Dutch-born special-effects makeup designer Arjen Tuiten has worked with such famed creature designers as Stan Winston and Rick Baker, and delivered eye-popping visuals for “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006), “Alice in Wonderland” (2010), and “Maleficent” (2014). But the family film “Wonder” brings his work into the realm of reality. For it, Tuiten was tasked with creating special makeup for the young lead character Auggie Pullman (portrayed by Jacob Tremblay) who has Treacher Collins syndrome — a rare genetic condition that affects the development of facial bones.
“From the very beginning, the director, Stephen Chbosky, knew that he wanted us to have a boy in makeup,” says Tuiten during an interview at R.E.N., his airy Glendale special makeup effects studio . “He never saw it as a visual-effects job. The challenge was that it required the lead to be in heavy prosthetics makeup for 40 days. Realistically, you can only expect a 9-year-old to do so much.”
“Wonder” is based on R.J. Palacio’s bestseller, but he didn’t offer a lot of physical descriptions in the book. How did you come up with the details of Auggie’s face?
In the book, his condition is more severe. People with Treacher Collins have very distinguishable features. They have underdeveloped ears, cleft palate, underdeveloped cheekbones, which make the eyes droop. I talked with experts at a hospital in Chicago that specializes in treating children with this condition. I looked at a lot of pictures and was fortunate enough to meet Nathaniel Newman (a 13-year-old who is called “Auggie Pullman come to life” by Palacio) and his parents.
When I did the sculpt, I had to find the right balance between looking true to the condition and making sure it didn’t take too much from the performance. I also had to make sure Jacob was comfortable. One of the best parts of the job was getting feedback from parents who said they were happy that we told their stories. It was also great to hear from surgeons who said they didn’t realize we had used prosthetics!
What was were the daily makeup session with Jacob like?
We had two months before filming began in Vancouver to prepare. We took a head and shoulder cast of Jacob and started sculpting. As amazing and professional as Jacob is, he is still a kid and we had to make sure it didn’t take longer than an hour and a half to put the makeup on every day. To create the droopy eyes, we came up with this lock system with a thread that would pull the eyelids down. We would then hide it under a skullcap that he would wear under this wig and prosthetics.
I knew I couldn’t glue his eyes down for nine hours, so this way, he could relax his eyes after an hour. We had prosthetics on the chin and nose, fake eyebrows and teeth and little eye-bags that are connected to the wire. Then, when we did the first tests, we noticed that his eyes looked melted, more like a burn victim. So I came up with contact lenses that enlarged the iris and filled the white of the eyes. This helped get rid of that droopy look and made him cuter. The first time Jacob’s mother saw him with the makeup, she burst into tears.
You started your own special makeup studio two years ago at a time when we are seeing more CGI effects taking over the film business. What is your take on the overwhelming use of digital effects today?
I have many friends who work in CG effects, and I think it’s an amazing tool. But I do think that they have been overused. Some of the most memorable villains in cinema were created with physical effects. You get some amazing moments of magic when you put makeup on a great actor. Actors sometimes complain about the makeup process when they’re shooting the movie, but they always tell us in the end that the prosthetics helped them find the characters. In “Wonder,” as soon as the prosthetics went on Jacob, he would become a completely different kid. I believe that there will always be a place for physical makeup in the movies.