Special makeup effects wizard Steve Tolin makes masterpieces for TV and movies
March 2, 2016 12:00 AM
Realistic film props are a common sight at Steve Tolin's studio. He has grown his special effects business from a small shop in his basement to a large workshop in Pittsburgh's Point Breeze neighborhood.
Steve Tolin is seen with a frighteningly-lifelike severed head at his Point Breeze workshop.
Steve Tolin has grown his special effects business from a small shop in his basement to a large workshop in Pittsburgh's Point Breeze neighborhood.
Molds for past film props are a common sight at Steve Tolin's studio.. Many objects, such as weapons, can be used again and again.
By Maria Sciullo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
What do Lockheed Martin, a modern-day version of Noah’s Ark in Kentucky and a Carnegie Mellon University musical about male strippers have in common?
Mr. Tolin, 36, is best known as a special makeup effects wizard. But that’s just a tip of the bloody iceberg: His company, Tolin FX: Specialized Design and Fabrication, and various specialty subsidiaries have (sometimes literal) tentacles in numerous projects in Pittsburgh and beyond.
“My goal is to be able to say ‘yes’ to everything, because the more I say ‘yes,’ the more opportunities there are. It’s insane how quickly saying ‘yes’ to this space led to so many other things,” he said, waving an arm toward the door of his Point Breeze office.
Beyond it are rooms upon rooms of bright, airy space, where projects current and past cover tables, floors and even a pool table. A rubbery wrist and hand serve as a doorstop. Tolin FX has been working out of the rented warehouse since April; previously Mr. Tolin worked out of his home basement, where the ceiling barely clears the top of his head.
He keeps a small stash of art supplies at hand for visits from Violet and Amelia, his daughters with wife Erica Highberg, an adjunct professor at Point Park University.
Pittsburgh isn’t lacking in FX history or tradition — not with the likes of George Romero, Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero. Mr. Tolin’s approach is more businesslike, offering a one-stop shop for effects and fabrication. He recently coordinated a fight scene for the Pittsburgh Film Office’s “Lights! Glamour! Action!” gala, and served as special makeup effects department head for “Outsiders,” the WGN America series that filmed here last summer.
He also helped fabricate a fat suit for CMU’s recent run of “The Full Monty,” showing students in three master classes how to make a full-body cast and finish the silicone with paint and synthetic hair. It also was a lesson in improvisation; the actor who wore it has a latex allergy, so less-conventional materials were used.
Formalities often are eschewed in the Tolin FX workspace. About 33 artists and students come and go, learning the trade and working as independent contractors. They also have their own projects, and some, such as Arianna Williams, sign on as unpaid apprentices.
“The way I’m trying to set up my company now is to have this through-line, with many artists working as independent contractors. It’s something that would live in the background of their true artistic interests, but this way, they wouldn’t have to be waiting on tables. They could come and create.”
Should a project like “Outsiders” require an additional dozen artists, the roster could be bumped up to meet the workload. Ultimately, Mr. Tolin said, he hopes to create a system similar to that of martial arts. It would start with finding instructors in different fields, from wig making to makeup.
He’d charge students a nominal fee, teach them certain skills such as casting and mold-making, and, as their proficiency level increases, he would award them the equivalent of a green belt, red belt, black belt. Networking, such a key part of the business, would be part of the education process.
“Right now, we have a sort of informal thing with apprenticeships,” he said. “You show up, I will teach you something new, and you spend the next couple of hours making me some money doing it.”
Mr. Tolin is a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 489, which allows him to work on TV and film sets doing fabrication and costumes, but not makeup application, which is the provenance of a different union. He is qualified, but he hasn’t had the time to organize the paper trail of pay stubs to apply for membership.
What a long, strange journey it has been. Mr. Tolin grew up in Elkins, W.Va., the son of a biologist and a nurse. Unlike the vast majority of folks working in his field, he wasn’t into monsters or makeup as a kid.
“I was going to be a biologist, almost up until the time I graduated from high school,” he said.
His father worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “which meant I grew up tagging bears and tagging bats and looking in the river for endangered mussels.”
He loved painting and art but never realized these could be a vocation. A three-week trip to the West Virginia Governor’s School for the Arts was life-changing.
“They opened the door to so many possibilities,” he said. “I went from a very left-brain track to much more of a right-brain track.”
He attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh (“since Pittsburgh is the capitol of West Virginia”) and emerged with a new appreciation for the technical side of art. Mr. Tolin said former AI instructor Doug Henderson was a mentor who helped him realize “right away, this was a perfect fit.”
Another successful program for special makeup effects is the Douglas Education Center’s Tom Savini program in Monessen.
Illogically, the scientist in Mr. Tolin played well with the artist: “When you make a monster, you are starting with the function of it, and you have to try to find the form, and biology is obviously the opposite of that. You have to find the form.”
Tolin FX has a special division for “squib” work, that process by which blood appears after an actor is “shot.” Although he has not patented any of the seven different models of the device, some are still evolving, he takes pains to conceal their inner workings. (There is a big rival in Sweden who also specializes in squib devices.)
His blood expertise helped create stage systems for two local plays, “The Pillowman” and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.” Much splashier was No Name Players’ 2014 production of “Evil Dead: the Musical.” A splatter zone was set up in the first few rows, and everyone in the audience got a rain poncho with admission.
“If we had tuned it down at all, it would have lived in this really weird place that felt, like, vulgar. But as soon as you crank the blood up, it’s really funny,” he said.
And it’s not all blood and games. One of the company’s bigger clients is Lockheed Martin. Tolin FX just finished a miniature reproduction of the floor of a C-130, a large turboprop transport airplane, and also is working on a diorama of the inside of the plane for the showroom in Atlanta.
Mr. Tolin did work on a “The Walking Dead” parody in Atlanta, where the AMC hit is shot. After blogging about it, he said he supposes someone at Lockheed Martin came across his company’s credentials.
“This is a real testament to the global marketplace we’re living in and to search engine optimization. ... Someone just Googled ‘Atlanta’ [and] ‘special effects.’ We popped up and they had cut us a deposit check before they realized we were in Pittsburgh.”
And then there is the ark.
Answers in Genesis — a fundamentalist Christian nonprofit in Petersburg, Ky. — is building a life-sized ark to complement its Creation Museum. It is scheduled to open in July. Tolin FX has numerous contracts to create 1,200 reproductions of oil lamps (actually, terra-cotta-look plastic), water jugs, a pair of baby hippos, a dimetrodon and more than 300 tiny bats that will hang from the rafters of the ship.
A legion of those bats rests on a workshop table, lined up like so many Christmas cookies. Molds from TV shows (a rubbery bluefish from “Supah Ninjas”) and film (the fake rock used by Tom Cruise in “Jack Reacher”) are stacked from floor to ceiling.
Mr. Tolin estimates that 60 percent of his work is based in the Pittsburgh area.
“A lot of people leave for New York or LA. I know that’s where I was headed,” he said. “If work had not kept me here, that’s where I would be now.”
As long as there is blood to spill or heads to roll, he said, “We just keep building.”
Maria Sciullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
email@example.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.