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Painting the Body Human with Judy Chin

by Joel Cunningham

Award-winning makeup artist Judy Chin recently put the finishing touches on her work for the Julie Taymor film, Frida, earning herself an Oscar® in the process. It was just another in a long line of successful jobs for the increasingly in-demand artist, who also created some truly memorable imagery in Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream.

She took some time to chat by phone with digitallyOBSESSED! from the set of the sixth season of Sex and the City.

dOc: I'd like to start by congratulating you on the Academy® Award for Frida, and also on the job you did making Salma Hayek look very much like Frida Kahlo. Just thinking of how beautiful Salma is, I didn't know how well she'd play in the role. What sort of things did you do, other than the famous "uni-brow," to make such a beautiful actress seem plain?

Judy Chin: Well, as she got older, we made her face more angular, pulled the color out. We were trying to illustrate how her state of health and her emotional state deteriorated...later in life. Though Frida still maintained, I would say, an incredible spark about her, physically things suffered, and we would show that through discoloration under [Salma's] eyes and making her more gaunt.

dOc: When you were doing the aging, did you reference mostly photographs, or did you also use some of her artwork and self-portraits?

JC: We definitely referenced photographs chronologically and historically, but we did, I must admit, use her paintings as almost a creative reference. I think Frida showed what was going on in her life through her paintings, and while it wasn't an actual look, it was a feeling that she expressed. I felt that that really needed to apply to the makeup.

dOc: What's the design process for a film like Frida?

JC: It's guided by what she looked like, but the creative aspects come into play when we talked with Salma and [director] Julie Taymor about what stage of the film...we'd want to illustrate a physical or emotional distress.

dOc: What kind of special work did you have do for some of the more surreal special effects sequences, where the paintings came to life?

JC: We had a wonderful makeup artist named Regina Reyes to do those makeups, and she basically treated Salma like a three dimensional painting. She studied the paintings themselves and created the different planes and highlights on Salma's face. I thought it was very effective.

dOc: And did you help with those designs at all?

JC: Not really. Those were basically following the paintings as closely as possible. That was decided early on, and I totally agreed with it.

dOc: What sort of techniques do you use to have the actors age believably on camera? Both Salma and Alfred Molina age very realistically, and even when Salma is playing Frida at age 15, she appears remarkably youthful.

JC: When she was younger, we kept her skin really bare and used bright washes of color on her cheeks and lips, and her brow was a bit softer. When she aged, we used prosthetics (on both Salma and Fred), and our effects artist, John Jackson, applied the prosthetics. We worked on painting it together, and painting a prosthetic is very different from painting regular skin, so that was a group effort.

dOc: How much fun was it to make Salma Hayek look like a man?

JC: [laughs] It was a lot of fun! She had her input as well. She'd say, "Make that stronger! Give me more of a shadow here!" We went back and forth and decided on the final product, and she was very much into it.

dOc: How much of the work you do is the more subtle makeup that most might not notice when watching a movie, and how much work goes into choosing and designing those looks?

JC: I think that's just an aesthetic that may vary from artist to artist, but I tend to keep things very natural, to be able to see a person's skin. I think that is so much more real than having someone's makeup be completely perfect and well powdered. It's not about strictly beauty makeup for me, I enjoy creating a character. In real life, makeup fades away and nothing is ever perfect.

dOc: When you're designing makeup, how closely do you work with hair and costuming departments?

JC: It varies from job to job, but ideally, we are able to spend time together and discuss various aspects of the characters' transformations within the film. It's the best when we can get together and talk about it and offer insight that one individual might not have realized. That way it becomes a whole picture, so the canvas comes together, rather than three separate ideas that have nothing to do with each other. And that happened on Frida. We were always in contact, discussing different looks.

dOc: I think when most people think of makeup, they think of movies like Lord of the Rings. How do you think the work you do compares in design and implementation, and what would you say to people who'd say the less flashy work isn't really as challenging?

JC: I don't think it is less challenging. I think if something is done well, it's successful. When people can watch a movie without thinking about makeup, it's successful. It's a completely separate creature. I guess I can compare it to saying, are comedies easier to do than drama? They are completely different creatures, and as long as they are handled well, they can both be very successful, and just as challenging, but in different ways.

dOc: How did the challenge of Frida compare to Requiem for a Dream? They are tonally very different, but both use some of the same techniques, from aging to prosthetics.

JC: Those two movies are my favorite movies because so many of the same creative elements did exist in both—a wildly creative director, really beautiful lighting, a really intense storyline, and wonderful actors. I loved them both so much I don't know if I can say one was harder than the other. I consider myself a filmmaker even though I'm not a producer or director, and a big part of it for me is that a good story and a strong director really drive me to bring their visuals to life, and I had that for both movies.

dOc: A few more questions about Requiem. Two of the makeup designs really stuck with me after seeing that movie. The first was the makeup Ellen Burstyn wore near the end of the film, when she was having her TV fantasy. Could you talk about how you came up with that garish look?

JC: One item of guidance [director Darren Aronofsky] gave me was that a simple way to describe the feeling of that makeup was like the evil stepmother in Sleeping Beauty, almost bordering on cartoonish, really well drawn and evil. And I have had the pleasure of working at the New York City opera at the beginning of my career, and those techniques helped me create the overall look. Ellen was up for whatever I wanted to do, to the point of enlarging her nostrils with tape to make them flare. She was great. She wasn't crazy about the nostrils at first, but once she saw how it all came together, she was cool.

dOc: You basically abuse your actors in that movie, turning Ellen in particular from a loveable grandma into a crazy, drugged-out woman, and she looks horrible by the end, which I think is a compliment to the work you did. Do you sometimes run into issues with actors who are nervous about looking that bad on film?

JC: Sometimes yes, but normally it starts that way and then it changes. They'll be nervous in my chair, but in the end they know it's necessary and will be effective.

dOc: The other makeup that stands out for me is the infection Jared Leto gets on his arm from injecting the drugs. Does putting on makeup like that ever gross you out? I've seen that film three times and I still can't really look at that when it comes onscreen.

JC: No, it doesn't gross me out, I love it! I love it, I look at it as a painting, and it's a huge challenge to me to imitate life. But, if it were real, it would completely gross me out. I've got tons of research books and medical books, and this horrible book about gunshot wounds, and it's really awful what happens to people, and amazing and fascinating at the same time, the textures that happen. If I had to see it for real, it would be one thing, but I love creating it.

dOc: And yet you still can look at the "Big Book of Wounds"?

JC: Yeah, I have to!

dOc: Shifting gears quite a bit, I wanted to ask you about Sex and the City. Have you finished your work on the last season yet?

JC: I'm in the trailer on-set as we speak.

dOc: What are the challenges of working on a TV show versus a film, with time and budget constraints?

JC: You work really quickly, you don't have the luxury you usually have on film. Things are thrown at you... And with working with the same characters for years, you really have to work to keep yourself fresh.

At this point, Judy had to run. An Emmy-winning makeup artist's work is never done, and Carrie Bradshaw had a column to write.