When you’re making the life-consuming commitment to series television, it helps to know someone like Guillermo del Toro is captain of the ship. Especially when your work involves crafting freaky creatures and grotesque makeup effects as Steve Newburn and Sean Sansom do for FX’s “The Strain.” After all, del Toro is a modern-day master of the macabre.
“Working with Guillermo is very rewarding in the sense that he does appreciate the craft and gives us the opportunity to really go all out,” Newburn says of del Toro’s love of practical effects. “You really don’t get that in this day and age because of the post work and the opportunity to do everything later and not worry about it.”
Adds Sansom: “Also, because he’s such a perfectionist, you know that if he loves it, then the masses are going to love it as well.”
“The Strain,” based on a series of novels co-written by del Toro and adapted for television by del Toro and Carlton Cuse (“Lost,” “Bates Motel”), takes place at the dawn of a vampire apocalypse — when a mysterious virus begins to infect and systematically convert the population of a major metropolitan city into bloodthirsty vamps.
Among the early victims is Gabriel Bolivar, the Goth rock superstar played by Jack Kesy, whose step-by-step transformation demonstrates to the audience how a human becomes a vampire. In indelibly icky detail.
After developing Gabriel’s basic look with makeup department head Jordan Samuel, Newburn and Sansom set about the subtle process of turning someone who already looks undead into the “real” deal.
“He retains a bit of that deteriorating stage makeup and it’s kind of a hybrid prosthetic and stage makeup,” Newburn says. “He’s always got the Marilyn Manson wig and a bit of this white-face Goth makeup going on over the vampire look.”
As the virus takes hold, certain extremities decay and rot away. One of the season’s most memorable scenes occurred in episode three, “Gone Smooth,” when Bolivar endures a nauseating loss in his bathroom.
He’s facing his commode when the audience hears a splash, and Bolivar turns to the camera, naked, looking as “smooth” as an anatomically incorrect Ken doll. Originally, the scene was intended to go even further.
“Guillermo wanted this withered member to be seen briefly in the toilet bowl as it falls in and gets flushed down,” Sansom says. “I sculpted a few versions of it, but he kept saying he wanted it more pruney looking. I actually bought a bag of prunes and took about eight or nine of them and squashed them together and created (Gabriel’s) shriveled up member — it literally was a prune sculpture. And as he looked at, he says, ‘Well, I guess I can’t get any closer to what I’m looking for.’”
Unfortunately, FX standards and practices wouldn’t allow that creation to be seen on air. But an earlier scene in the same episode also caused a stir with fans: When vampire leader Eichorst (a WWII Nazi-turned-immortal, played by Richard Sammel) constructs his human face.
“(Guillermo) came in one day and he was just like, ‘You know, it would be great to see Eichorst actually putting his face on,’ ” Newburn says. “A lot of this show is like that.”
“Suddenly the montage got a lot more interesting. The director shot a bunch of really nice artsy stuff. I don’t think anybody realized how involved the scene was going to be, and we actually came back and shot a second unit day with Guillermo. He came in and pushed that even further and kind of personally took control of the whole scene.
“He said it’s one of his favorite moments in the first season. Yeah, it’s one of Guillermo’s little ideas.”