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Contender – Makeup Artist Dave Elsey, Mr. Holmes

December 11, 2015 08:59 | By

Dave Elsey on the set of Mr. Holmes.

Dave Elsey on the set of Mr. Holmes.

To create a new screen version of the classic character of Sherlock Holmes, Oscar-winning makeup artist Dave Elsey (2010’s The Wolfman) was brought onto director Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes with a very special challenge: take actor Ian McKellen and age him to play a geriatric Holmes. “Ian’s in his 70s, but he’s very sprightly, very young,” said Elsey. “He’s meant to be 93. We wanted to push that. And we made him younger as well pushing it further back in order to really make the difference look extreme when you are cutting between.”

Even though Elsey had been talking about the project with the filmmakers a year before production commenced, when he got the call to officially join the crew, he only had a week to prepare for shooting. “They were in London, and I was in L.A,” said Elsey. “We didn’t have time to do a lifecast and achieve the look Bill wanted. I started designing in Photoshop in my own time for no money to get some kind of plan, so that when I landed in London, I would have some makeup ideas to try really quickly.”

LR-MR HOLMES Side x Side2Without a lifecast, any makeup artist is flying blind, especially when needing to sculpt and fashion prosthetic appliances to match the specific contours of an actor’s face. Nonetheless, Elsey had a plan. “I called Richard Taylor at Weta for a lifecast of Ian from Lord of the Rings,” Elsey explained. “He sent it to me a few months before we started filming. Even though I knew it was an old one, at least I had that as a starting point. The week before I flew to London, I quickly made some appliances and noses so that when I got to London, we could do a makeup test immediately and see what worked and what didn’t work. We didn’t want to hold back.”

Surely, when he arrived in London, Elsey’s level of excitement for the project overshadowed any lack of adequate preparatory time for the film. “I had wanted to do a Sherlock Holmes film my whole life,” he conveyed. “I even had a Sherlock Holmes comic book which I put out in Australia, with Rick Baker as Moriarty. I thought I’d never get the chance. Apart from the disguises, there’s no opportunity to do makeup [on a typical Holmes film]. I got to know Bill Condon. ‘You’ve got to let me do it!’ I didn’t want it to be a compromise. Bill was totally behind all of that.”

LR-Mr HolmesWith Condon’s dictum to Elsey, “Hone Ian McKellen’s looks, so if you saw a shadow on the wall, it will be Sherlock’s shadow,” the artist landed in London and immediately met McKellen for the first time. He then tried all of his pre-fashioned appliances on his star. “I also put lifts on his face to pull it into a younger-looking Ian,” Elsey described. “I’d seen him de-aged on the computer for one of the X-Men movies. It didn’t look convincing.”

After several tests, Elsey found the nose that was the perfect one for McKellen, but he had a problem in making him younger for the select scenes in which McKellen’s Holmes is decades into the past from the world of the film: the lifts weren’t delivering. But then, Elsey devised a solution. “A lot of the aging on Ian’s face is around his eyes – crow’s feet and those fantastic heavy-lidded eyes with eyebags,” the makeup artist said. “If we could do something about them, we’d be pretty much there. In Los Angeles, I made cheek appliances that smoothed out his cheekbones and eyebags. It was encouraging. I went back to my hotel room, and we resculpted the nose, cheekbones, and, in 24 hours, we turned around what you see in the film.”

LR-MH-GK--26-7-14-01803Since McKellen had just undergone eye surgery, he was wary of having any prosthetics glued too close to his eyes. As a result, Elsey’s cheek appliance carefully overlapped McKellen’s eyebag. “It worked really nice,” he said. “I was able to get another thing in there that I wanted to do – little homages to other Sherlock Holmes movies. Put a little more emphasis on the cheekbone to make it look a little more hollow, thin-faced. A little Peter Cushing homage.”

Apart from a nose and cheeks, Elsey shaved McKellen’s hairline back to give the actor a more receded hairline, “Although he already has a fantastic widow’s peak,” said Elsey. “For the younger age, he’s wearing a toupee on top of that and a salt-and-pepper look. We thinned out his hair for the older Holmes. When he’s old, we used his real hair. We bleached his hair white. I created the older look with old-age stipple and a highlight and shadow makeup, breaking up the skin, with a little sun damage on his face.”

Throughout the six weeks of shooting, Elsey estimates that he made up McKellen 35 to 40 times and the old makeup stage and in the younger stage five times. “There were days where they wanted him to be young in the morning and old in the afternoon or vice versa,” he said. “We had to transform him in about 45 minutes to take off nose and cheeks and wigs, put a new nose on him. When he’s getting younger, we put the wig on. It might have crept up to about an hour for an average day. I didn’t think that was even possible.”

LR-TH5B3165As Elsey didn’t have any official prep time, he noted that very few options were open to him, but he is happy with the end result. “I’m glad we did it that way. Anything else would have been heavy-handed,” he claimed. “Bill was really concerned: ‘I wanted to be able to put the camera right in his face. I don’t want to feel any restrictions.’ Bill Condon is so inclusive and into the makeup, he did some things that I‘ve never experienced. We shot some tests in a multitude of different light including super-close shots where Ian’s nose filled the screen. It all happened during the first week. We played it in a screening room in SoHo and went through it frame by frame. We could see if there was a problem with a light, or an edge [visible], or over-painting it. There’s a tendency to exaggerate a bit in film. If we went too far, the camera saw it.”

Even with the more naturalistic makeups in the film, as on co-star Laura Linney, such tried techniques as putting powder on the actress’s face to get rid of any sheen to her skin would be detected by Condon’s close camera set-ups. “We didn’t have time to solve half of these problems,” said Elsey. “Mac has a good matching agent instead of powder, which, especially on Mr. Holmes, was invisible to the camera. Makeup and prosthetics all had the same sheen. That was the thing that saved us.”

In the end, Elsey saw his collaboration with McKellen as a key to the success of the makeup. “He was very keen on it to work,” said Elsey. “He said that the makeup was the foundation for his performance. We worked the makeup like a dance. We had it down like a system. He was part of the makeup.”

When Elsey finally saw the movie, he said that he was literally gripping onto his seat. “It was a terrifying roller coaster to watch it for the first time,” he detailed. “It all came together. I used to do subtle character makeups all the time and got into doing monsters and aliens. For the last 20 years, that’s all I’ve done. It was very nice to go back and do something subtle on such an iconic actor. It was a beautiful experience.”