When Michael Nickiforek first picked up the makeup brush, he had no idea it would lead to working on an Oscar-nominated film.
Special makeup effects artist Nickiforek, a Vernon-product who now resides in Vancouver, worked closely with Arjen Tuiten on the film Wonder — an Oscar finalist for makeup and hairstyling.
“Arjen originally contacted me via Facebook. I knew exactly who he was, I was blown away he was even messaging me,” Nickiforek said, adding that he was teaching makeup effects in Shanghai at the time. “I asked what help he was looking for, as I originally thought he wanted my shop skills — sculpting, mold making, prosthetics fabrication — but he informed me it was to actually assist him in applying a makeup on a small boy.”
Wonder, based on R.J. Palacio’s New York Times bestselling novel of the same name, follows August (Auggie) Pullman, a young boy with Treacher Collins syndrome — a rare genetic disorder affecting the development of bones and tissues in the face — who enters mainstream school for the first time in Grade 5.
“He (Tuiten) explained roughly how the face anatomy would be distorted. I knew right there this makeup was going to be special,” Nickiforek said.
With the offer in mind, Nickiforek packed up his bags and jumped on a plane back to Vancouver.
“I will admit it was the scariest thing I have ever said yes to in my life. I was unsure I could match the ability of the person requesting my help. But he assured me I could, so I said, ‘I’m in,’” Nickiforek said. “I got home late July 15 and had a makeup test first thing in the morning. I didn’t sleep a wink. I was a solid 20 minutes early — the first guy in the makeup trailer, actually. I was soon followed by Arjen and the rest of the soon to be Auggie makeup crew.”
Working side-by-side with Tuiten, Nickiforek was tasked with applying the left side of Auggie’s (Jacob Tremblay) face while Tuiten applied the right. Nickiforek was also responsible for pre-painting Auggie’s prosthetics.
“Working with Arjen was absolutely the best experience I’ve had in my career so far. He is the most kind, funny, inspiring and encouraging artist I have met in this industry, someone many can truly look up to,” Nickiforek said. “Helping him achieve his vision was rewarding every day, so was working with Jacob who was honestly the most professional actor I’ve met in my career so far.”
Tuiten is one of three finalists for the 2018 Oscar in makeup and hairstyling — alongside Darkest Hour (Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski and Lucy Sibbick) and Victoria & Abdul (Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard) — and the only Auggie makeup crew member included in the nomination.
“I was so happy for him. It was a makeup that truly deserved to be getting the attention it was. I don’t know what day stands out to me, but I do know every day we laughed, sometimes from being too tired, but mostly just from the great environment we made for ourselves. It was an unbelievable little makeup family,” Nickiforek said.
Nickiforek’s passion for special makeup effects sparked at a young age from watching films like The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and The Never Ending Story.
“The behind the scenes footage that was actually even available then. Seeing how it was made, made my mind explode. Knowing people actually make this stuff was one of the best thoughts. This eventually lead to being interested in makeup effects in general. From that point forward, it was continually on my mind. Though my path I feel was different from most who gain interest as a child. Most tend to dabble throughout their teenage hood. I didn’t though for the most part, aside from a gore gag here or there,” Nickiforek said. “It wasn’t until I was 24 and and actually enrolled for and ran the course of the Makeup for Film and TV program at Vancouver Film School that I really started my journey into makeup effects. After school was done in February 2006, I found myself practicing on personal and student film projects. I did this while also working a regular part time job to keep myself afloat.”
But, after putting in the grunt work and taking on all of the work he could, Nickiforek made his big break.
“I applied to an online post on the then most popular makeup effects forum, theeffectslab.com. I went to a real interview with my most up to date portfolio and landed the job. It was in one of the few shops Vancouver had to offer. I had my first day, then second, then third. Jump forward 11 years and here I am just seeing a a makeup I was heavily involved with being nominated for an Oscar,” Nickiforek said.
With a focus on doing contract work for nearby shops, Nickiforek has worked on films like 1922 (special makeup effects artist), Tomorrowland (sculptor, mold maker, silicone prosthetics fabrication), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (animal effects fabrication), Taken 2 (prosthetics fabrication) and, more recently, the second series of Van Helsing (makeup effects designer).
“I honestly didn’t know where my career was going, I just knew it was what I wanted to do. I was interested in makeup as a child, but after school I was obsessed. I quickly realized school had only just started my education. I read on the lab forum every day,” Nickiforek said. “I never knew it but my true calling was sculpting and mold making. Though I love every stage of the makeup process, from lifecasting to the final makeup application, this is where I really ran. Right now my main focus is creating what is seen on screen, and though I didn’t know this is where I was going to end up, I am absolutely happy that I did.”
Even when he isn’t working on a set, watching films on the big screen or building Gundam models, Nickiforek spends his time honing his craft.
“I actually like to do what I do for a living as a hobby as well,” Nickiforek said. “This is mostly due to the creative restrictions in the job, (but) as a hobby I can really create what ever I like.”
And for Nickiforek, spending his time pursuing his passion, whether at work or at home, is what it’s all about.
“Do what you love,” Nickiforek said. “If you find people in your life telling you you shouldn’t or can’t, remove them. Only surround yourself with support. When you do, there’s so much you can achieve.”