Singapore: Barney Burman, Make-up Ace, Aspires to Meisner-Like Authenticity

Barney Burman
Tan Geng Hui for SGIFF

“It is always my goal to create a layer of truth for actors with my make-ups and suits,” said Academy Award winning make-up effects Artist Barney Burman. He was speaking on Saturday at an onstage event within the Singapore International Film Festival.

The presentation at the Project theater was moderated by Singaporean filmmaker Kirsten Tan (“Pop Aye”), who probed Burman on the extent that he had been influenced by legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner. The so-called “Meisner Technique” suggests that acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.

The make-up wiz, whose credit includes multiple Hollywood studio blockbusters such as the “Star Trek” franchise, “Tropic Thunder” and “Mission Impossible 3,” had studied with legendary teacher Sanford Meisner as a character actor.

“[With make-ups and suits] you get a different look, different persona and different physicality. Actors’ performances do change with those make-ups,” Burman explained. “There was this one time my team did a four-hour long old-age make-up. At some point [the actor] in the mirror started going (demonstrates a stooping figure). He took on the age we were putting on him then everyone started behaving very gently [to him]. A wonderful transition to a 92-year-old character.”

After his 39-year career and with 124 films and TV works under his belt, Burman said that he is still learning.

“Every job is different. We did “Zombieland: Double Tap” recently. The most challenging thing is always to make somebody as 100% believable to someone who doesn’t know that somebody is wearing make-up. That’s been an amazing challenge and very rewarding,” said Burman. “You want to come up with something unique but which still has relatable quality.”

Having observed the field of his expertise changing for many decades, Burman believes the job remains similar in the fast changing industry.

“Material has changed, there’s more critical, artistic eye, but at the core what we are doing is very similar. I think there has to be more realism in contemporary cinema. Digital filmmaking has increased the quality of films and videos, and details that we see. Unless you have the stylistic choice to not worry about it being real, generally speaking I think you have to [convey reality] otherwise you’ll fail.”