Creative Chemistry: An interview with prosthetic & special effects makeup artist Andrea Kozma
If you watch fantasy, horror, or action, on Netflix, HBO, or some other major network famous for producing visually spectacular shows and movies, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter the work of Andrea Kozma. As a prosthetic and special effects makeup artist, her day job involves dealing with acids and bases, mixing different kinds of solutions, casting molds, and experimenting with resins. Occasionally, she gets to paint an astonishingly realistic looking silicone face destined to meet a gruesome end.
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From working on monster costumes that haunt our imaginations to props that range from animatronics and pneumatics to anatomically correct corpses, Kozma’s job requires the artist to come up with solutions to problems most of us cannot even imagine. Going through airport security with a bag of what appear to be severed limbs, or a suitcase seemingly full of mutilated animal bodies can make employees very nervous; Kozma is aware of this fact and tries hard to keep it normal.
Her work, though, extends beyond the entertainment business. The artist has an innate love of science, and uses chemistry to push the boundaries of her creativity. One of her more unusual projects is called Reaction Paintings, byproducts of her DIY experimentation, which she researches, conducts, and films. The resulting collection is a testament to her curiosity about how stuff works, a point of interest for artists and scientists alike. Of course, the entertainment industry quickly took notice and now commissions her skills.
But, the commitment to scientific investigation that seems to drive her ambition, creativity, and career as an artist, has been there ever since she was a child. Kozma seems to have retained her youthful sense of wonder and leveraged it into an admirable and fascinating career. ARTpublika Magazine spoke to Andrea Kozma to learn more about her life, approach to art, and the chemistry that sparks her work.
Where are you from?
I was born in Romania, but I live and work in Budapest, Hungary.
How did you get interested in art?
I’ve always loved to draw. I studied fine art (painting) at university and worked for theaters on the side. Theater is connected to art, so it was always interesting [for me]. I learned a lot about set design, makeup, costumes, and all of these kinds of things. And it became my passion.
How did you get into the film industry from theater?
After graduating, I got the opportunity to work in the film industry, first as a scenic painter — I really liked it — and then as an artist in special effects. So, that’s what I do when I’m not painting or working on my own projects.
Can you give an example of the prosthetics you’ve had to work on?
Since 2018, I have been with Filmefex Studio, helmed by Ivan Poharnok, who is an outstanding prosthetic designer. Thanks to the opportunities Ivan gave me, I was able to work on many NETFLIX and HBO shows as a member of his team. We worked on the first season of The Witcher, and so we created some monster suits for them and fake wounds.
What is the most interesting thing about this job?
At university, we usually made big oil paintings, which was good, but I’ve always really liked experimenting and trying out new ways for creating art. With this job, I really found my place. Whenever there is a new task, there is freedom to figure out how to make something work.
Looking at some of your collections, like MEAT and Reaction Paintings, there seems to be a pattern of medical and scientific influences in your work.
That’s true. I am very interested in the natural sciences; I really like to observe things. And yes, most of my family members are or were doctors, and they talk(ed) about these things — mostly special cases — a lot. So, I listened to that growing up, and I studied anatomy at the university.
Given your background and skill level, if you wanted to, you could have been a medical illustrator.
I actually was thinking about that. I even worked for a medical company creating prosthetics for people who needed them — not for the movie business. Once, I even took part in creating a facial prosthetic as a sculptor.
It must have been very different from show business. Why did you stick with entertainment?
Because of the variety of projects. I really like hyperrealistic or photorealistic works, and Filmefex is a place where my skills are useful. Like, when the studio creates a silicone head, I can paint it to look exactly like the person [it’s based on], with the small veins causing redness around the nose, and other details, like the moles on the face. I find it to be really amazing and it entertains me in a way, because it’s a very chilled out and slow process.
At what point in your education or life did you realize that this could be a career for you?
That’s a good question. It started with small theater projects. I had many other jobs during high school and university, and I think there was a point when I realized that I could be doing something really interesting connected to art. The other thing was that after my first job in the film industry, my colleagues were very encouraging because they realized that I have these skills, so then it was just a straight line from where I started to here. But I had to practice a lot.
