By: Jaimz Dillman
The story of Jonah and the whale is a lesson in love, grace, and compassion. The story of Jonah Levy and Blue Whale Studios is one of success, while expounding those virtues throughout his work - which has been rewarded with his first Emmy nomination for the makeup on WandaVision. "I really believe and emulate who I am at home is who I am at work. We are better as a whole than the individual," he said.
Levy's interest in theater started when he was quite young, getting into acting at just five years old. While he knew his heart wasn't in being on stage, his attention was drawn to the magic behind the scenes, with disguise and old age makeup. Growing up in Pennsylvania, his father helped set him up with a space at home and was often the model for Jonah to try out different techniques.
Not necessarily a horror fan, Levy leaned more toward classic monsters growing up. "I grew up on Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, but I wasn't inspired by it. I love classic horror, The Blob, Dracula, Frankenstein. I love Legend, The Howling, An American Werewolf in London. Phantom of the Opera was amazing! I used to make myself and my Dad up like those classic monsters," said Levy.
After the family moved to Florida, Levy said his high school experience at Dr, Phillips gave him the chance to learn about prosthetics. "Karen Rugerio gave me that freedom. It was the first time I was doing it for someone other than me," he said. A fortuitous trip to London during that senior year led Levy to a book on special effects makeup. He said, "I wrote every company in the book for an internship. Every one said no except one. I had a full scholarship offer at UCF, and when given the choice to continue my education at college or move to LA , I knew what the obvious decision was."
And that was studying under the guidance of Optic Nerve Studios. "They never really had an intern before, and it was a lot of sweeping up, and stuff, but it got me on to sets like Babylon 5, PowerRangers... I was 18 driving, three-plus hours each way, back and forth to work, but it was just thrilling being on the set, learning through osmosis - and a lot of those people became friends and colleagues," he said. Moving back to Orlando got Levy into the makeup room at Universal Studios theme park, just as it was really getting started. "Jim Udenburg gave us the ability to work in different ways, to figure out what would work best in the park, and the instant gratification of seeing your work rather than waiting for a film to come out. The benefit of being in the studios gave me a chance, very quickly, to learn how to be an artist in a corporate world. I was able to go from an artist to a lead role," he said. Having the insight to know that he wouldn't be at Universal forever, Levy founded Blue Whale Studios in '98, leaving the park as an employee, and becoming an outside vendor in 2010. Getting in on projects filming in Atlanta like Zombieland, Teen Wolf, and The Walking Dead proved that Orlando was no longer the place to be for the growing business. "I left Orlando in 2016 after going back and forth so much to Atlanta that it just made sense to be there permanently, which allowed us to be on the ground floor," he said.
What followed was work on huge blockbusters Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: End Game leading up to a movie I recently reviewed, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. Talking about the effects makeup on "The Linebacker" character played by Jay Peterson - another interview I recently wrote about - I asked about getting up close and personal with the actors. "You get real, comfortable real quick. You understand it's a canvas. You approach it carefully, mindfully, and with respect," said Levy. And then the call came that would lead Levy to his first Emmy nomination: WandaVision. "I thought I'd be assisting, because I did the makeup with another artist for Paul Bettany's stunt double on Infinity War, but they said 'no, we want you to head up his makeup.' So my wife and I moved the family to an apartment close to the studio. I worked with the design team to create a seamless transition for Vision, between the right color and sheen of the makeup, to what they were creating with digital effects. It was tough, but it was an amazing experience," he said. The season's filming was interrupted by the pandemic. Levy said, "We were lucky. I secured the government assistance loans to pay the employees. Then we started to slowly come back when production picked back up again. This industry is built on relationships. We've gone through lots of ups and downs and turbulent times. The thing it's taught me is to hold myself accountable to something higher than myself, and stay focused on positive momentum and growth."
Moving forward to a just-inked deal on a new streaming television series, Levy says it's the long game he's in for. "A slow and steady grind. That's what I want. Instant gratification isn't sustainable. If I'm being honest, it's about growth, taking on inspiring projects and expanding our horizons as well as educating others," Levy said. Lecturing is another highlight for Levy, who wants to work on, "Critical thinking in art, for the future. Not necessarily a full-time school, but teaching through lectures or workshops. I really enjoy that." With his ever-expanding schedule, there is a slim chance Levy will even get to attend the awards ceremony mid-September. There are theme park events to open, projects to finish up, and loads more coming in everyday. Levy says he found his awards from Universal the other day, The Woody's. "I think I have a spot in between them for an Emmy, if we are lucky enough to be honored for our work," he said. I have a feeling he may need to add new shelving in the future.