Make-Up Artist magazine goes behind the scenes with Gary Oldman’s team on Darkest Hour 

By Joe Nazzaro

It was the make-up challenge that comes along maybe once or twice in a generation: turning one of Hollywood’s best-known actors into an actual and recognizable historical figure. In this case, it was transforming Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill for the biopic Darkest Hour—with that not inconsiderable challenge going to two-time Oscar nominee Kazuhiro Tsuji (Click, Norbit).

Fortunately, it was also the kind of project that Tsuji had been waiting for virtually his entire career. “One of my inspirations for starting out in special effect make-up,” he explains, “was a Fangoria article about a Dick Smith Lincoln make-up, which really inspired me to do this work, so my dream job was a big character likeness make-up. It was the kind of job I had wanted to do for a long time, so when Gary Oldman came to me with the project, I thought I should definitely take it.”

At the time Oldman had queried his availability, Tsuji had moved away from make-up effects work to pursue a career in fine arts, but the prospect of turning the actor into Winston Churchill was too intriguing to ignore. “My fine art work is all about creating a portrait,” he elaborates, “and while I still enjoy doing make-up, I don’t necessarily like being on set. So I thought, ‘OK, maybe I can design it and do the tests and then hand it off to another make-up artist after that.’ I asked Gary if that was OK with him, and when he said yes, I agreed to do the job.”

As it turned out, it would take two make-up artists to apply the final make-up, with two different labs in two countries making the pieces, but more on that in a moment. Before he got anywhere near that point, Tsuji had to figure out how to turn Oldman into Churchill; a far from simple task. 

“They look totally different, and the proportions of their facial features are very different,” he points out, “so for example, Churchill’s eyes were wide apart, while Gary’s are close to each other. Churchill had a rounder head while Gary’s is oval, so if I tried to make Gary’s face wider, the eyes wouldn’t have grown proportionately, so it would have had the opposite effect. Gary also has a longer nose than Churchill, but the good thing compared to the work I did on Looper [where Joseph Gordon-Levitt had to be turned into a younger version of Bruce Willis] is they wouldn’t be standing next to each other!

“Because I knew this wouldn’t be an exact copy of Churchill on Gary’s face, I wanted to try it out as a make-up first instead of doing some initial Photoshop designs. I also didn’t want to cover up Gary’s features too much, because he does a lot of subtle acting, and I didn’t want to affect that, especially around the eye area. If you put a piece around the eyes, a slight twitching won’t transfer to the surface of the appliance, and this was going to be a human being with a lot of subtle emotions, so I decided to keep it open around the eyes. But I also wanted to explore a lot of different possibilities, so we did four or five different test make-ups in Los Angeles to come up with the final and best version.

“I finally decided on a nose tip, a chin piece, cheek pieces and a big neck appliance, with vac-form pieces that pushed his ears out a bit. He also had a bodysuit and shoulder pads, so those were the pieces that went on him. For the test make-up, I made a wig here in L.A., working with Bob Kretschmer and Diana Yunsoo Choi. There was going to be another wig made in the U.K., but Gary didn’t like it at all and said, ‘I want Kazu to make the wig!’ so they initially shot with that test wig and flew back to L.A. We started making a new one right away. Each wig only lasted 10 days because the hair and lace were so fine, so we had to make a total of five wigs to get us through the shoot. Gary later told me that a Churchill historian who came to the set said, ‘Somebody finally got Churchill’s hairstyle right!’ so that was a real compliment.”

Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright’s DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features
Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

For the initial lab work, Tsuji contacted Vincent Van Dyke at VVD Effects to facilitate the construction of the Churchill prosthetics. “Kazu approached us early on,” confirms Van Dyke, “and expressed that he would design and sculpt the make-up, but wanted us to do all the positives and negatives and cast the silicone pieces. There was going to be three different versions of the test make-up, and once the final version was chosen, we would take those molds and run them. It wasn’t until a few days before we did the lifecast on Gary that we found out who we were going to be working with.”

