The FX Of X: Eyes Pop Out Of Their Damn Skulls (Just Make Sure They Hit The Mark)

Makeup and hair designer Sarah Rubano discusses all the Killer FX in Ti West's X.

By Heather Wixson · @thehorrorchick · May 2, 2022, 4:46 PM PDT
Sarah & Kevin
Sarah & Kevin, courtesy of A24

While there are many reasons for horror fans to love Ti West's psycho-sexual slasher X, one of the biggest factors behind its success has got to be the incredible amount of practical makeup effects and gags featured throughout the film. From the intricate full-body old age makeups created for the characters Howard and Pearl to all the killer FX gags we see utilized on these characters' victims, West's devotion to practical FX in X is perfectly aligned with the project's throwback vibes, since so many filmmaker working during the 1970s enthusiastically embraced the efforts of the brilliant makeup artists working during that time.

Now that X is officially out on PVOD and is set to hit home media in a few weeks, we thought this was the perfect time to do a deep dive into all the jaw-droppingly great special effects featured throughout West's latest genre effort with Sarah Rubano who served as the Makeup and Hair Designer on the project. A quick warning: if you haven't seen X yet, there are spoilers in here, so consider this your warning before reading all the gory details on how Rubano, Jason Docherty, and their amazing teams helped bring West's vicious vision to life in X.

So great to speak with you today, Sarah. When you were first approached for this project, were there certain aspects of X that really excited you from a creative perspective, where you were like, "Oh, I can't wait to do this, or I can't wait to do that?"

When Wētā Workshop came to me, they had already engaged with Ti West, Jacob Jaffke, and our local producer, Jared Connon. But they came to me and they said, "Hey, we've got this visual feast with this great story; read it and tell us what you think." So I read it, and then I had my first meeting with Ti, Jacob, and Wētā . Right from the beginning, I could tell that this would just be a feast for the eyes, and a real opportunity to lean into character development. It was exciting, but it was also a little terrifying because our timeline was pretty crunchy, and the workload was very ambitious. But I am a sucker for a creative challenge, so I signed right up.

Sarah & Ti

And just working with Ti, he's so creatively inspired. He just wanted me to lean into the character development from the straight makeup and hair all the way through the gory kills. Of course, I worked very closely with the Wētā Workshop team, Jason Dockerty, and also my key makeup effects artist, Kevin Wasner, to concept and manufacture the intricate Pearl and Howard makeups plus storyboard and map out the onset delivery of all the kills, all the way through to Pearl and Howard and then all of the kills, just making them outrageous and as colorful as possible.

These days, we've come into such a heavy VFX chapter of cinema, so I feel like whenever we are able to have a movie that really embraces practical effects, that's something that really resonates with me. I've had the incredible pleasure to work with numerous directors who also embrace that in their storytelling. Neill Blomkamp, Jim Cameron, and now Ti West. So I'm very lucky and grateful to be able to express myself in this way. And yes, X is a perfect example of utilizing the tool of practical makeup effects to achieve something great.

What's interesting to me is that most of the time these days when folks are approached for effects makeup, they usually will have somebody else spearhead the straight makeup elements of that show, but that wasn't the case here. Do you feel like having that consistency really helped heighten the experience for you?

It definitely was a heightened experience for me, and it was very, very hard. In New Zealand, we don't have the makeup and the hair separated. It's similar to England and the way that they work over there, where it's all under one umbrella. So I was the makeup and hair designer and in charge of the overall effects, which I like, because then I just feel all the elements relate so closely with one another, especially on a project like this. But I loved working with my key hair and my key makeup effects artists, Kevin [Wasner] and Frankie Karena. I loved having those guys help me get there, and I couldn’t have done it without them, but I loved having the overall creative control, too. I think it was better for Ti too, because it was only one person he was dealing with instead of multiple people.

Plus, I've been working with Richard Taylor’s Wētā Workshop for 15 plus years now, so I've got a shorthand with the team there. Jason Docherty was in charge of the prosthetic department, Stephen Crowe was our lead concept designer, Dan Cockersell was our lead sculptor, Mike Wallace and William Toft were our lead moldmakers. I worked closely with all of them when it came to the Pearl makeup, the Howard makeup, the makeup effects, the kills, et cetera..


