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FOG! Chats With Makeup Effects Artist TODD TUCKER!

Interview conducted by Lauren Berkley

You probably have been familiar with makeup effects artist Todd Tucker your whole life and just never known it. From Hook to The Passion of the Christ, from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Tucker’s makeup effects career has spanned over 20 years. Heck, he even worked on the TV show Friends.

And now, with the help of his own Illusion Industries, Tucker has tackled the makeup in some of this year’s hottest films: G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Smurfs 2, and independent crime drama The Iceman, starring none other than Zod himself, actor Michael Shannon.

I toured his Burbank facility last week, where we chatted about the genius that is Hank Azaria, the future of makeup in a CG-centric world, and his man-crush on Hugh Jackman.

So, first things first: How did you get started?

I was the only child and I went to the movies all the time. I was a huge movie buff. I loved movies like Star Wars and Jaws, and E.T.; a lot of Spielberg movies and [Jim] Henson movies. I was an artist and drew a lot, and then when I got into high school, I started learning about special effects makeup, and right after I got out of high school, I started building a portfolio of my work, and then started learning how to do masks and puppets and molds and makeups out of my garage. I moved to Hollywood in 1990 and started working on Hook, one of my first films.

So you didn’t go to any schools or institutions for it, then? You were essentially self-taught?

Yeah, you know, there weren’t a lot of schools available, at that time. I did get taught a lot by these two guys – Matt Rose and Steve Wang – who lived up in Northern California at the same time and then they moved down here actually before I did and they helped open doors for me. They taught me quite a bit, so luckily, I had them in my back pocket and they were able to help me out.

What advice do you have for those who want to work in the makeup industry, either stage or screen?
The makeup industry really had its height during the ’80s and the early part of the ’90s. Once computer-generated effects came in, it kind of took a backseat quite a bit, but recently, a lot of films that were huge CG films didn’t do quite as well as the studio had hoped, and now a lot of directors and producers are  back on practical effect more, so that’s a good thing. I think the advice I would give is there’s not a huge, huge amount of work as a a speccial effects makeup artist. mLikCe, on set, there are not a huge amount of films that do that right now. There is some work, buCCCt there are a lot of big effects artists who are around to do it, so if you going to get into this field, I would say just keep yourself diverse and learn a lot of the techniques that are current right now, especially for designing. There are a lot of computer programs that studios want to see for designs, before you start creating them. Just do your homework, and make sure it’s something you’re very passionate about.

Do you know off-hand the cost of CGI vs. makeup? For example, is it cheaper, actually, to use makeup?

At one point in time, I worked for a company and we had both a CG and a practical company, and we interacted with the two to do The Passion of the Christ with Mel Gibson, so I understand exactly how CG works and how the best way, really, to combine the two things is. On that film, we did 148 digital effects shots that were combinations of practical stuff and CG enhancements. It really works well, and actually, it’s the best combination.

But you know, CG, cost-wise, can be very costly, and right now the makeup effects side, because there are people who are lowering prices to try and get those jobs, I’d say that right now, it’s kind of hard to say. I will say this, though: Producers and directors have gotten very comfortable with saying, “We’ll fix it in Post,” if they have problems while they’re shooting. What happens is that gives them out, so they don’t have to fix the issue while they’re doing it, which is good and bad, I guess, but it ends up being a giant cost they have turn around and pay for at the end, because they didn’t anticipate it until after they were done filming, so CG is pretty important, as far as fixing a lot of stuff.

I think right now makeup effects are pretty cost-efficient.

What is your favorite medium to work with?

We work a lot with silicone appliances. Silicone works really well, because the new cameras that are being used are extremely high definition and can see everything and they actually will see more than the normal human eye; they’re actually a bit of a microscope.

I was doing makeup on Hank Azaria for the Smurfs 2 movie, and the Sony camera they were using was extremely strong and was seeing stuff you couldn’t see just my looking at him. It’s really tricky, so the silicone makeups work really well, because they blend off really nicely and look realistic on camera, even if they’re really strong cameras.

