An inside look at the art and design process of behind-the-scenes artists

In media coverage, the achievements of directors, actors and producers are always featured most prominently. This video takes you through the process of designing sets and makeup, which are just as crucial when bringing a story to life.


Jennifer Ren

Xiyi Li

WSN: With the winnings of the 2023 Oscars and the upcoming Tony Awards, the press and media have mainly covered the achievements of outstanding directors, actors and producers. But without the effort of behind-the-scenes artists, these shows and films wouldn’t have been brought to life. Today, we have invited two backstage designers who will show us the world of their recent artworks and the highlights of the process.

Jennifer Yuqing Cao is a set designer currently working and studying at the Production and Design Studio at NYU Tisch’s School of the Arts.

Cao: I am a bit different in my sensibility, because when I listen to the music, I see the color, and I smell it. So I have the sense that kind of just goes around. And when I design a set, I also don’t see it as a visual only. It’s something that I can smell, I can touch, and I hope the audience also can be able to smell when they see the thing, and they have the audio going on in their head no matter if the sound is on or not. It’s a memory evoke. So for me, that’s my mission — to kind of share that feeling to people and to connect people in that sense.

WSN: “Here’s a Blue Morpho For You” is one of her shows that has sets and handmade props independently designed by Jennifer.

Cao: For that show, it started from talking to the director Elaine. The reason why she wanted to create this show is because of her family and her grandpa. And we came up with the idea of the threads, because DNA are spiralled, and also in China, we talk abou how people are connected by the red thread. So “thread” became a very big concept in the beginning of the show. And then you will see, at the end of the show, it’s also a big part of it.

WSN: The characters are driven by memories, examining the closeness and distance. For Jennifer, visualizing these abstract meanings into sets became her challenging mission.

Cao: Sometimes we don’t have scripts. In NYU, we do devised pieces a lot, and devised pieces means that we don’t have scripts. There’s a concept, and the director explores a concept with the actors to get into the rehearsal room, and they create the scripts. Like, I think one of the biggest parts of being a theatrical designer is that you are able to change constantly with different people’s opinions. The director may not like this one, so you have change it to the other one. 

WSN: The constantly changing nature of collaborating and designing applies to set designers and special effects makeup artists. Rob Benevides, an alum and current special effects makeup professor of Tisch Film, shares his journey from working in the industry to teaching. 

Benevides: Actually, the happiest I’ve been was when I actually was hired here full-time to teach, because what that’s enabled me to do is impart my love of this art form to my students, but also have enough time to create my own art on the side. So, actually, I feel very free now because I don’t have to freelance, I don’t have to wonder where my next paycheck is coming from — things like that. And I love the fact that in masks, you can paint the eyes, right? And the teeth, and then put gloss, so it looks like there’s like, you know, glass eyes in there, and, like, real teeth. I feel like the shiny against the matte really draws your eye into certain aspects.

WSN: I agree. I think that makes it more real, in a sense.

Benevides: Yeah, totally.

WSN: You have this light difference.

Benevides: Yes, for sure. You know, like this one. I’m painting, like, realistic skin, and I’m doing all the colors, but there’s really no match to silicone. Like, how realistic you can get it. That’s what’s so cool about silicones.

WSN: And I like how stretched it could be.

Benevides: Oh, yes, totally. It stretches, and it’s really flexible. This one is silicone as well. This is really cool. This is done from a cast of a friend of mine. So I cast her face, and then I poured silicone into the mold. So it’s just solid silicone, but, you know, after you paint it, it looks very realistic.

WSN: The journey to becoming a special effects makeup artist is not easy. Designers have to proactively learn various skills and constantly innovate with an advent of new techniques.

Benevides: There’s a lot of steps to creating, you know, a special effects makeup. You have to design it. You have to conceive it. You have to know how to sculpt. You have to study anatomy. You have to know how to paint, how to apply prosthetics on set. There’s so many parts of it, and it’s so difficult, in a way, to do. And [so] taxing on you that if you don’t love it, then it shouldn’t be something, I don’t think, you should pursue. I think it has to be really a part of you. So that’s another reason why I love my class so much, because it enables people to actually sit down, and it’s a practical art class, and I think that’s important to keep that spirit alive.

Contact Xiyi Li and Jennifer Ren at [email protected].