“Kazu wanted me involved for the difficult part of the molding process,” continues moldmaker Rob Freitas, “which was for a seamless mold and a collapsible core. For the rest of the lab work, he asked my thoughts and I recommended Vincent. I promised Kazu that I would help out if he needed my help, so I consulted on a few things, and when that neck mold came around, I was available to do it.”

“It was very clear from the beginning,” Van Dyke picks up the narrative, “that even though we were doing three test make-ups (which turned into more than three), there were going to be multiple re-sculpts and variations, so when Kazu tested a make-up, he might say, ‘I want to re-sculpt the cheeks and forehead!’ so those three make-ups turned into more. We didn’t have more time, but Kazu wanted to perfect everything. We also knew the pieces had to be run 60-plus times, so our molds were all syntactic molds as if they were being done for a hero make-up and not a test.”

As Tsuji wasn’t slated to apply Oldman’s make-up on an ongoing basis, a make-up artist had to be found for the U.K. shoot. The actor suggested David Malinowski, with whom he’d just worked on The Hitman’s Bodyguard and had established a good relationship. “Gary really liked David,” remembers Tsuji, “who was very careful and meticulous, and I was amazed by how great his application work was. He also knew Lucy Sibbick and brought her in, because the make-up was going to be too much to do by himself.”

“I had heard Gary was going to be playing Churchill,” continues Malinowski, “and we had even talked about it on Hitman’s Bodyguard. I remember thinking, ‘Bloody hell, I wouldn’t want to be the one doing that job; good luck!’ and one day, Gary sent me a message saying, ‘How do you fancy doing Churchill?’

“And then Kazu got in touch and said, ‘Gary seems adamant that he wants you involved!’ but I was worried that he looked the least like Churchill that anybody could ever look, so I talked to Kazu about my concerns and he said, ‘I understand where you’re coming from; it’s a very difficult job.’ I knew Gary was nervous about it too, but he said he would do it based on the results of the make-up tests that Kazu would do in L.A. In the meantime, I talked to my wife and family who said I would be stupid not to do it, which was easy for them to say, because they weren’t the ones doing it.

“Finally, Gary sent me some pictures from the test that looked promising and said, ‘Come on, we can do this!’ so I talked to the producers and worked things out, and that’s how it started. I’m really glad I took the job, but when I spoke to other people about it, a few of them said, ‘It could go really well, but you could also be the person who messes up a Kazu make-up!’”

Since that make-up was going to be a two-person job, Malinowski enlisted Sibbick, with whom he’d worked for years at Coulier Creatures. “I knew this was going to be the biggest make-up I’d ever done,” insists Malinowski, “so Lucy was my first choice to work with. She was just as nervous about it as I was, but I knew I could trust her to back me up. As you can imagine, we had some very long days, so Lucy would go to set with Gary while I stayed behind to fix anything that needed fixing, and pre-paint the pieces for the next day. At the end of the day, we would de-rig Gary’s make-up, and I would finish prepping the next day’s pieces while Lucy would clean and restyle Gary’s wig.

Make up artists work on actor Gary Oldman’s prosthetics on the set of director Joe Wright’s DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release.

“The actual make-up took about three hours including his wig. We couldn’t make it any quicker because it took as long as it took and we all wanted it to be perfect, but we had an amazing time together and some good laughs.”

“I think David and I have very similar working styles,” continues Sibbick, “and it just happened I was coming to the end of another job, so it was perfect timing. Neither of us had applied a make-up of this magnitude before, so it was a very big deal to do it together. I know Kazu had done some tests in L.A. that David and I didn’t watch but David saw photographs of, and then I came on to the job and Kazu applied the make-up again with David and I watching. Then we applied the make-up with Kazu watching. There were also some suggestions about changing the color palette, so when David and I did our next test for [director] Joe Wright, we used a slightly different palette.”

