Judy Chin: The face as her canvas

Makeup designer's work shaped many of 2010's characters

Some artists get short-changed when the Academy nominates a small number of films in a certain category. For example, had five pictures instead of three gotten a nod for makeup, “Black Swan” makeup designer Judy Chin’s name would almost certainly have been on that list.

Golden statue or not, Chin has had one golden year: in addition to the dramatic ballet makeup she created for longtime collaborator Darren Aronofsky (Chin also worked on the helmer’s “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fountain,” and “The Wrestler”), she brought her artistic, character-driven approach to Julie Taymor’s film “The Tempest” as well as to her Broadway extravaganza “Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark,” plus to “Sex and the City 2” as Sarah Jessica Parker’s personal makeup artist, and to the Kirsten Dunst/Ryan Gosling drama “All Good Things.”

A student of fine art and film whose first “real” job doing film makeup was on indie auteur Hal Hartley’s “The Unbelievable Truth,” Chin also spent four years at the New York City Opera where she learned to “paint” with pancake makeup, using the face as her canvas, building character and emotion with color.

Chin relied heavily on these techniques when designing the now-iconic black-and-silver winged eye makeup and white, mask-like countenance for Natalie Portman’s transformation into Odile, the black swan. Long-lasting pancake was both visually striking and practical, she notes, as “we had costumes that we would have received hell for getting any makeup on” — referring to the elaborate tutus fashioned by Rodarte.

Although much of the makeup in Taymor’s “Tempest” was meant to look like no makeup at all, Chin explored the fantastical with another black, bird-like creature — the harpy — played with androgynous flair by Ben Whishaw. “Julie wanted his whole body and his face to be like one of those poor ducks slathered in oil from an oil spill,” she says.

Chin won an Oscar for “Frida,” her first project with Taymor. “I appreciate her aesthetic and her style so much. When she pushes me in one direction or another I feel like I get what she means.”

Marjorie Durand, a colleague who worked with her on “All Good Things” and was makeup department head on “Black Swan” (Chin was in Morocco filming SATC2 at the time), praises Chin’s finely honed attention to detail. “Even if it’s contemporary makeup it’s never simple,” says Durand. “Judy will come in with these beautiful drawings. … It’s almost like she’s painting a portrait for each character.”

Chin knows better than anyone that her craft is more than skin deep. “It’s a cosmetic,” she says, “but in so many ways it can create an emotion or a feeling or an image.”

“It’s always fun to make someone beautiful and to make them feel good,” she adds, “but I think the most rewarding thing for me is having an actor walk onto their set feeling like they look like who they’re supposed to be playing. My job to help them be in character.”

More on Eye on the Oscars: Art Direction, Costume Design & Makeup:
Wares of the worlds | FIDM puts Oscar costumes on display | The face as her canvas

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