When CGI Won't Cut It: 6 Realities Of Being A Movie Monster
Doug Jones is one of the most famous actors you don't know. His biggest roles are behind makeup -- he was Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies, the Faun and the Pale Man in Pan's Labyrinth, and the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four: Whatever That Movie's Subtitle Was, among many other roles. He may have also been your birthday clown once, and you'd never know. We talked to Dougie to learn more about what it's like to monster professionally.
Monstering Skills Begin In A Surprising Place: With Mime
Working in a costume is a physical job -- you have to be able to emote and express yourself through movement instead of with your face. Dougie learned to do this by studying mime in college. So save this article, aspiring mimes, for when everybody laughs at you. And they will. Oh, how they will.
But if it all works out, their kids will be playing with action figures of you.
Dougie started with commercials, because the same skill set that's used to portray surreal, otherworldly monsters is apparently also useful for pitching mufflers. "My first resume included 'Mime' and 'Contortionist.' I never traveled with a circus; I can put my legs behind my head and that's my one party trick. But you would be shocked how many times that's come into play, where I could work that into a sight gag and it made me castable."
Eat your heart out, Julliard.
As a kid, Dougie discovered that he could put one leg behind his head to freak out his older brothers. But he never tried two legs until he was forced to, because sometimes making it in Hollywood means risking a spiral fracture. "I didn't know I could get both of my legs behind my head until a commercial audition for Midas Mufflers back in like the late '80s. The director said, 'Okay, this guy is playing a big Swedish massage therapist, and he's going to tie you into this knot. So he'll put one leg behind your head, and then he'll put the other leg behind.' I had never done that. So of course, like any actor, I was like, 'Of course I can do that!' while thinking, 'Oh gosh, I hope this works.' They both went back, and I was tied into this weird pretzel knot. I got the job, and that became a part of my schtick."
"You'll appreciate this later when you're crammed into a robot suit."
Dougie was then scrunched into the back seat of a Porsche like a maniac's luggage to help show off how comparatively roomy Nissans are, and he also did a circus trick to sell jeans, because the ad industry is constantly teetering on the brink of madness. "I fit into a little glass cube in a Lee Jeans commercial. They were advertising how you could bend up and not cut your circulation off. I come walking out and look at this glass box and think, 'Huh, It looks like no human being could ever fit in there.' But oh, I did. It was 18 inches by 18 inches, and the height was 20 inches. That's a tight fit for a 6'3" fellow."
That eventually led to the role of Mac Tonight, a moon-headed crooner who encouraged viewers to eat at McDonald's in the evening.
It ... it was the '80s.
"That was a huge hit for McDonald's. Their business after 4 p.m. skyrocketed. So they kept me around for three years, and I did 27 commercials in this worldwide campaign. So that's what marked me as this tall skinny guy who moves well and wears a lot of crap on his face, and the biggest thing is that I didn't complain about it. Because most people were like 'Get this off me, it's hot, ew!'"
Let that be a very specific lesson, kids: If you don't complain when people put weird stuff on your head, you can go far.
The Makeup Process Is Brutal And Unforgiving To Human ... Weaknesses
Here's Dougie as Abe from Hellboy:
Seen here wearing an elaborate costume on top of his already-elaborate costume.
That costume took seven hours a day to prepare. And that's after they'd mastered the process. "You're looking at at least three hours a day [if it's] just your head, neck, and hands. And then you go to work. Pan's Labyrinth, the faun was about five hours, and the pale man was about six." So imagine having to sit in a chair for seven hours every day before you can even start officing or selling counterfeit puppies or whatever it is you do for a living. And then you have to get right back in the chair to get it all taken off at night, although we'd be tempted to leave it on and tell people it's a medical condition.
"Always wear shower sandals in college. Stuff spreads."
And you know how your most stylish clothes are generally not designed for comfort or functionality? Well, strapping on a bunch of makeup, foam, and latex cranks up that problem. "A crazy makeup from head to toe might be hot, it might be heavy, you might not be able to hear well ... if you have finger extensions, forget about being able to do anything for yourself for the rest of the day. When it comes to lunchtime, you have to use utensils very gingerly." And when Dougie says "forget about being able to do anything," he means anything.
"Going to the bathroom is an interesting experience. You've got finger extensions on, you can't see well, and your costume maybe has a trapdoor in the front but nothing in the back. So you have to be sure that you've had your bowels cleansed before you go into makeup, because you can't have an accident in your suit. And thank heavens, I haven't, but I've had some close calls. Even with a trapdoor for peeing, when you're wearing claws or have your hands glued into talons, you can't negotiate your business. So I find myself ending a lot of those days dehydrated and angry."
So, while this guy is legitimately terrifying now ...
... imagine how scary he is after nine hours and two coffees and no outlets.
