There are a lot of heads around the workshop at Composite Effects — rotting ones, scaly ones, scary clown ones … even ones that look frighteningly normal.
And then there are the heads of two friends with an interest in horror movies — Ken Decker and Wes Branton —who have quietly grown the company in a nondescript office/warehouse on Pecue Lane into an 18-employee mask and prop manufacturer serving haunted houses and private collectors on every continent but Antarctica.
Another of the heads belongs to Sam Riché, who has worked as a rotocaster but also developed the software that tracks the orders as they move through the process. Others belong to Dianna Mallar, a sculptor and the company’s social media administrator, and Marissa Smith, who stitches life-like hair onto the masks after they’ve been formed and painted.
Co-founder Branton is an LSU arts graduate who runs Composite Effects’ painting department. Decker, his partner, used skills picked up doing metal fabrication and construction work to get the company off the ground and now serves as its self-described “mad scientist.”
“We’re problem solvers by nature,” Decker said of Composite Effects and its evolution from a two-man operation in 2005.
The company now occupies four bays in an office/warehouse complex and includes a full wood and metal shop. While its business is primarily masks, Decker points out it includes a metal fabricator, an information technology guy, painters with several masters degrees in 3-D design, and masters in wig and costume-making.
“We have a massive amount of talent,” he said.
Speaking earlier this month, Decker said the company had between 150 and 200 masks in the queue, most of them going to private collectors eager to spend roughly $500 and up for a silicone mask that fits the face snugly, feels cool against the skin and allows the wearer to communicate facial expressions through the material.
These attributes are precisely the ones that appeal to haunted houses and the actors they employ, an early and ongoing customer base for Composite Effects.
Decker traces the company back to when he and Branton were LSU students, when he was keen to go into the movie industry, “either doing pyrotechnics or monster makeup or makeup effects.”
After getting involved with The 13th Gate haunted house, Decker took on the task one day of recreating the Pinhead character from the “Hellraiser” films. The first attempt was with makeup and had one major drawback: it took 1? hours to get into every night. So Decker decided to make a silicone mask, his first.
After a quick trip California, Decker realized the day-to-day realities of working behind the scenes in the movie business weren’t really for him.
“I didn’t have it in me to be a roadie,” he said.
He returned home and hooked up with his old friend.
“I told Wes, ‘Look let’s try to start a business,’” Decker said.
Branton said his background and skill sets are different, but complementary to Decker’s. Branton said his interest in horror and science fiction was probably stronger than Decker’s. Branton’s studies at LSU included illustration, sculpture and the work he was doing at the time was graphic and Web design.
The two started Composite Effects as a mask and prop shop with their eye on the film work that was coming to Louisiana. While the company has made props and done makeup work for a number feature films — “Jumper,” “Red,” “Wolverine,” “The Librarian,” “Final Destination 4,” the “Harold & Kumar” series — they were surprised to find haunted houses were their main customers.
“It turns out the haunt industry loved the product so much it ended up spawning the entire company in and of itself,” Decker said.
Still, like a lot of startup companies, Composite Effects’ early days were difficult. Decker and Branton worked 18 hour days for most of the first eight months, and twice in the first year and a half came within a paycheck of shutting down.
Those were the days of “literally living off of ramen noodles, water and tuna fish,” Decker said.
After a couple of years, however, monthly income began regularly exceeding expenses, and last year the company doubled its staff to 18.
These days, Composite Effects’ website offers accessories, including intestines, ears and fangs, 17 different gloves and 48 masks, including Rictus The Demon, Pumpkin Jack, Orlock The Undead, The Living Tree, Whipstich The Clown and Flayed Frank.
In addition to its regular cast of characters, Composite Effects will custom-make masks.
“We can pretty much make any mask that they want to make,” he said. “It really is an opportunity for the consumer to create something one of a kind.”
The cost of masks are proportional to their complexity, however, and can easily reach into the thousands of dollars.
“That’s one question we get asked all the time,” Decker said. “Can you make a Predator mask? The question is: ‘Can you pay for a Predator mask?’”
A typical mask takes three days to complete. Earlier this month, Composite Effects had a wait time of about six weeks.
Several of the steps are guarded trade secrets but, generally speaking, the orders come in and the order-taker defines the details of the mask and puts them into the computer system, which was designed in-house. The material and proper pigments are put into a casting chamber and injected into a mold. When the mask is removed, it is patched and any air bubbles or casting voids are filled. A trimmer removes any excess material and a “seamer” removes any lines from the molding process.
It then heads to Branton’s painting department through two or three painters, and then to the “hairing” department, if necessary, before shipping.
Each mask typically changes hands between six and eight times, Decker said.
Decker would not disclose any annual sales figures, but one way the business has evolved is the haunted house business has leveled off as the company has matured and the private collectors are stepping up.
“It kind of surprised us that the individual collectors would step in and give the haunt industry a run for its money,” he said, noting the company has filled orders from collectors around the world.
Decker said individual buyers have even started coming to trade shows to get a sneak peek at the new masks, which are primarily rolled out in March.
“The word is only just getting out for them,” he said of the general public. “We’re just starting to see where that’s going.”
Composite Effects has made (and sold, it should be noted) a set of pneumatic wings, a mask resembling a buyer’s dog and a mask for a Christian-themed haunted house that came back twice for being too scary.
Decker and Branton have seen Composite Effects’ masks on television shows, including NCIS, and that they’ve been bought by private investigators and even been used to rob banks.
On this last point, however, Decker delivered a warning: “If you’re going to buy one of our masks and use it to rob a bank, we’re going to help the police find you and we’re going to take the reward money and throw a party,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
Another potential market on the horizon for Composite Effects is decidedly unscary. The company recently acquired a 3D printer, which can create three-dimensional objects — including gears and other moving parts — out of photocatalyzed plastic accurate to within one-one thousandth of an inch.
It can be used to make props, but also prototypes for items a company might want to see and feel and use before having them manufactured out of another material. This could be something as simple as a coffee cup lid, but Decker said he’s already made an artificial knee for a surgeon. He said the applications could cut across a number of industries, from health care to engineering to oil and gas. It prints in layers half the thickness of a human hair.
“We really do have limitless possibilities with this,” he said. “It’s really, really neat.”
In the meantime, the company will focus on its traditional ghoulish business, best summed up jokingly one recent Monday afternoon by caster Ryan Quick.
“We need an extra clown nose and three sets of maggots!”