Faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges on Stephen Chbosky’s Wonder, what makeup designer Arjen Tuiten was able to pull off was as wondrous as the story he was working to tell, landing him his first Oscar nomination last month.
An adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s beloved children’s novel, Wonder centers on Auggie, a young boy growing up with a genetic disorder called Treacher Collins syndrome, which results in deformities of the facial features.
Going on to become an unexpected worldwide smash—grossing over $266 million to date—Chbosky’s emotionally satisfying, universal tale required not only a highly innovative makeup artist, who could go boldly where none had before, but also a child actor who could perform comfortably and capably behind prosthetics, which would render him unrecognizable.
A prosthetics-heavy shoot can be a grueling and untenable situation for even the most experienced of adult actors, so Tuiten and his director were lucky when they came to nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay (of Room fame), a young actor of unusual abilities who withstood the entire endeavor without issue.
Having worked with the likes of Guillermo del Toro and Tim Burton, Tuiten knows a thing or two about creature design, while finding satisfaction in more grounded, human stories, for the challenges they provide. “Working on creatures for Pan’s Labyrinth or fantastical stuff, you have a bit more freedom, and can get away with certain things,” the designer says. “With Jacob or something realistic like that, there is no room for error. It’s based on a real condition, and if the skin tones aren’t correct, or it was just too much, you were going to be distracted.”
Devising prosthetics for Tremblay that satisfied Chbosky’s naturalistic approach to the project, Oscar-nominee Tuiten would ultimately carry this project on his shoulders in more than one sense, designing makeups that could be applied in record time so that, child labor laws being what they are, Tremblay could spend the bulk of his time on set—and Chbosky could get his movie in the can.
You faced a real uphill battle with Wonder. What was it that gave you confidence that you could pull off the job?
One of my biggest concerns was that we couldn’t lean on anything. There was nothing—there wasn’t another movie where a nine-year-old lead had been in full prosthetics. It’s a lot, and for any actor to go through that, it’s a mindset to begin with. Something told me that it could be done, but because of the fact that you’re working with a nine-year-old and everything leaned on that makeup, I wasn’t sure. But you know what? If you don’t try, then you never know. It wasn’t until I met Jacob, getting some of the energy off of him and seeing what he was like, that I’m like, “Okay maybe this is possible.”
In preparing for Wonder, did you look to the book’s description of Auggie for inspiration? To pictures of real-life children with Treacher Collins?
Auggie in the book is very severe, but for this to be able to work on a boy as a makeup, it was never going to go that far. Stephen always felt it should be a makeup, so we pushed it as far as we could—with Lionsgate, also—trying to find a balance where Jacob was comfortable enough to do his acting.
I’ve talked to several families with Treacher Collins kids. I talked to a hospital in Chicago, with Dr. [Pravin] Patel. He was about to do surgery on a little 10-year-old boy who has Treacher Collins, and the family agreed to send me some medical photos of his face because they’re such fans of the book. To them, Auggie is their hero, right? I met Nathaniel Newman who is another kid who Auggie is kind of based upon, and met his parents, just trying to get as much information and trying to find that balance, really.
What steps did you go through in preparing Jacob’s makeup, from the initial stages up through pre-production?
I did a presentation model for Stephen, and for Todd [Lieberman] and David Hoberman, just to show that makeup was still an option. It wasn’t until I met Jacob for the first live casting session here at my studio in April 2016 that I was like, “Okay, let’s just start sculpting, because I need to see the shape on his face. I need to get an energy off of him.”
Then, we did the first makeup; we shot it. I remember Stephen and Jacob’s mom tearing up because it was very emotional for them, seeing the boy in makeup. We had stuff to figure out still, to refine, but subconsciously, you kind of react to it, even though it’s artificial. I think it was the first moment where people believed, “Okay, this can be done now. We’re going to make this film.” It was one of the major factors in this, obviously. Then, we did a second makeup test and refined it. We actually needed a third, but we ran out of time. They started filming, and that was it. [laughs]
Can you break down the different aspects of the hair and makeup you crafted for Auggie? It all seemed to begin with a helmet on his head.
