Though prosthetic design is one of those movie crafts that march forward on the back of technology, makeup effects artist Matthew Mungle has discovered the virtues of retro. Assigned to create old-age appliances for Sissy Spacek and Christopher Walken in the New Line release Blast From the Past, Mungle eschewed silicone and even the time-honored foam latex in favor of old-fashioned gelatin. "It's the same kind you buy in a grocery store, really," says Mungle. "They used it in the 30s, on movies like The Good Earth, before they came up with foam latex for The Wizard of Oz and The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
Back then, the hot motion picture lights tended to melt the gelatin, so foam latex was a godsend. Now, technology has indeed allowed the situation to come full circle--cooler lighting technology, that is. Mungle has found that in one sense, gelatin has it all over foam latex. "I'm always trying to find new products to look like skin, which is semi-translucent because you have the depth of the flesh. Foam latex has that opaqueness to it: you can't see through it, and you have to paint your heart out to try to make it look like skin." Gelatin, on the other hand, "has that skin quality to it."
Silicone gel has the proper amount of translucence, but appliances filled with this newer substance have another downside: "You can't really get a good blending edge," claims the makeup artist, an Oscar winner for Bram Stoker's Dracula and Emmy winner for Citizen Cohn. "The pieces we're using on Blast From the Past blend right in the middle of the face, so you need something that's going to blend off into the skin. And you just can't do that with silicone at this time. Gelatin you can."
Blast >From the Past is a comedy directed by Hugh Wilson about a nuclear-age couple who retreat into their bomb shelter (an underground replica of their suburban tract home) during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. A timelock device shuts them in for 35 years, and by the time they're ready to emerge, their neighborhood has slid downhill and they've produced a son who has grown into Brendan Fraser. They've also aged from 32 to 67, which is at least a few years older than Spacek and Walken.
"We had to make them look as young as possible at first so we had a place to go to," says Mungle. The film's makeup department head, Ben Nye, Jr., was in charge--along with Heidi Seeholzer--of the actors' youthful scenes, and applied stretch and stipple for transitional sequences. Mungle, whose company W. M. Creations, Inc., manufactures makeup and prosthetic products--and includes a novelty business--took over for the present-day scenes.
"I designed some appliances that started on the side of the nose, ran down the nasal-labial folds, and went down into the jowl area," says the makeup artist. "Sissy's is one piece that ran underneath her chin to give her a little bit of a wattle, while Chris Walken's is two pieces. The aging was done very subtly, because you don't want to go overboard and alarm the audience."
The procedure with gelatin is to "mix it with certain components, including flocking, which is little pieces of fiber cut up very small," says Mungle. "We melt the molten gelatin in the microwave, and pour it into the molds we've sculpted from their face casts. When you pull the appliance out of the mold, the flocking looks like little capillaries under the skin. Then we apply it with Prosaide, an adhesive that also forms a barrier between the skin and the appliance."
This is important, because of one of gelatin's inherent flaws. "If a performer has a tendency to perspire quite a bit, then the gelatin, which is melted by salt water, starts to break down on the skin," says Mungle. "So if I run into an actor that does perspire a lot, then I'm going to go back to foam latex. It's not that I'm against it."
Though Mungle says his "passion" is aging makeup--"because it's so difficult to do a truly believable old age; you're putting an actor in prosthetics next to an actor who doesn't have any prosthetics"--his recent work also includes a special bald cap for Meryl Streep in One True Thing and the transformation of Mike Myers into club owner Steve Rubell for 54. He was nominated for Oscars for Schindler's List and Ghosts of Mississippi, and has won a number of Emmy nominations for such high-profile cable films as Oliver Twist, George Wallace, and Miss Evers' Boys.
Apart from testing and small bits, the first full-scale project on which Mungle used gelatin was his old-age makeup for James Woods in Ghosts of Mississippi. "To my knowledge, that's the first time since the 30s that gelatin has been used for extensive old age in a major motion picture," he says. But he adds that nothing is written in stone: "Next week there might be a new product out there."