Amber Li sat in Elysee Bakery & Cafe and apologized for picking such a “bougie” place to meet. When most people talk about mangled limbs and severed heads made from gelatin, it’s probably not usually over overpriced coffee and pastries.
Li, a second-year theater student, is a special effects makeup artist who specializes in making gory prosthetics. Although she feels more passionate about her acting, Li takes pride in her special effects work and hopes to make a career out of it.
Her interest in special effects makeup began during homecoming week at her high school in Palo Alto, California, where she said it was considered weird not to dress up for spirit days. However, not everyone shared Li’s dedication to detail when she arrived at school dressed like a decaying corpse for zombie day.
“I came to school with a broken jaw and tattered clothes, and I guess I wowed some people, which was really humbling for me,” Li said. “I thought, if I have an eye for that, I probably enjoy making other parts of special effects look realistic.”
Li then took to the internet to help hone her craft, learning from YouTube tutorials and instructional books online. She mostly practiced on herself in the mirror or on her classmates when she was supposed to be doing homework.
“I got started because the internet exists,” she said. “The student I made into a bear said I made his dream come true because he was obsessed with bears. It was really satisfying to see him satisfied.”
She transitioned from high school theater shows to special effects makeup for student films and professional shoots at UCLA.
The first film she worked on was an untitled student film by Brandon Papo, a fourth-year film student. Papo found out about Li’s work through a mutual friend in the theater department and asked for her help. His actors, who were in their 20s, needed to look like a couple in their 80s.
To make the actors look older, Li applied medical adhesives to their faces, stretched the skin taut, painted on a thin layer of latex and waited for it to dry. When the skin was released, the dried latex looked like wrinkles because of the stretching. She then used silicone face primer to hide the latex, added sunspots and grayed their eyebrows and hair.
“She was actually the first special effects person I worked with,” Papo said. “I actually had no budget and most makeup artists would back out after hearing there was no budget, but she was so sweet and so willing to help out with the materials she already had.”
As Li described the gelatinous consistency of her favorite brand of gore blood – Mouldlife Kensington Gore Blood – and techniques to capture the translucency and colors of skin, her hands pantomimed molding prosthetic facial scars out of clay and painting plastic on actors’ faces.
“Sorry if I’m going into too much detail, I just revel in learning all the terminology for special effects makeup and the little details just hook me,” Li said. “I feel like a chemist but I can’t actually call myself one because I don’t understand the reactions that go on; I just know how to do it.”
Although she also does standard beauty makeup and hair styling for professional and student productions, like Act III Theater Ensemble’s 2016 musical “Dogfight,” Li considers her specialty to be creating gory prosthetics. Li finds inspiration for her prosthetics through internet image searches, often using crime scene evidence pictures to replicate wounds.
“I don’t know if it’s a sick fascination or something, but I don’t like violent things in reality,” Li said. “I’ve seen so many evidence pictures of horrendous crimes, Google probably thinks I’m a mass murderer. That’s my least favorite part of the job.”
She made some of her favorite creations for a short film called “The Day I Became a Zombie” by Sining Xiang, a graduate film student, which includes a decaying zombie head with a laptop sticking out of it and a severed gelatin hand with one finger left and protruding bone fragments.
“I did some research for reference and looked at some of Amber’s previous work before deciding how the zombies should look,” Xiang said. “I didn’t want it to be too gory.”
Li made the different zombie prosthetics by first molding them out of clay to make a plaster cast. Inside the mold, she painted adhesive and capsule plastic to help make the edges of the prosthetic crisp before filling it with a mixture of gelatin, glycerine and sorbitol.
Although she said she still has much to learn, Li hopes to work at a special effects studio and one day be the head of the makeup department for a big-budget film. It would allow her creative freedom and to create a world of characters.
“It’s such an easy craft to pick up that I’m surprised more people don’t do it,” Li said. “At first my work was just getting the idea of how things look, but now I pay attention to how real they look. So I guess the evolution of my work is to get as hyper-realistic as possible.”