The real trick right now is the production people won’t give us as much time as we normally used to get, even a few years ago, where if you’re doing a really complex makeup and you take 3 or 4 hours, now they’re like, “No, no, no, you need to do it an hour and half or two hours,” so it’s gotten much faster and the cameras are doubly strong, too, now, so it’s kind of finding that balance of how do you do it faster, but make it twice as good? So, for example, after you’ve done the makeup a couple times, you understand what the coloring is going to be, so you can pre-paint and pre-color some of the appliances ahead of time.

Who has been your favorite actor to work with and why?

I did enjoy working with Hank [Azaria, on Smurfs 2], because I was around him quite a bit for quite awhile and it was very pleasurable.

One guy I didn’t work with directly, but when I was on set, I worked around him was Hugh Jackman. If I could work with anyone in the world, I would work with Hugh Jackman, because that guy is as cool as a guy could ever possibly be.

He’s really humble and he’s big, too! I’m 6’2” and he came out and towered over me and he’s just so damn talented. He can do comedy and then Wolverine, and then Broadway…the guy is just off-the-charts cool!

What movie has been the most fun to work on and why?

I think one of the best experiences I’ve had is…well, there are two, actually. When I did Smurfs 2, we shot it up in Montreal for about three months and it was really nice there. The crew was really good, the director, Raja [Gosnell], was really good at these family films. Everyone at Sony was really cool, and these were the top people at Sony, you know? And Hank [Azaria, as Gargamel] was really cool to work with and he’s funny to watch, so that was just a fun experience because it was so nice. It was a challenge, especially in the beginning, you know, to get the makeup right for these cameras, but I definitely think it came out really well.

The other film, too, that I really enjoyed working on was G.I. Joe: Retaliation, because the director , Jon Chu, really gets these kind of films and really understands the action part of it. I was very impressed with how he was able to make all the effects in the film look so practical; it doesn’t feel like a video game, it doesn’t feel CG. It feels like it’s really happening, so my hat’s off to him, because it was a big movie to make with a lot going on.

Plus, we got to do all kinds of great makeups ranging from turning Arnold Vosloo into a 95-year-old Chinese man.

We did the Cobra Commander makeup and we did makeup for a Jonathan Pryce look-alike and burn makeup and big dummies of The Rock…all kinds of stuff.

What has been your hardest makeup challenge to date and why?

A few years back, I opened an in-house production company and became a DGA director and starting directing 2nd units a lot, and so forth, and then I came up with this project and I directed it and my business partner Ron Halvas produced it and we did a family film called Monster Mutt. It did really well. It was a really sweet film and was made for little kids, I had a lot of Disney Channel people in there and it was a really sweet throwback to the really sweet ’80s Spielberg/Henson films, you know?

My cast was two kids, a guy in a big dog suit, a guy in full makeup, real dogs playing off the fake dogs, fake animal puppets with real animals…it was just all over the place, and it was a challenge to make it work. I had one scene where I had my two kids playing off of the giant dog and then had to look over and have the real dog come over and lick him on the nose, and this all inside of a vet’s office with 13 other animals. I don’t know what I was thinking!

How did you get into producing and directing from that?

It was always part of the master plan when I came to LA. I got into acting for awhile and played a lot of creatures on Charmed and a few films and then when I opened up an in-house production company and got in the DGA, I started directing some 2nd units, mainly shooting effects stuff, because I understood how to shoot that stuff and make it look good, and then produced a few films that we did effects on and then Monster Mutt was my first real film as a director. I kind of stopped for a little while, because I started this new company, Illusion Industries, three years ago and I needed to put all my focus into re-branding myself and this company.

We have eight films coming out this year, including G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Smurfs 2, and The Iceman (starring Michael Shannon).

I had to kind of rebuild the company and now that we’re back at that point, we are now slating to get financing for the next film I’m going to direct and will produce in-house and will probably shoot the first of next year.

