Woodstock-born makeup artist creates memorable TV, movie looks
"I'm Hollywood's best kept secret," Mike Smithson said.
He could be right.
The Woodstock-born makeup artist's impressive resume reads like a pop culture album of greatest hits: Tim Burton's movies (including "Alice in Wonderland," "Big Fish" and "Planet of the Apes"), TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the "Spider-Man" movies plus "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," "Terminator Salvation," "Men in Black III" and "The Cat in the Hat."
Ask him for instant reactions to some of his best-known movies, and he jumps right in:
"Thor: The Dark World" -- "I did pickup shots from a company in the U.K. I got the chance to do makeup for Christopher Eccleston who played Dr. Who. Lovely guy. Had a great time working with him."
"The Lone Ranger" with Johnny Depp -- "We worked really hard on it. That was a really difficult show. It lasted almost a year. There was some beautiful work in that. I would have liked to have seen it win the Oscar. (The movie received a nomination for best makeup.) It wasn't to be."
Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" -- "I worked with several actors on that. I got a chance to do touch-up work on Tommy Lee Jones. That was a beautifully run department by a woman name Lois Burwell. I had a great time on that set, and of course, it's a Spielberg film."
"Avatar" -- "James Cameron had finished a large portion of the film in New Zealand. But it still needed some key scenes filmed practically. They brought back the key actors and I was asked to come in as the department head. That enabled me to work with Stephen Lang and other principal cast members. We were on that for three months. Just being on that set and seeing the mission control and technology that went into creating that film was just amazing."
"Jersey Boys" (opens June 20) -- "I can't say much about that, except that I did some makeup and small prosthetics."
"Star Trek" (2009) -- "I came in for a few days and made up some Romulans. It was neat to see 'Star Trek' being reinvented with a new cast. It was a little odd to see the younger versions of Spock and Kirk.
"I had worked on a couple of the TV shows and 'Star Trek V.' I even got to do a cameo scene with William Shatner. So, it was kind of a childhood dream come true."
Speaking of childhood, Smithson spent his in McHenry but moved to St. Louis during his adolescent years.
But this native returned to Illinois before finally taking up permanent residence in Los Angeles at the age of 23.
"When I moved to California, I had no idea what I was going to do. I had no idea I would wind up as a makeup artist. It was just one of those things when you're young, you just want to escape the Midwest," he said.
He snagged a job by becoming an apprentice for the studio run by legendary makeup artist Tom Burman.
"I was really fortunate," Smithson said. "A lot of newcomers go the school route. I was lucky enough to be able to come up through the special effects shops and learn from amazing artists.
"A lot of the studios I worked at no longer exist. I worked at George Lucas' ILM and now they no longer have a creature shop. It's all digital."
At 53, Smithson owns an independent makeup business, Makeup Media. He also has become a history student of his vocation.
"There are a lot of the heroes who are the brand names (Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Stan Winston and others) and a lot of them are unsung," he said.
To be successful, a makeup artist must hone many skills from several disciplines.
"Sculpting is a big help when it comes to prosthetics," Smithson said. "Painting and shading the human face. You have to go back to the basics, human anatomy and nature. Color theory. There are so many disciplines involved in this profession, especially the politics. You have to learn the politics of the film set."
"Sure," he said. "You need to know how to interact with different types of personalities, different types of actors. There are different sensibilities. You have to know hygiene. You have to know different types of cosmetics. And all actors want different things."
Smithson deals with a wide array of makeup styles.
"It's not just horror makeup," he said. "There's corrective makeup for men, beauty makeup, period makeup, facial hair, designing creatures from head to toe.
"Every show is different and, as an artist, you learn something with every single show, whether it's politics or artistry."
Many of the old makeup shops have closed in Hollywood, victims of the digital age. We asked Smithson his thoughts about digital effects.
"I think it's a great tool, but it should be used wisely," he said.
"The best directors know how to use practical and digital together. It's a great marriage and seeing one or the other all the time gets boring. So many movies rely on digital effects, now. At what point are we watching a cartoon? You become numb to it."
Our final question to Smithson: Yoda the puppet or Yoda the digital effect?
"I have to say I really liked Frank Oz's puppet, although it was done by Stuart Freeborn. At least there was a human operator.
"If George Lucas goes back to adjust things again, he might be able to sweeten the puppet by adding digital eyeblinks or whatever, but I prefer the puppet."
-- Dann Gire
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'A big job'Woodstock and McHenry native Mike Smithson's toughest challenge as a Hollywood makeup artist might surprise you. Or maybe not if you remember "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me."
The character was Dr. Evil's morbidly obese henchman, played by series star Mike Myers in a massive fat suit.
"I did the first one," Smithson said of the character. "Let me be very clear, I had nothing to do with the second one (in the sequel 'Goldmember')."
"It was one of these things where Mike Myers comes up with these great characters and then he has to wear a fat suit. It's not a comfortable situation for any actor.
"I was originally hired by Stan Winston to design the character. It was a big job and I was honored Stan would hire me to handle it. But I was stuck in the middle between what Stan wanted and what Mike wanted.
"And I was trying to pace myself artistically while making everybody happy."
"The whole crew came through and I think we came up with something very iconic. And I got an Oscar nomination out of it, so that was well worth it."
-- Dann Gire