I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Canadian-born Savannah Koningen, a sculptor and makeup effects artist in her own right.
Her passion and enthusiasm for her craft are nothing short of infectious. Together we explore art history, her favorite sculptors – past and present, and all things in the technical realm that is to sculpt in fx makeup. Including how it feels to be one of only a few women to ever grace the highly coveted sculpting room.
So, join me as we catch up with Savannah, and I hope her dedication and true passion for art and sculpture rubs off on you as much as it did me.
Hi Savannah, thank you first of all for joining us for this interview. I would like to get straight into it by asking you about your childhood. Was it creative?
Yes, my childhood was very creative.
I grew up in British Columbia, Canada, and actually one of my very earliest memories is of making art.
Finger painting, in fact, at our little house’s dining room table facing the back porch. There was always Playdough around to mess with and crayons and markers.
I began drawing when I was very young. For as long as I can remember, family members, and my parents, most of all, were encouraging me to keep drawing and making art. So I’ve identified with art and being an artist in some form pretty well all of my life.
I am not sure if any particular moment stands out to me, apart from making drawings and making art throughout my life.
I always knew I would do something with it, just not always exactly sure what.
How did you get started in makeup effects and movie work?
I attended Blanche MacDonald Center in Vancouver, BC. I was straight out of high school, and I took their full-time makeup diploma program.
I always thought working on movies must be the coolest job in the world, and so I left there with a mission to get myself on set, not knowing exactly how to go about that.
Blanche MacDonald, at the time, did not offer any instruction in makeup effects other than bald cap application and out of kit type applications. I also took a brief special makeup effects course after graduating from Blanche MacDonald as I knew I definitely wanted to specialize in prosthetic and character makeups.
That was where I learned life casting, mold making, foam, and silicone running – the more specialized technical aspect of makeup effects. This is also where I tried my hand at sculpting for the first time.
That sounds like a solid training ground for a well-rounded education and introduction. What was your first job in makeup/makeup effects?
My very first paid film makeup job was on set for an independent film called Desperate Hours with Tom Berenger.
It was wild!
I remember being so nervous as I drove to set for my first day. I felt so green and unprepared. And I had no idea how I was going to pull it off!
I managed to get hold of myself, and to walk into that makeup trailer for the first time was one of the most exciting experiences I’d had.
The job went great and I was completely hooked.
I began working on more independent films after that. I was able to get into the Vancouver film union, which I was in for five years. And at that point, I moved to Los Angeles.
While I was in the union in Canada, I was able to work on some great tv shows and films.
After I moved to LA, I started working for Steve Prouty at his Fusion FX shop after sending him a random “Hey, I wanna work for you!” message on Instagram.
This was one of the most – if not the single, most valuable learning and working experiences of my life.
Not only did I learn so much, but Steve also trusted me with some great opportunities to get my feet wet with sculpting professionally.
And for that, I am eternally grateful.
I’m always intrigued at how and why certain niche jobs in film making are male-dominated or female-dominated. Why do you think sculpting has been something a boys club for so long?
Now, this is a question that interests me very much as well. I don’t know if there is one straight answer, and I’m still kind of figuring it out myself.
Lately I’ve been asking a lot of people what their take is on this also.
It’s difficult to discuss this topic without making broad generalizations but, here we go!
There have been women sculptors in makeup shops over the years. But there are definitely few and far between in comparison to their male counterparts.
Of course, it has nothing to do with ability or potential because women are just as capable. Many female sculptors in the fine art world can attest to that – like Barbara Hepworth, Joanna M Allen, Phyllida Barlow, Malvina Hoffman.
The list goes on.
I think it’s probably due to a few different factors.
One is that there simply aren’t many examples of female sculptors in film for aspiring female artists to look to or be inspired by. Even the ones that have been doing it, it’s not always easy to find examples of their work. They’re just not mentioned often and you kind of have to already know they exist, as you likely won’t happen upon them by accident.
