On August 17th, before all the madness of the 37th annual Toronto International Film Festival begins, the Canadian Film Gallery at the TIFF Bell Lightbox opens its doors to the public to premiere its latest free exhibit, X-Men Master: Gordon Smith – Makeup Artist Extraordinaire & Special Effects Wizard. Tucked away on the fourth floor of the Lightbox, the quaint space that the gallery occupies is quite deceiving, as it seeks to highlight the history and achievements in Canadian cinema. Despite being smaller than its larger cousin in the lobby, it’s not only noteworthy but also incredibly vital to TIFF’s mission to chronicle the rich Canadian cinematic history that has been unbeknownst to much of the public for far too long.
Smith, an Ontario native and graduate of the University of Windsor’s theatre programme, worked alongside X-Men and sequel X2‘s director Bryan Singer to breathe life into the then less than fresh pages of Marvel’s forty year old comic book franchise, The Uncanny X-Men. The exhibit features remarkably realistic silicone casts of Senator Kelly (Bruce Davidson) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Smith’s character sketches, and even the contacts each of the actors wore in their mutant make-up transformation.
Although X-Men and X2 are examples of some of Smith’s most exciting work, with even just glances at Smith’s portfolio (which can be found on his website for his special effects company FXSMITH) its easy to notice that the Canadian FX guru has had his hands in quite a few memorable projects (Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Face/Off ) in the past. Still, its X-Men and X2 remain what Smith is most renowned for, and which he only worked on nearly 20 years into his extensive career.
During a media preview of the exhibit attended by Smith, I had a chance to ask him about transitioning from his early theatrical roots to becoming a member of the so called “Gore Boys” of the cinematic world.
“I was only doing a favour for a friend of mine. In his early days he was doing a film called Virus.” Smith said. “I had my own theatre at the time, and he had to build these decomposed people who had dehydrated from the virus. The director didn’t like the stuff that he was doing, so he called me and said ‘Gord, can you build this? Can you try to take a shot at this thing?’”
“So we stayed up all night and we built this funny head, and the next thing you know we’re building seventeen of them. Donny, my friend, gets to keep his job, and by the end of the day I phone the major newspapers and say ‘I’ve got sixteen dead bodies in my living room, if you think that’s a good story you’ll come by.’ The Globe and Mail was the first one there with a camera, and they gave me a two page spread.”
“So you know, for somebody whose spent his life in the theatre, it was like ‘I just got a two page spread for making a bunch of dummies?’ And it was a joke, ‘The Gore Boys,’ the whole thing was kind of funny and we never expected to do it again. But, it was a big lesson learned. You make all these silly rubber things and get a two page spread- I wasn’t about to turn down the opportunity to do it again.”
Although one of the most intriguing things about Smith’s great impact on the special effects industry is his induction, just speaking with Smith was all I needed to get a glimpse into the gears that allow his clearly well mechanized FX imagination to function as a well oiled machine. When speaking about his approach to bringing these decades old X-Men to life, Smith told me his intentions were to bring out the subtleties which make mutants so fascinating.
Smith explains that he purposely tried to down play their physical differences (well, except for Mystique and Nightcrawler, whose deep blue hues couldn’t be construed as anything but mutant) in order to show how similar their appearances could be to ours in the real world. Some of us have dark skin, while some have light and although now common place, these are still markers of difference for us in our real world. It’s this type of thinking that sets Smith vision apart from all the rest.
Nearly 30 years ago, Smith’s early use of silicone (an idea Smith got from the synthetic material’s safe use in breast implants) for prosthetic mouldings instead of the then routine latex was unheard of. But unlike latex, silicone’s capability for reuse and status as a safe alternative to the harmful special effects make-up commonly used on set caused silicone to quickly become an industry standard and placed Smith at the forefront of the often unseen hands that craft our favourite on screen illusions.
Renowned for his meticulous research, I asked Smith about the exhibit’s and X-Men’s piece de resistance: Rebecca Romijn’s breathtaking (and unbelievably skin tight) Mystique suit. When Smith told me that his inspiration for Mystique’s unforgettable blue veneer comes from “Bryan Singer screaming ‘I want her nude, I want her blue, and I want her covered in scales!”, I was glad to hear the special effects guru hadn’t lost his sense of humour after all these years of making fake blood and guts.
The exhibit runs to March 31st, but don’t let that slow you down from seeing these fascinating creations from a Canadian special effects innovator whose vision some thirty years ago is responsible for setting the standards that the audiences of today expect in any special effects heavy film. Also, if you haven’t seen the first two movies or the exhibit piques your curiosity to see these pieces in action, the Lightbox will be screening X-Men (Thursday, August 16th at 9:30pm) and X2 (Saturday, August 18th at 2:30pm) to further show off this Canadian effects master’s handiwork.