On Syfy's "Face Off," things can get ugly really fast.
In this show, the model is not just another pretty face. In fact, success often depends on how well contestants can create extreme transformations, turning perfectly normal-looking people into aquatic aliens or nightmarish versions of storybook characters.
"We've got an amazing season coming up," series host McKenzie Westmore said. "Every time we turned another season around, we tried to go bigger, broader, really outside the box."
Ms. Westmore presents the Season 3 debut of "Face Off" on Tuesday, bolstered by surprisingly strong ratings from last spring's Season 2 finale. The program earned 3.85 million viewers during its premiere week, which included the best-ever ratings for a Syfy show, scripted or nonscripted in the key 18-34 demographic.
"Face Off" has a new night, Tuesdays (9 p.m.).
There are scads of shows that feature talented fashion designers, kitchen storage experts and cupcake bakers. What sets "Face Off" apart from the rest is its combination of high-stress pressure to execute heavy duty structural elements such as facial molds and working prosthetic arms and legs, with the whimsy and wonder of the Hollywood film industry.
From "Face Off's" beginnings, each season has featured at least two students from the Tom Savini Special Make-Up Effects graduate program at the Douglas Education Center in Monessen. This time around, it's Alana Schiro, 21, a 2011 grad from Staten Island, N.Y., and Jason Milani, 26, a 2008 grad from Hopewell Junction, N.Y.
Last season, runner-up Ian Cromer -- Ms. Schiro's close friend -- and Sue Lee were Savini grads, and Port Vue's Greg Lightner also was in the mix. In Season 1, the locals were three Savini graduates -- Megan Areford, Kayla "Jo" Holland and Jessica Kramer, as well as Tate Steiniek, who attended the school.
"This season was so incredible, and I'm not just saying that because I participated in it. The people involved -- the cast, the crew, production -- the work these people produced is going to blow the world's mind," Ms. Schiro said.
She said she was extremely nervous, to the point of paralysis, in the first episode. Luckily for her she was teamed with Nicole Chilelli of Sacramento, Calif., for her first big challenge.
"She is an amazing human being, and I would not have been able to make it through without her."
Mr. Milani, whose background includes haunted house makeup effects, said it was a shock to jump right into filming.
"It's really stressful, having all those cameras on you the whole time, and that just creates a general anxiety: Anything I do is going to be on TV and you worry about people picking you apart."
Ms. Schiro said she didn't try to hide her emotions; "I can't fake things ... I know I'm a fool, but I'm a fun fool."
Ms. Westmore teased a few details about the upcoming season, starting with turning the traditional Chinese New Year dragon into something new. There also will be a superhero challenge with guest judge Kevin Smith. "I'm such a geeky fan over Kevin Smith," she said.
More surprising might be a deceptively simple challenge. The artists were charged with creating avant-garde runway looks for models adorned in Alexander McQueen.
"The ones you would have thought would just nail it, didn't," she said. "And, especially from my point of view, this one contestant you'd have thought, 'No way,' knocked it out of the park."
Following the regular season finale Oct. 30, viewers will choose the winner, who will be announced on a live Halloween-night event from Los Angeles.
Coming from the equivalent of Hollywood makeup royalty -- her grandfather, father, great-uncles and uncles created a legacy, working on such films as "Gone With the Wind," "Creature From the Black Lagoon" and "The Ten Commandments" and myriad other movies and television shows, Ms. Westmore said the family business is kind of in her DNA, at this point.
She's worked as a soap star on "Passions," in musical theater and even sung professional opera. But she knows her way around foundation, wigs and prosthetics.
"I grew up around this industry," said Ms. Westmore, whose father, Michael, not only did 18 years of makeup design and supervision for the "Star Trek" franchise, but also was Elizabeth Taylor's personal makeup artist for many years.
Once, when she was very young, Ms. Westmore went to play in their dining room, where her father was sculpting an alien for "Star Trek."
"He walked away and there was all this clay, and I, the little kid, said, 'Oooh, clay' and started sticking things all over the place.
"He came back and he loved it." Her contributions became part of the look of the Cardassians, introduced on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
Not surprisingly, when she was younger, Halloween was a time of triumph and tribulation.
"I had ridiculously amazing costumes," she said. "It was almost not fair. ... That's probably why I got picked on at school."
One year, she was a "Star Trek" Ferengi. Another, drawing from her love of musical theater, she became one of the characters from "Cats."
"He did a beautiful job on my face," she says of her father's handiwork. "He painted my tights, did my hands, I had a wig, he did everything. We were driving to school and I'm in the back seat and all of a sudden, the police sirens go on and they pull us over ...
"The police had been driving alongside and when they saw my face they wanted to see the [entire] makeup job."
Little wonder then, that Ms. Westmore has a sharp eye for great makeup and special effects design: "I have gotten to the point where I can pick them out from Day 1 ... With Season 3, I picked out one of the finalists from the very first foundation challenge."
Series regulars Ve Neill and Glenn Hetrick return to the judges panel this season, but Patrick Tatopoulous exits after the pilot episode to work on a film. He will be replaced by Neville Page, whose recent creature design credits include "The Amazing Spider-Man."
In the season opener, the geek factor is off the charts when contestants are inspired to create a new character at the "Star Wars" cantina. An especially nasty conflict arises between one team, and things get ugly.
This time, figuratively.
Maria Sciullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.