In 1976, aspiring makeup artist Greg Cannom made contact with Rick Baker and began working alongside the legendary special makeup effects artist throughout the late ’70s and ’80s. By 1992, Cannom was winning awards of his own for his work on films such as Hook, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Mrs. Doubtfire. During the 1990s, Cannom Creations was one of the busiest makeup shops in Hollywood, working on every type of makeup project from monsters to aliens to oddball human characters. By the late 1990s, Cannom’s company was reformed as Captive Audience and now it has a new name, Drac Studios, co-organized by Todd Tucker and Harvey Lowry. It recently completed one of its biggest projects to date, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The script called for Cannom and his team to age star Brad Pitt in reverse, creating age makeups and sculpted heads onto which digital makeups could be created.
In this exclusive interview, Cannom discusses his collaboration with director David Fincher on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Below the Line: Describe your first work for David Fincher on Alien 3.
Greg Cannom: On Alien 3, I did a punched baldcap that hadn’t been done before. Sigourney Weaver grew back her thick hair and didn’t want to cut it. She had heard that I did it on Dustin Hoffman on Hook—a foam bald head with punched hair. It took ten 12-hour days for one punched head. It was the hardest makeup I’ve ever done. It took three and a half hours to apply, most of it was getting her hair down with gafquat [a matting material used to dampen down hair].
BTL: When did you start working on Benjamin Button?
Cannom: I started talking to them about it two and a half years ago at least and I was on it for 18 months. Shooting on set was about eight to nine months. We did two weeks of tests and had time to sculpt everything, then two weeks of tests in August 2006. We started shooting in October 2006 in New Orleans.
BTL: How did you devise the different stages of age makeup used?
Cannom: It was always going to be the oldest stage as a digital effect by scanning some heads. If it didn’t work, they were going to apply some makeups on Brad and scan his face down. I designed the 76-year-old and 68-year-old—the first old man age—with Miles Teves in a sculpture. Then I started designing the 62-age makeup down, then 58 then 53 with subtler appliances. As it got down into the 40s, it was stipple and some transfer crow’s feet and a silicone waddle. Then going down to 45. The stages below that were stipple. The 62-year-old makeup on Brad was first created the first day we shot it on the tugboat. Captive Audience dissolved and then Kazuhiro Tsuji did the computer heads as I went off to do the makeups. Kazu took the pictures and finished off the digital heads which they scanned for the young stuff. In the shop, we made all the plaster heads that they used for scanning.
BTL: With Cate Blanchett’s character aging and Pitt’s character getting younger, how did you keep track of which actor was at which age?
Cannom: Cate I did at age 44 up to 85. Since she aged up and he aged down, we never had to do them both at the same time. Then, I did scenes where he was 60 in-between them, which was difficult trying to keep track of both of them. There are dates were we had to figure out exactly how old they were supposed to be. Some of it didn’t make sense, so we would just guess.
BTL: How did the makeups blend with the digital work?
Cannom: What I like about the film, especially the digital effects where they make Brad look so young, is that the digital effects blend so smoothly with my makeups. It was hard to tell where they go from the digital to Brad. People think that it’s all digitally touched up, which it isn’t. You can’t tell what’s what. We also sat there with that digital footage and we wondered how it would work. But when we saw it, we realized there are shots where you really can’t tell.
BTL: The opening shot of the film is an extreme closeup on Cate Blanchett in the full oldest age makeup. Was that the first or the last thing you worked on?
Cannom: I figured she was between 83 and 85 in that opening shot. It was shot at the very end of the schedule. She worked for two full weeks in the 85-stage makeup. The first day of shooting that part of the film, we shot that opening shot. The director looked at it and went, “you better make sure it’s done the same every day.” We worked for three to four hours every day on it. Plus he wanted fluorescent lights in that shot, which is the worst lighting you can do on that. To age a female is just impossible in film, plus on Kate with those cheekbones—but it worked really well. There were 14 appliances, almost all of it silicone and there are a few that are transfers.
BTL: Can you explain the process of using transfers?
Cannom: I came up with the idea with Christien Tinsley on Master and Commander. I hate doing scars, and Russell Crowe wanted me to do them all over his body. I used Tinsley’s transfers and used collodion in it to transfer it into the skin. There has to be a way of doing a three-dimensional transfer onto the base. For The Passion of the Christ, Christien came up with it. The scars were three-dimensional scars that you transfer with water. They were so amazing. That changed the whole way of doing scars and wounds. Because of that, in the shop Brian Sipe came up with the idea of using a large transfer on the forehead. Brad wanted 45-degree lines in his forehead. I hate doing silicone appliances in the forehead. We came up with a way of doing a large transfer, it’s so thin, you don’t add any weight to the forehead, and you can meld it into the eyebrows. We also found out it worked fantastic for the top lip. You can get unnatural wrinkles around the nasal area, but by using the top lip transfer, we never got any wrinkles. For the eyes we used crow’s feet transfers and I blended the stipple right in. With the silicon neck waddle, I can age people 15 to 20 years now with little transfer pieces. Tinsley had done that with Vin Diesel using transfer pieces on the actor in Find Me Guilty. I showed him how I do stipple. It was really fun for him. That’s the first time I know that those were used for age makeup.
BTL: Were the different age makeups fabricated in silicone?
Cannom: Except for the transfers, the makeups were all silicone. I would never do a makeup without a transfer upper lip, crow’s feet, and forehead. You get a lot more continuity with age makeup. I’m trying to do the ultimate makeup film, and this was almost it. Every film you find some better way of doing it. I was very happy with the age makeups.
BTL: How did you find working with Fincher?
Cannom: I think he’s absolutely brilliant. I knew this film was going to be really really tough to work on because he knows what he wants and he doesn’t mince words. If it’s bad, he’ll tell you its bad. He really understood the limits of makeup and practicalities. On this film, I went back-and-forth with him and Brad, who wanted this super-thin makeup without prosthetics which you can’t do. I knew I had to do the best job I could on this film. Fincher was really happy with the makeup. He’s a genius; he knows makeup, he knows digital, and he knows how to do it. I don’t know anyone else who could have done this movie as technically and beautifully well. I had to do this movie. It was the big film of my life with age makeup.
* Also working on Button was Brian Sipe, who was Cannom’s main assistant on Pitt, and Will Huff, the main assistant for Hanson and Blanchett. Colleen Callaghan was head of the hair department.