Couple use art skills to replicate surgeries

When exec producers of FX’s “Nip/Tuck” first approached Burman Studio about creating special makeup effects for the show, Tom Burman and Bari Dreiband-Burman didn’t know how crucial their work would be to the show’s overall success.

Their first assignment was replicating a multiple-procedure surgery.

“He had to have hair plugs, a nose job, liposuction, an eye job and a facelift,” Burman says. “We figured it would take about four hours to shoot each one of the little pieces, and they said, ‘We’ve got 45 minutes to shoot it.’ … We thought, ‘How can you do that? It’s impossible,’” recalls Burman — after all, the couple not only create the prosthetics, they do virtually all applications on all the actors.

The solution was rolling two cameras and moving rapid-fire from one procedure to the next. “It worked so seamlessly and flawlessly that everybody applauded at the end,” Burman says.

Six seasons, two Emmys and several nominations (just for their work on “Nip/Tuck” alone) later, the pair have made seemingly countless lifelike surgical body parts and applied prosthetics to nearly every actor who has appeared on the series — all with an average turn-around time of nine to 11 days per episode.

Considering creator-exec producer Ryan Murphy likes to shoot tight, it’s good that photorealism is the cornerstone of their success. Along with standard research, the couple have observed actual surgeries to get the details right.

In the recent episode “Enigma” — about a teenager who’d carved symbols into his face and chest — only part of the job was creating prosthetics for the actor to wear.

“For the surgery, we made a torso from the waist up because the surgeons had to cut out the carvings on his chest and his forehead. They lasered a tattoo off the back of his head, too, so the transition from when it was the actor in the consult room to the surgery had to be seamless,” Dreiband-Burman says.

Duplicating the face of Vanessa Redgrave (playing her real-life daughter’s mother) for a facelift scene involved creating skin that would look realistic when pulled just inches from the camera.

One of Dreiband-Burman’s favorite jobs was in season three, turning an actress into a 650-pound woman — a task they didn’t think was possible in less than two weeks.

For a dream sequence, Kelly Carlson had to don a full-body fat suit to turn her tiny frame into a 400-pound version of her character, Kimber.

“The worst part was they never told the actors what they were in for,” Burman says. “So when the actors arrived, we had to sit them down and tell them. Sometimes we’d have to do a naked body cast, and they’d look at you like a deer in headlights, ‘What?’”

They couldn’t do a cast to replicate the face of a very elderly actress who was on oxygen. “We were afraid it would be a death mask instead of a life mask,” Burman says.

“We had to photograph her 100 different ways, then sculpt her,” Dreiband-Burman says. “And we had to do this in a couple of weeks.”

Perhaps their biggest challenge was working with real-life conjoined twins, who aren’t professional actors, when they appeared as conjoined twins who needed to be separated.

Improvisation also led the couple to develop new ways of using existing materials. Since the typical syrup-based “blood” beads up on silicone, they invented another approach.

Burman, whose studio was incorporated in 1973, calls “Nip/Tuck” the greatest opportunity he’s ever had.

“It’s rewarding to do a show that set the bar of how far you can go and how graphic it can be, and that you can do photorealistic motion-picture quality work in a very short time.”

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