Oscars Effects – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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by Noemi Bodino, Michela Pratola, Giulia Tasca


Original title: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Country of production: USA
Year: 2008
Genres: drama, romance, fantastic
Directed by: David Fincher
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Ceàn Chaffin
Special Effects: Digital Domain
Academy Award for Best Special Effects in 2009.

The make-up artist Mila Mirenghi in an interview tells us the techniques for aging and the interaction with digital. Mila explains in detail how to achieve complete prosthetics and masks. Below you can find the transcript of the interview and the audio link. For the film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, as well as the makeup of aging, the use of prosthetics or masks, digital techniques have been integrated to replace the head of the actor recreated in computer graphics with the shooting of body of another actor.

    The process for the emotion capture can be reassumed in these steps:

  • Shooting facial expressions;
  • Creating 3D computer scans of the actor’s face;
  • Shooting scenes on set with the actors in blue hood. This allows to replace the head;
  • Finessing the performance to match current-actor expressions with the old-Benjamin physiology;
  • Creating software system for hair, eyes, skin and all elements that makeup Benjamin;
  • Creating software to track the exact movements of the body actor, to integrate the CG head precisely with the body;
  • Compositing all Benjamin’s elements to integrate animation, lighting in order to create the final shot.

Transcript of the interview

1) Who are you and what is your profession?

My name is Mila Mirenghi and I am a makeup artist for movies. I do normal set makeup and makeup for special effects.

2) When did you start your profession?

The first course of makeup that I’ve done was a theatrical makeup, I did it in ’93, which was a little time ago, and then I worked with fashion and finally I went to the movies. The makeup for special effect is something that I have undertaken recently, compared to what has been my work as makeup artist.

3) What are the techniques used for create old-age make-up?

There are various kinds of techniques for makeup aging, depending on who has to be seen and what context the makeup must be done. Aging Makeup can be theatrical. Theatrical aging makeup is a makeup which should be seen from distance, it must be very heavy and is made only in chroma level, so it highlights wrinkles, are then darkened the parts where you want to bring out the wrinkle and is lightened the portion immediately next to the dark wrinkle, to create a definite contrast that highlights the wrinkle. It is created a shadow under the eye to make it look like the eye hollow and then are applied wigs or are dyed the hair gray to simulate aging.

