Kazuhiro Tsuji is widely regarded as one of the greatest makeup effects artists in the world. Starting out as a student of makeup effects legend Dick Smith (The Godfather (1972), among many others), Tsuji later spent several years working with another makeup effects legend: Rick Baker at Baker’s shop in Los Angeles. Tsuji has been nominated many times for an Academy Award for his makeup effects work, including his masterful work this year transforming Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (2017). Known for his deeply realistic work, Tsuji worked on such films as Men in Black (1997), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), Hellboy (2004), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), and Looper (2012).
Tsuji retired from film in 2012 after Looper, and has pursued a career as an artist and sculptor. He is noted for his extraordinarily large and realistic busts, including his widely-lauded Abraham Lincoln.
When pre-production began on Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman sought out Tsuji and insisted that he be the one to transform him into Churchill.
DVD.com: First of all, congratulations on your Academy Award nomination. It’s kinda funny; the day after I contacted you, you got nominated for an Academy Award. That’s exciting!
Kazuhiro Tsuji: Yes! Thank you very much.
DVD: You created the makeup and prosthetics that turned Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill (in Darkest Hour), and I have to say, that’s Churchill up there on the screen. You did a fantastic job. Tell us a little bit about how you ended up working on this film and working with Gary Oldman.
K.T.: Yes, so the first time I met Gary was on Planet of the Apes (2001). He had been cast as one of the characters, but he ended up turning down the role because he couldn’t make a good deal with the studio. I was at the Rick Baker shop and I had already done a livecast of Gary and did a design. And right after that he turned the role down.
[DVD.com note: Rick Baker is a legendary makeup artist whose career began in the early 1970s, and who created makeup effects for such films as An American Werewolf in London (1981) and Men in Black. Baker has won seven Academy Awards for his makeup work.]
DVD: So you were that far along in terms of creating Oldman’s look.
K.T.: Yes. I had just started to sculpt. And then in 2002 I did a portrait of Dick Smith, who is my mentor.
[DVD.com note: Dick Smith is considered one of the greatest makeup effects artists of all time. He did makeup effects on Little Big Man (1970), The Godfather (1972), and The Exorcist (1973). He won an Academy Award in 1985 for his work on Amadeus (1984) and an Honorary Academy Award in 2012 for his life’s work.]
Gary was visiting a makeup convention and he saw the sculpture and was really touched by it and said he wanted to work with me some. In 2012, a filmmaker made a documentary about me and she asked Gary to [do] the narration.
I saw him and we had a conversation, but that was the year I left the film industry. And then at the end of 2015 he sent me an email about Darkest Hour, and he said this project is starting and if I take the job he would do the film, but if not this film is not going to happen. I told him that I would like to think about it. Because I left the film industry (in 2012) as a serious decision, and if I go back into the film industry just by one email I feel I would be betraying my life.
DVD: I understand.
K.T.: So I spent about a week thinking. I wanted to work with Gary. And the reason I started special effects makeup was because of the first time I saw a picture of makeup done by Dick Smith was in a magazine called Fangoria. It showed Dick turning Hal Holbrook into Abraham Lincoln. I wanted to do that again.
DVD: The story of how you got into makeup effects is pretty interesting. I wonder if you could tell us how that happened.
K.T.: Before I saw that magazine, I didn’t have any interest in special effects makeup. I thought that was just for horror movies. And I hated horror movies and I didn’t have any interest in it and I still don’t take a job that requires bloody gore stuff. I was more interested in special effects for film. The first Star Wars (1977) really inspired me. I didn’t like school and I was looking for a job where I can be in a profession after I graduated from high school.
DVD: So you were in high school when you saw this article.
K.T.: Yes, and I just happened to be at the one bookstore in Kyoto, Japan, where they imported magazine and books. I found Fangoria, I opened up the magazine, was looking through and there I found this article on Dick Smith. And at that moment I decided, ‘Okay, I have to do this.’ I was really fascinated by how he created another human on top of the person who was acting. I was just amazed. I couldn’t tell how he did it, so I started gathering information in books and magazines. I went to the library in high school and put together a[n] Abraham Lincoln. I did a livecast and started to sculpt and make Abraham Lincoln.
DVD: So you were just doing this on your own because you were interested in it and you were a high school student.
K.T.: Right. And eventually after about five months I found Dick’s P.O. box address in the back of the magazine. I wrote to him asking what would be the best way to be a special effects artist because I really wanted to do that. And he replied right away! His answer was: “The best way to learn is to practice yourself because there is no good school out there.” He also said whenever I came up with new makeup I could send him a photograph and he could give me comments.
DVD: Wow. That’s incredible!
