Daniella Pluchino is best known as a visual effects makeup artist for a number of blockbuster hits in the entertainment industry. From crafting awe-inspiring prosthetics to breathing life into realistic makeup looks and spine-chilling creatures, Daniella’s artistic prowess has graced productions such as The Last of Us, The Boys, Gen V, and Titans. Her ability to seamlessly blend creativity with technical expertise has earned her recognition as a trailblazer in the realm of visual effects.
Beyond her mastery in the world of make-up, Daniella’s talents extend to design fabrication, where she creates larger-than-life experiential artworks and installations for film promotions. Notable among her achievements are the iconic artworks for Batman at the CF Eaton Centre and the recent installation for the Canadian premiere of Wonka at Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto.
Daniella is a proud Scarborough native whose passion for film & TV makeup ignited at a young age. By the time she was 19, she was already making her mark on the industry on the set of Saw, setting the stage for an ambitious career. Since then, Daniella has gone on to some of the biggest film & TV makeup and special effects departments of our time.
We had the opportunity to get “behind the scene” and chat with Daniella to learn more about her fascinating career.
Your career span is mind-blowing! Let’s start with visual effects in theatrical make up and prosthetics in TV & film. What, or who, inspired you to take this path?
Daniella: By about 12 years old, I had a goal set- and that goal was to make monsters for movies. My first cinematic influence was “Sloth” from The Goonies (1985). Hilariously enough, as a young child (and without any understanding of what prosthetics and animatronics were) I thought the character Sloth was real. I was shocked that the production was successfully able to find and cast a living creature for the role! Soon after, I discovered the efforts Thomas R. Burman, Bari Dreiband-Burman and crew took to transform John Matuszak, I was hooked.
But it wasn’t The Goonies alone that inspired me to dedicate my life to film and television. I was, and to this day still have a love and fascination for all things magic. Stage magic, optical illusions, mentalism, slight of hand tricks etc, The art of illusions and magic shares a kinship with special makeup effects as both involve creating a sense of wonder and disbelief through visual deception, pushing the boundaries of what the audience perceives as real. Knowing that my work may give a child their “ah ha!” Sloth moment, one day, is what continues to inspire me to push my creative boundaries.
What was the most challenging work you’ve done in this realm and why?
Daniella: The most challenging work I’ve done also happens to be the most rewarding in many ways! In contrast to the fantastical process of designing a creature from conception, simulating trauma and live surgery for medical reenactment television shows requires, essentially, a much more cerebral kind of preparation from myself and my team. When designing a prosthetic (or human replica), the process starts with an in-depth study of medical anatomy (medical books, real live video of surgery, patient testimony, photo reference and illustration), understanding the nuances of human physiology, and specific details related to the medical condition or procedure we intend on replicating. The production will have medical advisors and consultants to aid in the process. (While working on NBC’s Nurses Season: 2, and Good Sam our team had the help of Medical Advisor, Josh Hehner who was a great contributor to the success of our department.)
Engaging in challenging, hyper-realistic, prosthetic projects excite me because they allow me to expand my technical and artistic skills while demanding innovation and problem solving. “How do we turn a few gallons of liquid silicone into a realistic live birth scene, or convincing open brain surgery?” Overcoming complexities in these assignments brings a deep sense of accomplishment for me, especially because I am a total perfectionist. There’s no feedback more gratifying than a heart surgeon telling you “Wow. I thought that was real”.
What has been the most fun production to work on?
Daniella: This is a question I’m often asked, and each time I think I give a completely different answer! I really make it a priority for me to find the joy in every project I’m involved with. When I reflect on my career thus far, my most memorable moments were made during challenging times, with a supportive and resilient prosthetics crew standing beside me.
This past summer, I was the Head of the Prosthetics Department / Creature Designer for a feature film. The productions requests were extremely ambitious but I was eager to satify them. In addition to grueling hours and majority of the cast wearing prosthetics (including one application that required 5 artists to work simultaneously for about 4 hours straight)- we really had our work cut out for us.
Overcoming challenges and navigating through last minute scheduling changes, my support crew; Chris Cooper, Faye Crasto, SJ Hall, Tanya Bishoff and Karlee Morse, made the experience so much fun. The power and impact of a strong team is often underestimated. I cannot stress the importance of community within the workplace, enough. In addition to having a nearly intuitive communication style with each other, untarnishable resilience and a diverse blend of skills and expertise; we all really relied on each other for the success of our visual effects. We also become quite close during this time- making one another hysterically laugh
each and every day. Deep belly laughs. Memories like the ones I made on that movie, with those people, mean the most to me.
What is the process for you when working on a show or film in creating the ideal visual effect?
Daniella: What I love about the art process is that there is no standard formula to follow. I may have complete and untethered creative control for a feature film’s lead character today, but tomorrow, I can be designing a prosthetic for a movie with extremely specific and well-defined needs. In situations like that, my creative input isn’t required and I’ll act entirely as a vessel that allows the director’s vision to come to life.
While the on-set, prosthetics application on an actor may be the most transformative and interesting part of my process, there’s so much leg work that’s required before I’m able to enter the makeup trailer.
To start at the beginning- after immersing myself in the script and making an effort to deeply understand the character or effect that I’m tasked with designing, collaboration is the next key aspect to the process.
I work closely with the director and other members of the creative team and discuss ideas and different options of how we can approach the desired visual effect. I will prepare visual references for the director, producers and other collaborators to review. These may be in the form of mood boards, 3D renderings, photoshopped images, hand drawn sketches or traditional maquette sculptures. Once we have an aligned vision approved, the technical planning phase follows!
Here, I may treat my workshop as a mad science laboratory and experiment with materials and techniques to discover the best method of executing the desired outcome. In contrast, because every job is different, I can also find myself with a more structured and familiar creating process with predetermined clearly defined steps. Meticulously selecting appropriate materials, considering practicalities like actor comfort and mobility, and anticipating potential challenges that may arise during application or filming is crucial. Staying up-to-date with the latest advancements in industry trends and technology is also crucial in this phase, ensuring that the visual effects meet or exceed industry standards.
Pretty amazing accomplishments on so many blockbusters! What’s coming up that you can share with us?
Daniella: I’m in the conceptual design process for a number of films currently in pre-production. I’m also dedicating time in 2024 to developing an art gallery exhibition of new personal works. During this time, I’m focusing on personal, artistic exploration and self-discovery with the goal to ultimately be able contribute more authentically to my field and expand my creative range in the future.
And a shout out to the kids growing up in Scarborough, what would you tell them?
Daniella: Rick Rubin said it best – “All that matters is that you are making something you love. To the best of your ability, here and now.”
Cool, right? Check out some more of her incredible work here.