‘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?
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