Yeah, to make the eyes droop—that’s a trait of Treacher Collins. They all have this, depending on how severe they have it, but they all have that particular look—the draped-off chin, with the neck and the nose, in profile, almost tortoise-like, if you will. To make the eyes droop, we created a carbon fiber under-skull that had a mechanical thing we’d built, with a wire that was connected to his eye bags.
It was hidden underneath the prosthetics and the wig because I knew I couldn’t glue his eyes down for nine hours. It would be very uncomfortable, and he’s so little that I thought, “What if we have a system where we can pull it while we’re shooting, but when he has an hour school, or when he’s on break, we can release it?” So we built that, and the prosthetics go over, so he has a full silicone neck, silicone prosthetics with cheeks and chin, a full face. Nothing of his head is his own—everything is artificial.
He has a full wig on because a lot of these Treacher kids grow their hair longer just to kind of cover up their underdeveloped ears; they’re more like underdeveloped cartilage. Then, to fill out the eye white that you get when pulling an eye down, we made lenses to enlarge his iris, so he’s wearing contact lenses to fill out the bottom of the eye. It’s very subtle. Most people will never know, but because if you pull an eye down, it will look burned or melted and doesn’t necessarily look like Treacher Collins, we did lenses—and he has teeth in kind of pushed upper lip. He has a cleft palate, so they’re slightly crooked. I wanted to give him a bit of that lip to help that nose profile, and that sloped-off chin. It’s all very subtle, but it’s there.
Makeup artists sometimes become concerned that elements like the helmet you mentioned will enlarge the head too much and break the illusion created for the viewer. Was that ever a concern for you here?
Yeah, a little bit, because it’s all illusion. These kids are mentally completely fine—they just have facial differences, underdeveloped cheekbones. Creating the illusion that his bones are underdeveloped, that’s just trickery with sculpting shapes, and bringing his neck out so it’s very thick, and his nose bridge is very thick. It’s all just an illusion, really.
What was it like working closely with Jacob Tremblay? Did he seem to embrace the situation with this film from the get-go?
Everybody will say this, but he really is super professional for the age that he is. He’s like an old soul—it’s something in there, even compared to the other kids on set. Also his parents, they’re so down-to-earth and so nice. I had warned them when we did the first makeup test, because it’s all fun one time, right? Like dressing up for Halloween. But after Day 20, when you still have halfway to go, you’re going to be pretty sick of it—the glue, the prosthetics, the smells. So I warned them, “Make sure you prepare in your head for going through this every day.” They did, and they were amazing, and Jacob was amazing.
He sat very still. It was an hour and a half to [apply his hair and makeup]; we got it down to an hour and 15 minutes, which was pretty fast because normally, you’re looking at three hours. But it was all designed in such a way that it would come together in that time frame.
At an hour and a half, kids start to get fidgety and want to run around, so the trick was to play a movie that’s exactly an hour and a half, and he would just kind of stay there.
Did he ever require any coaching to get through full days of shooting in prosthetics?
He was fine with it—completely. I think the hardest part was coming in the morning and having it glued on, but other than that, throughout the day, he never complained. It was amazing.
How did you go about designing prosthetic pieces that could be applied in such a tight time frame?
Normally, if you’ve got a make-up that’s completely covering the head, face and shoulders, you would cut it down in several pieces, just to place it better and whatnot. But I knew on a child that it was never going to work because it would take too long. Plus, I wanted to deal with edges as little as I could, where it blends off, because with touch-ups, there’s only a few minutes you can really get, here and there.
It was designed in such a way that the neck, cheeks, and chin were all part of one prosthetic—a very intricate mold. You used one set per day, so you had to have 45 sets. There was a front piece with the upper lip and a nose and forehead, but the underdeveloped ears were permanently attached to the helmet. It just saved us time, so we didn’t have another fifteen minutes to glue the ears on that we didn’t have.
I cut time everywhere I could. Like the eyebrows, for example—they’re all hand-punched in, into the silicone pieces. They’re not lace pieces because that would add another ten minutes, just to glue them on. Everything had to come out of the point of view of, how short can we make it?
To view an exclusive featurette detailing the work that went into Wonder‘s hair and makeup, click above.