By the stairs leading down to Crist Ballas’ lower level hangs an old, beaten to hell movie poster for “Frankenstein.” Crist’s boots thud down the stairs before me, with soles so thick he could stomp a truck tire flat. His boots are the only intimidating thing about Crist. He is a peach of a man in his mid-50s, with a salt and pepper beard and translucent eyeglass frames.
At the bottom is Crist’s laboratory. Here he pulls out a small case and starts removing acrylic eyes. “These are Arnold Schwarzenegger’s,” says Crist, setting them gingerly on a table, “and these are Charlize Theron’s.”
Crist shows off his original Gizmonic Institute patch from “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” He almost seems to treasure it more than his trophies upstairs—ones plated in 24-karat gold that honor movie work. With the flick of a switch, Crist turns on the light in his ossuary. It is a pleasant word for the several skulls he set into the mortar of his home’s foundation.
The back of the lab houses Crist’s nightmare creatures: an anatomically correct cyclops, an albino Krampus, a terrible humanoid creature shaped like it had grown up inside of an aquarium. You can take strength from the full-scale model of Arnold as Mr. Freeze, painted as blue as an Otter Pop.
Crist finally produces the last thing you would expect: a breast. “I made this for the U of M as a passion project, to help doctors identify cancerous tissue, and to show patients what the difference between tissues and tumors is. Feel it,” Crist instructs, and I do, and I find a lump. “That’s a tumor. This lady is in trouble.”
Crist’s living room is much comfier, if only because there are no latex demons standing in it. The sole monster present is Ellouise or ‘Weezy’, Crist’s fiancee’s unusually large black Pomeranian. She looks me square in the eyes as her master speaks.
These are my recollections of his story of a career in bringing legends to life.
“‘Frankenstein’—the original, with Boris Karloff. I first saw it when I was six, and that was the one that got me into makeup and prosthetics. I loved the shaking black fingertips coming out of the sheet and all the old medical gear. It’s kind of considered a joke now, but that movie gave me the spark to really get into the intensity of the industry. It just evoked so much emotion, that hideous being which I felt sorry for but was also terrified of.
“Bringing something to life looked so interesting, and I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, I want to be a mad scientist!’ I asked my mother where the local graveyard was, at which point she explained that ‘Frankenstein’ wasn’t real. Instead, she took me to the library, where I looked up everything I could about film makeup.
“That’s where I found Richard Corson’s ‘Stage Makeup,’ as well as some books about Lon Chaney the great makeup artist. I tried making everything I could from those books back in the days before the internet. One of them said to use the skin from a hard-boiled egg for contact lenses. It was torture! It turned out Lon Chaney never did that—they just made it up to sell the book.
“Pretty soon I did become a mad scientist in a sense: creating concoctions, mixing things up, curing latex and gelatin, and sticking things into my eyes. I did acting in high school because there wasn’t a stage makeup class, and by the time I was ready to enter the workforce, I was doing stage makeup and prosthetics professionally.
“That gave way to makeup work for commercials. I had a local mentor named Gary Boham who took me under his wing. He taught me set etiquette and how to cooperate with the lighting crew. If both teams don’t work together, things won’t look as realistic.
“My first big movie was ‘Jingle All the Way.’ It was filmed at Mall of America. The gig was making Arnold’s body doubles look like Arnold, and taking care of other actors on set. It was where I met Phil Hartman, an SNL alum, and of course, it’s also where I met Arnold.
“Arnold took a liking to me because I was probably the first person who didn’t accept a cigar that he offered. I just treated him like a normal guy, who doesn’t want to be worshipped or treated like a schmuck. The trick is just to be nice to people, whether they’re a production assistant or a star.
“I was always more nervous around the musicians. That’s probably because I grew up listening to so much Motown. I was incredibly honored working with Ray Charles. After I’d gotten him ready for a concert, I did what I always do and asked, ‘What do you think of the makeup?’ Ray leaned over to where he knew the mirror would be, and he smiles and says, ‘Yeah, it looks pretty good, Crist!’
“Everybody loved the extra nipple I made for the fortune teller in ‘Mallrats,’ and it was gelatin so they could eat it, too. Working with Kevin Smith is like working with your younger brother. One day he asked me if he could copy my beard, so I cut it for him. After a little while, everyone started asking me if I was cutting my beard to look like Kevin. I switched over to chops at that point, but that’s show business.
“I like to think that a few special makeup effects will always require some degree of craftsmanship, like old age makeup, but ‘The Irishman’ was definitely a game-changer for me. I saw its digital effects and I was like, ‘Oh my. Okay. What else can I do?’ Honestly, if I was only starting out and had that to contend with, I’d probably just own a bar and sling drinks like my father and grandfather.
“There’s still hope in the digital age with directors like J.J. Abrams, who prefer practical effects wherever they’re possible. But as the old school moviemakers’ nostalgia starts to fade away, my art probably will, too.
“I’m just incredibly lucky. I grew up with such weird opportunities, and I don’t think they exist anymore.”
“So it’s all smoke and mirrors?” I ask.
“It is. But I’ll take it.”