Interview: How Oscar-nominated makeup designer Adrien Morot broke new ground with ‘The Whale’
“This is a career ending kind of makeup.” That is what was on makeup prosthetics designer Adrien Morot’s mind when Darren Aronofsky asked him to work on The Whale. In the realm of special effects makeup, it’s not uncommon to take on a project where you’re working on several things that will each be used for only a few days of a shoot. If something about it doesn’t work perfectly, it can always be fixed in post. But The Whale was special. “The makeup and the character is there in every single scene, or almost. He’s there in this one single location, there’s not a lot of other characters in the movie, so your makeup doesn’t have a bunch of filters that this kind of makeup usually benefits from. So if your makeup doesn’t work, the movie doesn’t work.” But when it comes to Morot’s five-time collaborator and friend Aronofsky, “if he calls me, I drop everything and I go do his movie. There’s no question about that.”
Nevertheless, the artist’s first thought was, “what do I do with this?” Hoping that his friend would forgive him – and give him more time to try something more traditional – if it didn’t work, Morot took a bold chance on something that had never been done before: using a 3D printer to make the molds for the silicone pieces that took upwards of five hours to apply to star Brendan Fraser. Read on to learn more about how Morot broke “the glass ceiling for character makeup,” how he shocked the head of WETA Digital, and how the process resulted in a more realistic makeup than would have been possible otherwise.
Dan Bayer: Obviously, everyone puts on weight and carries weight differently. So how did you determine the design of the actual prosthetic pieces for this character? What kind of research did you do to figure out how Charlie was going to look in the final product?
Adrien Morot: That’s a good question. The first thing that I did is that I did a bit of a look book of pictures that I had either at the house, or at the shop in books that we have, or online, stuff that I thought would maybe be appropriate for Brendan. And I sent all that to Darren. I think that’s interesting… because of all those reasons that I told you before, the makeup had to not only be believable and respectful and accurate to real people, but also it needed to not be a distraction in any way.
It couldn’t be, you see it on screen and it’s like, “Oh my God, look! Oh wow, look at that great makeup.” Not good! “Wow, look at how bad that is.” That’s also not good! You need to be able to see Brendan appear on screen, have a bit of a shock because you’ve never seen [him look like that before], and almost be in a state like, “Wow, has he gained that weight?” And then just completely forget about it, because the movie’s not about makeup prowess. It should be about the character, about the story at hand, and you should forget about that makeup within a minute of starting to watch him on screen. So I wanted to go to a certain place with that because I didn’t want to push it to even the degree where that ended up on screen. That was my initial reaction: “I don’t want to attract attention to this makeup at all. At all, at all.” So I sent all those references to Darren, he selected some stuff and I was, “Okay, well, I have an idea what he has in mind for his character.”
And then… this is the first time in a movie, as far as I know, that 3D printing is being used to sculpt subtle character makeup appliances. Because the glass ceiling is in 3D printing, because there’s a bunch of different elements that come into play. There’s not only having scanners that are precise enough, having 3D sculpting tools that are precise enough, and having 3D printers that are also going to give you the resolution that you want. And the size to print such large pieces. So all that together made it very difficult to obtain.
A prosthetic appliance, when it blends into the skin, it’s thinner than a piece of tissue. It’s so thin, it’s like a butterfly wing. So thin that it just blends seamlessly into the skin. So doing that with all those different elements that are not consistent is very difficult. And so we decided to go that way [of 3D printing] for a bunch of reasons, amongst them the fact that we were at the beginning of the pandemic and we didn’t have access to Brendan. That kind of forced our hand to dive into a professional project for stuff that we’ve been dabbling with at the shop for years, doing in-house tests.
We were like, “well, it’s a Darren movie. Hopefully he’s my friend, hopefully he’s going to forgive me if I fail and he’s going to give us a little bit more time to do it in a more traditional way if it doesn’t work.” So that was the thinking behind it. But what that allowed me to do in terms of sculpting – because you’re saying like, “how do you know?” – is that based on the pictures that Darren had selected, I was able to not do a traditional sculpture in the sense that you would add clay to Brendan’s face until you find the character. I was actually able to extrude and use gravity dynamics in the software, so it’s actually his face, as if he would’ve gained that weight. So it’s no longer an artistic interpretation. Of course, my eye is there to guide the computer and say like, “Yeah, I like this, I don’t like that, maybe I’m going to tweak this down,” or something. But it’s actually what he would look like, which is unbelievable because that wasn’t available before and it’s never been done before.
DB: Is this the first full project that you’ve done using 3D printing?
AM: This is the first full project that’s ever been done like that. Period.
DB: Wow. So after you made the decision that this is the best avenue for you to take for this project, how much more did you have to learn about that process? Because you’d obviously done tests before, but now you’re working at a full scale, and on a piece that is as large as this.
