The Hobbit films may come with the digital wizardry expected from a Peter Jackson production, but the transformative magic began in the hands of the films' makeup artists. Janetta Mackay reports.
How big can a little person's feet be? That was the challenge Peter Jackson set his award-winning hair and makeup team. Treading a fine line between the realistic and the ridiculous, they crafted prosthetics that pushed the boundaries of their art so The Hobbit's dwarves sport the exaggerated features of little people without losing their essential humanity.
"But they're of another world, so we can't have them looking too human," says makeup and hair designer Peter King, explaining why the director kept pushing to super-size each character's features. Along with elongated feet are ginormous noses, big ears, big chins and wiry hair, sprouting in all directions. It wasn't just a case of pasting on bulbous bits and hair extensions. These had to be made believable.
A case in point is Cate Blanchett's ears. Sure, they're pointy translucent things, but they don't detract from her role as elf queen Galadriel, they're integral to it.
A similar challenge applied to Thorin Oakenshield, played by Richard Armitage. As dwarf leader, he needed a noble appearance, so his hair was made of finer human stuff than the yak hair liberally applied to his dozen-strong band.
Then there was the challenge of how to "shrink" such a tall actor.
"Richard is 6ft 2 [1.88m]" and he's playing a character who is about 5ft 4 [1.62m]," explains prosthetics supervisor Tami Lane. That makes him a head higher than his followers, but all were made to look the shrunken part, thanks not just to filming on green screen, but to the efforts of the 35-strong FX and makeup team. Foam cowls were inserted underneath costumes so the dwarves' necks were obscured. Their wigs and beards were fanned out to disguise the trickery and their ears built up to help with what King describes as "the whole scale thing". The ratio of an average-sized person's body and head is 8:1, for dwarves it is 5:1.
"Peter was quite insistent we kept that largeness of the dwarves, not refine them too much, because dwarves are big-featured. Their noses are huge."
In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey prosthetics have been used to a never-before-seen degree. Lane, who won an Academy Award for her work on the Narnia films, said the projects did not compare. "This movie is 100 times bigger, because all the leads are done [in prosthetics]."
"It's the biggest," agrees industry veteran King who, like Lane, has spent much of his life over the past decade in Wellington. "More than Lord of the Rings, every single person is in prosthetics and wigs."
Just coming up with the concepts for the appearance of the trilogy's characters took four months of collaborative concept and modelling work with Weta. "For the dwarves I think there were over 500 concept designs," says King. "It was a case of just working them down and Peter coming through and going no, no, no, no." Once an idea was nutted out, it was fine-tuned. "That beard's too long, that beard's too wide, that forehead's too thick and so on ..." Consideration had to be given to how well costumes and wigs would work with movement. Only then were hairpieces and silicone moulds modelled by the designated actor in the first of a series of so-called show-and-tell sessions. "And then it all changes," says King. Typically four or five show-and-tells were done with each dwarf.
Once the look was locked, it was then loaded, with daily makeup application taking at least a couple of hours per dwarf, sometimes up to five. The end result had to allow for the actor's own character to shine forth, even if they were virtually unrecognisable.
"They were cast for a reason, so we like to keep their essence coming through," Lane told TimeOut on set as Hobbit filming was winding up mid-year. "There are a couple of characters that have so much rubber on them that they could be anyone, but once they start acting you can tell it's that person."
James Nesbitt had his initial prosthetics as Bofur extensively reworked. "His scalp was really garish - big forehead, big nose - so we put it on and Peter went 'no'. He [Nesbitt] looked like an angry Charles Manson," admits Lane. "It was a good starting point, but one of the things they wanted was [Nesbitt] to show through."
New Zealand actor Stephen Hunter was landed with a full-face prosthetic for his role as Bombur, while Thorin got away with just a bit of a fake forehead, allowing, says Lane, for him to "still look like Richard".
"Someone thought he wasn't wearing a prosthetic - that was a compliment."
Other dwarves were more obviously made up which caused consternation on the backlot.
"They look beetroot when you see them in the catering truck having lunch and I'd have a producer coming up going 'are they okay?' and I'd say 'trust me'."
The problem arose during filming when the team realised that the new HD3D Epic cameras were having an unexpected effect.
"When we saw the rushes it looked like their foreheads and noses with prosthetics were way more yellow than their cheeks with normal skin," says Lane. King, who worked with 3D cameras on Pirates of the Caribbean, had also not encountered this colour shift before.
To compensate, the actors had to be made up for the Epic's "invisible eye" with their silicone prosthetics painted a different shade to their skin.
"If you notice some of the dwarves walking round, they look like they're a little sunburned," jokes Lane.
"If you go too far with the red then they do look like a blueberry, but if you don't do it enough they look jaundiced and sick."
As a day's filming progressed the actors in their heavy costumes and wigs would get hotter so their already reddened skin would require colour-balancing. But not too much, because the known effect of the green screen they were filmed against was to suck red out.
The duo worked with M.A.C makeup to give skin the realistic look demanded of high-definition filming. For M.A.C, which supplied standard range items such as longwear foundation, mattifier and red lip gloss that Lane used as an easy way to create a blood smear, the filming also offered the chance to test specially developed professional products which one day may be adapted for store sale.
For Englishman King, who moved from theatrical wigmaking to film, his favourite character is Bombur.
"He's big and round and he's pink and his hair is orange and he has this huge plait that twists round and sits on his enormous stomach, and he's got a bald spot like Friar Tuck."
American Lane, who started her career in shlock-horror movies, fancies Dwalin "the biker dude" dwarf with scars, tattoos and earrings.
Both Lane and King's latest work stint in New Zealand began in late 2010. After The Hobbit they hanker for smaller-scale productions, but you get the impression that when Jackson comes calling with another epic idea they will jump at the chance.
"You get spoiled working on big movies," says King.
"It's great fun so when you go to something smaller it's like, what? I've only got four or five on camera today."
Both applaud Jackson's attention to detail, which they say has ramped up even more on The Hobbit.
"For every last thing on the screen he gets the best everyone can possibly do," says King.
Lane's take is: "He just keeps pushing and you feel you're there, but you keep getting pushed to the point where he finally gets something out of you, either out of frustration or because something happens, then finally you give him what he wants."
King says the resulting "that's fantastic" is some reward, but when it all makes sense is the end result. "It really transfers to the screen."
"Everything else will seem easy after this one," says an exhausted Lane. The Hobbit hours were particularly punishing, made more so for this pair by the documentation and upkeep required to keep all those prosthetics and wigs camera-ready.
This included hand-punching eyebrows into silicon daily and making sure the new masks matched old ones. Some hairpieces were shared between characters and needed to be teased into new shapes and returned to old between rotations.
After use, any prosthetics not carefully shredded had to be accounted for and, post-production, King's task was to archive them all under lock and key.
An exception, befitting her star status, was made for Blanchett's ears. As a party favour, she has her own pair.
- TimeOutBy Janetta Mackay Email Janetta