“If the audience didn’t believe in the tattoos, we were dead before we even began,” says director Guy Nattiv of “Skin,” a reality-based drama about white supremacist Bryon Widner, who renounced those beliefs and his body-covering markings.
So Nattiv tapped Emmy-winning makeup maestro Stephen Bettles for the job — a massive project that Bettles says required 14 face and 39 body tattoos just for actor Jamie Bell, who stars as Widner. Working on an indie budget, Bettles created 175 hand-drawn designs that often had to be reapplied daily on a cast that included Bell, 12 other principals and up to 165 additional characters.
“I got the original script and did a breakdown of 51 pages of makeup and tattoo-related notes,” says the British-born, L.A.-based Bettles. “That’s about five times the amount you’d normally see. Saying this was the most extensive job I’ve ever had — that’s putting it mildly.”
Bettles, who won an Emmy in 2002 for “Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story,” is well-versed in special-effects makeup. He runs his own studio, Stevie FX, and has two patents on a “silicone appliance that’s like a three-dimensional Band-Aid” — a prosthesis that cuts application time down exponentially. In “Skin,” Bell wears one of Bettles’ patented prosthetics; instead of spending 45 minutes to apply it, the artist says it took 10.
That left more time to consider the nuances of the body ink, which was applied like a temporary tattoo and sealed with water-based lacquer. The images reflect the real-life tattoos once worn by Widner, who supplied pictures of his designs to help with accuracy and replication.
But matching Widner’s tattoos involved more than just sticking hand-drawn art on bodies. For one thing, Bell’s body shape is different from Widner’s, so images had to be scaled down to fit.
In addition, the tats had to be aged and set to fit the time periods in which they might have been applied. Ink from the 1980s would look different from ink from 2010.
“The thing that bugs me in movies and TV series is when it looks like someone had all his tattoos done on the same day,” says Bettles. “No one looks like that.”
Additionally, Bell’s Widner gets into several physical altercations, so while the actor could wear the tats home some days, Bettles says they had to “start him from zero” on 20 of the 23 shooting days because shooting the violent scenes would mess up the tattoos.
On top of that, throughout the film Widner is shown in flash-forwards having the tattoos removed, so there were hospital tattoo-removal and -recovery scenes that required a different kind of makeup entirely.
“Stevie was in the trenches with his team, making sure everything looked perfect,” says Nattiv. “He’s a miracle worker.”
To Bettles, “Skin” is a high point in a lifelong fascination with movie makeup magic. He says that when he was a child, his father thought it was hilarious to scare him with scenes from “Jaws.” “I knew if I knew how all of this was made, it wouldn’t scare me anymore,” he says.
But over his career, his inspiration has gone beyond confronting childhood fears.
“Falling in love with the artistic side is what got me in,” says Bettles. “What keeps me there now is the technology that allows you to create characters you wouldn’t even know were wearing makeup or prosthetics.”
He chuckles, adding, “Yes, I’m a lot less scared now.”