Building a Grinch

Michael Mallory is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji began his career in his native Japan, where he worked with, among others, legendary director Akira Kurosawa. Coming to the U.S. in 1996, he began working for Cinovation Studios, the makeup and effects shop of multi-Oscar-winner Rick Baker. Tsuji’s work on “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” continued his association with Imagine Entertainment, where his credits also include the films “The Nutty Professor,” “Life” (for which he applied Martin Lawrence’s makeup) and “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps.” Tsuji, 31, described for Calendar what it was like transforming perpetual-motion performer Jim Carrey into the Grinch four days a week for more than three months. Director Ron Howard, makeup designer and supervisor Rick Baker, producer Brian Grazer--and, of course, Carrey--also weighed in.

Tsuji: I was originally supposed to work on “Nutty Professor II,” which we were doing at the same time. But from the first test makeup for “Grinch,” I was doing applications on Jim Carrey, and Jim actually requested me to do on-set makeup on him. The first makeup design had him covered all over, but the studio said, “No one can tell this is Jim, it’s no good,” so we started to reduce the makeup just to show them the possibilities. The last one was only to paint him green with shadow and highlight and put on a wig. At first Jim wanted the lighter makeup, as light as possible, so he could move a lot. He made a videotape of himself making a Grinch face, and it looked great, but just painting him green and giving him a wig doesn’t make him a Grinch. He started to realize that, and he agreed that our approach was more the right way to do it. We had tried about six different designs, and less than a week before shooting was to start, we went back to the first one.

Baker: I felt very strongly that the character should be a Grinch. I kept saying, “It’s not ‘How Jim Carrey Stole Christmas.’ ” At the last minute, they decided that this one approach stuck out. We could have had boxes of appliances [the foam rubber pieces that are glued to an actor’s face] ready to go. Instead, we were pretty much pulling them out of the mold and sticking them on Jim’s face. [Because of the nature of the material, fabrication of an acceptable appliance requires several attempts.] Still, I was happy with the design decision. I was brokenhearted when they were talking about going with the lesser kind of makeup.


Tsuji: The first day of shooting was so hectic. Every first day has some kind of problem that you have to deal with, but this was actually the first time we tried the final design on Jim, and we were not sure if he would like it or not. I was nervous, and Jim was nervous, too. As it turned out, he didn’t like the way his neck was covered with the hair, which was part of the wig, so we had to fix it right on the set, which meant we couldn’t start the shooting right away. It was the first time I got that tension, and I think many people had that tension, because Jim is a perfectionist, and every time there was a change, he said something.

The biggest problem with the makeup for Jim was the contact lenses. They were using fake snow on the set, which was actually dried, smashed paper pulp, and on the set there were always tiny particles flying around in the air. The dust actually went between the lenses and his eyes, so he had a painful time.

Grazer: Beyond the talent, Rick and Kazu have a lot of patience and inner discipline, because this is hours and hours and hours of work. And Jim, of course, is a perfectionist, so everything has got to be exactly the same as it was on the day before, and the day before that, and he knows the difference. One day he was given contact lenses, which were like these big green Frisbees on his eyeballs, and I thought they were the same exact lenses he’d worn before, but he was able to discern a teeny difference, and he was right. We had to get new ones made because he was able to tell the difference and said: “The camera will tell too!”

Tsuji: An average day started at 5 or 6 in the morning. The makeup time itself was fairly short, about two hours and 10 minutes. With the help of my makeup assistant, Amy Schmiederer, I tried to work as quickly as possible because we didn’t want Jim to sit in the chair for a long time. There were three major steps in the makeup: to apply the foam rubber pieces on his face that covered almost everything but his lower lip and chin; to paint on the color and to put on the hairpieces and the wig. After each step, Jim would have a break of 10 to 30 minutes.