And whether they’ve been left out of their share of the glory intentionally or by mere accident, I have no idea.
The majority of successful women in makeup effects, it seems, tend to work on set and not in the shops.
Another reason – I think this is actually a significant one (although this is a huge generalization!) is the way women tend to get into the industry versus the way men do.
Men seem to be much more comfortable with learning from home.
Making and trying and creating on their own, and submitting a portfolio based on that work.
On the other hand, women seem to like learning by attending makeup schools.
This is great but significantly more expensive and still doesn’t guarantee any job placement afterward.
The schools really don’t focus on shop work. Even though they may cover some of it, the focus is more on finding work on set than in a shop.
And if a school does cover lessons on how to sculpt in makeup fx, it’s incredibly brief compared to the time it takes to become proficient. So you basically have enough time to try it, making something that looks nothing like a Steve Wang sculpture, and feels like it’s simply not for you!
If you look at the makeup schools, their attendance seems to sway with a vast majority of female students. Yet the people who work in shops seem to be 90% men. This is certainly more than accurate in the sculpting room.
And sculpture really is an art that requires self-instruction.
Yes, you can and should take workshops and learn from someone great at it. And that is incredibly necessary and valuable. But the real progress comes from sitting down at your desk and putting your hands on the clay, from the inevitable frustrations that come as you attempt to teach yourself this new language of creating in three dimensions.
That’s one thing I would really love women who are interested in sculpture to know. It is very much like learning a language in my mind.
You can’t expect to sit down for the first time and be fluent in sculpting. The same way that you can’t take one class of French lessons and expect to have a fluent conversation with a Parisian.
Your mind really needs to go through a learning process with sculpture.
You need to teach your eyes to see.
It’s arduous and frustrating and joyful because of that.
The payoff is immense when you see it finally start to click. But it takes determination – even sheer stubbornness.
You have to really love it. And if you’re not willing to put in the time to sharpen your skills, maybe you don’t love it as much as you’d like to.
Sculpture is not typically an entry-level position. You don’t really get to walk in and “try it” in most cases. You usually need to show up on day 1 ready to bust out good work and do it very quickly. And you have to keep up with the artists that have been doing it already for years.
Personally, I have never met any kind of resistance or lack of opportunity in the industry just because I’m female.
I worked really hard at trying to get good work into my portfolio before I showed it and it seems to have paid off so far. Truly I think a lot of the shop owners love to see women who want to sculpt and work hard to do it well. So I don’t know if any kind of resistance or exclusion is a factor in sculpture being male-dominated, at least in my limited experience of very recent years.
I don’t know what it was like 10 or 20 years ago; if that may have been a factor because this topic is still such an enigma to me, I’d have to meet another woman sculptor to find out finally!
Tell us how it is being one of only a handful of female sculptors in town.
Well, it is an interesting experience, to say the least!
To be totally honest, the fact that the sculpting departments in makeup fx are almost all men never even really occurred to me before or even while I was attempting to become a sculptor.
I actually don’t think I even really became conscious of that fact at all until I was already doing sculpture work and someone else pointed it out.
For me, it was simple – I love sculpture. I love to sculpt, and I wanted to do it, and so I kept that as my aim and worked towards it.
I was such a tomboy growing up, so things that boys liked to do vs. what girls liked to do never carried much weight in my mind. This also meant that I’ve never been really felt the need for a female role model to follow. This is funny because in recent days, I’ve become so inspired and in awe of the many female sculptors I keep finding out about and have been on a mission lately to learn more about them.
Also, always identifying as an artist from an early age meant that I really didn’t take note of male dominance as a roadblock. Because it’s always been part of who I am, never because I was or wasn’t female.
Art never seemed like a male vs. female thing at all in my mind.
Also, I think the fact that I’m an introvert who’s learned to be extroverted means that I had no problem sitting at home on my own practicing sculpture, which is vital to learning it of course.