Acting In Makeup Is An Acrobatic Feat ... While Mostly Blindfolded
It's hard to deliver a stirring monologue when you're about to fall over. "In Pan's Labyrinth [as the Faun], I was up on stilts which made me seven feet tall, and I also had prosthetic leg pieces that made a zig-zag formation, so I had extra girth and appendages to worry about."
Here are a couple of rehearsal photos, which make Dougie look like he's participating in a minimalist experimental prison play:
"They'll CG the shiv in post."
If you watch the Faun in motion ...
... you'll see it blink and wiggle its ears. That's mechanical, and it was like having to work on your computer with your head stuck in a bee's nest. "My vision was through the tear ducts of this mask. So I could basically see through two toilet rolls all day. There were mechanics built into my head, servos and motors and batteries. [They operated] eyebrow movement, eyelid movement, and the ears flopping around, there's a lot of [Editor's note: At this point, Dougie made a buzzing noise that sounded like a fax machine vomiting up a smaller fax machine] in your ears all day long. And you've got to listen to dialogue cues over [it]. Couldn't hear, couldn't see. When you're up on stilts, you're not confident with your steps. The horns were extremely heavy, because that's where they tucked all the batteries. Add to that reams of Spanish dialogue, a language I don't speak. So the memorization process was grueling on top of the five-hour application process and performance issues that came with that."
Plus, you've gotta be nice, because no matter how much crap you're wearing, taking it out on a 12-year-old would still be a jerk move.
It's not exactly working in a coal mine, but there's more to the job than stomping around like a maniac. Although ... "Hellboy collects cats; he has like 50 running around. There's this one scene in Hellboy II where we're talking quietly because Selma Blair is lying in the bed behind us. Then alarms go off, we've had a breach of security. I have to respond by looking up at a red flashing light, walk in an L-shape across the room, and then hit a mark and say 'The princess!' because the elven princess is in our care and I'm worried. All I can see through my little pinholes is this red light on the ceiling. I cannot see where I'm stepping. So they put a sandbag on the floor, so when I hit the sandbag I know I'm at my mark. Take one happens, we're talking, and then the alarms go off. So I look up, I stand, I walk forward, I make a left turn, and I hit my sandbag. So I stopped and delivered my line. Then I felt around with my foot and the sandbag was gone. The entire crew bursts out in laughter. 'Was that my sandbag? Where did it go?' And Selma Blair looks up from the bed and says, 'That was one of Hellboy's cats.' I kicked the poor thing, and it went sailing across the floor. The cat was okay. I felt really bad about it."
Some Of Your Hardest Work Is Barely Seen
The thing about makeup is that sometimes hours and hours and hours of work produces an iconic character, and sometimes it produces mere moments of screen time. Remember Quarantine? Maybe?
"[My longest makeup session] ever was on Quarantine. My character was the Thin Infected Man. I was the reason for the entire outbreak in this quarantined building. When the camera crew finally finds me in my apartment, the power's out, they have a night vision camera on, and you see me as this crusty old withered man. They had to put bony shoulders on me, and I was wearing nothing but a pair of saggy whitey-tighties. So the rest of me had to be painted or enhanced somehow. My whole body had old-age makeup on, they had to glue in long, scraggly white hair, I had a bulbous forehead that looked like I had water on the brain. That makeup was 11 farking hours. The camera goes past me twice. 'Oh, there he is! Oh, that looked gross! Oh, there he is again! He's so gross. He's dragging her away, what now?!' End of movie, roll credits."
Yeah, we'd be making that face too.
So maybe they were the best six seconds of the movie, but it's still only six measly seconds for all that work.
But at least that film saw wide release. Sometimes, all those hours of daily makeup wind up being for obscure movies that barely make their budgets back.
"I did a French biography of Serge Gainsbourg. He was a singer/songwriter of huge fame in France, kind of a Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra type. He was rebellious and cussed a lot and smoked cigarettes and was drunk in every interview he ever did, and the French loved him."
"So they did a movie based on his life, and they wrote in an alter ego for Gainsbourg, and he would have conversations with and be influenced by his alter ego, which was me in full-on raging makeup, another five-hour application. I was everything about his face that he hated -- he had a prominent nose and some big ears. And I had to recite dialogue in French, and I was particularly proud of getting through the physical parts and delivering the French dialogue, but American audiences just didn't know about it. So the four months I put into that movie was ... I wish more people had seen it."
Art is hard, kids. But getting to wear this costume is priceless.
Presumably the cat eyes were there as a "just cuz" kind of thing.
Practical Effects Will Always Have Their Place
We've previously explained how excessive CGI can make a movie look like a goofy orgy of cartoon physics and weightless characters that don't feel real. Dougie offered his take on the practical effects vs. CGI debate -- which, at the risk of overhyping it, is essentially the Catholicism vs. Protestantism of our time.