While I was doing the makeup, he would be watching a DVD or listening to music. Almost everyday he was playing a CD of “Bee Gees Live.” After a while I was doing the makeup in time with the album, and I could tell if I was a little bit late or a little bit fast by the music! Then one Friday, Jim said, “I want to take this album home today,” so we took it out of the CD player and gave it to him. But on Saturday, I was thinking: “Maybe he’ll forget to bring it back, and that will mess up my rhythm with the makeup.” I went out and bought the same CD and brought it into the makeup trailer the next week. And of course, he forgot to bring in his. I said, “Don’t worry, I’ve got it!” and he laughed. I’ve never asked any actor or anyone I’ve worked with to give me an autograph, but that time I asked Jim to autograph the CD case of the Bee Gees.

Howard: There were weeks when I didn’t see Jim’s actual face. By the time I would come in and start talking to him about the day’s shooting, Jim would already be halfway into the process, leaned back in his chair with Kazu working away. Occasionally I would see him after he removed the makeup or if I got in early enough before he was going into makeup, and I was always a little taken aback. Kazu is definitely an artist, no question about that, and there were nuances in the application that really elevated the look of the character.

Tsuji: Most people don’t realize the level of maintenance involved in makeup. Application is actually less than half of what I have to do each day. Maintaining the makeup is the biggest part of the job because movement and sweating will affect how well the makeup stays on his face. Jim was constantly moving around so there was constant touch-up on the set. But once Jim starts a scene, he wants to keep going and do it again and again and again. Every shot he did, he tried at least three times or more to come up with something better, and during that time he didn’t want to be touched up.

Carrey: Basically, it was a real lesson in Zen. Every once in a while it would be very funny because they would know I was having a problem, because I would punch myself in the leg. I learned about pain deferment--you pinch your leg or your arm, and take the focus out of your discomfort. It was tough the first couple of weeks, but I was able to transcend it. It’s amazing what humans can get used to.

Tsuji: I had a monocular--like a telescope--and I would keep watching Jim on the set, looking for problems with the makeup. He would joke about it. Whenever he was somewhere else, he would say: “Kazu must be watching me!” To keep the touch-ups as short as possible, I carried a tool belt, like a carpenter’s belt, but one that had compartments all around me, not just on the left and right sides. I looked like a crazy soldier because I had everything on me and I could do anything I had to do right on the set.

Baker: Kazu was a walking makeup factory. I kept calling that his “utility belt” because it looked like a Batman thing. The gaffer on the show also had a belt with a bunch of stuff on it, and when he saw Kazu, he suggested that he put suspenders on the belt to distribute the weight more evenly. So Kazu adapted the design to include suspenders, because it weighed about 100 pounds.

Tsuji: At the end of each day, Jim wanted to be out of the makeup as quickly as possible, so the lens technician, the suit technician and I would run over to him and start to remove everything we could on the set. All that would be left on him was the Grinch face without the hair and the black spandex suit he wore underneath the furry costume. Then he would go back to his trailer for a break, during which he would start peeling the makeup pieces off himself. He tried to get them off in one piece, and he put the used appliance in a Zip-Lock bag with that day’s call sheet. He gave those to some people as a souvenir. By the time he came to our makeup trailer, he just had dark makeup around his eyes and bits of the appliance left on his face, and we would clean those up, which took about 40 minutes.

Howard: I wore the makeup one day. I wore it all day. It was fun for a half-day, and I was glad to get out of it at the end of the day and happy never to experience that again.

Tsuji: On the last day of shooting, we were definitely relieved. We had shot with Jim in the makeup for 92 days, and that’s a lot. The set was more relaxed on the last day, and that was a really good feeling. When we finished shooting, we were talking about how hard it had been and how great it had been, and Jim said he felt like he had gone through the war. I felt like I’d had another life, almost, a totally separate one, because it was so tough. But it was great. That day Jim gave me one of his bags with the last day’s used appliance and the call sheet.

Carrey: People will totally recognize me in this film--it’s just a little bit of latex. Hopefully I got to the point where even through the contacts, you saw the Grinch’s soul. If they say action and I’m still thinking about the suit, then I’m in trouble.

Tsuji: About two months after the filming was completed, Jim and I talked again. He said he admired me, and told me I did a great job and said thanks. I thanked him too, because he went through that whole thing. I think “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” was the hardest film I’ve ever worked on. It is a good memory, but if we had to do that again . . . we won’t do it!”