K.T.: Yes. So that was the start of the relationship. I sent a lot of pictures to him. That year, he was invited to be a judge for a special Halloween contest in Japan, so he said, ‘Why don’t we meet in person in Tokyo?’ So I went to Tokyo and we met and he would be supervising [a] Japanese film the next year. And he suggested [I] join the crew for the film after I graduated from high school. So that’s how I started my vocation. I worked really hard until I moved up to Tokyo. I was hired with a company there called Makeup Dimensions for two and a half years, and then I made my own shop/studio.
Also, Dick had his own makeup course, a professional course. He sends a big phonebook-thick instruction manual.
DVD: So this was like a mail class. You would work on it and send back photos.
K.T.: Right. When we met in Tokyo, he brought me that makeup course. It was about $2,000 at that time, and he said ‘You can pay when [you] can.’
DVD: Obviously, he saw you had some talent.
K.T.: Yes. I guess.
DVD: More than I guess! He doesn’t just give away $2,000 courses to just anyone!
K.T.: It was very nice of him.
DVD: What movie was he making when he was in Japan?
K.T.: It was a horror movie called Sweet Home. It wasn’t that big a movie. Well, at that time it was big in Japan, but compared to American standards it wasn’t that big. I was teaching at that time. I was 22 or 23 years old and my students were 18, and I started to think and got kind of frustrated. My dream was to come to the United States and become a special effects makeup artist and I hadn’t made my dream come true, and I started to think: ‘What am I doing?’ And I started to feel that I have to go there (Los Angeles). I became good friends with Eddie Yang, who was one of the crew invited to Japan when we were working on Sweet Home. I talked to Eddie and [said] I will go there even if it is illegal, but I need your help to find a job.
Eddie had just started working with Rick Baker on Men In Black, and he said he would talk to Rick. A week later I got a call from Rick’s assistant and she said you can come whenever and we will provide the visa and everything. Rick knew about me through Dick and Eddie and other makeup artists. He saw my work before and he just decided right away to hire me.
DVD: That’s pretty impressive because Rick Baker’s one of the biggest artists in your field.
K.T.: Oh, yes. Rick and Dick are two of the best. So that was in 1996 and I moved out to Los Angeles.
DVD: Okay, so here’s what I am wondering about. You’re living in Los Angeles, you’re a very successful makeup artist and working all these big movies. You worked on Looper, in which you made Joseph Gordon Levitt look like a young Bruce Willis, and then you decided to retire and focus on sculpture. I’ve seen a lot of photos of your sculpture and your bust of Abraham Lincoln is particularly striking. Have you always considered yourself a sculptor or did you just decide to try something new?
K.T.: Sculpting is a part of special effects makeup. It’s a really essential part of the skill set that you need. I love[d] sculpting when I was a kid.
DVD: Your sculptures remind me—in terms of their scale—of Chuck Close’s paintings. Is that who you were emulating? Why the large, oversized bust in sculpture?
K.T.: This all started with the Dick Smith sculpture. I made it for his 80th birthday. I wanted to give him something using techniques and knowledge I learned from him, and I wanted to do a bust portrait. I wanted to show how much I respect him. That scale is how I feel about him. He is larger than life to me, like a father figure. So you look at [it] like a kid to his father. I have kept creating portraits in that size.
DVD: So part of what you’re saying with the scale of these busts is this person is a larger-than-life figure. Let’s talk about the Planet of the Apes (2001) reboot. You turned Tim Roth into General Thade. Is it typical for an artist to work on only one of the characters?
K.T.: Well, I was one of the design team at the beginning of the film. I was at the Rick Baker shop and I designed several makeups, but I picked that one (General Thade). Of course there were many other makeup artists who would be working on a film on other characters. Thade wasn’t the only character I sculpted and designed.
DVD: Another one of your most notable makeup jobs was the transformation of Jim Carrey into the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I’m not a big fan of that movie, but the makeup he has in it is remarkable. He’s such a physically expressive character. I’m wondering what it’s like to work with an actor whose face is so important—it’s a big part of what he communicates as an actor. And then putting prosthetics on him… What was that like?
K.T.: Some people think he’s funny, but I just found him to be obnoxious.
DVD: So really hard to work with. I’ve had my share of those types as a writer.
K.T.: Yes. That experience was one of the reasons I started to think this maybe is not what I want to do, you know, keep working in the film industry with those kinds of people.
DVD: I am familiar with that. I’ve written jokes for some pretty terrible people myself. Another iconic actor you worked with to transform his appearance was Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). You know, he has such a familiar face, an iconic face really. What’s it like to age him? What was it like working with him?