So far in the industry, however, I’ve been incredibly lucky.
The men I do work with in the sculpting room are some of the most wonderful and lovely people I’ve met in my life. They could not have been more welcoming and supportive when I began working at KNB FX Group.
And who knows? As I’ve also really only been sculpting professionally full-time for just over two years now. So maybe there will be challenges down the road when it comes to being a woman and making sure I can continue to do the work I want to do and be valued for it properly, but I’ve had a very fortunate beginning.
I hope not. I only see the path being paved stronger with each passing year.
I love being a woman, I am so proud of it, but I also hope that in my career, I will be able to be known as just a great sculptor as opposed to a great female sculptor in makeup fx. I don’t think that distinction is ever really necessary, the work should stand apart.
Agreed. I feel exactly the same when it comes to working as a make-up effects artist.
Do you like to apply makeup as well?
I love to apply makeup!
And I believe it’s really important to have some experience in if you want to sculpt makeup prosthetics and for makeup fx in general(duh).
I still love the excitement and energy of being on set and doing an application, working within a whole team of talented people with the same goal. And I miss it a lot sometimes.
That whole team-oriented experience is just one of the coolest things to me, and I really enjoyed not only the application work but the lifestyle and social aspect of set work as well.
Application is a very different beast than sculpture and requires a definite mind shift and skill set. One I need to make sure doesn’t get too rusty since I sculpt full time these days!
Applying a makeup is incredibly rewarding because it is a real challenge and so much fun when you get it figured out.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
That’s a great question. I definitely want to continue with the path I’m on with sculpture. To sculpt full-time in makeup fx and film and also working on my own projects on the side.
As I mentioned, I’ve really only been sculpting professionally and full-time for just over two years now. I have a great desire to push myself and to keep building my skill set. I still have so far to go in regards to where I’d like to be skill-wise.
I’m excited to just be beginning my career in film because I feel like there is so much work to be done ahead of me. I am so passionate about sculpture, I just love it so much I could talk about it all day.
I listen to sculpture podcasts while I sculpt at work, then I come home and watch videos on Contrapposto in the tub, haha!
My goals are really not to slow down. To keep improving and to hopefully, one day, be respected for the work I do among my peers.
I love figurative work and would like to keep exploring that in a conceptual way as well outside of film, more for myself and to see what would come of it.
Also, just on a knowledge level, I’m currently learning a lot about the history of sculpture – all of the different eras and the great artists. The art movements that have come before – so I’m excited to keep learning more about it academically.
As far as in specifically, 5 years, I’m not sure exactly at the moment. Perhaps my trajectory will continue to shift as I find my place in the sculpture world. Who knows, I’m open!
Do you have a single inspirational figure?
I don’t know if I have just one because there are so many artists to look up to in so many different styles and times. I think a current day inspiration for me is Joanna M Allen. She is a figurative and conceptual artist from the UK, and her work sings to me.
Listening to how she thinks about sculpture in conversation and her working process really resonates with me as well.
Oh Joanna’s work is incredible! It’s so raw and energetic, yet still so polished in likeness.
Who are some sculptors you draw upon for inspiration?
I stare at their sculptures over and over again for hours. I get so much inspiration from what they do. It’s incredibly frustrating as well because I just want to figure out how they do what they do so well, haha.
Another notable favorite is Jose Fernandez. His forms are so powerful and his body of work is so strong.
There are so, so many incredible artists I could name.
We are so fortunate these days to have such instant and easy access to everything they do. Instagram is a complete treasure trove of drool-worthy inspiration and instruction.
Absolutely. And you have mentioned so many insanely brilliant artists.
Do you like to sculpt in a certain style?
I’ve always been in love with human anatomy, drawing/sculpting faces, and bodies.
As a kid, my sketchbooks were full of faces. So I love working on makeups like aging makeup looks, weight gain/loss, that sort of thing. Anything with a lot of fleshiness to it.
