Face Off 

If its pilot is any indication, Syfy Channel’s Face Off is a mostly unremarkable, generic reality show competition modeled after Bravo tentpoles like Project Runway. Which means it’s mostly braindead and over-the-top while also being largely harmless and easy to watch thanks to its slick canned drama and remaining entertaining for all the name-dropping that happens throughout the show. In this case, the names being dropped are all horror and scifi films as the show is a competition for aspiring movie make-up artists and not one for would-be Nicolas Cage/John Travolta impersonators.

If anything, some of the more idiosyncratic aspects of Face Off are exhibited in its choice of panelists for the show’s elimination rounds. I’m always fascinated by who they choose to judge these shows because, more so than the competitors, who all seem to be cast for the sake of fitting cookie cutter categories (The older, self-taught, desperate one! The flamboyant gay guy! The loudmouth!), a show’s choice of judges is usually indicative of the adventurousness of the show itself. So immediately after hearing their puffed-up introductions at the show’s very beginning, I had to IMDB these guys (and woman).

If anything, the panel of judges SyFy chose for Face Off seem too much alike, though only because they all work within the same system. While you wouldn’t exactly want neophyte arbiters, the ones SyFy got to judge Face Off all seem to be cut from the same Hollywood cloth. In other words, they all show little range in terms of the cachet and prominence of their projects. There’s the genial Ve Neill, the three-time Academy award-winning make-up artist who created make-up effects for Edward Scissorhands, Mrs. Doubtfire and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies; there’s Glenn Hetrick, whose work has been featured on a lot of prominent TV shows, including The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Heroes; and then there’s Patrick Tatopoulos, the director of an Underworld sequel (Underworld: Rise of the Lycans) and creature effects supervisor on Stargate and Independence Day.

I suppose one shouldn’t expect an indie horror representative or even one from outside of the U.S. from a SyFy show, but still, it would have been nice to see them acknowledge an artist that either worked his/her way up and out of indie projects or just someone with some seriously disreputable credits to his name. The project Tatopoulos might be least inclined to put on his resume is probably the Super Mario Bros. movie, which, incidentally, I actually enjoy as a guilty pleasure on (wait for it) a couple of levels and is mostly just a goofy, harmless flop rather than a truly egregious one.

Hetrick is the next transgressive of the bunch since he’s worked on Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis, King of the Ants, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and two Pumpkinhead sequels. Then again, his earliest credit is The X-Files and by the time he made those Pumpkinhead movies, he was, according to IMDB, working on Crossing Jordan as a special makeup effects designer and supervisor. Ve Neill seems to be the one among the group with the most street cred, having worked on everything from indie projects like The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover to Mystery Science Theater 3000 favorite Laserblast. Yes, yes, she’s still the lady that did Pirates of the Caribbean franchise but honestly, if you can put Laserblast on your CV, you at least came from, how you say, different stock than your peers.

I put such a great emphasis on guessing the judges’ personalities because realistically, the show’s most decisive moments all boil down to the show’s last 15 minutes. By that time, the judges have assumed generic poses that turn them into personality-less ciphers, much like the show’s competitors. True, the show’s competitors would have sunk or swum based on their own merits, after a point. But speculating about how the judges’ respective work experience affected their decision is also just flat-out more fun than just passively accepting the ruling of another faceless tribunal that lords over a show with only a superficial level of difference separating it from its competitors.

The key difference between Face Off and something like Project Runway is that contestants on Face Off will tell you how they’re doing what they’re doing as we watch footage of them doing it. There’s the standard talking head footage of them explaining where they’re coming from and what they were feeling during the show’s first contest, during which everyone had to work elements from a cocktail party into original make-up designs designed for the party’s wait staff. But then, Tom, a 29 year-old designer from Pennsylvania, applies pineapple leaves to his subject’s face and explains how he used contact cement to do it. Then Jo, a 21 year-old from Hawaii that looks like she’s modeled herself to look like Louise Brooks, explains her process about working on the fly. This is pretty standard, boilerplate, first-episode, introduce-the-audience-to-a-world-they-know-nothing-about-via-Gerber-sized-sound-bites stuff. But it’s nevertheless kinda satisfying, especially since I know nothing about that world and find the subject to be pretty fascinating. (Admittedly, people that aren’t automatically interested in the show’s subject may have varied mileage.)

Stray observation:

  • Conor immediately caught my attention, mostly because the first photo of his work was Lord Zed from the second wave of Power Rangers. Yeah, that takes me back (did I mention I am still in training pants?).