burning questions

How, Exactly, Do You Do a Cat’s Makeup?

Church the cat, zombie Church.
Before and after Church. Photo: Paramount

I will absolutely not be seeing Pet Sematary (2019), the remake of Pet Sematary (1989), based on the 1983 Stephen King novel Pet Sematary, a decision I made after reading the Wikipedia pages for all three versions and deciding that it’s way too scary for me. I did, however, spend upward of 15 minutes staring at its gorgeous cat star after a picture of him at the premiere showed up on my Twitter feed. Please, gaze upon his beauty and tiny cat tie for yourself:

In the film, Church the Maine Coon is run over by a truck, then interred in a spooky ancient burial ground that brings him back to life — though not exactly as he was before. Zombie Church is aggressive, and his once-lustrous coat is filthy and matted. Seeing the before-and-after looks helped me realize one very important thing: Cat Makeup Artist is an actual job. From there, I needed to know more, mostly: how, exactly, do you even do a cat’s makeup?

I spoke to groomer Tanya Graham and trainers Melissa Millett and Kirk Jarrett about the cat makeover process, the various cat stars’ personalities, and whether the cats were behaved on set.

Obviously there’s a big difference between what Church the cat looks like on a regular day and what he looks like with all that makeup on. What was the process like for transforming him?
Tanya: It took almost two months of training to get them fully comfortable with the makeup. We used a protocol with desensitization to really get them used to that. We started out with just doing a cat in a dry tub having catnip parties. That was a lot of fun. Then we did the cats enjoying the dry tub with lots of treats, so they got some pâté and kitty treats. Then we started doing a little bit of water each time, slowly increasing the amount of water each time just to make sure they were comfortable with that process.

Melissa: We did it so progressively that the cats were comfortable with the bathing and comfortable with the makeup. We knew that if we didn’t acclimate the cats to the makeup, they’re licking it off.

What ingredients went into the actual makeup that went on them? Tanya: It was easily digestible for all of the kitties bellies and all of the stuff like that.

Kirk: American Humane gave us permission to use all those. But that look is a trade secret. That to us is how we do our business. We’re professionals. To give you the exact ingredients, that’s insider information.

[The representative for American Humane who certified Pet Sematary told me that egg whites and Cherry Knoll chalk block was used to make their fur look matted, then leaves, pieces of dried grass, and light dirt were stuck on. To create a fake blood effect they used corn syrup mixed with organic food coloring. He added that “the cats did not appear stressed, rather they ate food and treats, drank water, and even used the litter box” while getting their makeup applied.]

About how long did it take to put the makeup on every day?
Tanya: Per cat, probably about ten minutes. But they all got their own trailers, so they really got to be spoiled in that sense. They had their own bathing area and their own trailers to go to.

Kirk: Tanya had such a gentle touch with all the cats. And her job was to be that happy personality that was doing the grooming process, helping with the bathing process, building the confidence of the kitties. Oh hey, I’m here with Tanya, we get to have a catnip party here in the grooming trailer!

How did you actually get the makeup on?
Tanya: We would get the kitties all excited. There was a fine line — you wanted to make sure the kitties were happy during makeup but still hungry enough that they wanted to work during scenes. We had to control the amount of treats we were offering.

Melissa: We had to ration their treats. We’d break those Temptations into the tiniest pieces possible so that we still had hungry cats. That was a real challenge.

How many different cats were there?
Melissa: We had five cats that we had adopted to train. One of the cats was very timid so we kept the cat but utilized the training to build the cat’s confidence so that that cat could find a forever home. The bulk of the work fell on Leo and Tonic.

Can you tell me about Leo and Tonic’s personalities?
Melissa: Tonic was 10 months when we started training him and 12 months when we started filming the movie. So he was, as most cats are when they’re kittens, an action cat. He had a very innocent face. The innocence of his young face was perfect. Leo was an older guy, a quiet, calm cat that would stare. He had those eyes, those eyes are incredible for the role.

Kirk: Leo likes to come out and sit and look. He does a little high-five that he likes to do. He catches treats like a dog. He is that confident cat.

And Tonic was the one at the premiere.
Melissa: I knew I wanted that cat the moment I laid eyes on him. I do a live cat show. He toured with me across Canada and he came to really enjoy meet and greets with the crowd. My other cat, she’s a little snobbier. Tonic actually darts for the crowd instead of doing his tricks some times. He enjoyed the meet and greet thoroughly. He’s enjoying his celebrity.

Were any of the cats divas on set?
Kirk: They’re divas. They demand presents. Happy cat, happy client.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How, Exactly, Do You Do a Cat’s Makeup?