Tell me more about Illusion Industries, your company.

Illusion Industries is a special effects makeup company that specializes in a lot of very realistic old age makeups, character makeups, trauma makeups, monster makeups. We do everything that is prosthetics and creatures and even puppets, but it’s mainly physical prosthetic makeup effects.

You don’t seem to do a lot of slasher movies. Have you done them, and is there a difference, makeup-wise?

We’ve done a lot of blood and guts stuff, but what we haven’t done is a lot of the “slasher” stuff. Illusion Industries has not done a lot of horror. We did do effects in a movie coming out called The 
Iceman, a mafia film starring Michael Shannon and Chris Evans, so we did some gore for that. In G.I. Joe: Retaliation, we did burn makeup on some guy’s back and other blood gags.

Depending on what the show is, the special effects on set, those who do the wind, etc., they will a lot of times take charge of some of the blood gags. Like I said, too, we also haven’t don’t a lot of the lower-budget slasher films, and a lot of times they don’t hire someone who has three separate studios, like we do, because sometimes, they think they can’t afford us.

I worked on The Passion of the Christ, and I don’t think there’s any movie in the world that has more blood than that! [laughs]

We work on big studio films, but we also work on independent films and television; we’re kind of all over the map.

Is there anything people might be surprised to learn about your industry or your job?

The industry is very different now. It’s changed quite a bit over the last couple of years. When I opened up Illusion Industries, we also opened up our branch in Louisiana, because it made sense with all the tax incentives and all the movies being filmed there. We also got approached by the ex-head of the film commission for the entire country of Russia, and they wanted us to partner up with them, because they wanted to start upgrading the quality of their films to start competing with Hollywood.

We actually have done three Russian films, also. We have a small facility over there that is being financed by the Russian group, so we have a global presence. At this point in the game, you have to think outside of the box to stay alive.

What’s coming up for you and Illusion Industries? You mentioned eight films this year alone, correct?

Well, in the order they’re coming out: G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which came out a few months ago or so, but is now out on DVD. There was a limited release for The Iceman. I think that one will probably be out on DVD and Netflix and I’m guessing it will get a lot of awards, too. Smurfs 2 came out on July 31. We have a film coming out – actually, it may have just come out? – called The East, which is a political thriller we did a gore/trauma effect for where a girl gets a bullet extracted out of her, and then we did another drama called Fort Bliss, where we did a gore effect for that movie, and that was a relatively independent film also, with a really good cast. Then we did a movie called Devil’s Pass, which was a Renny Harlin film that shot in Russia, which is a horror movie, so we did some cool stuff that, but I can’t say what!

We also did Fright Night 2, which will be coming out probably in October., most likely on DVD.  We also occasionally do some stuff on the show Sons of Anarchy and on Conan, when they do zombie skits. We also do stuff for Disney Channel quite a bit, like The Wizards of Waverly Place. We did some tattoos and some very small things for White House Down, but we didn’t go on set for that, we just supplied them with some tattoos and stuff, but that gives you an idea of how small some of the stuff is that we do.

Now, I’m curious: How do you do tattoos?

Well, the thing about tattoos is you have to design them, because they have to be copyright-free. They have to be owned by the production that’s going to show them, because there have been lawsuits about tattoo design, copyrights, things like that.

Anytime there’s a tattoo now, we have to create it from scratch. We create it in the computer, and we’re able to print out these tattoos that then get turned into appliances that basically go on with water.

Thank you so much for your time, Todd. Is there anything else you ‘d like to add?

I would love to give credit to my crew, because my crew is the reason why this works. My business partner and CEO is Ron Halvas and then I have two key artists, Martin Astles and Joe Colwell. I have two production people, Jane Pfeister and Adam Walls, and our agent is Jason Garber at Paradigm. It’s a team here that makes this happen. I’m not a one-man show, by any means, and those guys really work hard and I appreciate it, because I wouldn’t have any of this without their help.

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