Made to Look the Part

Steve Zahn and Christian Bale in Werner Herzog’s “Rescue Dawn”

An actor’s inhabiting of a character is not only emotional, but physical. If an actor isn’t visually convincing in their role it can undermine the surrounding story — it can shatter our suspension of disbelief. Sometimes becoming a character requires enhancements.

In filmmaking it is the actor’s job to morph into their character, but it may also require the support of a team, whether that means personal trainers and dietitians, or makeup effects and post production artists. These alterations may be minor, but they can also be substantial. The actor’s appearance can determine the believability of a story and its subject matter.

The importance and necessity of a physical transformation often depends on whether an actor is playing a fictional or biographical role. An actor’s face is less likely to be altered for a fictional character, whereas a role based on a real person may benefit from practical enhancements. Body shape can also be of importance to communicating character within a story, regardless of its origins in fact or fiction.

The questions about actors’ likenesses being changed is how important is it to the story? What extent of body transformation or facial augmentation is aesthetically necessary or ethical? How much value do audiences place on actors visually fitting into their roles?

(Note: I’ve limited the subject of my discussion to human characters only. Monsters, elves, aliens and the like have been exempted. If you’re interested you can read my piece about KNB EFX Group, which explores special makeup effects in film and TV.)

How Much Do You Weigh?

Among the most noticeable and newsworthy roles actors can undertake in filmmaking involve whole body transformations. The dramatic loss of gaining of weight is often the subject of debate among viewers and critics with regard to its impact on actor’s health and wellbeing, but is also lauded by many who view the practice as incredible dedication to the craft.

Clockwise from top left: Raging Bull (1980), Hunger (2008), Nightcrawler (2014), and Syriana (2005)

In films such as Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away and Werner Herzog’s biographical Rescue Dawn, the characters are starving under desperate circumstances. Seeing the emaciated bodies of actors like Tom Hanks and Christian Bale is a striking visual that reinforces their characters’ plights and their struggle for survival. Used with dramatic effect in Steve McQueen’s Hunger, Michael Fassbender’s diminished frame shows viewers the suffering and resolve of his character during a prisoners’ hunger strike — his withering body is the visual and emotional center of the story. In 2014’s Nightcrawler Jake Gyllenhaal’s frenzied, insomniac character is communicated in the film via his overly gaunt appearance, in addition to his apathetic and morally dubious actions.

In contrast gaining weight can be used as a storytelling device to show a character’s excesses or contentment. In Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull we see Jake La Motta, played by Robert De Niro, change from being a young and promising prizefighting boxer into an older, out of shape and defeated man, whose body acts as a reflection of his professional and personal downfall. Filmmakers and actors may also choose to depict fictional characters as being overweight to reflect their comfortable lifestyles or being past their physical prime, such as Russell Crowe in Body of Lies and George Clooney in Syriana.

The other, most common act of body transformation is bulking out and toning up. In preparation for roles actors will spend months in gyms with personal trainers honing their physiques into peak condition, and eating controlled diets to minimize body fat for maximum definition. Male actors train to look like athletes and bodybuilders, whereas women train to have lithe frames with subtle tonality, both of which reinforce traditional models of masculine and feminine body image. Action stars, superheroes, romantic leads: audiences expect them all to have idealized shapes and proportions.

How Important is Likeness?

In lieu of needing whole body transformations filmmakers may focus their attentions to the most communicative aspect of every person — the face. While body language is important the greatest reading of emotions is found in our facial expressions, and it is also the primary means of how we identify ourselves and recognize others.

With biographical Filmmaking there is an expectation for an actor who is playing a real person to bear a natural likeness, or be made to have their likeness. In the latter, hair and makeup is sometimes enough to make one person look like another, while in other circumstances it is deemed necessary to use makeup effects and prosthetics to sell the illusion. Latex and silicone appliances are often reserved for the most recognizable faces in our popular consciousness. When cast in The Hours Nicole Kidman wore a prosthetic nose to better approximate Virginia Woolf’s profile, and Anthony Hopkins was given similar enhancements to play the Master of Suspense in 2014’s Hitchcock.