AM: Well, thankfully, as I was mentioning earlier, in the past four years, we’d been doing a lot of in-house testing. But I’m a hopeless perfectionist, so every time, even if it was pretty good – well, it’s actually amazingly good, all the stuff that we’d been doing – but I was like, “ah, maybe we can tweak it and get it better, and maybe we’ll wait.” And then we did The Whale, and I was like, “Well, probably everybody does this now, it’s pretty normal.” But every time I would have new employees coming to the shop, they would be like, “Oh my God, what are you guys doing here? Why do you have all those printers? What is this place? Is this NASA or something?” And I was like, “What? Okay…”
Then I went to shoot the movie M3GAN in New Zealand, and I went to have lunch with Richard Taylor from WETA down there. I started telling him about what we had done on The Whale, and they’re pretty much at the forefront of technology, so I assumed they do a lot of 3D printing. But same thing, that glass ceiling of doing character makeups in that way. I didn’t realize! I was like, “Oh, for sure those guys are doing that!” So I started openly talking to him about what we were doing, and he was like, “What? You’ve done… How? HOW!”
DB: Oh, wow.
AM: And I was like, I’m going to shut up. I can’t talk about it because clearly nobody else is doing this. And I was like, I’m going to wait until the movie comes out. So it’s exciting.
DB: Breaking new ground. That’s really incredible.
DB: Did you find that the prosthetics that you printed with the 3D printer, how different are they from the types of stuff that you would create by hand in terms of the feel, the weight of them, the look?
AM: So just to clarify, these sculptures are done in the computer and 3D printed. It’s not the prosthetics that are printed, because if you’re printing a whole head, it’s 72 hours of print.
DB: Ah! I was going to say, these things take a long time.
AM: Yeah, they take a long time, so that’s not efficient. If you’re manufacturing for a movie, everything needs to come out really quick, especially when you only have 12 weeks to build the entire design and build everything for the movie. And so the sculptures are printed like that, the parts of the molds are printed like that, and then we cast prosthetics from those molds in silicone, in a more traditional way. So if you’re injecting silicone, which is the same material that we use normally, getting a prosthetic out is 3 hours versus printing it for 72 hours. But what that allowed us to do is stuff that’s also impossible to do normally.
Silicone is really heavy by nature… let’s say you take a gallon of oil, silicone is about the same weight. So if you have a big piece like the makeup on Charlie, it tends to drag down, just by the weight that it has. Often, you end up with a lot of sort of crinkly skin by all that drag that you have, and it’s tough to get around that. Usually, most of the time when you see it in movies, you don’t really notice. If it’s a big character like that… well, you don’t really think about it. Think Darkest Hour, for example. Because he’s an older guy, you see wrinkly skin and you don’t really think about it. But Charlie wasn’t that. He’s not a guy that’s… I don’t know how old the character would be, but he’s probably close to Brendan’s age, in his 40s or something like that. So you can’t have Winston Churchill there, obviously. So stuff that you can do by doing it in 3D – which again, you can’t do in any other way, so nobody else has ever done this before – to compensate for the drag, you can print your prosthetics slightly smaller, so that when they’re glued onto the actor, they’re always a bit in tension because it’s smaller than Brendan’s actual face. That eliminates all those wrinkles that you get. So you can do all sorts of stuff like that, which is super liberating, and it solves tons of issues that I’ve been having. But maybe I suck and nobody else has those issues. [Laughs] Maybe nobody else has those issues… but I know they do. [Laughs]
DB: Do you see yourself continuing to use this method for all of your projects going forward?
AM: I haven’t done anything else but that since. And I know that this is a breaking point in makeup history, because already, when I attend anything right now… now that the word is out, when I attend, like… the Makeup Guild a couple of weeks ago, everybody was coming to me like, “How do you do that? Tell me. We need to go out for lunch.” That’s going to be the new Gold Rush right now. Everybody’s going to be like, “It’s been done! Wow. How do we get there?” And people will, either by reading articles like yours or by talking to me, they’ll get there. So this is a new start. This is the start of a new era in makeup effects, right here.
DB: That’s very, very cool. And I think that it’s interesting how it came out of necessity a bit with it being COVID times. We’ve talked a lot about how COVID has changed how directors and actors work on set, but we haven’t really talked a lot about how it affects other members of the crew, like the makeup team. And that’s a fantastic example of necessity being the mother of invention in a way.
AM: Yeah, absolutely. I didn’t see it like that, but you’re totally right.
DB: Did you find that the COVID precautions also changed how you had to actually work once you were applying the makeup?
AM: Well, for sure. Those were all brought up by the unions who were quick to step in and give us guidelines of how we had to work, how many people could do the makeup… That was at the very, very beginning of the pandemic, and when we did the first makeup test, me and my assistant were basically in hazmat suits. I’m not even joking. I think there’s pictures of it, we look like we’re ready to perform a surgery with triple masks and the shield… I don’t even know how we managed to do that makeup test like that. You can barely move.
So thankfully, with the constant testing that we had on the set of The Whale – we had three tests a week, so that’s a poor sore nose at the end of the week… on Friday, we were happy for the weekend to come. [Laughs] But still, with three tests a week, and we were wearing gloves often, and we had to wear masks… all the precautions were taken there, but most of those guidelines came, I guess, from the producers and the unions who were being rightfully careful at the beginning of the pandemic.
DB: That makes sense. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me, Adrien. It’s been fascinating to learn more about this groundbreaking moment. I wish you all the luck and success with that going forward.
AM: Of course. Perfect, thank you!
The Whale is currently streaming on demand and in the Academy screening room.