Isopropanol + Bromo-thymol + Phenolphthalein + Ethanol + Sodium
You had to learn to mix different chemicals, substances, and materials. Other interviews with you suggest that your interest in reaction painting stems from an accident, when you spilled paint with two different bases.
Yes, I use many different materials. Color mixing is a part of my job and the artistic process overall, and that is what gave me my first idea — watching these paints mix, swirling in a cup, made me realize I needed to do a bit more research about the chemical reactions they can produce, because it’s possible to control and film them.
What were you painting?
I was working on a project where I was mostly dealing with car paint and airbrushing, and so that’s how that little accident happened. I realized that by using specific chemical reactions, I can create something new and interesting for myself. I tried and quickly learned that a phone camera wouldn’t be enough to film them, so I looked for a chemist that could help me figure out how to make my idea work. I was really, really lucky, because my university’s restoration department had a lab and a chemist, Magdolna Békési- Gardánfalvi, who got really interested in my project. I sent her some of my samples and descriptions about what I want to see, and how I would have liked to film the reactions. She loved the project and said that if she could use the materials during her classes to make them more interesting, and to help her students see how cool chemistry is, then she’d be in and we could do the project together. So we did. And then another lucky thing happened; a production company found me because of a commercial where I did something similar, but with paint only. They hoped I could create some interesting effects for some kind of space environment. I didn’t know that it was going to be for a movie. But they explained what they wanted to see, and I thought it was fantastic because I just started my research into chemical reactions, I found this chemist, and now this production came along, requesting to see something unusual.
For these kinds of projects, do you rely more on industrial materials than traditional art supplies?
There’s a lot of overlap. It’s both, because the materials that I use to paint silicon are not like the normal oil paint that I use for my paintings. We do use a lot of industrial stuff.
How do you make sure that the reactions you produce do not harm you?
That’s why I thought it was important to find a chemist to work with. But when you buy chemicals for use at the lab you need to fill out all of these special papers and forms. So, you have to know everything about these chemicals, including how not to use them, but also about special equipment, like work suits or other protection you may need. We do the research and try to find ways of creating reactions that could be interesting. The chemist who I work with is very, very helpful, because she recommends alternative chemicals for creating reactions that I want to see when we have obstacles. She has many great ideas on how to slow down or speed up the chemical processes when reactions are too quick or too slow to film, and how to substitute certain things to create similar reactions with more crystallizations. It’s important, because the most beautiful reactions and crystallizations may take more than a week, and we don’t have the right conditions and equipment to film them; we realized that we would need to create a space with special lighting, to close it off completely from everything else, so that the humidity didn’t change, and to control other variables. Because of that, we have to settle on experiments that we can film in a few hours or one day. We also realized that although we had a very good microscope, it wasn’t good enough to film for some projects. We tried to figure out how to get access to a better one, but didn’t have the right amount of working funds.
So, when you have a new project to try, do you think about what you can do with the materials you have, or do you think about the reaction you want to create and acquire the materials accordingly?
I think both. I have ideas for what I want to see, but I’m not an expert in this field. So, when we experiment I often see reactions I can’t even imagine before I start the whole project. I think one leads to the other and vice versa.
Alcohol + Glycerol
When a company hires you to complete a project, how specific are its requests?
Usually, there are two very different kinds of clients. One sends me a picture of exactly what they want to see; they don’t care to see anything else, or about how I make it as long as it looks like what they need. The other wants something spacey and maybe colorful, or something sparkly, and so on. Then I try to guess what they want. I do a lot of mood boards; they are very, very useful. They give a client a chance to say, “I like this” or “I like that.”
What happens to all of the scrap material from your experiments?
Because they are done at a laboratory that is used for experiments and restoration works, the university has special ways of safely collecting this type of waste.
Inspired by Aerial Footage of the Arctic
Captured by Industrial Microscope, Colored With Inks & Paints
Music: Wave of Sound | Vid: Anikó Skribek, David Kara, Makró VJ | Art: Andrea Kozma
What kind of music do you like?
