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Blotching the detective

Vanderlaan's work on Downey Jr., 'Pirates' eyes golden sheen

Like the actors he transforms with cosmetic wizardry, makeup effects creator Keith Vanderlaan has worked on numerous films while remaining essentially hidden.

Over the past 12 years, Vanderlaan and his company, Captive Audience Prods., have created innovative makeup f/x for 70 major motion pictures, many of them Academy Award winners and nominees.

But because he has worked behind the scenes designing products and effects rather than directly applying makeup to the actors, he has never been eligible for the big award come Oscar time.

This year, however, Vanderlaan may have two chances to garner the gold. Along with makeup artist Greg Cannom, Vanderlaan created and applied elaborate full-body psoriasis makeup to Robert Downey Jr.’s Dan Dark character in the Paramount Classics release “The Singing Detective.”

The gruesome body makeup took nearly five hours to apply on the first attempt. Rather than lose valuable shooting time, they came up with a special kind of spandex bodysuit, then glued individual scabs to it. The effect saved time and is frighteningly realistic.

“We wanted something that had style to it,” says Vanderlaan. “We didn’t want him to look like some guy covered with oatmeal or potato flakes.”

In their research they discovered there are different versions of psoriasis, so they took their cues from the script.

“There’s a line in the movie where Robert’s character refers to himself as a human pizza,” Vanderlaan explains. “So there are sores on his body that I guess you could say look like pepperoni.”

Vanderlaan parlayed his love of experimentation and sense of humor into another body of kudosworthy work in Disney’s “The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” Vanderlaan again teamed with Cannom, to create special effects makeup for all the pirates except Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow.

“It was one of those wonderful challenges, because we had to create these memorable and menacing characters, but they still had to be able to pull off comedy,” Vanderlaan says. “We had 24 players in makeup, including prosthetic scars, facial appliances, elaborate tattoo designs, special contact lenses, teeth and hair.”

When it comes to humorous makeup, subtlety is the key, Vanderlaan says. On “Pirates,” his team had “dozens of people that we had to create very specific looks for and it couldn’t be this horribly over-the-top thing,” he says. “The movie was whimsical and interesting, but the characters had to seem threatening somehow, and if you have a bad makeup job on somebody, they’re not going to look threatening, they’re just going to look ridiculous.”

Though Vanderlaan finally has a chance to earn Oscar accolades for his work, his contributions to the makeup effects field often defy categorization. Back in 1993, while working on “The Mask,” he realized how much work he was losing to computer graphics companies.

Vanderlaan formed Captive Audience to marry the fields of makeup and visual effects. He housed the two companies nearby, but not under one roof, to keep them from competing against one another.

“It’s been an unbelievable challenge to learn and make the transition and discern which medium is going to work best and how they can be combined to become most effective,” he says.

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