So let's talk about Pearl and Howard then, as I think what you guys were able to do with this makeup, and how it reflected these characters was so astounding. There's almost an inherent sadness in that these characters have aged. Talk a little bit about that, in terms of reflecting somebody's life in how their character looks. I think that there's something really interesting about seeing an aged makeup, and it's also playing out as this roadmap to a character's life.

That was something we talked a lot about when we were designing and creating the Pearl makeup because we didn't want her to be a stereotypical horror monster villain. We wanted the audience to relate to her in a very human way so we scaled back when the decision was made to make her look a little bit more human, because I think that there is a sadness to her. And with Maxine there, we felt like they are essentially the same person, but at different ages, and there's a duality to these two characters. But even though Pearl is the villain, we're also relating to her and feeling empathetic and sympathetic toward her, which is a powerful feeling, and I think that really works well for the movie.


When we were designing the Pearl look, we wanted people to relate to her to some degree, but then, she looks pretty horrific too, with all the age spots and her dentures and her crazy scleral lenses, wispy mohair wig and all of that. So there are creepy elements to her, but we try to keep her human to some degree.


Once they had the roles cast for these characters, did you then take some ideas and play off of the actual visages of the actors, or did you decide to kind of tweak everything a little bit?

Yeah, that always matters. You can go through a very long period of 2D concept, but until the actors are cast in the role, you really don't know what that concept will be, because until you have that actor plugged in, it can go into a million different directions. Once the actor's plugged in, you can say, "Okay, what's going to work with their bone structure? With their skin tone? How are we going to get there with their physical format?" So yes, absolutely, we had the 2D concept rolling along, and then once Mia [Goth] was cast in this part of Pearl, the design started to tweak accordingly to work within the format of Mia's physicality.

Was this the case for Stephen [Ure] too, who plays Howard? He has such an interesting bone structure to his face, where he has a little bit of a thinner face. Did you guys have to build up his makeup a little bit then to create this more fleshy look that we see for Howard?

Oh yes. Once we had Stephen cast in the role of Howard, we did a lifecast of him, and then once we had the positive for that, the sculpting would begin. We were all involved with that sculpting process along with Ti so we could figure out where we wanted to build things up. Howard had nine individual prosthetic appliances added to him for the role, and his neck, his cheekbones, and his chin were the thickest parts of the makeup. The chin was built out quite a bit, and the cheekbones were built up quite a bit, too. Then other areas, like where we had to blend into the under-eye bag zone, that was paper-thin because we didn't want to build up there.

Kevin & Franca

So with these pieces, there was a real variance in weight and density. Even with the cheek piece, you have a dense bit and then the paper-thin bit, so we were always fighting bubbles, and the way you applied it, it was important to push out any bubbles because, in the thinner areas, that was always a concern.


For Pearl, when she had the full rig on, it was 30 individual prosthetic appliances, so it was a hell of a process. We had a bald cap, that was the first thing I did in the morning. We would bald cap her. Mia has a very thick head of hair, so we had to get that down, and that had to be quick, so we figured out our systems around that, and then we'd start to put all of the pieces on. And it was incredibly rewarding. It was incredibly challenging, but ultimately, the things that don't kill us make us stronger. We're certainly super proud of the end result. We were excited while we were doing it because we saw Mia on set as Pearl and Stephen as Howard, too, and we were just like, "Wow, this is going to work. This is working so well." It was really invigorating, and I think that's what got us through that really long hard shoot, just seeing them there on set and being elated that this was going to work.



That's amazing. How many days did you guys have to make them up as Pearl and Howard?

Mia was in the Pearl makeup somewhere around 13 or 14 times, and Howard was around 15 or 16 times. But when Mia wasn't in the Pearl makeup and she was playing as Maxine, and there were the Maxine-Pearl scenes, we were making up another young lady who was her Maxine double. That young lady was also serving as her Pearl double, so another young lady was being made up as Pearl, and I had a team facilitating that.

I want to talk about some of the kills because they are so great. The RJ [played by Owen Campbell] death for me is just so amazing because it starts off so quietly where it's a simple little stab, and then it's like an explosion of violence from there. Can you discuss doing that scene in particular? Because to me, it's almost the perfect example of what I feel like X is, where it's this fun movie that lets you settle in, and then there's just this explosion of chaos and violence. That just perfectly encapsulates what I think about when I think of X.

I agree. Because our shooting schedule was so ambitious, all of our kills had to be storyboarded out. We had to know exactly how we were going to shoot everything, the lighting, the camera angles. There wasn't going to be a lot of time for resets, so we had to have all of our stages marked out. Stage one, stage two, stage three, and then have all of our pieces and our manufacture supporting those stages and ready to go.

