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Creating Magic at Illusion Industries

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Todd Tucker, Illusion Industries' president and creative director.
Benjamin Button in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Big Momma in Big Momma’s House 2 (2006), Stanley Ipkiss from The Mask (1994), Euphegenia Doubtfire in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), and Count Dracula from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) are showcases of just a few of the diverse and memorable characters Illusion Industries has helped create. The studio’s innovative work includes a long history of creating striking characters and creatures for over 100 credited films, television shows, videos and commercials. The special effects makeup studio has been around for a couple of decades but has recently undergone a reincarnation. Formerly known as Drac Studios, the newly christened Illusion Industries Inc. is now headed by Todd Tucker, president and creative director, Tucker’s uncle and CEO Ronald Halvas, and Seth William Meier serving as executive vice president and line producer. The studio has also set up shop in a new 11,600-square-foot Burbank location. Their expansion also includes auxiliary shops in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Moscow, truly extending their influence in Hollywood and abroad.

From conception to sketches to models and finally production, Illusion Industries creates unforgettable characters for film and television. Despite all the new changes in the company, it is the same design team of the last 15 years that still works to create the magic. Fantasy and old age makeup, animatronics and puppets, prosthetics and specialty costumes, Illusion’s services range from the subtle to over the top. The rebranding expresses everything the company represents – part horror and part fantasy. Tucker calls it “Willy Wonka meets Gotham City.”

Tucker and his crew received their first Oscar win for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Tucker has had a long and enduring relationship with special effects makeup. After moving to Los Angeles in 1990, he began working for the special effects makeup studio Cannom Creations, where his work on the film Hook helped garner an Oscar nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for achievement in makeup. In 1992, Tucker, along with the rest of the crew from Cannom Creations, received their first Oscar win for achievement in makeup for the film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Remarkably, they received the award again the following year for Mrs. Doubtfire. Tucker’s makeup effects on feature films would be recognized six more times by the Academy.

“Creating looks that haven’t been seen before” is something Illusion works towards. Quality work is also paramount to the studio. “We have ‘A-level’ people for every budget,” Tucker says. The studio does not have assigned teams that work on lower budget films. The same talented crew works on each film, striving to stay within the budget by cutting corners in creative ways that do not hinder the final results.

Besides having an award-winning team, Illusion also offers the latest techniques in prosthetics, animatronics, puppets, and specialty costumes. It’s a precise art that has to constantly evolve to stay current with the latest technology. For instance, with the advent of HD cameras, a new award-winning silicon makeup was developed that looks, feels and moves like real skin, which cannot be accomplished with foam, which is what has traditionally been used to create makeup looks. Both Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are wearing silicon makeup throughout their aging process in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the results are extraordinary. There are no edges, no signs of makeup on screen. Several overlapping pieces of silicon connect and dissolve entirely to sell the fantasy that unfolds before the viewer.

Monster Mutt is sold exclusively through Arc Entertainment to Wal-Mart.
Illusion Industries were also pioneers when CG became popular in the ’90s. They discovered through experimentation that the best results are a combination of CG and practical work. Realism is best achieved through practical methods enhanced by CG. The Mask is a great illustration of Illusion’s masterful work made even more cinematic with CG.

The creation of so many characters are an intricate collaboration between the studio and the filmmakers. The script is combed over and various looks are created, usually as two dimensional drawings. For makeup effects, the process begins with making a head cast of an actor. Next, the look of the makeup is sculpted with clay. At this point, the director decides if the look is what he had in mind or if amendments need to be made. Once the the creation is signed off, the look is broken into multiple pieces for movement and an entirely new character is created. And thus a beautiful woman is turned into a horrifying, blood-soaked zombie, a young man is transformed into a dying old man, or whatever else the imagination can envision.

Illusion’s creativity is furthered by a great business sense. The Louisiana studios offer productions a 30% tax credit for all films costing over $300,000 which is a great incentive and a calculating business move that will help the new expansion, during a time when many effects shops are downsizing or folding. The studio also offers a 6,000-square-foot stage for rental and for shooting their own films.

The studio’s independent production wing is working on creating a library of their own films, along with co-productions with various studios. Their first in-house family film, Monster Mutt, was sold exclusively through Arc Entertainment to Wal-Mart and it has been a very successful effort. The studio is developing a three-picture slate with Tucker directing and Halvas and Meier producing – an untitled horror project set in the Louisiana bayous; Mr. Zorb My Substitute is an Alien, a family sci-fi comedy, and Christmas Tails, a holiday film about Santa’s dog who must rise to the occasion and save Christmas. Illusion is currently working on all the effects for every Disney Channel show and the makeup design for Sony’s upcoming film, The Smurfs.

It’s an exciting time for the ambitious studio which clearly has its plate full with passionate and fun projects and it looks like they will, no doubt, be creating many more unforgettable characters and creatures in the years to come.

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