you start drawing, painting, airbrushing, studying anatomy and form, learn beauty makeup and buy DVDs and make-up special effects instructional books. He also recommends checking in with Dick Smith, one of the masters of the craft, as he offers a take-at-home course.

When asked Ben says,“Yes, I do glamour make-up as well. The way I look at it, make-up is make-up whether it’s a gorgeous face or a disgusting creature.”

You can contact Ben by email at