Clockwise from top left: The Hours (2002), Walk the Line (2005), Nina (2016), and Black Mass (2015)

Makeup and appliances, however, are not always successful or welcome. In the 2015 film Black Mass Johnny Depp wore contact lenses and hid himself under heavy layers of special effects makeup to transform himself into the notorious real-life mobster, Whitey Bulger. The problem with his transformation is that, while Depp is unrecognizable in the role, he doesn’t look like the real man — viewers and critics were more distracted by the makeup than convinced by it. Cast to play Nina Simone in a biopic about her career and tragic life, outrage and controversy ensued when it transpired that Zoe Saldana had been given more African features and darkened skin to more closely resemble the famous jazz singer. Critics and Simone’s family were at a loss to explain why the filmmakers hadn’t cast an actress that would be better suited for the role and not need such extensive alterations.

Some filmmakers and actors make the bold decision to not use latex and silicone to depict real people, believing that the makeup will hinder a performance and that audiences will accept the visual discrepancy. In James Mangold’s 2005 biopic Walk the Line Joaquin Phoenix was cast to play the Man in Black, Johnny Cash. Rather than alter Phoenix’s face to closer resemble the legendary country singer, the filmmakers let the music and his story do the telling.

The choice to transform an actor using special effects techniques often depends on our familiarity with the subject, but is left to the discretion of each filmmaker whether it is an essential or distracting component to our viewing experience.

The Past and the Future

There are countless stories that are not limited to a single time frame, where a character is seen in the many stages of their life. There are a host of traditional practices in filmmaking that have been used to render characters through dramatic periods and changes in their lives, and digital techniques have introduced astonishing new ways of accomplishing these cinematic spectacles.

Casting several actors with a mutual likeness to play the younger, adult and older stages of a single character over the course of their life is considered the most tested and simple option, but more ambitious and resourceful filmmakers have chosen alternative approaches. Special makeup effects can take away years from a performer’s face, but it is most often used to age actors years of even decades into the future. Depending on the artists the effect can be remarkable (Max von Sydow in The Exorcist) or laughable (Winona Ryder in Edward Scissorhands).

Clockwise from top left: Skyfall (2012), The Exorcist (1973), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), and Rust and Bone (2012)

In the last ten years, CGI has advanced to such an extent that an actor can be digitally aged or rejuvenated in photo-realistic detail. David Fincher used the technology to dramatic effect in his 2009 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to render Brad Pitt’s character through the 20th century (although child actors were cast to play his younger/older self in the last act). Marvel Studios has since utilized and advanced the technology in Ant-Man, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War, and most recently to create a 30-years younger Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Hugh Jackman also plays his younger clone, X-24, in James Mangold’s 2017 film, Logan.

The advent of digital visual effects has also enabled filmmakers to show characters before and after traumatic events which have left them radically changed, which would have been near-impossible to accomplish using practical effects alone. Gary Sinise in Forrest Gump and Marion Cotillard in 2012’s Rust and Bone both had their legs removed via digital trickery to dramatic effect to highlight the physical and psychological toll their injuries have caused them. In the James Bond entry Skyfall, the antagonist, Silva, in a shocking scene reveals the damage his failed suicide has caused to his face — the entire left side of his cheek has been destroyed. Digital modifications to actors’ bodies and faces has become one of the greatest tools in immersive, hyper-real filmmaking in the 21st century.

Our personal investment with any film rests on our acceptance of the illusion. With live-action actors at the center of the majority of the films we watch their part in our suspension of disbelief is maybe the most important. We not only have to believe in their dramatic performance, but we have to believe in their physical performance, also. Whether the transformation can be attributed to an actor, a special effects team or a visual effects house filmmakers understand the need of the viewer to be fooled and immersed. But they must also remember to use their tools and practices with restraint, sensitivity and consideration.

Coming soon: Forget What You Know… There’s Another World


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