Almost all kinds of music. I really love to go to techno parties or house parties. I’m really a party person. But, at home, sometimes I listen to classical music. I love jazz and the blues.
What kinds of books do you like to read?
The entertaining ones. When I want to read, I don’t want anything deep or philosophical. I like detective stories, and romance stories. My favorite is Agatha Christie (1890 -1976). I think I’ve read all of her books in Hungarian, and then I read them all in English.
How many languages do you speak?
I speak Hungarian, English, and German.
What kinds of movies do you like to watch? Do they include movies you’ve worked on?
Sometimes, it’s very interesting to work on a movie, but the movie is not that interesting to watch. I mostly work on action movies, horror, and fantasy. But, I like watching comedies or romantic movies. And I really like old movies, with stars like Marilyn Monroe (1926 - 1962), Audrey Hepburn (1929 - 1993). I also love Alfred Hitchcock (1899 - 1980) movies. Of all his movies, I think my favorite is The Rear Window (1954). I love his camera work.
Does working on movies change what you pay attention to in the movies? Do you find yourself noticing the camera work or the lighting more?
When the story is really good, I don’t see that stuff. Unless I spot a bad wig or something, I usually go with the story. But, if I watch a movie that I worked on and there is something really interesting or scary happening in the story, I still see myself sitting in the background with my stuff. Sometimes, we are very busy on set; other times, we need to wait around a lot. A scene can be repeated again, and again, and again, and we’re just standing by, waiting for our big moment.
What is a big moment in that setting?
It can be many different things. Once, during the filming of a show, there was a scene where we needed to draw a bloody sun shape in the fresh snow. It was very, very cold and snowing, and my colleague and I were eagerly waiting with these huge buckets of fake blood, like: Let’s do this! Or when there’s an animatronic doll with a head that needed to crack open at a specific moment, and we’re there, with our little machines, waiting for the big moment, like: OK, this will happen now. It’s really funny because everyone is really happy when these things succeed.
And when they don’t?
There is a lot of laughter, very, very often. But, we conduct so many tests that we usually don’t have too many issues.
What is your favorite chemical reaction?
It’s a sodium reaction — an accident that turned out nice.
Is there an experience in your career that was particularly fun or weird?
At the studio where I am now, we were able to work on Ari Aster’s horror movie Midsommar (2019). We created many interesting things for that movie — different corpses, very weird ones — like a bear. There’s a scene where they open up the bear and start taking out its guts — we had to make all of these fake bear organs and fur. It was really funny. I am very grateful for all these opportunities, and for all of the skills I am learning. I wouldn't be here in my career without Ivan's trust in my abilities.
Do you ever think to yourself, I have a weird job?
I have to travel for my job, so I bring props with me. Sometimes, if the prop is a dead dummy, going through security is very, very funny. I have papers, something like a passport for special objects, with a description and photo of the prop. I am always asked to see the prop after the papers are checked at the borders. I’m like: Yeah, I guess you can, but…
Is there a memory that you have of a particularly bizarre moment?
Once, I was traveling with a dummy. My colleague and I were driving to Prague, because from here it’s not that far. We thought we could store the dummy at the studio, but we got there too late. We needed to park outside, but couldn’t leave the dummy in the car. I was also asked to make some adjustments, so we needed to bring the dummy to our hotel room, without anyone seeing it. We usually put it in a body bag, but when I went to reception, I didn't know how to explain what they were going to see. I was like: “I have very big luggage, which I need to bring to my room.” And they went: “It’s OK, what’s the problem? You can use the elevator, it’s fine. And we can send you some help.” And I was like: “Oh, no, no, I don’t want it!” Somehow, we managed to bring it up to my room. So I put the dummy on the couch to do the adjustment. I took a lot of pictures of this beautiful hotel room, but I had this dummy on the couch in the middle of it.
So, in a situation like that, do you decline room service?
I always have a sign on the door that I don’t want any cleaning or anything. Like, please, don’t come in here.
Is there anything you'd like to add that was not addressed?
I would like to mention my fine art professor at the university András Halász, who always encouraged me in my experiments. I am very proud to be his student.
Note* All images for the article are provided by Andrea Kozma, used with permission.