Makeup artist Dave Elsey realized a childhood dream working on Mr Holmes, the Ian McKellen-starring pic from Bill Condon in which Elsey tasked with transforming the 76-year-old two-time Oscar nominee into both younger and older versions of Sherlock Holmes.
In fact, you could call Elsey a Holmes superfan. He grew up in London, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the iconic detective novels, and near the Whitechapel district, where the real-life Jack the Ripper killed his victims. “I grew up in that kind of world,” Elsey says. “Those were the kind of fairy tales I got when I was younger. So Sherlock Holmes was with me for a very long while.”
In other words, Elsey was the perfect fit for the movie, which bowed in July from Miramax and Roadside Attractions. He knew every detail of the physical appearance of the fictional character: thin, strong cheekbones, a prominent nose. He also had seen every film version of Sherlock Holmes going back to the 1920s, from Eille Norwood to Basil Rathbone to Christopher Lee and beyond in the iconic role.
Elsey wanted to stay true to the novels’ description while not losing McKellen’s visage. “He looked very Sherlockian already, so we (Elsey and his collaborator, wife Lou) just wanted to sharpen him,” he says. “I find with Sherlock Holmes films they can fall down if you don’t get the resemblance right.” Elsey first sculpted four different cheekbones and paid attention to the hawk-like nose. The challenge was in making the actor look 10 years younger and then 17 years older.
Elsey says he was inspired by the legendary makeup artist Dick Smith. “I tried to imagine what Dick would do,” Elsey says. “I tried to implement his approach in this makeup. You wanted to use different techniques with McKellen’s face.” So, for the older Sherlock, he and Lou used old-age stipple in conjunction with prosthetics, and shaved McKellen’s forehead back to create widow peaks like Eille Norwood’s.
Creating the younger Sherlock was more of a challenge.
“Ian’s face is quite smooth, actually, so that helped,” says Elsey. “I had this idea that if I could flatten his eyebrows down and then stick the cheek pieces on, I could smooth his eye bags out and make it work.” Key to bringing Holmes to life was McKellen himself, who never strayed from character. “When Sherlock is younger, Ian came leaping into the makeup trailer,” he says, “and when he was old, we’d have to help him out of the trailer and get a walking stick.”
Check out the exclusive featurette above on the makeup for Mr Holmes.