Think of Winston Churchill. How do you see him? If you're imagining something like a baby in a top hat, you're not alone.
In a scene from the Oscar-nominated film "The Darkest Hour," Prime Minister Churchill, played by Gary Oldman, meets some fellow Britons riding the London Underground, including a woman with an infant:
CHURCHILL: "How old?"
WOMAN: "Five months, sir. He looks like you."
CHURCHILL: "Madam, all babies look like me."
One person who Winston Churchill really does not look like is Gary Oldman. To visually transform Oldman into Churchill, it took the work of three special effects makeup artists, all of whom are nominated for an Academy Award.
Among them is Kazuhiro Tsuji. His film work includes “Norbit” and “Men in Black.” But in 2012 he walked away from Hollywood to focus on his fine art. He's a hyperrealist sculptor who uses materials like silicone and hair to create eerily life-like sculptures of people such as Andy Warhol and Abraham Lincoln.
When The Frame visited Tsuji at his Boyle Heights studio, he showed us his life-size body cast of Gary Oldman and some of the facial prosthetics (also called "appliances") that he made to transform Oldman for “The Darkest Hour.”
Tsuji explained that they were just a fraction of what he needed for the movie. For 48 days of filming, 48 different sets of appliances were needed. Once they were taken off, the fine edge that attached to the skin was ruined, so they couldn't be reused.
Tsuji first met Oldman in 2000 when the actor was considering a role in "Planet of the Apes." In 2016, Oldman sent him an email about "The Darkest Hour."
Tsuji talked to The Frame host John Horn about why he wanted to take the job and why it ended up being such a challenge.
On his decision to get back into movie makeup for "Darkest Hour":
Gary [Oldman] said, I want you to do the makeup. But if you're not available, I'll give up the opportunity to make this film. It wasn't in a threatening way, he was just explaining the situation. So I asked him, "Can I think about if for a while? I will get back to you in a week." I wanted to think about it because I made a decision to quit film jobs and that was kind of a life decision. And I didn't want to just easily go back because it was a kind of serious decision. But the reason why I started special effects makeup was that I was inspired by the makeup done by Dick Smith to turn Hal Holbrook into Abraham Lincoln. And I never had a chance to work on this kind of film in my whole career because most of the movies I worked on were sci-fi or horror. And I felt like this could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work on this kind of film, so I said yes.
On the challenges involved in turning Oldman into Churchill:
After I took a life-size cast and body scan on the photographs of Gary, I started to sculpt the features of Churchill on Gary's face. But it wasn't easy, especially his eyes. Gary's eyes are closer to each other and Churchill's are wider apart. So, if I build up on the sides of his face to make his face look rounder, that makes his eyes proportionally go even closer. I had to figure out how to balance the difference and still make him look like Churchill, but with movable makeup. So at first we did three different versions of test makeup that [director Joe Wright] requested. And I learned a lot from that and we did another two a month later to refine it. It wasn't going to be a perfect duplicate of Churchill, so we had to find a place where everyone felt Okay, this is Churchill. Because it's just simply impossible to make Gary look exactly like Winston Churchill.
On how he recreated the look and texture of Churchill's hair:
What we did was used really fine lace for the wig, the finest we could use. We also used baby European hair, which is the finest human hair we could get, and also mixed with Angora hair. Churchill, when he was young, used to have ginger hair. As he got older, his hair got thinner and whiter, finer. We used those hairs to make a wig. It's called "European Baby Hair." I guess some people sell it after it grows some length. It's quite expensive actually because it's rare and hard to get it.
On his experience watching the film for the first time:
It was amazing. It was a rough cut, I was watching it at Universal [Studios] with Gary. As soon as the movie started, of course I was paying attention to the makeup. But probably 10 minutes after the characters showed up, I started to forget about the makeup and I started to forget about Gary because he just disappeared and became Churchill. It's kind of rare. Sometimes when I watch a film I cringe if there's something wrong with [the makeup]. But Gary's acting — he's just amazing. He can just disappear and become someone else. I was drawn into the story. I couldn't say anything after, I was just amazed.
On the satisfaction of recreating a real, historical character as opposed to a fictional creature:
Generally, I like a human face better than monsters and creatures. I don't intentionally take those jobs if I don't have to. Because I'm not so interested in it. It's a creative job and it's fun to create fantasy characters, but what I enjoy most is human faces.
On whether special effects will make makeup effects extinct one day:
Many people say that. Like computers taking over everything, but I don't believe so. My job should be invisible and it has to be something that, until I explain, they won't notice. But I've also been involved in computer jobs, like "Benjamin Button." And I'm still working with computers too, but I still love to touch actual, physical objects. I'd rather keep working with physical objects than something created in a box. I actually don't like the outcome of something created in a box. I think the best way to feel is something existing in front of your eyes. It's just like a human interaction. It's better to have someone in front of you rather than somewhere else.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.