Class gives frightening look to its students

Celebrating Halloween is more than putting up some blinky orange lights and carving a pumpkin or two.

Horrors -- that's just not how it's done at Tom Savini's Special Make-Up Effects Program. After all, this is a place where nightmares are born.

"We had a kid who got stopped by the police for speeding on the highway last year, and he was wearing this 'bloody' shirt, with this big 'bloody' knife in the back of the car," said John Matechen, director of career services at the Douglas Education Center in Monessen, which includes the Savini program.

"He didn't have his student ID on him, so he had a lot of explaining to do."

The blood, of course, was fake. But over this Halloween season -- and pretty much any other day -- it's not all that unusual to see young people walking around Monessen with blood staining their everyday clothes, since learning how to mix up a batch of the stuff is required reading.

Tom Savini's Special Make-Up Effects Program offers the only two-year associate's degree in this specialized business. It's specialized, all right: The most recent term found 144 students learning everything from how to create fake scars and burns to casting a pair of fangs.

The students' average age is 24, and they come from a surprisingly large area -- including France, Columbia, Argentina, Mexico, Canada, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Many hope to work in the television and film industry; others will try to apply their skills to fields such as making prosthetics or working with exhibit and display design.

The 10-year-old Savini program is part of a major rebranding by the Douglas center, which began as a business and secretarial school 106 years ago. The program's home, one of eight buildings in various stages of wildly inventive renovation, features a foyer of large glass display cases holding a variety of shocking artifacts, from fake severed limbs to life-size masks of monsters and aliens.

In the basement are freakish creations -- masks of monsters and aliens, painted glass eyes and a pair of hairy "werewolf" gloves were scattered around the workroom counters on one recent afternoon.

"When the school first started, the idea was 'yes, they would go out to LA and work.' In fact, two of our students went out to LA and got jobs their first day there with Stan Winston," Mr. Savini said of the Oscar-winning visual effects artist best known for his work on the "Terminator" series and "Jurassic Park" series.

"But now, we have graduates working in prosthetics labs, doing all sorts of things."

When accountant Jeffrey Imbrescia bought the Douglas Education Center in 1989, there were 45 students enrolled in the school's single, two-story building.

"Every school out here, from career schools to community colleges, they all had the same programs. With a declining youth base, declining population, you know, that was a recipe for disaster," said Mr. Imbrescia, who also is the center's president.

First he added programs from the medical field. Then came art and graphic design/illustration. A mutual friend introduced him to Mr. Savini, a Pittsburgh icon and well-known special effects makeup guru among horror aficionados.

"Dawn of the Dead" and "Creepshow" are just two movies to his credit. He's acted in many more, and Mr. Savini's even played himself on "The Simpsons," where he inadvertently caused Comic Book Guy to have a heart attack.

There are four components to the 16-month course: makeup application; mold making and casting; animation fabrication and exhibit and display design. Tuition for the entire program is around $34,000, not counting room and board.

Mr. Savini designed the curriculum, and instructors include longtime associates such as technical director Jerry Gergely, who earned a 1998 Emmy nomination for makeup work on the 1994 TV series "Babylon 5."

Guest speakers include some big names in the special effects field, such as Pittsburgh native Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, two of the founders of KNB EFX, a special effects studio. The studio has done work on many of Hollywood's biggest movies, and Mr. Nicotero is currently creating zombies for AMC's new series, "The Walking Dead," which debuts tonight.

Jordu Schell, the lead character designer on the 2009 film, "Avatar," was among recent guest lecturers at the program.

"That was a big surprise; I didn't know we were going to meet him," said Melissa Coulter, 23, a student from Washington state. "I had no idea people that cool existed."

"The thing with a school like this is learning the right way to do stuff. I had trial and error. I had to try things and, hopefully, not kill myself or somebody else," said Mr. Gergely, a shoot-em-up Westerns fan as a kid who tried to re-create at home what he'd watched on TV.

"Here they learn the right way, the current way, the state-of-the-art way, and they have instructors who are working in the industry."

Making blood, it turns out, it easy.

"You just whip up some Karo corn syrup and some red and yellow food coloring ... ." Mr. Savini said. "We use [special effects legend] Dick Smith's recipe, the best there is."

Add some water, a preservative called methylparaben and Photo-Flo to make it look nice under camera lights, and it could fool the sharpest vampire. But Photo-Flo is toxic, so if the blood is going to be ingested or touch the eyes, it's crucial for the chef to leave it out.

"Would our students know this? They better know this," Mr. Savini said.

Graduates of the program have gone on to work in Hollywood, but also at the Smithsonian Institute designing displays, and some work in the prosthetics field.

"Could be fangs one day, molars the next," Mr. Matechen said. "When our students graduate, they know how to make a toupee."

The growing field of haunted attractions is another option. "A lot of students come to Los Angeles and they do get hired," Mr. Nicotero said, adding that with changes in technology, moving to L.A. isn't always a given.

"With haunted attractions and digital technology, people can shoot movies very cheaply and affordably in their hometown and they don't have to move to Hollywood to get a job doing FX makeup."

Another recent graduate, Ralph Attanasia, is working on TLC's "Cake Boss."

Laititia Boaretta, 25, already had a degree in fine arts when she told her friends and family in Paris that she was going to enroll in the Savini program. Some, she said, thought she was nuts.

But she has high hopes of one day being "the second 'B' in KNB," Ms. Boaretta said. "I will clean the parking lot at KNB, anything [to get a foot in the door there]."

The school itself is a work in progress. Over the last decade, the center bought up eight buildings that students and outside help have slowly transformed into the academic equivalent of movie sets.

The main administration building is done up in a castle motif, with suits of armor in the hallway and faux stained-glass windows. The student union, which will eventually house a cafeteria, has a "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" theme. Check out the basement, where "cracks" in the plaster walls reveal glimpses of fake, long-buried skulls.

There is the "Jaws" room, decorated with lobster traps and a harpoon. The "Frankenstein" room is dark and creepy. The centerpiece, however, is an ode to "The Godfather."

There are fake bullet holes in the walls and the furniture is Old World and heavy. The bloody horse head in the center of a lavish bed is probably a bit much.

Outlandish? Not here.

Shawn Ronzio, a prop maker at Universal Studios in California who teaches fabrication and special effects, started small: "The school was kind of bland and I said, 'Look Chief, I have an idea.' I wanted to create an environment in these hallways, it needs a little life."

What began as one done-up hallway in one building "just bloomed out all over campus now," he said.

In the Savini program, there is an emphasis on doing the sort of eye-popping work that will get students noticed.

"My goal is when they leave there, they graduate with a portfolio that speaks for them," Mr. Savini said.

He paused, then added a thought both inspirational and appropriately creepy: "You have to go out and make your dreams come true ... or they will haunt you."

on the web

For a video of the Tom Savini Special Make-Up Effects Program, go to

Maria Sciullo: or 412-263-1478. First Published October 31, 2010 4:00 AM


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