"For a while, when CG was getting better and better, everyone in the practical effects world was cringing. 'Oh my gosh, all the jobs are going to go away!' And they tried that, but then there's been a return to practical effects. And what you find out from the fanbase is that they roll their eyes and go, 'Ugh, if I wanted to watch a video game, I'd play a video game.' People like to watch other people. It's a fact of life. We're fascinated with other human beings, even if they're playing a monster. We want to connect with that performance. I can certainly appreciate great CG. But I would hate to see the artistry of practical effects lost, and there are purists out there who agree. We're still fascinated [by it]."
The future seems to lie in a smart combination of both. "The big change I've seen is a combo platter. When I was Abe Sapien, it was complete practical makeup from head to toe, but CG was used to make the eyes blink. When I played the Silver Surfer, I was in a full, complete makeup suit from head to toe, but they did a CG coating over me that made me look otherworldly. When I started in the '80s, we didn't have that option. As the Silver Surfer, I lost my power about halfway through the film and grew tarnished. That's when the CG coating went away, and you were looking at a practical effect. That's actually my favorite piece of the film, because I can see more of my own performance without the coating."
No millions of dollars of computer work will ever match the simple majesty of a naked man covered in paint.
Because when you go through all the trouble to look like an Oscar statue's angry little brother, you may as well get to appreciate the result.
There Is A Market For Professional Monsters
Dougie noted that the reputations of monster actors have ebbed and flowed with time. Vincent Price and Boris Karloff were huge back in the day, then a bunch of unknowns chased around bikini-clad teenagers with chainsaws, and now people are starting to know their names again. Doug Jones, Andy Serkis, Woody Allen ... people are starting to know who the monsters in Hollywood are.
"A lot of folks hate to use the word 'pigeonholed,' but that's a blessing. Pigeonhole me; that means I'm employed. So I don't mind being thought of as the tall skinny guy who wears lots of rubber. Once you're established as something, even if it's monster guy, more [people] are interested in breaking me out of that. I did a Hallmark Channel movie last year called The Ultimate Legacy. Hallmark doesn't make monster movies!"
Though a cameo from the Pale Man sure would've spiced up Love In Paradise.
Dougie has been forced to share two big roles, because to some producers, "monster guy" is synonymous with "can't act guy."
"In the first Hellboy, I was voiced over by David Hyde Pierce. I walked in with the decision already having been made by the studio that, whoever they get to wear this crazy makeup, they might as well cast an A-list actor to voice it. When I heard, I was like, 'Oh please, please don't,' because I feel like I walk in as a complete actor. No one else was voiced over, why me? When I did bark up, I was given the opportunity to have my name added to those being considered. It's weird to work when you feel like you're auditioning for the job you have. But in the end, everyone loved my voice. I was confident that they needed to look no further. And everybody was telling me that, too. Two weeks after, I was told that David had voiced over me, because they wanted the marketing value."
Apparently, there's a big overlap between his fanbase and movies about monster-punching.
Don't go hating on David for big-timing Dougie, though: "When he was brought in, he saw me on the screen and heard my voice. And he asked 'What am I doing here?' which is a huge compliment. He did the job he was paid to do, and he did a great job, but because of how he felt, he asked for his name to be removed from the credits. He also didn't show up at the red carpet premiere, didn't do any press, no interviews, didn't sign autographs, nothing. And when asked why, he said, 'Out of respect to Doug Jones.' He certainly didn't have to do that, but for him to back away and not want to steal thunder from me was incredibly respectful and sweet. I've never met him, but when I do, I'm going to kiss his left cheek."
Now we want to set up that meeting, if for no other reason than to make some of our David Hyde Pierce fanfiction come true.
Then we'll show those small-minded producers whose Fraiser script "presents thematic concerns."
Dougie was voiced over in Silver Surfer as well, but he did the voice in Hellboy II, and now has contractual protection against having his voice replaced. That's how you grow a fanbase. And sometimes those fans are serious. "A young lady came up to me at a convention and said, 'Would you sign my forearm?' So I did a Doug Jones on there, and two hours later, she came back with it covered in plastic. And I gasped and said, 'Ooooh, no!' She had it tattooed on her! I said, 'Oh honey, you ... why did you ... that's the rest of your life!' Your grandkids are going to say, 'Who the hell is Doug Jones?' She said, 'Oh, but you're in good company!' She lifted up her other forearm, and it had 'Stan Lee' on it."
And when she brings her two arms together, emblazoned with those mystical names, she magically transforms into ... The Biggest Nerd!
You can check out Doug's official website, or look for him in The Strain and The Bye Bye Man. Calix is has posted far too much about his film, music, and writing work on his own website, and on Twitter, and he also made a movie with Dougie called Greyscale. Mark is on Twitter too, and he has a book which he wrote entirely while wearing an elaborate costume.
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