The Contender Q & A: ‘Star Trek’s’ Barney Burman


Barney Burman is a scion of the legendary Burman family of Hollywood makeup effects artists - his father, Tom, is an Oscar nominee and multiple Emmy winner whose credits include “Planet of the Apes” (1968) and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” while grandfather Ellis Burman Sr. made prosthetics and props for the original “Wolf Man” (1941) and “The Twilight Zone.” Burman himself has created effects for a slew of popular features and television shows, including “Tropic Thunder” (he transformed Tom Cruise into the repulsive Les Grossman), “Valkyrie,” “Blades of Glory,” “Alias” and many others. His work for J.J. Abrams on the feature film revision of “Star Trek,” which blended interpretations of iconic makeup designs with new versions of the show’s alien races earned him his first Oscar nomination. Burman spoke to The Envelope from his studio, Proteus Make-Up FX.

Q: How did you come to “Star Trek?”

A: I had worked with J.J. Abrams on “Mission: Impossible 3,” and when I found out that he was going to be doing “Star Trek,” I put in a call to him to let him know that I would be interested...Several months later, I got a call from J.J. for an HBO project called “Anatomy of Hope,” and he brought me on board for that. I inquired about “Star Trek,” but certainly didn’t press anything. But while I was working on it, I got a call from the producers of “Star Trek,” who wanted to meet with me. It was weird, because I was working with J.J. on set and not talking about “Star Trek,” but also finding time to talk to these producers about “Star Trek,” and hoping it would gel, which it did.

Q: It sounds like a bit of subterfuge.

A: Yes, it was. I’ve often come across weird, conflicting things like this.

Q: And how do you deal with it?

A: I try to just laugh at it. There are times when I’ve gotten a lot of notoriety for something, but I have no work. And it’s like, “Great, I’m popular, but no one’s calling me!”

Q: People who work on “Star Trek” projects seem to fall into two categories - die-hard fans and those that remember the original series but don’t live and die by it. Which best describes you?

A: Certainly the latter. I liked the old series as a kid, but I never got into the new series. I watched most of the films, but not all of them, because I watch a lot of movies, not because I was a follower. I never went to any conventions or donned a uniform of any kind. And that was partly what helped me get the job. I never worked on any of the series, and because I hadn’t and wasn’t an avid follower, that opened the door for me to take the job and view it with J.J.’s perspective, rather than trying follow the established canon or lore of “Star Trek.”

Q: What were your conversations with J.J. regarding makeup?

A: He was really open, and wanted to see every idea imaginable, including old stuff that had been on the shows, and new things that no one had ever seen. What he said to me in regard to the aliens was, “I don’t know what they look like - I just know that they have to be right.” He acknowledged that such a thing was tantamount to finding the woman you’re going to marry over and over again, but that’s what we had to do. So a couple of designers and people on my crew started pumping out ideas.

Q: The most significant deviation from the “Star Trek” canon of alien design is the makeup for the Romulans. How did that come about?

A: Early on, I brought on a fantastic artist and makeup artist named Joel Harlow who ended up taking over the Romulans and doing them on set, close to where J.J. was. I was back in my shop working on the more extravagant aliens. We ended up doing about 36 different aliens, and I think you only end up seeing about six, which was a shame, but you always know that there’s going to be some degree of that.

Q: Which of the designs were the most complex for you?

A: All of them (laughs). I decided to do them in silicone rather than foam latex, and I think it’s the first time that silicone had been used for “Star Trek.” It has a flesh-like translucency that foam latex just doesn’t have. J.J. is very knowledgeable about makeup and makeup effects, and he’d seen the difference, so I didn’t even want to risk it. The guy at the bar (Long Face Bar Alien, played by Douglas Tait) -- we named him Brian as a sort of code name -- I made this big, long face for him, and what I didn’t really consider was just how much heavier silicone is than foam latex. He was one of our first aliens, so fighting gravity on him taught me a lot about how to approach the makeup thereafter. I had to literally dig out big chunks of silicone and thin them out and then glue them higher than they were initially supposed to be placed so that gravity would settle them back into place.

Q: It sounds like physics is one of many different sciences and applications that you have to be aware of in regard to your job.

A: That’s true. I was talking to someone recently, and they said, “Wow, you have to be an engineer and an artist and a physicist and a teacher, or at least knowledgeable about it.” And I guess you do. There’s a lot of stuff that you learn and you take for granted -- you don’t really think about their practical uses in the real world.

Q: Where do you stand on the debate between CGI effects and physical makeup effects?

A: I like CG when it’s done well. I think a combination of CG and makeup effects can be a really wonderful thing. “Pan’s Labyrinth,” for example, was a really wonderful example where they used both perfectly. Initially, J.J. and I had talked about combining them, where we would erase body parts from humans to make them more alien forms, but unfortunately, I think time and budget prohibited that kind of work.

Q: What’s your dream project?

A: I’d love to get into anything that’s related to a 1930s or ‘40s traveling carnival -- like a freak show. When I was young, my dad had a book called “Very Special People” that had all these anomalies -- Siamese twins and hydrocephalics and the like. I’ve always had a dream about a film that realized those people in a very responsible way. I would never try to make fun of them -- I’d like to make characters like that and make them live and make them sympathetic. I’d want people to know that they were actual people, but I’d love to do it with makeup.

The other thing is a huge makeup project like “The Wizard of Oz” or “Planet of the Apes” or even “Dick Tracy.” That would be a wonderful thing to remake.

Q: How has life changed since you received the nomination?

A: It’s been a really interesting few weeks. I’ve been getting a lot of invites to different shows, both in and out of the country, to parties -- there’s the Governor’s party after the Oscars and the Mayor’s party before it -- and the Oscar lunch was just wonderful. I’ve also got a couple of projects that are about to start, so I have all this free time on my hands. That’s the weird dichotomy right now -- I feel like I should be going 100 mph with work, but I’m just waiting for someone to set off the starter’s pistol.

I’m not in a place of concern but anxiousness. I keep thinking about the extreme example of Hilary Swank, who won the Oscar but went to Astro Burger afterwards.