Kevin & RJ

I do love that first kill because you don't know where it's going, and then it's just outrageous all the way to Pearl dancing at the end of it. So for stage one, it was a retractable knife into the actor's neck, and that was it. Then we took our actor away to the makeup trailer and put on a whole silicone fake neck. That fake silicone neck had all the blood tubes and all of the rigging underneath and a magnet system so that when she pulls her hand away, there's still the knife handle sticking into the neck.

Sarah & RJ

When the knife came out and then the blood came out, Ti was like, "I want more, more, more, more, more. So when Pearl is continuing to stab RJ, and there's the spurting of the blood, I had Kevin Wasner adding in more meaty bits to make it look just as gory as possible. It was just this progression of stages where Ti would cut to Pearl, and then we'd go in, add more meaty bits, and eventually, it was closer to a severed head. And then later, when Maxine finds his body there, we used a high-res RJ decapitated dummy head that we made. There was actually a stuntman lying on his back on the ground where there was a hole that he put his own head and upper body into because Ti wanted a little body twitching. We just had it all planned out from beginning to end so that we knew exactly the progression and what was going to happen at each stage, because we just didn't have time to have any questions or redos. Every gag and every makeup effects gag had a storyboard and a plan around it.



Jenna Ortega undergoes some trauma in this film, between her hand and then that gnarly gunshot at the end. Did you guys just do prosthetics on her then?

We did, and Jenna was so fun to work with. She was so into it. She was like, "Yes, I get to wear prosthetics." She was so excited. We did a little finger appliance with the little bone sticking out and then added blood in accordance with the action. Once she got the shotgun blast, it was basically a large prosthetic over most of her face. We had to create the illusion of negative space because it's a shotgun blast, so it blasted some of her skin off.


We achieved this by integrating dentures anchored into her own teeth and mouth, but the dentures overlapped outside her cheeks so that they pressed in a little bit. And then there was the prosthetic that was built over the top, so it looked like exposed gums and mangled teeth and stuff on that side of her face. I do wish we saw more of it because it looked so great. We were so happy that beautiful little Jenna Ortega was walking around on set with the most horrendous shotgun prosthetic that you could imagine, but she wore it in such a classy way, of course. That came out really great, I think.

Just to follow up on that, because I'm always really impressed with those types of effects, it's easier to build up than it is to take away. Is that always a fun challenge for you when you have to push yourself that way? I think it came out great here with Jenna.

Well, thank you. Kevin Wasner worked for years on The Walking Dead, so he had some great suggestions early on, and Jason Docherty is just a wizard when it comes to the design of these gags, too. But when you're trying to create negative space, it's incredibly hard. Having integration with blood is always a little bit helpful. That makes things a little bit easier, plus it adds to the shock, so I think that helps us in that moment. But I feel like even if there wasn't blood, the design of the appliance and the prosthetic was incredibly successful.

I know we only have a few minutes left, but I did want to talk really quick about Wayne and his death, because that is also pretty gnarly. Did you do a lifecast of Martin's head and then set everything up for the pitchfork moment?

Because we had such a time crunch and the Howard and the Pearl prosthetic manufacturing was so massive, we actually had our friend Rogier Samuels at MimicFX in the Netherlands help us with that one. ​​We farmed that one out, but of course, we were all involved every step of the way as far as the sculpting phase. It was a high-res shoulder and head dummy made of our actor [Martin Henderson], and it was tricky because he's looking through that hole, and then out of nowhere, the pitchfork pokes through and basically skewers him right through the eye. It's a super gory moment.




We did two passes, one with the actor looking through the hole, and then him falling out of frame, basically taking the impact of the hit without a pitchfork. Then we had the Wayne dummy, which had to perfectly match the same body angle as our actor, plus line up perfectly with the pitchfork and the eyeball, which was all on like a rail system. The eyeball had to pop out once it was skewered, and then hit that barn wall and fall to the ground, so that it would hit its mark.



When we shot that, it was at the end of the evening and there were so many layers to get it right, and there were so many elements that had to go perfectly. In the end, we decided to allocate a splinter unit to come back and shoot it while the main unit was off doing something else. But we just needed to give it the time and the patience to get all of those marks and everything integrated perfectly so that it worked. And watching it now, there's that split second, but it works. But that was a tricky one.