Weta Workshop make-up artists – the unsung heroes behind Hollywood movie magic

Weta Workshop make-up artists – the unsung heroes behind Hollywood movie magic

Channel NewsAsia’s Genevieve Loh gets a first-hand lesson about the artistry and magic of movie hair, prosthetics and make-up from Weta Workshop’s Warren Dion Smith.

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Weta Workshop's hair, make-up and prosthetic artist Warren Dion Smith skillfully transforms Channel NewsAsia's Genevieve Loh into a dwarf straight out of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy.

SINGAPORE: Did you know that approximately 752 wigs and 263 beards were made for The Desolation Of Smaug, the second instalment in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit? Fun fact: The hair used is not synthetic, but from humans or yaks. 

Another behind-the-scenes nugget: Although there were only 13 dwarfs in The Hobbit trilogy, it took 165 people, including actors, doubles and stunt men, to portray them.  The time for production to complete hair, make-up, prosthetics and wardrobe for each person portraying a dwarf? Five hours. 

After doing production math, it’s evident that Jackson’s Weta Workshop’s hair, make-up and prosthetic artists really have their work cut out for them.

An arm of the Weta Group of companies in Wellington, New Zealand, the renowned Weta Workshop has been an integral part of some of the world’s biggest movies and instrumental to the success of many an award-winning film.

For more than 20 years, the five-time Oscar winning design studio and physical manufacturing facility has applied its creativity and craftsmanship to blockbuster films and hit television series including The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogy, King Kong, Avatar, District 9, Elysium, Chappie, Thunderbirds Are Go and most recently, Ghost in the Shell.

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Weta Workshop has been an integral part of some of the world’s biggest movies and instrumental to the success of many an award-winning film, including The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogy, King Kong, Avatar, and most recently, Ghost in the Shell.

The workshop's 11 departments employ a crew of about 200 artists who work with 50 to 60 clients each year in various areas. They are, arguably, the unsung heroes of the film industry.

While big-name actors and directors usually occupy most of Tinseltown’s limelight and adoration, this is a rarely recognised group of creatives who are just as vital in bringing the stories and characters of our favourite films to life.

From believable fantastical creatures to massive scars and head wounds, cinematic magic have long relied on the skill and imagination of the hair, make-up and prosthetic artist who has to realistically combine their art with film-making technology.

Kiwi native Warren Dion Smith who is a hair, make-up and prosthetic artist at WETA Workshop tells Channel NewsAsia that it’s all about the little details.

“Because everyone (working at Weta), they are perfectionists in their own right. Every little detail,” he said. “You could be designing something that might not even be used. That could be six months in the making of one garment (for costume) that ends up being something that you’re not going to be using. I’ve designed and made up 150-odd hairstyles in The Hobbit that were in CGI and they ripped all the hair out after I’ve spent all that time making them!”

Explaining that these are just some of the challenges working on a major Hollywood blockbuster, he continued: “Those are the things you’ve got to be prepared to let go and not get so emotionally attached to.”

Indeed, demanding perfection makes the artistry of practical hair and make-up special effects extra-special in an age of computer-generated effects and ever-evolving performance capture. After all, the seamless combination of make-up and actor can create an indelible movie character that will linger in the mind long after the credits roll.

Creating a backstory for each of the multitude of characters he’s worked on is something Smith likes to do. With an impressive resume that includes specialty hair and make-up effects for The Hobbit trilogy, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Elysium as well as weapons manufacture for Superman Returns and Warcraft, the artist knows what he’s talking about.

“(At Weta), the directors work closely with their conceptual design artist. Once the conceptual design artist has been accepted and locked in for the movie, I’ve got something to work on so when I see pictures that they illustrate, I think, ‘How will I be able to create that?’ And then I ask questions about where they live or what they eat,” he shared. “And so it happens from there. Every picture tells a story, so what I try and do is have my interpretation of the illustration.”

Smith joined Weta 15 years ago after meeting the mothers of Oscar winner Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop CEO Richard Taylor when he was just an apprentice hairdresser. Now, he is a fixture at the Weta Workshop booth at shows and conventions in both Australia and America, sharing his craft in hands-on demonstrations, spilling on-set movie secrets and applying prosthetic ears to the aspiring hobbits and elves of the world. He also designs and hand-knots human hair wigs, yak beards, moustaches and brows that are used for these Weta workshop make-up demos.

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Weta Workshop's hair, make-up and prosthetic artist Warren Dion Smith spilling on all the behind-the-scenes movie magic.

“For me to be able to be part of an industry that has gone global, I wish to let people know that there are places to go to learn how to do make-up,” he shared. “When you go to Weta Workshop, it’s all about learning on the job so you can learn everything there by watching, and then gaining experience that way.”

Most importantly, Smith believes that making movie magic all starts with treating all his actors equally.

"I was told by a friend who’s the head of the hair and make-up department (in Weta) and who won an Oscar for hair that without all the extras in the movies, there wouldn’t be the impact desired,” he said. "So I always looked at the extras as being my lead characters and I treat them, to this very day, like an A-grade celebrity.”

Source: CNA/gl

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