Dina Cimarusti is an artist and pastry chef who found her calling through blood and guts. Winner of the Syfy Channel’s 2014 Face Off special effects competition, the native Chicagoan and IATSE Local 476 member now works her magic as a special effects technician with CirqueFX Studio, where her creations frequently appear on NBC’s top-rated Wednesday-night series, Chicago Med.
Although her imagination lights up millions of living rooms almost every week, one of her most popular presentations came by way of a behind-the-scenes effort: to celebrate the 100th episode of Chicago Med, Cimarusti created a torso of a human corpse that was displayed and eaten during an event celebrating the occasion.
Within hours of its appearance, images of the sweet, moist, and hyper-realistic dead man dessert became an instant viral and broadcast sensation.
Here, in a Reel Chicago exclusive, she takes us into the kitchen to explain how it got done.
ALSO READ: Celebrating the six degrees of ‘Chicago Med’
FACE OFF SEASON 7, FEATURING DINA CIMARUSTI
How did you learn to bake cakes that look like dead bodies? I graduated from Harper College’s Pastry School and started handling desserts, because I love art and pastry equally. I started my career decorating cookies at a place called Cookies By Design, then got into cake decorating at Girash Bakery in Arlington Heights, and moved into specialty and 3-D cake-decorating at Alliance Bakery in Wicker Park. I spent nine years there. My favorite part of the job was creating the display cakes in the window for Halloween.
How did you get into the film industry? I guess I got bored of cake decorating and needed a new hobby or something, so I started taking special effects classes with Anthony Kosar at KosArt. I took a mask-making course and thought, ‘oh, this is super fun.’ In 2014, he convinced me to go on this show on Sci-Fi Network called Face Off. I think I was in a weird place in my life and needed a change, so I just went for it, which is very unlike me. On the show, it was like anything goes. We made crazy monsters head to toe. I think they liked the fact that I was a cake decorator, and I won. After that, I was like, ‘well, I must be kind of good at this; I should do it for a living.’ There happened to be a special effects shop called CirqueFX looking for someone in Chicago. They had just gotten signed by Chicago Med. On my first day there, I worked a 20-hour shift. The women who owned the shop were members of Chicago 476, and I joined the union a couple years later. I have been on the show since the beginning, five seasons, and try to watch every episode. I like to see how it all looks.
When did you come up with the corpse cake idea? It’s weird. I have actually wanted to do a body cake for Chicago Med since the beginning. I made a cake for our former director/executive producer Michael Waxman on his last day before retiring last year. I did a bust of him. Someone must have heard about that and they asked me to do a body cake for the 100th episode of Chicago Med.
How did you make the corpse cake? So, we make a lot of bodies on the show. That’s kind of our thing. Almost every episode we’re making body doubles of our actors. They’re filled with blood and organs. I took one of those half-bodies home and used it as a reference. I used it to get the proportions and the anatomy correct. I started with a foam head. I carved foam into the shape of a head. Then I used a mixture called modeling chocolate. It’s like tootsie roll made out of corn syrup and chocolate that feels like clay. I combined that with roll-able icing dough called fondant. For the body, the next step was making the arms, which were shaped out of rice crispy treats. I sculpted modeling chocolate over the arms to get the shape I needed, and then I covered that with the icing. The torso was all cake. It was five layers of red velvet filled with Italian merengue butter cream. I carved that into the shape of the torso. Iced it with butter cream and covered it with fondant. It cuts off at the waist, and we used foam legs under the sheet. I airbrush and paint my cakes using the same techniques I used for painting silicone bodies or masks, airbrushing and spattering using thinned-down food coloring. Also, the eyebrows are made from corn silk.
Who’s face is that on the cake? I found a few faces of older men online and used those. It’s kind of a hybrid.
How did the guests like the cake? It seems like it went over well. I was a little worried that people would be grossed out or maybe a little offended, but it seems like everyone had a blast and kind of enjoyed it. I think Nick Gehlfuss, who plays Doctor Will Halstead on the show, was doing compressions on it and completely smashed the cake.
Where did your preference for scary masks come from? My weird brain. I like doing animal alien hybrids. I always try to create creepy animals that people have never seen before. I did this lobster alien once that I really liked. That was a latex bust filled with foam.
Which FX artists or films do you admire? Rick Baker is a huge inspiration. He’s done everything. Planet of the Apes. Vee Niel, who did Mrs. Doubtfire, which is one of my favorite films.
What’s a typical day like on the set of Chicago Med? It’s usually two to three days on set and the rest of the days are in the shop, but it’s always kind of different. We take the bodies from the shop to the show. We do a lot of heart surgeries, and there’s a doctor on the set who consults with us. He makes sure that the procedures are performed correctly, that they’re stitching and clamping in a way that is medically accurate. We consult with them any time we have a special effect to do. Sometimes we’re plopping the body on the table and filling it with blood. Sometimes the actors have to cut into our bodies, and we have to know exactly where they’re going to cut and make sure that everything is in the right spot so it looks right. We know that doctors watch the show and we don’t want to upset anyone. Every episode there’s like intestines falling out. I’m honestly shocked at how much blood and guts they show on Chicago Med.
What’s the greatest thing about being a member of Chicago Local 476? They treat us well. I’ve never felt so appreciated like this before. It’s like a family. Everyone sort of looks out for each other and takes care of each other. We all have each other’s backs, which I really like.
CHICAGO MED ’PAIN IS FOR THE LIVING’ SNEAK PEEK