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Creating Extraordinary Screen Characters

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Adrien Morot applying Paul Giamatti's makeup for Barney's Version

Though surprisingly often unheralded by people who work in the industry, to say nothing of an uninformed general public, makeup artistry in a film is often one of the most important factors in delivering believable on-screen characters.  Though opening credits routinely list, say, the costume designer and not the makeup designer, a film’s chief makeup artist might be the most crucial on-set person when it comes to making an actor or actress appear as realistic as possible in his or her role.  On Feb. 26 at the 83th Academy Awards’ Makeup Artists and Hairstylists Symposium, a full house of fellow artists and fans witnessed the processes behind making three wildly divergent types of films, and their characters, come to life.  The afternoon event was elegantly moderated by Leonard Engelman, a longtime makeup artist and makeup branch Academy Governor, giving each of the three films and their six respective nominees equal time to show and explain how the makeup and hairstyling worked in each project.

The first film that was presented, Barney’s Version, illustrated the nuances and detailed craftsmanship involved in creating realistic character makeups, especially when they change over the lengthy time period of a biographical piece.  Based on the novel by Montreal-based writer Mordecai Richler, the story follows Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) through 35 years of his turbulent and multi-faceted life.  Given the span of time that the film covers, Adrien Morot and his team took the principal actors through several defining age stages, using a combination of prosthetics and hair work.  In addition to aging Giamatti from age 30 onward to 65, Morot’s group was tasked with subtly taking female lead Rosamund Pike through similar, but noticeably more graceful age stages.  Though the makeups on the actors mandated careful application of prosthetic appliances, wigs and various forms of facial hair for the males, the producers insisted that Morot, a veteran makeup effects artist, complete all makeups in two hours, fifteen minutes, regardless of the extra work that a certain makeup would require.  Given the time constraints, Morot’s achievements are even more remarkable, as Giamatti, Pike and the main supporting players all appear convincingly on screen at all times.  During his discussion, Morot humbly related that he had long been a fan of movies and makeups since his youth in Montreal, but that he never imagined getting accolades for his work, much less an Oscar nomination.

Edouard F. Henriques, Gregory Funk and Yolanda Toussieng are nominated for The Way Back

Second up in the presentation was The Way Back, with makeups supervised by key makeup department head Edouard F. Henriques with supporting special makeup by Gregory Funk and hairstyles supervised by Yolanda Toussieng.  Unfairly overlooked by audiences, the film’s remarkable story concerns a group of diverse prisoners who determine to escape from a Russian gulag in Siberia, planning to walk to freedom into India.  Their arduous trek seems unthinkable as they must first walk out of the tundra of Siberia, then through the Gobi Desert of Asia, and lastly over the Himalayas, planning to arrive in India.  Featuring actors Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell and Ed Harris, seven people start out on the journey, based on a disputed novel by Polish writer Slavomir Rawicz who claimed that he underwent such an ordeal in 1940, and was in fact in imprisoned in Siberia at that time for his political leanings.

Discussing the shoot in difficult locations in Bulgaria and later the Sahara Desert in Morocco (for the film’s desert scenes), and then into India, Henriques, a 35-year industry veteran noted that the film required all manners of makeup, from custom bald caps, to shaving actors’ heads and faces, to detailed scarring work, to the extremes of temperature damage to the actors’ faces and bodies, all of which had to be included on a low budget.  Funk, who has 20 years in the business, elaborated on the careful application of the makeups, which included eye socket appliances, to make the characters appear to be starving on their journey, to covering ear lobes with prosthetic pieces for actors who had piercings.  With over 25 years in the business, and with two Oscar wins already to her credit, Tousseing further noted the detailed use of wigs and hair pieces to give the actors not only the required look for their long walk through various conditions, but also to maintain the 1940s setting of the story with appropriate period hairstyles for the men plus one female character who, for some time, partakes in the travels of the group.  Henriques further described the methodical research that he and the team underwent so as to maintain accuracy in the overall looks that they presented throughout the film.

Rick Baker and Dave Elsey prepping Benicio Del Toro for Wolfman.

The final film presented by Engelman was Universal’s remake of The Wolfman, with special makeup designed by Rick Baker and creative makeup effects by Dave Elsey.  Speaking about his design for the title character, Baker, who won his first of six makeup Oscars with his work on An American Werewolf in London thirty years ago, cited the many werewolves which have come to screen beforehand as inspiration for this 2010 version.  He graciously included Jack Pierce’s title characters in Werewolf of London (1935) and The Wolf Man (1941), among the first and still iconic wolf-human hybrids in movies.  Noting Pierce’s use of pointy upstanding ears for the monster in the former film, Baker stated that he wanted that in this new film, an aspect that was missing in Pierce’s 1941 makeup, which was replicated in four succeeding Universal films in the 1940s.  But Baker cited other films and artists, such as Clay Campbell’s work in The Werewolf in 1956 and Roy Ashton’s designs in Curse of the Werewolf in 1961, saying that this new design was more of an homage to all of the werewolves that have come before in films as opposed to a reinvention.

Working ten months before filming was to start but without a script, Baker designed a werewolf makeup on himself, much of which was retained, after many changes, in the final film on actor Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot.  Other designs were created for Anthony Hopkins as his father, Sir John Talbot, who also transforms into a werewolf for a climatic battle of monsters.  Baker flew to London where Elsey had moved from Australia to set up a full makeup effects studio to handle the prosthetic and hair work for the characters.  Other work handled by Elsey and his team included “blood and guts” gore effects required by the script.

In a final description, though American Werewolf had largely been a triumph not only of design but also of 100% makeup effects work for the memorable transformation scenes, Baker noted with some regret that all of the shape-shifting scenes in this Wolfman were completely executed with computer-generated imagery.  Many of the artists at the presentation agreed that as prevalent as computer graphics have become in films, their craft is still vital to filmmakers, and that a hybrid of makeup, prosthetics and computer-imagery is likely going to be the norm in the near future.

Perhaps with such events as this superb symposium, makeup artists and hairstylists will be given their long overdue respect and be placed alongside other crafts vital to rendering the characters in a film as recognizably and fully realistic to viewing audiences.

Special thanks to Leonard Engelman for his longtime friendship and access!

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