- Category: More Top Stories
- Published on Tuesday, 27 August 2013 18:54
- Written by Gordon Meyer
In 1931, 42-year-old Greek immigrant Jack Pierce, who had worked as a stuntman, baseball player and assistant director, became the unsung genius behind one of Hollywood’s most iconic movies: Frankenstein. At Universal Studios, Director James Whale asked Pierce, who was the head of the makeup department, to turn the quiet British Actor William Henry Pratt into a lumbering giant assembled from corpses and brought to life by a bolt of lightning. Pratt had done plays and movies for over 20 years, but this movie would make him a star under the stage name Boris Karloff. Pierce not only created the iconic look of the Frankenstein monster, but also made other monsters for Universal films, including The Wolf Man and The Mummy.
Earlier this year, the Cinema Makeup School in the historic Wiltern Theatre building on Wilshire and Western in Los Angeles dedicated a gallery to the memory and legacy of Jack Pierce. I spoke with Lee Joyner, the school’s director of admissions since 1995, and Film Historian Scott Essman, one of Hollywood’s foremost experts on Pierce. Joyner kicked off the conversation by talking about how much of an influence Pierce has had on his own career as a professional makeup artist. “Jack created these iconic Universal creatures that have become a part of modern popular culture,” said Joyner. For Essman, Pierce’s Wolf Man makeup creation was perfection. “It’s a perfect combination of animal and man,” Essman explained. “I don’t know if it gets much better than that. Though in the second tier [after Frankenstein, the Mummy and Wolf Man monsters], you’ve got the Bride of Frankenstein [and] Ygor with Bela Lugosi in Son of Frankenstein.”
Joyner noted that Pierce was wonderful in creating pathos with makeup. “They say it’s the actor who brings the character to life, but if the actor’s wearing bad makeup, it doesn’t matter,” Joyner explained. “It’s all an expression of the artist and similar to Buddhist sand paintings in that they create it just for the element of destruction. Jack would spend eight hours working on a makeup just to get the actor in front of the camera for a certain amount of time and then it’s destroyed. Then he would re-create the exact same makeup the next day.”
In the 1930s and ’40s when Pierce was at his creative peak, everything was done by hand. Pierce literally sculpted his visions on top of human flesh, and his iconic Frankenstein monster was created long before latex or silicon masks could be glued on in a matter of minutes. “Now we have it easy because we have prosthetics and molds that are set in stone,” said Joyner. “They have to look the same. But Jack had to re-create that same look using a combination of cotton, latex, collodion and other materials every day. The beauty of Jack’s technique was that it was so thin compared to the prosthetics that eventually replaced it, [and] you [could] see more emotion and movement.” While Jack Pierce’s legacy is felt every time new monster makeup is created, according to Joyner, only about 5 percent of incoming students at the Cinema Makeup School know of Pierce’s work. That’s one of the reasons Joyner now brings Essman in to talk to his students.
Cinema has changed since spirit gum, cotton and paints were used to craft makeup masterpieces. Today, the use of color, contemporary film stocks and digital cinematography all affect how simple “normal” character makeup must be executed. But these challenges go even further, as makeup artists must now compete with computer graphics. “Fortunately for us, when you go to a movie that has computer graphics in it, you’re not drawn into the film as much as you would be if it were a practical effect,” said Joyner . “Makeup can still do that.” This is one of the reasons why it’s becoming increasingly common to marry computer graphics with analog makeup. This collaboration was used for the film Men in Black 3, where Makeup Artist Rick Baker and Visual Effects Artist Ken Ralston, who are longtime friends, integrated their two art forms. For that film, Ralston and his VFX team would often execute designs created by Baker. (See “Creating the Visual Effects for Men in Black 3,” P3 Update in the June 2012 issue.)
According to Joyner, the computer/analog hybrid method is the new work model for 21st-century makeup artists. “It’s important in those situations that the CG people involve the makeup people,” Joyner noted. “The best way to utilize both tools for creature makeups is to have a mix of elements that are done practically, elements that are created on the computer and elements that are married together.” Joyner explained that this method is how filmmakers will get the most realistic results, adding that it’s now an important part of how the Cinema Makeup School trains its students. “CG isn’t our enemy, but it is our competition,” Joyner said. “Our job is to convince the director that he should go with a practical effect over a computer effect. But if they do go with a computer effect, our job is to also get involved. For example, often computer blood work looks really bad, but we can come in and tell them things, like how the translucency isn’t right or the color is off. This is because the artists who are doing the computer work aren’t necessarily makeup artists. We’re looking at it from a specific angle. That’s why it’s best when you can marry the two.”
Joyner offered another reason for using practical effects over digital effects whenever possible. “People don’t realize that there is a subconscious reaction to something that is physical,” he explained. “If it’s not real, you do not have an emotional connection. There’s something that’s lacking when you lose that physical touch. I personally think it’s going to be at least another 15 to 20 years before you can look at something and not have a clue that it’s computer graphics and that it’s able to have the emotion and flawlessness of something physical.”
Cinema Makeup School students can take courses that range in length from one week to six months. Class offerings include Photoshop, airbrushing, z-brush, hair styling, body painting, prosthetics and, of course, character. “We’re training them to make something real and subtle before they make a monster,” said Joyner. Naturally, the curriculum also includes more gruesome effects, like slit throats, pneumatic blood cannon and other advanced work. Because it’s considered an advanced school, roughly 25 percent of the students come from other countries and are often already working professionals. “In the end, it comes down to my passion,” said Joyner. “I’ve been wanting to do this since I was 10. I actually wanted to do it before then, but I didn’t know [much about it]. It’s tough wanting to do this [while] growing up in Alabama, [but] I came out here and I found my tribe. So my job is to now try to get these kids excited. Like Jack Pierce, [a makeup artist is] like a god who can create something that’s never existed before. How many people can [do] that?”