Nightmare Effects: The Evolution of a Horrifying Character Mask

Costumes, Cosplay, and Props Craft & Design
Nightmare Effects: The Evolution of a Horrifying Character Mask
Photo by Jason Ragosta

As a child, I had an overactive imagination. Most people would consider this a gift, but when you’re a kid sent to bed at 8 or 9 at night, with insomnia… it’s terrifying. It’s the scariest thing in the world. Shapes come out at you from the darkness, swirling tentacles and teeth and eyes. Every noise you hear in the hallway or outside your room is some kind of madman with a knife, or monster ready to eat you. Every pair of headlights that pass by your window is an alien ship coming to abduct you. Needless to say, this was a huge problem for me. And, basically, I needed to solve this problem.

—Jason Ragosta, World-Building: Experiments in Immersive Storytelling | TEDxConstitutionDrive, June 2015

Writer-director Jason Ragosta faced his nightmares as a young child, making a deal with them — to write them, to draw them, to sculpt them; to tear down the walls they were confined within and create whole worlds for them to roam. Such deals have led to a lifetime of creativity with dark tendencies, to exorcise demons and shine light on a more human side of things.

These demons and nightmares are explored in Boy in the Dark, a short horror film. The film centers on Jake, a young boy who copes with the recent death of his mother by drawing monsters in his sketchbook. By night, Jake is paralyzed as his imagined terrors come to life, and life is no better during the day as he faces bullies at school.

No Need for CGI

Aiming to shoot with 100% practical effects, Ragosta teamed up with Margaret Caragan of Oakland, California-based Pandora FX to bring this nightmare into reality.

As longtime friends and collaborators, Ragosta and Caragan were an ideal pair for this project. Caragan, a seasoned special makeup effects artist, and founder of Pandora FX, has worked with Jason on many projects previous to BITD. Both believe in the power of practical effects, which create characters that are more visceral than their CG counterparts. Ragosta explained, “In my opinion, the horror genre is better served by practical effects, where physical effects can better tap into our mortality.”

The Road to Boy In The Dark

Ragosta was developing a film using VR technology when he put it on hold to start BITD. The idea was jumpstarted by a TEDx talk he gave in June. The talk led Ragosta to recall his childhood nightmares, which ultimately landed him on his chosen creative path.


Spurred by the talk, his friend and fellow filmmaker Tom Pankratz suggested he take his childhood experiences and turn them into a film:

His idea had a pulse because of what the kid was going through, influenced by what happened to [Ragosta] in his own life. I told him, this is the type of film you should make. It had a great premise and the environment was right in his wheelhouse. I thought this idea… would resonate with audiences and go beyond standard genre fare. Boy in the Dark goes beyond that, and has a legitimate chance to strike a chord with audiences.

In the following weeks, the script was written and storyboarded, character sketches were completed, a crew was assembled, and a successful Indiegogo campaign exceeded its goal.

Creativity Borne from Constraint

Though the Indiegogo campaign exceeded its goal, the producers kept a judicious stance on budget. Even for a short made amongst a passionate group of artists, $11,000 goes quickly, especially when practical effects, creatures, and custom design are involved. The team also faced a short timeline: conception to principal photography was just under three months, but the heads involved all felt the constraints made a better product in the long run.

Caragan felt right at home when faced with the tight circumstances. “I love limits!” she says. “Money will always be an object. And, when time is no object, things can be loose and soft as far as getting the creative juices flowing, so when you’ve got limited resources and time, that creates inertia, which for me is the key to great special makeup effects opportunities.”

As the film’s costume and wig designer, I could say the same for myself. Working with a small budget means that I know immediately what materials I can work with — and then that’s when the creativity comes into play. Instead of spending money, I’m spending my time learning new processes and treatments, and figuring out how I can transform, for example, a plain cotton into something terrifying and beautiful. How can I manipulate, texturize, transform, and combine all these elements in a way that serves the story and the character, and does justice to the writing and other artists involved?

However, despite the limited timeline and budget, no one was happier than Ragosta seeing his nightmares come to life. Most filmmakers dream of large budgets and a generous pre-production, but Ragosta felt that BITD was best served by its budgetary and time limitations. “It forced us to simplify things,” says Ragosta. “Boil the story down to its essence. Which actually helps in a short film.”

Bringing Diana to Life

Ragosta did the preliminary designs for the creatures, most notably for Diana. Diana is sketched by Jake, and takes form as his underworld mother while asleep. Ultimately she helps him face his real-life bully. Caragan and I took these designs as our starting point, and designed our Dianas both individually and collaboratively, seeking Ragosta’s feedback along the way.

Ragosta and Caragan’s Diana went through several in-tandem reconceptualizations. Using Ragosta’s first sketches as input, Caragan furthered her research by looking at similar designs and ideas. After a preliminary sculpt, Caragan felt she needed to push the character further. For inspiration, she looked to artist Paul Komoda, and his work helped encourage Caragan with the direction she wanted to head in.

After a reboot and additional sculpt days, humanoid anatomy and eyelids were added to the forehead and Caragan was ecstatic with the result. “One of the things about my job is that the spectrum of what I do means that I’m often learning while I’m working. Multi-eye sculpt and placement was new and I wanted to make sure that it made Diana leap off the screen as much she leaps of the pages of Jason’s sketchbook.”