To facilitate the overall application time, Oldman would shave his head every morning. “He knew it was the best thing to do for the make-up,” confirms Malinowski. “Once the make-up was done, Lucy would put the wig on him and sew it into the prosthetic neck piece at the back, which meant we didn’t have to maintain it on set. The wig lace at the nape of the neck would pop away from the silicone, because there was so much movement, and it would ruck up over his jacket or shirt. Sewing it in every day kept it in place.”

The silicone appliances for the actual shoot were made by the team at DDT Efectos Especiales in Barcelona, largely using the molds made by Van Dyke’s team. “It was all timed out in such a way that we had all of our test pieces cast and sent out,” notes Van Dyke. “In total, we probably cast pieces for half a dozen tests that were split between Los Angeles and London, including Kazu tests in L.A., Kazu tests in London and David tests in London.

“After all of that was done, we crated the molds and shipped them out very quickly to DDT, so they could start production immediately, so there wasn’t a big gap of time in-between. We didn’t provide pieces for the actual shoot, just to establish the look. Once that was done and everything was signed off on in terms of the color and which pieces were the hero pieces, the molds were sent off to DDT, who took it from there.”

DDT co-founder David Martí remembers getting a call from Tsuji looking for a shop to run 80-plus sets of appliances—and hesitating about the job at first. “We’re not really used to running that many prosthetics for a show,” he explains. “We usually do a show maybe 10 to 12 times and it’s done.

“And the other reason we were a little afraid was because it was Kazu, but we sat down and talked about it and said, ‘Okay, let’s do it!’ because there aren’t going to be many times when Kazu asks you to do something. It was a difficult time, because we had to run five sets of prosthetics every week and to get five sets they liked was very difficult. There were times when we thought the prosthetic was perfect but when it got there, they said, ‘No, we don’t like this!’ and we had to do another one, so it was a long and intense process, but we were very proud that Kazu asked us to do the work.”

Although Oldman’s make-up had been tested a number of times before shooting began, tweaks and adjustments continued to be made throughout production. As Malinowski recalls, “They started the first couple of tests in L.A. with complete coverage, but Kazu stripped a lot of it away to let Gary come through the make-up. We also had the wig to deal with, and the pieces from L.A. were too dark, so I wanted them to be a lot paler, and Kazu was very good about letting me do that, even though he had designed the make-up over so many months.

Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright’s DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features
Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

“I pre-painted all the pieces for the make-up myself, and I think Gary and Joe Wright really liked the paint job. I recently worked out the numbers, and I think I applied Gary’s make-up 56 to 58 times in total. There were 48 shoot days he was there for, eight rehearsal days and five test make-ups, so I think he wore the make-up 61 times, of which I stuck on at least 56 of them. I painted more than 60 sets of pieces, because I liked having that control over how the character looked. As much as we planned for DDT to paint the pieces for us, it just happened that it was going to be too difficult to design the paint job and send it to DDT to copy in the time we had and get the paint job back for approval. As much as it made our workload, it was definitely the best thing for the make-up, so it was one of those things where you’ve got to take one for the team and do it.”

That unerring quest for perfection from everyone involved in Oldman’s Churchill make-up has helped make Darkest Hour a major candidate for awards consideration. “It’s by far the best make-up I’ve ever been involved with,” declares Malinowski, “and Gary is one of the nicest actors to work with, so him asking me to do the film was a big part of doing it. If it was somebody else playing Churchill, who I didn’t know, I think I would have found it really hard to say yes, because I was probably saying yes to Gary more than the gig itself.”

“When you’re working those long hours,” agrees Sibbick, “and thinking, ‘Is this worth it?’ when you finally see it on the big screen, it is worth all that work.

I knew from the day that Kazu called us that it was going to be something special,” claims Van Dyke, “and I was honored for him to have asked us to be a part of it. It really was a dream-come-true job for us, and one of my all-time favorite jobs to work on because of the collaborative nature of it and being able to work with Kazu and Gary. For me, it was fulfilling in every way.”

“This is the kind of movie I’ve wanted to work on for a long time,” finishes Tsuji. “When I finally saw the movie, Gary was just amazing and I think the make-up is invisible. It’s a great movie, and I’m really happy with the outcome.”