Also, makeups that are really character-driven and that require a strong, individual look. Things such as likeness makeups.
I’m not sure if that’s a particular style, but when I sculpt I really try to focus mostly on the large forms and save detail as the icing on the cake.
I believe you shouldn’t have to add a bunch of detail to your sculpture to make it look like something. You should already be able to know its character just from the primary forms you lay down. The silhouette is paramount. Knowing it from across a room (or in our case, usually very dark lighting and a wide-angle).
What’s your favorite era when it comes to sculpture and art in general?
Oh man, don’t think I can pick one!
And I’m currently still learning so much about the past, so maybe I’ll pick a favorite one day. But for now, I am in love with the work of Bernini, who was Baroque. I’m not sure I know a sculptor who isn’t.
I also love a lot of contemporary figurative art as well.
It’s hard to say one era, but anything that is strongly rooted in the figurative (which covers almost all eras, haha, except very recent art history).
And I love a lot of abstract sculpture. Working in space, light, and form, like Barbara Hepworth and Phyllida Barlow.
You do have an almost infectious passion for portrait work for sure!
On a slightly different tangent, tell me some of your favorite movies/tv-shows?
My favorite movie is probably Altered States.
And my favorite tv show is probably the first season of True Detective. All the seasons of Game of Thrones. All of the beautiful prosthetic work and sculptures in Game of Thrones.
As for films that are out recently, I absolutely love Luca Guadagnino’s films. He did Call Me By Your Name and the remake of Suspiria, I can’t seem to get sick of either film.
I also of course love the original Suspiria by Dario Argento.
All the makeups in the remake of Suspiria kill me – especially the aging/gender swap look on Tilda Swinton by Mark Coulier’s team. It’s magnificent!
But for other all-time favorites, I have to say The Hunger, When Harry Met Sally, Jurassic Park, Alien, and The LOTR trilogy.
That’s quite a diverse list!
If there were one character you would dream of designing and sculpting, who would it be? Why?
Oh man, that’s a tough question. So many!
I think I would absolutely love to one day create a makeup like the Churchill one Kazu Hiro did on Gary Oldman for The Darkest Hour.
A likeness and a weight gain combo with aging is kind of a dream for me and would be such a massive challenge. Especially one where you really get to go through the entire process. To do extensive makeup tests, and try to get things right sounds so exciting.
Absolutely. To be able to actually resolve challenges and technical issues in the building stage instead of just work with them is quite a dream for most jobs.
Also, a show with character/fantasy makeups like the ones done for Game of Thrones or Harry Potter would be so much fun. There’s this giant that was done for Game of Thrones that absolutely kills me! And the goblins in Harry Potter are some of my all-time favorite character/fantasy makeups.
Have you ever had a project turn out not how you envisioned?
I mean, I guess this kind of thing happens all the time to some extent.
The thing about sculpting for film and makeup fx is that we often have so little time to work with.
You really have to make judgments on what the important shapes are very quickly. And what you start with is usually what you’re stuck with.
Also, much of the time you’re sculpting something that you’ve never sculpted before! For example, maybe I’ve never practiced sculpting a horse on my own before but I show up at work one day and find out I need to sculpt a horse head in like, three days. You kind of just say a prayer, hope for the best and go to town.
And even though you get the job done because you have to, there are sometimes certain sculpts you wish you’d done better or that don’t turn out as well as you hoped. But you do your best, sweat it out, and move on to the next thing.
I’m pretty self-critical so there’s usually a lot of things I wish I’d done better on all of my sculpts. But at the end of the day, if it gets approved and used then you can’t be too bent out of shape.
You just use what you didn’t like to try and make the next one better, every single time.
Dick Smith once told me that he was never happy with anything he had done in his career. And that put me at ease – this is something I see in so many brilliant artists.
In the past, I have observed that certain sculptors are gifted at likeness sculpting. Others are better at creature work. Where do you see yourself? Do you have a certain aspect that comes more naturally to you or that you enjoy the most?