Caragan wanted to combine her prosthetic forehead with a facial prosthetic from RBFX, designed by Miranda Jory. “I felt that since [Ragosta] loved vertical lines, I wanted him to see this and use it. He loved it. So from there, the design evolved to become more transformational, which of course brings me great joy.”

Playing Dress-Up

I decided to create a costume as close to the sketch as possible. What resulted was a hybrid of sketch and high fashion — a sketch brought to life, precisely what Ragosta had expressed to me as his ultimate goal.

Photo by Jason Ragosta

Working expressly in black and white, I created a multi-textured dress with hand-sewn trim, and black dye painted to mimic sketch lines. To finish, the white skirt was dip-dyed to create a gradient effect, so that on camera it would look like it’s disappearing into the darkness of Jake’s bedroom.

Photo by Rachel Dagdagan

For Diana’s wig, Ragosta offered inspiration from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. “Gary Oldman as Dracula is one of my favorite characters, so designing a wig inspired by Eiko Ishioka [Dracula‘s costume designer] was a huge privilege for me.” Starting with a pre-made lace-fronted wig from Arda, I cut and styled it into a shape echoing Ragosta’s sketches. To finish, I painted in dye to distress and bring the wig into the same realm as the rest of the costume.

With the costume and the wig done, the final step was for Ragosta to make the crown. He made the base out of aluminum wire and fine wire mesh, and introduced texture with twine, hot glue, and Sculpey teeth. The crown was finished with Smooth-Cast ONYX from Smooth-On, resulting in the final piece that would be instrumental in bringing his character to life.

Photo by Jason Ragosta

Shooting the Nightmare

With just one day allotted for special makeup effects, it was essential for the entire team to be on point from the moment we got to set. Ragosta began to shoot what he could without Diana, and Caragan set each artist to a task. “I was buzzing on coffee, confidence, and passion. From the moment the team started rolling in, I was like a magnet, sharing with each member what I needed from them and rolling the makeup forward as fast as possible,” she says.

Caragan soon realized she was missing something from her kit, and had to improvise around it:

One of my major challenges came from being so stressed and sleep-deprived from juggling this project with an emergency surgery for my mom. Keeping my eye on the ball as a filmmaker was a challenge against trying to be my mom’s foundation. I’d forgotten a product that would have helped me blend the edges of the prosthetic and paint faster. Regardless, I just used extra glue to blend the edges, which took more time to build and dry. I’m very happy with how everyone stepped up and rocked it. I feel this is my film family and we are there for each other. I have so many things I want to do for the team and it feels amazing that such creative, dedicated, and great people showed up to be a part of this. One of the unique things about Boy in the Dark is that this time, it wasn’t just a passion project for someone else, we did it for ourselves.

The crew made our day and Ragosta captured everything he needed to bring Diana, and the rest of the story, to life. Because of the tight schedule, this day on set was the first time Ragosta, Caragan, and I saw our work combined.

What’s Next

With BITD heading into post-production, Ragosta is looking toward his next projects. “Hopefully the film will be finished before the end of the year. We currently have a list of festivals that we will be submitting to as soon as it is finished and plan to have a digital download release once the festival run is finished.” Now, he’s getting back to developing his VR short, Ballad of Celia Lee.

While initial thoughts on VR tend toward genres like exploration and documentary, Ragosta will use this new technology to combine practical effects and high-concept costumes with horror. Touching on VR during his June TEDx talk, Ragosta said, “The biggest thing with this technology is that we should experiment. Experiment, and not reduce it. VR can be used to take down walls and create real or imagined worlds, tell stories that connect us through human experience and imagination.”

There is no doubt that Pandora FX will be key in creating Ballad of Celia Lee, and beyond that, Caragan has her sights set on a big 2016. “I’m looking for larger scale prosthetic projects and people to collaborate with in animatronics and puppeteering. I’m looking forward to making more original characters. Our next projects involve much more practical effects and I’m aiming to top myself.”

Completing BITD has been instrumental in bringing Caragan and Ragosta’s collaborations to the next level. “We’ve always enjoyed collaborating,” says Caragan, “but over time our sense of how he develops a design and how I execute has merged into a unit where we get to throw out ideas and talk about how to make things that we’re dreaming of making. It was a perfect storm of time, money, artistic discoveries, and racing the clock that produced a look I’m proud of. All in all, we gave birth to an amazing, beautiful creature together.”

Artist Credits

Jason Ragosta and Pandora FX are eternally grateful to all artists involved in this project.

Margaret Caragan – Makeup Department Head, Lead Prosthetic Makeup Artist; Jason Ragosta – concept art, “Diana” crown; Rachel Dagdagan – Costume and Wig Designer; Consuelo Lopez – Key Makeup Artist; Melissa Capistrano – Hair and Makeup Artist, Special Makeup Effects Artist; Tony Aldrich – all moldmaking and prosthetic runs; Josie Rodriguez – Hair and Makeup Artist, eyelash application on “Diana” forehead prosthetic; David Ainsworth – Senior Prosthetic Makeup Artist; Kristin Ainsworth – Makeup Assistant; Julian Bonifiglio – additional moldmaker and lab technician

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A designer and maker since the little years, Rachel designs for film and commercial projects through her Oakland-based "The Gnome Studio," while regularly collaborating with special makeup effects group Pandora FX. Reach her on Twitter @thegnomestudio

View more articles by Rachel Dagdagan


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