We discuss influence, inspiration, and monster-making magic with the exceptionally talented creature creator and SyFy Face/Off alum Ricky Vitus.
Every single one of us Spooky Kids has a Creature origin story. Mine is Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond (1986) and the recently passed Titan, John Carl Buechler’s work on Doctor Pretorius. I remember being four or five years old and running up the stairs to escape that protruding pineal gland — but getting halfway up and creeping back down to catch another peak. I’ve been chasing that fear dragon ever since.
So, what happens when you, yourself are one of those wonderful, life changing humans that create those Monsters and Beasts? Nothing different. You find inspiration in the same mad men creators that us “fans” do.
Special Effects Makeup Artist and SyFy’s “Face/Off” Season 9 Alum, Ricky Vitus got bit by the furry classic Universal Monster, The Wolf Man.
“I grew up in Duanesburg, NY. Basically, in the middle of the woods. I didn’t have many electronics and only a couple of TV channels so as a kid I had a creek and exploring, that was how I spent my time. My Mom was a Hippie and really pushed nature, so I had gotten an animal encyclopedia and started creating and thinking up my own animals. How they’d look, what they would do. I loved it. I remember she let us watch the Universal Monsters, and I fell in love with “The Wolf Man”. I actually wanted to be a Werewolf as a kid.”
A viewing of John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London would cement Ricky’s affinity for Lycanthropy.
“Every year for Halloween I would dress up as a Werewolf. I’d make my own costumes, gluing hair and doing face paint, but that wasn’t really the beginning of my fascination with creating costumes or make up.”
Ricky recalls catching one of the original “Planet of the Apes” series films on TV, and finally having the revelation that he could do make ups just like that.
A catalyst for what would become the monster maker that Ricky is today would be Horror Conventions.
“I remember around 15 years old finding out about this convention, Horror Find. I had to sell my Mom on it, and she was nice enough to bring me all the way to Maryland. I entered the costume contest and ended up doing OK in it, and suddenly I was addicted.”
Ricky recalls a year or so later, building a Bat/Vampire creature. Using Bamboo sticks and old scrap fabric to construct wings, and skyrunner stilts to make himself taller.
“I thought the wings were going to be easy, because I used bamboo and fabric, but after 17 hours of holding them up, I was delirious. Those stilts, too. They’re the type that you can’t stand still on. Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead) saved my life, although I’m not sure he knew it. I could hardly see anymore and almost fell off the stage, but he caught me and pushed me back on stage. Thanks, Ken. I ended up taking first in the costume contest though. One of the judges was Udo Kier, and he was absolutely in love with my work, although the snout of my bat was really big, and he thought it was a Wolf.”
This flirting with creature acting sunk anchors in Ricky.
“Even though it was grueling, I loved being in the costume.”
When Ricky was 16 or 17, some initiative led to him starting a “shadow cast” of Rocky Horror Picture Show at a local theater.
“I think a high school performance of “The Wizard of Oz”, doing the Cowardly Lion, was my first prosthetic work. But Rocky Horror is where I really got to find my love of doing make up. I played Riff Raff. We even did some themed nights, like Halloween. I did a Freddy Krueger Riff Raff and Christmas Riff Raff as the Grinch. I also got to play Riff Raff in Atlantic City at the House of Blues for the 35th anniversary with Patricia Quinn. It was amazing.”
Ricky is a graduate of the Tom Savini Special Make-Up Effects Program at DEC.
While there, he was taught by, mentored by and worked with Industry Legend Steve Johnson.
Steve is known for a slew of credits, including the creation of “Ghostbusters” Icon “Onionhead” (aka “Slimer”).
“Steve is a really interesting guy. He’s lived many lives. I would highly suggest hunting down his Autobiography “Rubberhead”. It’s an amazing read. He had this theory of sorts called “The Frankenstein Complex”, which is the high you get off creating art — in our case, creating monsters.”
Another of Ricky’s inspirations with a laundry list of iconic creations is Joel Harlow.
