Among the metal fabricators and sign makers on an ordinary-looking industrial estate on the outskirts of Watford is a workshop dedicated to blood, gore, monsters and cinematic magic. Behind the red brick and corrugated steel walls, a team of skilled artists and technicians work on fake dead bodies, prosthetic limbs, heads and face masks so realistic it is hard to tell that they are not real.
This hive of activity is home to Kristyan Mallett Makeup Effects, whose credits read like a who’s who of the film and TV industries including Harry Potter, Batman Begins and The King’s Speech, as well as television shows such as Downton Abbey, Holby City and Sherlock.
The company designs and makes special effects for actors, from adding a small scar to turning them into a flesh-eating zombie. Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio are among the stars who have been transformed by its technicians and artists.
Owned and run by Kristyan Mallett, 36, a make-up effects designer, the business employs 10 to 15 people on a sub-contractor basis, but that can rise to as many as 45 when it is working on a major production.
“This is the busiest we have ever been,” Mr Mallett says as he runs through a schedule of current and recent work that includes the TV psychological drama Fortitude, the superhero film Justice League and the next instalment of Star Wars.
His workshop’s location may lack Hollywood glamour but it is well placed to serve the UK’s thriving film and TV industry. Warner Bros’s Leavesden studios are 15 minutes away, while Pinewood, Shepperton, Elstree and central London are all within easy reach.
Some of the work is years in the planning by the big studios, but sometimes orders are the result of an urgent phone call from a director desperate to finish a shoot within hours or days.
The output from Mr Mallett’s team ranges from intricate monster masks, tailor-made to fit a particular actor, to off-the-shelf effects such as tattoos, scars, wounds and burns from a library of 3,000 moulds.
Making a mask takes weeks of work. It involves taking a silicone lifecast of an actor’s face, then making a mould to produce a plaster cast model on which a sculptor works in clay to get the desired look, ready for another mould to make the silicone mask. The process relies on a team of specialist mould makers, silicone technicians and sculptors using a mix of artistic talent, patience and a methodical approach to the science.
To bring the mask to life, painters match the skin tone of the actor, down to fine details such as broken veins, and the finishers put on the hair, eyebrows and beards, a painstaking job that involves punching in each strand individually.
As a schoolboy in Norfolk, Mr Mallett was fascinated by film and make-up effects, and studied the subject at college in King’s Lynn.
He won a place on a course run by the award-winning make-up effects designer Nick Dudman, who took him on as an apprentice on the third Harry Potter film made at the Warner Bros studio in Watford and released in 2004. Mr Mallett recalls: “That was my big break. I worked really hard and got my head down and tried to be a good apprentice. It was the best education I could ask for.”
He went on to work on TV comedy and drama and over time built up enough business under his own name that he was able to set up the company that now employs some of his mentors from his apprentice days.
Early premises included draughty farm outbuildings, but the business moved to its current site six years ago, since when it has expanded to fill two units and 8,000 sq ft of space, now barely large enough to contain it. Mr Mallett is looking at investing in 3D scanning and printing technology that would allow it to take a scan of an actor in New York and have a prosthetic ready when they arrive on set in the UK.
He is keen to bring on the next generation and runs a trainee scheme that offers 12 people four weeks’ paid work. Last time there were 300 applicants. The prize is to be one of the team that made the prosthetics that transformed Eddie Redmayne into Stephen Hawking for his Oscar-winning performance in The Theory of Everything, securing the company a Bafta nomination.
VAT horror story
The VAT-man is the scariest monster that Kristyan Mallett has faced, inspiring a financial makeover for the business (Peter Cunliffe writes).
Three years ago the company was working flat out and turning over £500,000 annually, but when a £22,000 VAT bill landed there was no money to pay it, despite £100,000 of outstanding invoices.
The problem was that Mr Mallett was not only designing effects and working on film sets but was also handling the administration and paperwork, from invoices to wages. “It was getting beyond my control. I was broken at that point,” he says.
In desperation he turned to an agent he knew who took on much of the day-to-day finances and paperwork, with almost immediate results on cashflow. “We became more efficient. I was able to get on the shop floor more and to bring in more business and we weren’t having to turn projects away.”
As a result he was able to invest money in the business and last year turnover increased to £1.5 million.