I am certainly more in my wheelhouse when it comes to likenesses, aging, character, that sort of thing.
Although I love human bodies and faces. I’m probably more comfortable with them since I’ve loved drawing them since I was young.
I also see them as an eternal challenge because the human body is so complex and varies so greatly. It will never not be exciting to me.
However, I absolutely love the creature work as well. It’s so much fun. I’ve been trying to focus on it more in order to have more ideas and banks of patterns. Forms in my brain to draw upon when doing creature work.
I’m lucky to work with guys like Dave Grasso, who is so gifted at creature design. It comes so naturally to him, and he’s a wonderful person to learn from.
I know we touched on this earlier, but how important do you think it is to actually be able to apply prosthetic makeups, or for that matter have experience in mold-making, painting, running pieces as well?
I think that having knowledge in every single step of the process is vital if you’re going to be involved in sculpting prosthetic makeup designs.
Every project we do is so customized, and each thing is different from the last. There are just too many steps involved to be able to do the work without having a working understanding of them.
I was fortunate to learn all these steps from Steve Prouty, who is not only a talented artist but brilliant in the way he designs makeups and thinks them all the way through from life cast to application.
My technical knowledge is still nowhere near his. But he taught me so much and prepared me for what I get to work on every day now. If you’re reading this and want a first-rate education, ask if he’s hiring interns!
What is your favorite medium to sculpt in?
Right now because I primarily sculpt for film, my favorite is probably the Chavant Monumelt. It’s nice and creamy for creating soft, fleshy forms.
I also prefer the color of it to the Red NSP. Although I often use that clay for certain projects as well.
I actually have a tube of Herbin Plasteline from France. I’ve been dying to break into it as well but haven’t tried it yet. I’m anxious to see how it feels, as so many sculptors in Europe and the UK do stunning work with it.
And what about tools? Is there one sculpting tool that you can’t live without?
Yes! I have many I’m desperately attached to, but my absolute favorite is the Kemper Tools Loop Tool #D10. I’ve dremelled notches into it to make it a rake. Once I switch from sculpting with my hands to using a tool, it’s pretty much only that one all the time! Until I get it to the point where I’m adding skin texture, which I have 4 or 5 favorite tools for. But I think I’d die if I didn’t have that Kemper D10!
Okay, we’ve talked about sculpting just a little. What else are you passionate about outside of your work?
Can I say sculpture??
Haha, well besides that I really do love film. I love books. I’m usually reading 5 or 6 different ones at once.
I love music and am particularly missing seeing live shows right now. I am so excited for when the world gets healthy and safe, and we can all jump and dance around to a live band again.
I also have such a passion for travel and I’ve done very little of it since I’ve been very career-focused for my adult life so that is something I really want to plan for in the near future.
I’d love to do a sculpture tour around Europe and the UK at some point. I’m also in love with the ocean. Just being around it, near it, it has such raw energy and the light is so different when you’re close to the water and I love that.
I’m particularly passionate about the larger world of art at the moment. In history and present-day, and am having a really great time learning more about it currently.
I think something else I’d like to emphasize is that I really would love to see more women in sculpting rooms in the makeup fx world.
And I love to talk about how challenging sculpture is, not to discourage new women sculptors, but actually to ignite a fire and encourage them!
What really gets me about sculpture and why I prefer it now to drawing or painting is because it’s so visceral, and it’s difficult and such a wonderful challenge to take on.
It really is joyful for me and I hope that other women get that it is so worth the effort it requires, and that the effort is a beautiful gift unto itself.
And contrary to many opinions, it’s not just about talent.
Talent servers only to get you off the starting block faster if you have it, but it’s the desire, discipline, and passion for it that will begin to form a fulfilling career for you.
Thanks so much Savannah, this has been an absolute pleasure, and I wish you all the success in the world!
All images courtesy of Savannah Koningen