Movies, which usually attempt to depict reality, are, in fact, products of illusion. And there is no greater illusion than those generated by special effects.
Perhaps it’s odd then, that Christopher Tucker, Britain’s prosthetic-makeup genius, says he “really goes in for reality in a big way, more perhaps than most of my colleagues. I go in for making things look absolutely real.”
Coming from a man who’s famous for turning actors into wolves, inflating fat men to the point of explosion and fitting Neanderthals with prodigious sets of molars, that may seem like an odd remark. But Tucker explains, “You have to look at special effects makeup in terms of reality. If the audience doesn’t believe something’s real, that’s the end, the game’s up.”
Tucker’s skill in making the most improbable effects convincing for such movies as “Star Wars,” “The Elephant Man,” “Quest For Fire,” “Company Of Wolves” and Terry Gilliam’s “The Meaning Of Life” is only one side of this ex-opera singer’s talent for trickery. The majority of his work, especially for television, is concerned with the less spectacular but equally vital task of metamorphosing actors into their older selves, or into plausible semblances of historical figures.
“The idea is to make somebody up to look so realistically old that he could go and rob a bank, for instance, as an old person and nobody would know he was wearing makeup,” says Tucker. “That is the ultimate and the ideal you set out for.”
Raisin in the sun
Aging, Tucker maintains, is mostly about sagging flesh and bits hanging down and has little to do with wrinkles, “unless you’re a Bolivian peasant who’s lived his whole life out in the sun.”
“In the old days,” Tucker continues, “it used to be a case of shoving a white wig on someone and hoping for the best. And one can’t do much with greasepaint. You have to age people as it will happen in reality, not as some sort of fantasy thing, so it’s a case of making three-dimensional additions to the face. In other words putting the jowls on, adding liver spots, moles and the Like. And it’s not confined to the face, it happens elsewhere as well – the hands, everywhere sort of sags.”
Even more complicated is the task of aging an actor as a given historical character – the aging process then has to be approached from a double perspective. If Mr. X is portraying Winston Churchill, for example, he must grow convincingly old both as X and as Churchill.
“The makeup looking like Churchill has to conform to the actor’s own anatomy,” Tucker explains, “so to a certain extent I’m making the actor look like he will when he’s older, only perhaps in the Churchillian vein. There’s a limit to how much concession you can make in making someone look like someone else.”
But in fact Tucker rarely fails, as his long list of credits – including “Edward VII,” “Churchill And The Generals,” “War And Remembrance,” “Reds” and “The Spider’s Web” – goes to show. He just doesn’t sometimes get the job as perfect as he’d like.
“Remember, I can only add on, ” Tucker says. “It’s not like doing a sculpture of someone where you can do anything you want. There’s a face underneath that I can’t cut bits off if they stick out and get in the way.” Instead, he builds out the actor’s other features in an effort to reduce the size of an offending nose and chin, for example, to “create the impression, the optical illusion, that other parts are not quite as large as they are.”
Self-taught, Tucker started his career during the special effects explosion following the success of “Star Wars.” His pioneering experiments in prosthetic techniques and materials – especially rubber and plastic – are today part of every makeup artist’s bag of tricks.
Another day, another decapitation
Tucker is now busy constructing astoundingly lifelike dummy replicas of actors to be decapitated, delimbed and cut in half for the action movie “Bar Sinister,” being shot in Malaysia
For him, it’s a relatively routine film. “I’m usually only called on to do things other people can’t do, won’t do, or which are very difficult to do. Every job is unique. Sometimes it involves animatronics and other devices so you need electronic and mechanical skills, sometimes you just need sculptural skills, and always you need to be a bit of a conjurer to figure out how to make it work.”
Having studied science on the university level, Tucker feels at home in his roles as engineer, chemist and physicist as well as an artist.
On the whole, though, he prefers working with living actors since they “can give you compound movement, i.e. not just in one direction. To do that mechanically is very difficult because you need so many joy sticks, rods and things.”
“Once you’ve got a model you’ve got to build in so many movements, just to create the impression the thing’s alive, that it takes a lot of time and money. If you can get an actor into something made up with facial appliances, you’ve got a chance of convincing viewers that the thing’s alive simply because of the actor.”