‘We’re only suc­cess­ful if our work is in­vis­i­ble’

Decades after dig­i­tal ef­fects were ex­pected to ren­der film make-up re­dun­dant, why is it en­joy­ing a re­nais­sance?

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - FILM - ROB­BIE COLLIN

On the sets of his Seven­ties mon­ster movies, Rick Baker used to tell his as­sis­tants to en­joy them­selves, be­cause their job would only be around for an­other 10 years. Baker is the now-re­tired special make-up ef­fects designer whose work on films such as Video­drome and An Amer­i­can Were­wolf in Lon­don set a gold stan­dard for his craft.

He had learnt from Dick Smith, the so-called “God­fa­ther of Make-up”, whose home-made la­tex pros­thet­ics had rev­o­lu­tionised the busi­ness in the pre­vi­ous decade: Brando’s jowls in The God­fa­ther were his (hence the nick­name), as were Linda Blair’s flayed cheeks and stony eyes in The Ex­or­cist. But Baker had been watch­ing the rise of com­puter graph­ics with in­ter­est – in 1976, the very first en­tirely dig­i­tal hand and face made their Hol­ly­wood de­but, in Richard T Hef­fron’s Fu­ture­world – and he had be­gun to sus­pect the days of stick-on rub­ber were num­bered.

One of Baker’s as­sis­tants back then was Greg Can­nom, whose sub­se­quent four-decades-and­count­ing ca­reer sug­gests his men­tor’s out­look was a lit­tle pes­simistic. Baker was right to fear CGI in one re­spect: since the tech­no­log­i­cal break­through of Andy Serkis’s Gol­lum in the Lord of the Rings tril­ogy, the weird crea­tures that were the pre­serve of make-up artists have mostly gone dig­i­tal, with no turn­ing back. But pros­thet­ics has found a new area of ex­per­tise: al­ter­ing ac­tors’ faces un­til they re­sem­ble other faces en­tirely, with a plau­si­bil­ity that com­put­ers can’t yet hope to match. And it is this tech­nique for which Can­nom and a hand­ful of his peers have be­come renowned.

His lat­est project ar­rives in cin­e­mas later this month. In the satir­i­cal biopic Vice, he has turned Christian Bale into Dick Cheney. De­spite re­ly­ing on tricks pi­o­neered by Smith and Baker al­most half a cen­tury back, Bale’s Cheney­fi­ca­tion, and a few other re­cent trans­for­ma­tions, have hit a stan­dard of seam­less­ness that feels like some­thing very new. Think of Steve Coogan and John C Reilly’s Lau­rel and Hardy in Stan & Ol­lie, Mar­got Rob­bie’s pinched fea­tures in Mary Queen of Scots or Tilda Swin­ton’s sex change in Sus­piria. Be­fore these came Gary Old­man’s meta­mor­pho­sis into Win­ston Churchill in Dark­est Hour in 2017, which took one Os­car for the per­for­mance, and an­other for the make-up that abet­ted it.

This new trend for pros­thet­ics is the re­sult of a flurry of in­no­va­tions in the past 10 years – a re­sponse in part to the rise of dig­i­tal cam­eras, which are far less for­giv­ing in close-up than old­fash­ioned film stock. “When I started with Rick in the late Seven­ties, I re­mem­ber be­ing shocked at how heavy-handed some of his make-up looked on set,” Can­nom says. “Then when I saw how beau­ti­fully it came out in the theatre, I re­alised you could get away with mur­der.”

But 30 years later, work­ing on David Fincher’s over­whelm­ingly dig­i­tal The Cu­ri­ous Case of Ben­jamin But­ton, Can­nom felt “scared to death”. For­tu­nately, he had a trick up his sleeve: a new kind of mod­i­fied sil­i­cone he and Wes­ley Wof­ford had de­vel­oped that would hold up un­der dig­i­tal scru­tiny.

Like skin, it was translu­cent, and could it­self be made up. Rather than crum­pling or buck­ling like la­tex, it stretched and moved nat­u­rally with the face.

Un­til the mid-Nineties, sil­i­cone was un­heard-of in Hol­ly­wood – out­side the plas­tic sur­geon’s clinic, at least. La­tex and foam rub­ber were as far as things had ad­vanced since the Thir­ties, when Jack

Pierce had sculpted the fore­head of Franken­stein’s mon­ster from cot­ton coated in a hard-set­ting com­pound called col­lo­dion.

These were fine for crea­tures and gore, but less con­vinc­ing for or­di­nary faces. But at a con­fer­ence in 1997, the Cana­dian make-up artist Gor­don Smith un­veiled a sub­stance called “Smith’s Pros­thetic Dead­ener”, which turned sil­i­cone gel into a soft, mould­able solid that didn’t per­ish or melt un­der stu­dio lights. The first film to ben­e­fit from it was Bryan Singer’s X-Men, where it was used to pro­duce the form­fit­ting, blue scaly body­suit for Re­becca Romijn’s Mys­tique.

Can­nom was in the au­di­ence that day, and re­mem­bers be­ing stunned: Smith had brought an “el­derly woman” on stage, only to re­veal she

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