his installment is geared toward up-and-coming makeup FX persons and indie filmmakers in need of a bloody mess. And, God knows, we all need one of those sometimes.
There's a crack in the mirror
And a bloodstain on the bed
Oh, you were a vampire
And baby, I'm the walking dead
Lyrics by Johnette Napolitano
In 1968, when I was a 12-year-old interested in movie makeup, one product I begged my dad to buy was Max Factor blood. Yes, the same Max Factor that markets blush and mascara used to make movie blood - two kinds. I didn’t know at the time to order Technicolor Blood, so I got the wrong type, Panchromatic, used for black-and-white films. It was purplish, with a rosy scent, and I used it sparingly. After all, it cost a dollar for that sacred pint. I tried some gore makeups with it but could see right away that the color looked wrong. Watching early color Hammer films, I noticed their Kensington Gore blood was equally off -- it was orangey. I began to wonder if anyone who made movie blood had ever cut a finger.
My introduction to phenomenal-looking movie blood came one night in 1976 when I went to a theater near The Exorcist steps to see a double-bill of two films I had never heard of. One was Taxi Driver. When I saw my hero Dick Smith’s name in the opening credits, I knew I was in for a treat; I just didn’t know what kind. Dick delivered the goods with a wallop. Now that was fucking great blood.
When I started my career, I tried various makeup manufacturers’ bloods. Back then, there were only a few companies that made it and the realism was equivalent to the number of choices they gave -- poor. I tried making my own with red food coloring and non-toxic children’s poster paint. It never looked right, and it stained. I read about a ‘“miracle” non-staining product made by 3M called Nextel Simulated Blood; Tom Savini used it in George Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead. I ordered some, only to discover it looked like red-orange paint and was opaque. Not finding a solution, I did what any stuck monster maker would: I phoned Dick Smith. He mailed me his blood formulas, and I never looked back.
Dick’s basic formula used Karo clear corn syrup as a base; he added supermarket food coloring. The formula was non-toxic, cheap, and didn’t stain much. He later added a wetting agent used in film developing, but it was poisonous, so he replaced it with dish detergent. Much later, he discovered that sorbitol (a sweetener use in the diet food industry) used as a base was better. It’s less viscous than corn syrup. I’ve used Dick’s formula for 35 years, and -- like many -- I swear by it.
Today, a large number of pro makeup companies and individuals make blood for films. You can get … regular blood, flowing blood, drying blood, dried blood, scab blood, arterial blood, oxygenated blood, bright blood, dark blood, runny blood, slow-dry blood, pumping blood, wet blood, eye blood, clotted blood, blood plasma, blood gel, blood paste, blood jam, blood jelly, mouth blood, even floor blood (WTF?). There are more blood recipes than there are ways to cook potatoes.
So the choice is: Do you buy blood or make it yourself? DIY is probably the way to go if you’re on a budget. You can make the exact same formulation used in The Exorcist and The Godfather for about $20 per gallon using ingredients from your local market. It looks completely real, plus you’ll have control over how you make it. Should you find yourself on a project with a decent budget, like my old friend Eryn Krueger Mekash on American Horror Story, I would suggest having production purchase a bunch of different pre-made types for you to try out. It will cost a few bucks, but it’s in production’s best interest to get the best end product possible. (And like the guy in Sunset Boulevard said, “As long as the lady is paying for it, why not take the Vicuna?”) I texted Eryn to ask what she and her uber-talented team were employing on American Horror Story. She wrote back that they were using Fleet Street Dark drying blood for closeups and makeups, and VVDFX blood for spraying and other blood gags.
Here are a few tips for film blood, whether you’re making your own or adjusting store-bought kinds.
1. If the blood will be on white clothing or white surfaces, you may have to darken the basic formula for it to read properly. Don’t arbitrarily start throwing in blue. Real blood is on the orangey side, not the blue. Darken primarily with green (the complimentary color to red), then add a few drops of blue sparingly. You can also use caramel coloring to darken.
2. Real blood flows on skin and into fabrics; it does not bead up. Karo blood without a wetting agent will bead. Add a few ounces of dishwashing liquid per gallon to fix this. Stir slowly, don’t shake, or it will be a bubble-fest.
With reference to the above two, please don’t be one of those makeup artists/filmmakers who uses purple blood that beads on the skin. I will boycott your film and write you nasty letters. There is no excuse for any human being to not know what real blood looks like.
3. For dried blood, try artists’ acrylic paints and watercolors. You can mix these with Pros-Aide, and it will stay on all day. Not sure what dried blood looks like? Be brave and prick your finger; wipe it on a white towel and let it set a few hours. There’s your color match. 4. For mouth blood, you don’t need a wetting agent. Saliva is a natural one. You can add a touch of mint or vanilla flavor if desired. Your actor will either love you or hate you.
4. For research, go to photojournalist websites and news stories about civil unrest. These brave photographers get in the thick of street violence, and their photos show real blood flowing. I don’t recommend searching for pics of dead bodies this way; they are truly disturbing.
5. On a lighter note: shaving cream. Even the best movie blood may leave a residual tint on your fingertips after working with them all day. The solution to clean it off is shaving cream. Nobody knows who came up with this neat trick, but it works like a charm.
Lastly, don’t forget to clean up properly before you drive home. One night after a particularly bloody shoot, I stopped at a supermarket. I was tired after 16 hours on set and probably looked a bit disheveled. As I searched for a good frozen lasagna, I noticed a few people back away from me. It wasn’t until I was in line that I noticed that I had forgotten to zip up my jacket. My shirt was covered in blood splashes, and it I looked like I’d just hacked someone to pieces. Of course, in Los Angeles, it takes a lot more than being covered in blood to really draw attention, so I got away without a hitch.
You can find more information (plus links to Dick Smith’s blood formula) at my blog: https://markshostrom.weebly.com. Click articles “Bullets Blood and Bad Guys” (1-5).
You can follow the American Horror Story makeup FX creators here:
Eryn Krueger Mekash IG: @makeuphag & Twitter: @frankenqueen
Mike Mekash IG: @mikemekash
Christopher Nelson IG: @cnelsonfx
David LeRoy Anderson IG: @afxstudio
Mark Shostrom began his 35-year career at the birth of the golden age of practical makeup effects in 1980. He designed the special makeup for cult classics Evil Dead II, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and 3, From Beyond and Phantasm 2 and 3. Moving into television, he won Emmys for The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek: Voyager. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram under his commonly used pseudonym @markshostrom. His blog is https://markshostrom.weebly.com.