‘Elvis’ Prosthetic Designers Jason Baird & Mark Coulier On The “Subtleties” Of Transforming Austin Butler Into The King Of Rock And Roll

For Elvis, prosthetic designers Jason Baird and Mark Coulier thought the bulk of their work would be transforming Tom Hanks into Colonel Tom Parker. They were surprised to find that the real challenge was the subtle changes for Austin Butler as Elvis throughout the film. Baz Luhrmann’s biopic takes a 20-year look at the unprecedented superstardom of the legendary Elvis Presley (Austin Butler.) The story is told through the eyes of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), as he navigates Presley’s career through rock ’n’ roll, Hollywood movies, and a Las Vegas residency. As he aged, the prosthetics on Elvis needed to change gradually, to create an almost imperceptible difference to simulate his natural aging.

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DEADLINE: Can you walk me through how Austin Butler’s prosthetics change throughout the film?

MARK COULIER: That was a really interesting thing because originally, we were thinking about the makeup for Colonel Tom Parker on Tom Hanks. So, that’s a fat, bullfrog neck and bald head, and then there might be a few things to do on Elvis as well. Obviously, the fat makeup at the end, you know, the heavier makeup when he is doing the “Unchained Melody” at the end of the movie. What we didn’t realize then was that there was gonna be more work turning Austin Butler into Elvis in terms of prosthetics than there was on Tom Parker. Austin Butler’s wearing a chin piece all the way through the movie right from the beginning, and then we added cheek pieces and a jawline for when he is in Vegas. When he comes back and does the ’68 special and he’s wearing the black leather outfit, and he’s looking really super handsome, Baz wanted him to look more mature and chiseled and less boyish than Austin looks, you know? So, we were able to push his character more into Elvis territory and change his face. When you’re watching the movie, imperceptibly he becomes more Elvis as you get through the movie, because we were able to add more stuff to him. That was the general thing with Austin. And the other thing we did was pin his ears back, we made a prosthetic that sits behind the ears to pull in Austin’s ears, just because Elvis had those ears that held flat to his head. And then Jason’s team took on the application day to day and did all the fat suits and all the prep.

JASON BAIRD: For Tom Hanks, his daily makeup was around about three and a half hours. When he was really old, it was around about five or five and a half hours, because the older look had far more pieces on, he was completely encased. Austin’s artists were Emma George and Anthony McMullen, and they did an amazing job with him. His makeup was around about two hours and the hair on top of that, because the hair pieces was quite an intense process, was a bit more than an hour to put all of Elvis’s hair pieces on after the prosthetic.

Austin’s progression as Elvis through the film, the subtleties that that went into those prosthetics go down the microscopic, tiny imperfections in the skin all the way through with his tanning. The guys did a beautiful job applying and coloring those makeups and also changing the coloring throughout his handsome days. There’s handsome man Elvis when he’s in the white suit, when he just starts the Vegas tours, and he’s beautifully tanned, fit and strong looking. And then he starts to age down through into the ’70s and he gets heavy or he starts parting more. He starts taking more pills and obviously doesn’t get out in the sun much, and his face starts to get a bit puffier and starts to get a bit paler. Those subtleties really added so much to creating Elvis and making him change that heavily throughout those later years. 

DEADLINE: Was there a lot to change with the Colonel as well?

COULIER: I think we did two sculptures, there was the one when you first see Colonel in the movie, and then there was the old age stage. So, the other variations were in the wig, the gray of the wig and the coloration which Jason was talking about, this progression of aging him and hand laid eyebrows in as well. As he got older, there’s gray hairs going into the eyebrows and the wig was changed and the hairline receded even more. We didn’t need to sculpt five different Colonel Tom Parker face pieces because he looked pretty similar over that period of time until the end.

BAIRD: Tom Hanks’ coloration change spans through three decades. So, we followed the progression of Colonel Tom Parker aging up. They’re in Vegas, so they’re out in the sun, and just following his birth marks and his sunspots and all the skin damage from the sun. Also, at the early stages of testing Baz wanted to see the bullfrog neck get a little bit thicker and a bit heavier. So, Mark and his team produced internal prosthetic elements that fattened up the prosthetics to give him that extra weight and age as he got older.

Baz in early talks wanted to see kind of a hawk-like nose for the colonel’s character and wanted this hawk-like look. So, we’d curl some hair and hand lay those on right at the end of the makeup. With just Baz trying to nail down what he wanted to see with the Colonel, Mark and his team played with different size noses and once that was all locked down, we refined that a little bit. 

COULIER: That was quite interesting, because Tom Parker didn’t really have that hooked nose, but Baz really wanted that for this character.  That’s the time when you are trying to get as close as you can to Elvis without losing your actor, so you’re treading this fine balance of keeping your actor and pushing him towards Elvis. We’ve all seen where you go too far and it’s obviously a makeup, and what you’re trying to do is something that’s imperceptible. You don’t want people to know that Austin Butler’s wearing loads of prosthetics. But people have only a vague idea what the colonel looks like. They have a rough idea, so therefore Baz has a bit more leeway to alter it. And he really wanted this hook nose, so at one point during testing, we’re working with Jason, and Baz is like, “Oh, have you got any nose putty? Can we just see a nose?” And Jason had some mortician’s wax back at the workshop, so I did an old school mortician’s wax nose on Tom Hanks, which is spirit gum and then cotton wool and then mortician’s wax that will stick in the cotton wool. It’s really old school. It’s one of the first things I ever did at makeup college, like 35 years ago. And then Baz comes in and starts squishing it round into a position and putting big thumbprints in it, but it was great because Tom loved it and Baz was able to kind of sculpt it on Tom’s face, which was really funny.

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