Special Effects: New York Doctor Moonlights as Movie-Quality Makeup Artist

Challenging Halloween costumes like Thanos or Pennywise are no problem for doctor-artist Briana Calcagno-Davi

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The last weekend in October always is one of the busiest for Dr. Briana Calcagno-Davi. 

And that’s not only because the post-doctoral fellow in pediatric neuropsychology and adjunct professor at New York University is busy treating patients or teaching students. 

Rather, it’s appointments with Edward Scissorhands, Thanos and Gamora, a member of the band Kiss, Larry David and many others celebrated characters scheduled at her Staten Island home that keep Calcagno-Davi preoccupied this time of year. 

Halloween offers Calcagno-Davi the opportunity to show who she truly is: a doctor by day and special effects makeup artist by night. And she awards her subjects by giving them the chance to be someone they aren’t on Halloween night. 

“I find that people always ask how I’m able to do all the things I do,” said Calcagno-Davi, a 29-year-old who also does paintings, photography, calligraphy, sculpting, special effects makeup and set and prop design for films. “I have a full-time job at the hospital as a fellow, I teach undergraduates one night a week or two days a week depending on the course, and of course I’m constantly producing art in one capacity or another.  

“I like to tell people that we have a full 24 hours in the day and if you can take advantage of every single hour, you should.”

No time to spare

Calcagno-Davi wastes no time on Halloween weekend. 

The first of her makeup appointments – which are booked as early as July – starts at 5:15 p.m. on Friday, just 15 minutes after her work shift ends. 

By then, all supplies needed for the various characters she’ll soon bring to life will have already been laid out in the order of her clients’ scheduled arrivals, from foam latex and paints to bald caps and wigs.  

With makeup jobs ranging from a half hour to up to two hours based on complexity, Calcagno-Davi is booked until 9 p.m. on Friday. On Saturday, she'll be doing makeup from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m., with a half hour for lunch. On Sunday for Halloween, she’s starting at 7:30 a.m. with a schedule filled with families going Trick or Treating, including a family of six she’s turning into zombie football players and cheerleaders.

“Halloween weekend is probably one of my most exhausting weekends of the year,” Calcagno-Davi admits. 

Thankfully her experience as a doctor who bounces from meeting patients at NYU Langone Health to teaching undergraduate courses has trained her well for the role of in-demand makeup artist. 

“It’s a lot of being on your feet all day,” Calcagno-Davi said of Halloween weekend. “You’re not paying attention to your thirst or your hunger so you’re going hours without eating or taking a break. And it can be stressful, you want everybody to be happy.”

Meeting the clientele

Her previous clients include Frankenstein, Avatar, Pennywise the Clown, Cyclops, the Grinch and the Whos of Whoville.

“It’s not always about complexity, I really like unique projects,” she said. “I always like a challenge.”

And, of course, one of her makeup jobs each Halloween is her own. 

Among the characters Calcagno-Davi has transformed herself and her husband into include: Tiger King and a tiger, the Night King and a white walker (from Game of Thrones), Medusa and a man turned to stone, and Daenerys “Khaleesi” Targaryen and a dragon (also from GoT).

“I just want to specify my husband was Khaleesi and I was the dragon,” she said, “which I thought was absolutely hilarious and people totally got a kick out of. He’s such a good sport.”

Fake it until you make it

Calcagno-Davi’s artistic passion began at an early age, long before her interest in psychology – which started with an 11th grade AP psychology course.

“As a little kid I used to joke that I wanted to be a brain surgeon because I had really good art skills so I always felt like I would have really good visual spatial abilities and I decided to kind of combine that into becoming a neuropsychologist,” Calcagno-Davi said. 

As a psychology major at Trinity College in Hartford, she began taking art classes knowing it would provide an easy GPA boost. 

She was ultimately informed by the head of the art department that she was one course and a thesis away from getting her double major, which she opted to complete. 

While her thesis was on exhibit at a local gallery, she was approached by a film producer, who told her they were looking for a special effects makeup artist.

“I boldly lied and told them I was a special effects makeup artist,” Calcagno-Davi said with a laugh. “And I faked it until I made it.”

Just like the movies

She used the foundational skills acquired through years of producing various forms of artwork and applied it on movie sets in the sci-fi and horror genres, whether doing makeup, designing sets or creating props.

“Whatever a film needed as far as artwork, I took a lead role,” she said. 

In the film “Abnormal Attraction,” she designed the look and concept of over 30 monsters and during one stretch spent 28 straight hours doing makeup. In “Hound Dogs,” the makeup for one character required four hours. 

In the soon-to-be released “Terrifier 2,” she not only did makeup but also filled in for an actress who didn’t show and even has speaking lines. 

After a year of doing movie makeup and posting pictures on social media, she was asked if she did Halloween makeup. 

“And I boldly lied again and started doing Halloween makeup,” she said, learning to adjust to the change in pace and level of detail compared to movie makeup. 

A home for both art and science

Her Halloween clients haven’t been the same since. And she has no intention of changing that as her career in the medical field progresses. 

“I think the blessing of Halloween makeup is it’s only a few days of the year, and if I can’t give myself the satisfaction of doing something I absolutely love for at least two or three days a year, then I don’t know why I’m depriving myself of that,” she said. 

“So, I think no matter where I am in my career, no matter how much money I make, which God willing will be a buttload because there’s tons of student loans I still have to pay back, but no matter what, I still think I will always do special effects makeup, even if it’s just on Halloween once or twice a year.”

That, in part, is why Halloween allows Calcagno-Davi to be who she truly is and wants to be. Not through costume like others, but by following her two passions -- as wildly different as they may be. 

“I feel like if I gave up one of them, I’d be losing a piece of me,” she said. “Being in the field of neuropsychology, it’s very mentally exhilarating and it keeps me constantly problem solving and forces me to use my abilities in a very intellectual way. Whereas art is almost mindless to me. It comes from my heart. It’s something for me that is so natural. I don’t think I could live life with one without the other.”

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