Douglas grad Nora Hewitt faces off on “FaceOff” & wins big
Most college graduates don’t expect all their dreams to come true overnight. However, that wasn’t the case for Nora Hewitt. Only days after graduating from the Tom Savini Special Effects Make Up Program at Douglas Education Center in Monessen, Hewitt joined the cast of season nine of FaceOff where she outlasted 15 other contestants to win $100,000, a new Fiat, major bragging rights, and a fantastic addition to her resume.
FaceOff is a reality competition on Syfy that takes special effects make up artists and challenges them each week to create characters based on themes. The artists have a limited amount of time to produce the characters from concept through final product. It’s a grueling process and Hewitt admitted that many of the techniques on the show, she learned on the fly. Though the Savini Program gave her a strong foundation, FaceOff is known for surprising twists.
Fans watch, week after week, as contestants make stunning characters with little time to spare, but there’s a lot of activity going on behind the scenes we don’t get to see.
As she watched her scenes, Hewitt was surprised how many “gems” she said didn’t make the final cut.
As with many reality shows, contestants are cut off from actual reality and spend a lot of time with the same group of people. On most reality shows, it’s a ratings boosting recipe for disaster filled with drama. On FaceOff contestants engaged in crazy antics depicted in short films.
With difficult challenges, each contestant faced their own battles, with their enemies ranging from inexperience to themselves.
“I can get in my own way,” Hewitt said. “It’s never good enough [for me]. I was never thinking of just the challenge. I always thought about what potential employers were going to think. More or less, I’m my own worst critic. I’m always making something better than what I made it before. You shouldn’t be totally satisfied with your work if you’re a true artist. You should want to rip it apart.”
While Hewitt may rip her work apart internally, it was the judges on the show that held all the power. For the contestants, it’s a chance for renowned industry professionals to inspect every seam, every ounce of paint and the overall concept for a full package, and they never hold back. This season was comprised of fan favorite judges, Glenn Hetrick (Hunger Games, CSI, and costume designer for Lady Gaga), Ve Neill (Beetlejuice, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Ed Wood), and Neville Page (Watchman, Cloverfield and Avatar).
“I loved Glenn. He’s super nice. Sometimes he would get so excited about a make up but he’s always so intense. He’s hard to read,” Hewitt said about working with Hetrick.
“The same with Neville. He’s such a genius and very critical and analytical. I really wanted to impress all of them,” she added. “Ve was the hardest to impress for me. I don’t know if it’s because she’s a female in the industry and knows what it’s like to be starting off in a male dominated industry.”
Each week the contestants face a new challenge on the show, but it’s never an easy task. One of Hewitt’s favorite challenges was a double elimination before the finale where the five artists had to create a macabre family member inspired by shows like The Munsters and The Addams Family. Hewitt’s character was a black sheep cousin, which secured her spot in the finale. Her character, a literal sheep dressed in gothic clothes, was truly iconic and memorable.
“The black sheep character was the smoothest challenge for me,” said Hewitt. “I felt really good about it. I wish I painted her differently, but she was awesome. I thought a lot about her character. On the show, you’re in charge of figuring out what they’re wearing and there’s a team that rents the wardrobe or they will custom make it for you.”
Of course, not every challenge goes smoothly. For one challenge, contestants had to team up to create a whimsically undead duo that would be married later in an official wedding ceremony. From the onset of the challenge, Hewitt struggled with the concept and design and it ultimately landed her in front of the judges facing potential elimination. However, it was the only time she ever found herself there.
“The whole episode was stressful,” Hewitt said. “I was just lost and Meg came up with the concept. We just didn’t execute it properly.”
After weeks of exhausting work, the finale challenge was bigger and better than any previous season of the show. This challenge was so big, it spanned two episodes. During the first part of the challenge, the contestants worked with director, Patrick Tatopoulous, to create two characters that would be featured in a short film with the help of a small team of past contestants. During the first part of the finale, the makeups are put through a screen test where Tatopoulous gave contestants feedback before the final shoot. Of course, as with any good reality competition, there was more. At the end, the contestants were asked to create a third make up before the final shoot. This challenge was truly the dream of any special effects makeup artist, seeing your work on camera.
“When we wrapped our movie at the finale, they showed us a clip,” Hewitt said. “The whole day was amazing. I mean, when will we ever get the chance to work with someone like that again? And it ended with a big group hug!”
Of course, the worst part of the whole experience was keeping her win a huge secret from everyone she knew for six long months.
“My parents didn’t even know,” Hewitt said. “They found out at the finale with everyone else. They knew I made it to the end, but they didn’t know I won. I did an event at the school for the finale. Tom [Savini] was there. He didn’t even know!”
Hewitt relocated to Pennsylvania to attend school on a whim. After high school, she didn’t have any real direction but found the Tom Savini Special Makeup Effect program at Douglas Education Center online by chance while she was living with some friends.
“People collect books. I have a library of movies,” Hewitt said. “If I could do something in the film industry, it’d be great. I had a strong art background so I thought I’d check out the school. I just rented a car and came out here. I knew it was where I wanted to be.”
Hewitt spent 16 months preparing for her new career. The Savini Program gave her a solid foundation for the show, which she auditioned for in her second semester.
“The last semester at school was crazy,” Hewitt said. “I was building my final projects and working full time so I didn’t have a ton of time to get ready for FaceOff.”
“There are so many more hours of lab time and we shot a lot of house reality, but I don’t know where all the fun footage is,” Hewitt said. “You’re in this… alternative universe with good people. It’s very strange. You don’t have your phone or your wallet. We played a lot of games, talked a lot and made a few short films. Shasta sponsored our show so we made a short commercial called the Shastaing. We found ways to entertain ourselves.”
Though she didn’t know them personally prior to the show, Hewitt was joined on stage by two other Savini Program graduates: runner up, Evan Hedges and Ricky Vitus. In the nine seasons of FaceOff, 24 students from the Program have competed, but Hewitt was the first winner.
“Nora’s artistic vision is very confident even though she’s so young,” said Glenn Hetrick. “She came back every week stronger regardless of whether it was a win or loss.”
So after a whirlwind experience, what’s next for Hewitt? Well, she’s packing her bags and heading to California where the special effects makeup opportunities are plentiful. She’s sure she would have ended up there with or without FaceOff but the show has certainly given her a bit of leverage as she starts applying for internships and positions. For any future makeup artists reading this, Hewitt has one piece of advice.
“Put everything you have into it,” said Hewitt. “If you want to do special effects, follow your dreams. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s obtainable. Have a positive mental attitude and be forward thinking. The sky is the limit.”
Story by Hayley Lynn Martin for Pennsylvania Bridges