As far as physical transformations go, Brendan Fraser’s in The Whale is by far the most drastic this year in film. For the task of making over its highly recognizable lead actor into the obese recluse Charlie, director Darren Aronofsky enlisted his longtime collaborator, prosthetic designer Adrien Morot, to design the character as sensitively and authentically as possible.
“I always try to do makeups that are subtle and unnoticeable,” explains Morot. “It should be like, ‘What? This actor was wearing prosthetics? I just thought I hadn’t seen him in a few years.’ I was hoping that it would be the same thing with the character of Charlie … to the point where, after the initial shock for fans of seeing George of the Jungle in that condition has passed, that you wouldn’t be thinking about it, because then the makeup would become invisible, natural enough that it doesn’t become a distraction.”
Because of COVID, Morot was faced with innumerable challenges in executing this labor-intensive job. For one, timing: Aronofsky initially gave Morot five weeks to complete his designs — less than half the time normally allotted for a transformation like this.
“I was like, ‘OK, we can use all of the shortcuts everybody uses, all the tricks: long sleeves, the normal padding, the high collar,’ ” Morot recalls. “Then I read the script. I was like, ‘Whoa, this is something else.’ This is the main character of the movie in basically every scene. It’s a heavy drama. The subject matter is so sensitive, and needed to be approached with such finesse. We couldn’t do what was done before. We can’t do Shallow Hal.” At Morot’s insistence, Aronofsky conceded and gave him 12 weeks.
Another hurdle was that Morot’s team didn’t have physical access to Fraser ahead of time to create molds of his face and body, the usual practice when creating prosthetics on this scale. As a result, Morot had to be creative: During the height of the pandemic, one of his colleagues was sent to scan Fraser’s body with an iPad in his driveway in the dead of winter. That data was brought back to Morot’s shop, where he was able to craft prosthetics to cover the actor from head to toe using 3D printing, previously unheard of as a technique for results like those that Morot achieved.
Customarily, a cast of the actor is made, then clay is added to the plaster face where desired and a second cast is created. The difference between the two becomes the mold for silicone prosthetics. “If you’ve done your work well, all the edges finish at the right place and you can conceal it perfectly with makeup. Then it becomes invisible and becomes part of the actor’s face,” says Morot. “So, that’s how it’s always been done. That is, until The Whale.”
Making prosthetics using 3D printing poses a problem: The edges of the pieces need to be so thin that they blend seamlessly into the face of the actor, something that for a long time was simply impossible via printing. That didn’t stop Morot from purchasing more than a dozen 3D printers over the past several years and experimenting with what he thought might be achievable.
“That has been a major technical obstacle, and nobody has, as far as I know, been able to do this. Everybody that comes to my shop is like, ‘You’re doing what? How are you pulling this off?’ The Whale changed everything because we didn’t have access to Brendan. I was like, ‘Well, maybe this is the time to do it. I might break my neck, but at least it’s going to be with Darren, and he’s going to be a bit more understanding.’ “
A full-body artificial skin suit was created using 3D printing and filled with sacks of “gelatinous water beads” to get the movement of Fraser’s limbs right. While the look was exactly what Morot’s team was after, the bodysuit posed other challenges: “We have 25 pounds on each arm. The legs had the same kind of structure, but were, like, 40 pounds. But what that did, I think, is help him find the character. And realizing how strong people living with that condition have to be.”
Until now, Morot has mostly kept his experiments with 3D-printed prosthetics to himself. “I’ve been pretty secretive. At first I was really open, thinking that everybody was doing it. I’ve always been a bit technologically inclined. So, the second that I worked with [3D printing] a little bit, I saw a world of possibility. I started really investing in this — I would go shooting on location for months, and then take my per diem and buy 3D printers and turn my hotel room into print farms, testing out things.”
How has he overcome the snags other designers have faced when working with this technology? “It’s a mix of how the prosthetics are sculpted in the computer and how the molds are done, and the materials used,” he says. “The combination of those elements made it that we managed to get all those super thin edges. And I’m sure The Whale is the perfect time for me to start talking about it, because obviously it’s an important part of the process here. I’m sure that now the seed of the idea will be put in other people’s minds. I’m sure that it will forever change the way prosthetics are being made.”
This story first appeared in a Jan. stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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