For the special effects there is an aging makeup that is currently applied and that is based on applying on the skin a latex film. The liquid latex is applied with a sponge on the face; during the application the skin is pulled and at the same time which is released, it tends to form wrinkles.
Of course this type of aging can be aging that can result from 30 years to 45/50 years, not more surely, because this process makes the skin creates wrinkles, but minimum wrinkles; it can’t bring the age of a person from 30 or 20 to 80 years. In this case, there are applied gray hairpieces made of fake hair, that are mixed with the actor’s real hair in order to create that salt and pepper effect.
Instead to aging that must lead actress or actor from 20 to 80 years we use another technique. We use masks or prosthesis.
Usually they are made of silicone or latexfoam.
Prosthesis can also be made in jelly, but this type isn’t reusable, so it also depends on the type of makeup and by the time it has to last. Jelly is soluble in water, can’t stand very high heat, so it always depends on the type of set, how much the makeup has to last and if it must be a makeup that you can reapply or if it’s one shot.
To create a prosthesis or to create a mask we must first recreate itself with a mold of the face of the actor or actress to work on.
There are various materials that can be used to make a mold, now many use directly platinum silicones that can be applied on the skin and take the shape of your face. These silicones made in large quantities create a thick mask on the face that once opened from behind and removed it presents the shape of the actor or actress.
The other method involves applying an alginate on the face that is a little similar to what dentists use to make impressions of your teeth. Once applied this material, it is dried and above are applied plaster bandages.
Once reconstructed this mask in alginate or silicone, a plaster or a biphasic resin is poured.
At this point we have the face our actor or actress. On this head we’re going to work with the plasticine. With plasticine we rebuild the parts that we want to achieve and then apply to the actor. So if we’re going to rebuild an aging face, we create the wrinkles, the lower face more saggin, let’s redo the neck, the eyes with wrinkles, a bigger nose and we also make the ears bigger, especially with regard to older men who greatly increase your ears.
Later, once you have done everything, we refers the process as it is done on the actor, shooting the mold and at that point you use or silicone or latex, which are injected or poured into the mold.
Once we have inside the mold the silicone within the new mold (so the mold that we have taken with plasticine) we are going to enter the old cast (the head) within the new mold with silicone, let’s close to seal everything, we make sure that the silicone come out from the holes that we have created on the last cast and at that point we wait for it to dry. When we go to open the mold we can see the silicone implants.
At that point, the prosthesis will be aligned with the skin color of the actor. The prostheses can also be pre-colored, that is you can already give a base color than what is the color of the skin of the actor.
Once this stage is finished, the implants are applied on the actor. This work is very long to do because it must be done in a perfect way. It shouldn’t be seen at all that the actor has on the face some prosthesis, so that must be the most likely one.
In many cases over the prosthesis is just made a full face mask. It’s made a mask that takes from mid-body, from above the chest to the back, it takes the entire face and the entire head. In this case, the hair, eyebrows and any hairs are reapplied over the mask and the coloring is finished.
Usually we use a mask when you have to play for a lot of days the same makeup, so that there are no differences in the make-up when then you go to mount a scene that was shot in several days.
Using a mask so you are sure that it will always remain the same and that the actor will always have that aspect. Thing that with the application of the prosthesis maybe you can not get the same result. With the application of the prosthesis it is also reproduced a calotte on the actor. The cap will go to cover the hair of the actor and this cap will then be applied white hair. And this is the technique that they used for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

4) Tell us about the techniques used for the film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

For “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” they have realized an aging that is progressed over time, in the sense that they did not see the young actor, then the old actor, they showed aging. They certainly started with the application of some implants and then arrived at the application of a full mask. These makeups are made so well that I can’t tell exactly here there was a prosthesis, because you should see it. We see that the actor is aging, so what is my experience when an actor is only a few years older than it is applied just a prosthesis. When an actor from 45 year old becomes a 80/90 years old then at that point it has a mask, which can also be composed of multiple implants then joined together in order to form a mask. That is a choice of the makeup artist, to use different prosthesis then assemble together at the end of a final mask or to instead create a complete picture. Create prosthesis that will be joined together and then resting on the face of the actor in order to create a full face, make that the actor has more face mobility because these prostheses in some places will be really very thin and in other places will instead be bigger to create wrinkles or to create different volumes, then the points where they are thinner the mobility of the actor is really a lot.
Nowadays there are products that truly recreate the softness and mobility of the skin, there are silicones very particular that look a bit to those that are used in plastic surgery to fill the breast implants. Silicones are soft, very soft and moreover for example breast implants have another outside silicone, that it must try to keep the implant securely and avoid the risk that this will break. In these masks instead, you can minimize this capsule and consequently to prove that these implants are very soft and very similar to the texture of human skin.

5) How makeup is associated with digital?

The digital usually goes always to compensate for what the makeup can’t do. Above all there is to bear in mind one thing, the makeup can only add, can’t take away. For example, when on a face there are missing parts, those parts are made in computer graphics. For example, if an actor (we have already seen in several films they used this technique) has no nose, meaning the face is flat and has no nose, that effect can only be achieved in computer graphics because they should go and cut the nose to the actor. In some cases we can add volume above and below the nose and the nose a bit will disappear, but if we are not going to add volume above and below the nose but we don’t have more, it means that the nose has been removed in computer graphics. Such things can’t be done with makeup. You can’t get rid of a part of the face, you can’t remove the chin. You can’t remove, you can only add.

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