K.T.: He’s an amazing person and a very nice person. He knows what he wants. There’s Jim Carrey, but I also worked with many great actors, like Brad Pitt and Joseph Gordon Levitt and Gary Oldman. When I age people, it has to be based on the script and what the actor wants. And the director. And the studio. Everyone’s input is required. You know the hard part of making film is making everyone happy. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone sees things in a different way.
DVD: Do you ever say to them, ‘Hey, leave me alone, I know what I’m doing!’?
K.T.: I would like to! But it doesn’t work that way. They are paying me so…
DVD: Most films are shot out of order. So, today we’re shooting Brad Pitt as an old man, and then tomorrow as a young man, and then the day after that as a very young man, and then as an old man again. Does that pose any special challenges?
K.T.: It’s just really about continuity, and keeping records of what I did in one scene so I can recreate it.
DVD: So you have a library of photographs of what you did in a particular scene.
K.T.: Yes. That’s very important. I am not so fond of continuity because repeating the same thing all over again is not so fun, but that’s part of the job.
DVD: When doing facial prosthetics—to turn Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill, for instance—what is the main material you’re working with?
K.T.: The appliance—that is what we call a facial piece—the main appliance material for the facial piece is silicone. There’s a company called Mould Life and they have a product called Platsil-10—that’s the silicone I use the most. You can adjust the softness and make it really soft, so it feels like skin. What happens usually after the sculpture is done, it will be cut into sections and I will make a mold of each piece. And in that mold I will spray a plastic material and then I pour silicone into it. The silicone will have a coating on it, a skin. Then each piece is glued onto the actor’s face.
DVD: I look at Gary Oldman as Churchill and it’s astonishing. Gary Oldman is a person with a relatively narrow face and fine features. And Churchill had a broad, round head and he’s jowly. His features are large. It’s a remarkable transformation you created on Gary Oldman. Tell us about the process you go through with a project like that.
K.T.: Okay, so the first step is to take a head cast of Gary and take a bunch of photographs. We also did a 3D scan of his body because we had to make him heavy in weight and make him into Churchill’s body shape. Then, after that I started to sculpt on Gary’s head cast. I collected lots of pictures of Churchill and watched documentaries. I did a lot of capture of film footage of Churchill. Then based on that I would compare with Gary’s face and decide where I had to build up and what to change. The thing of it is, though, we don’t want to do too much because we don’t want to put a mask on him. He has to act through the makeup. The hard part is to find a good balance between it looks like Churchill but Gary can still express the emotions.
DVD: How long does that process take from taking the cast of Gary’s head to okay, today, we’re shooting a scene and Gary is Churchill?
K.T.: Well, on this one the director, Joe Wright, wanted to see three different versions with test makeup. So I did three different makeups and it took about two and half months after we did the live cast. And then we did two more a month after that. The fifth version was almost there. I brought that to London and we did the film test. After that I wanted to change one thing. We did another film test. From the beginning I told Gary I did not want to work on the set, I didn’t want to be around for that. So we got David Malinowski and Lucy Sibbick (co-nominees with Kazuhiro for this year’s Academy Award) to do the application. I showed them how to apply, and then we started shooting.
DVD: In the past when you’ve worked with actors, you’ve been on the set. I assume it’s a fairly intimate process. I mean, you’re putting makeup and prosthetics on their face, you’re spending a lot of time with them. Do you form any kind of bond? Do they run lines with you?
K.T.: They run lines with me, but it’s… well, best way to say it, we need to trust each other. And if the relationship doesn’t go well, it will be a horrible experience. You have to face them everyday. It depends on the personality of the actor and myself how close we get.
DVD: I guess it’s like working with anybody. Some people are fun to work with and others aren’t.
K.T.: And some actors I keep my distance out of respect. It depends on the person.
DVD: You have a number of credits where you are a supervisor. What’s that all about? How do you put together a team, how do you manage them?
K.T.: It depends on the project. When I was working at Rick Baker’s shop, we had a maximum of about fifty people. My supervising position was scheduling and organizing. I wasn’t doing budgeting at that time. But I would talk to each department and make sure everything is going fine and on schedule. And not just on the technical side but also on the artistic side too. If that particular movie has a character I want to create, during the day I would be supervising and then after work I would stay in the studio and work on my character. Since I got my own studio, most of the time I hire people I know because it’s easier that way and I know how good they are.
DVD: So you retired in 2012 and then came back last year and now you have an Academy Award. Are you going to go back to sculpture or will you do more film work?
K.T.: My main goal is to continue to do sculpture. I will still do design. I still love the process of doing makeup. But I don’t do that full time. I feel like by doing design and part of the makeup, I am giving back what I learned from Dick and Rick. I want to pass on to younger people. That’s important because I have spent most of my life doing this.