“I’m a big fan of Joel’s design work, sculptures and applications. He is a class act. I had the opportunity to see a premier of the new “Hellboy” (2019) with him and talk to him about his design work. He accepted compliments but would immediately follow them with expressing the love of each team member of his who contributed to his work. There is such a passion in his eyes when it comes to speaking of his creations, and those who help bring them alive. It’s such an admirable trait in a person, you can just tell he’s a genuine guy.”
The incorporeal philosophies of Johnson seem to speak to the auteur like quality of Ricky’s approach, while Harlow’s cooperative base eliminates the ego to make what seems like a true dream creator to work with.
“I really believe that these things, these creations exist in the ether. Not so much in a spiritual way, but in some type of higher power providing the idea and then we make it real.”
Ricky’s love, not just for designing monsters but seeing them come to life once on an actor, is exactly what you would hope for from a Monster maker.
The creativity doesn’t stop once the paint is dry.
“I created a Demon for a short film called “The Remnant” by Constant Van Hoeven. Anthony Bouzada, a great friend of mine, portrayed the Demon. He’s really an amazing creature actor, an it’s so fulfilling to see him bring my work to life. I told him when he’s in there, he’s not playing the Demon, He IS the Demon. He ran with it and to watch him transform like that was truly impressive. He’s out in LA now and I’m really excited to see him thrive in this field, he’s just so talented.”
After “Savini”, Ricky landed a spot on the hit SyFy reality contest, “Face/Off”.
“It was really a great experience. In the early seasons, the show was about pitting people against each other. But the progression was really altered by the contestants and became more about the camaraderie of the talent. Besides the experience and working with the great judges, my biggest takeaway was the lifelong friends I’ve made from it. We all still get work for each other today. Just as my classmates from Savini do.”
One of those “lifelong friends” as well as fellow Savini alum, Evan Hedges (Runner-Up Season 9 of “Face/Off”) teamed up with Ricky on a project for Projection Artist Max Nova of Optical Animal (who have done work for Childish Gambino, Phantogram, among many others). Ricky did the prosthetic work, as well as performed inside the make-up, while Evan did the applying and painting.
The result, a flipped rendition of Kubrick’s 2001 called “Space Monkey“, showcases just how much talent lies in Ricky as a performer.
“We were working low budget, but creating really high-quality art. I couldn’t hear anything in the helmet, so the director Max and I came up with a sign system. He would give me different hand signals for cues. It was so much fun.”
The work is stunning and bears big budget caliber talent. Evan’s paint is lively and realistic, complimenting Ricky’s solid sculpt work. Ricky’s emotive responses read perfectly, and Max’s skill with lights adds a whole other dimension to the short, making it seem as though the helmet itself contains lighting. It’s inspiring and entertaining.
“Desiigner is actually such a sweetheart, and it turns out he’s a huge “Face/Off” fan and kind of fanboyed a bit. His posse were incredibly cool, supportive people. Like an extended family.”
I asked Ricky, on a more personal level, why he chose to refrain from speaking about being trans while on Face/Off, although he did openly talk about being gay.
“I didn’t want the portrayal of being trans out of my control. I didn’t want it to be used as a sob story. It’s not a disability. It’s important, especially with today’s climate, to speak openly about this and to speak from a position of power. Not as a handicap.”
Upon re-watching Ricky’s season of Face/Off, I found the show to be edited with a very progressive and open portrait of LGBTQ identities. Perhaps that reflects the talent, but it was reassuring to an extent that it did not come across as exploitative.
Personally, I’m excited to see what more comes out of the mind and hands of Ricky Vitus. I found him to be one of the most genuinely likable people I’ve ever met, and he creates Monsters!
Since Face/Off Ricky has worked regularly in film, both short and feature length, many of which haven’t even made their way to IMDB credits yet as they are still “in-production”.
With plans to eventually move to Los Angeles to “…be immersed.” in the world of film and creature creating, Ricky holds amazing potential with an already incredibly nuanced and rich amount of experience and skill. “I just want to contribute to Movie history.” It will be our pleasure to witness his creations and art.
Check out Ricky’s Instagram where he sells one of a kind pieces ranging from taxidermy Werewolf heads, to skinned face masks and shrunken heads as well as other horror goodies in between his film work.