September 24th, 2013
Tasked with bringing the words of Tolkien to life, make-up maestro Peter King had the weight of millions of fans’ expectations on his shoulders when he accepted the responsibility of make-up designer. But with his deft, detailed touches, and his dedicated team, the series won multiple awards and millions more fans, including two Oscars for make-up. With a wealth of experience behind him, there’s a lot more to the man than elf ears and hairy hobbit feet.
King has turned his hand to everything at one point or another in his career: from the fantasy worlds of Middle Earth and The Golden Compass, to the real-world realities of dramas and romantic comedies such as Nine and Love and Other Drugs. With each world he inhabits, he holds one thing as vital – believability. “Every new film that you take on is a challenge – an exciting one,” he commented. “One of the reasons for this is that every film is different, and so a new set of challenges are put in front of you. Whether you’re re-creating a period or bringing your skills to a modern-day film, or there is the fantasy film where you are allowed to create, in all genres of film the one thing you must do is make it believable.”
His inhabitation of Middle Earth has spanned over a decade, after his return to New Zealand to be a part of the new trilogy of The Hobbit, which reunites much of the original cast and crew, and the project understandably holds a very special place in his heart. “I started The LOTR in 1999 and have just finished The Hobbit in 2013. Of course there have been other films in-between, but it was an amazing feat by all that were involved. We all got very tired at points, which can sap your enthusiasm, though when we saw the rushes we knew we were onto a good thing. I have to say there were a lot of Tolkien fans working in our department so that keeps people going for a long time.” When discussing the pressures that came along with the role, King’s pride in the project and the films he has helped to create shone through any intimidation he may have encountered. “It was certainly challenging to take The LOTR on. And then to do The Hobbit was the icing on the cake. It was a huge responsibility to get it right for all the fans of Tolkien out there. I was certainly very excited to be asked to be involved, and took great pride in doing all the films.”
With a mountain of inspiration to draw on – the books themselves, paintings and artwork – including those from renowned Tolkien artists John Howe and Alan Lee, who were also involved, his fellow MUAs and other design departments, as well as his past work – you would think that this mammoth project would be impossible to begin. Not so, explained King: “It was actually very easy really. They had been working on the concepts for a couple of years before I got involved. I had to realise the ideas into working make-ups, and also had input on all the looks to make them work. For instance, Gandalf’s beard was originally a lot longer than it finished up, as the long beard looked great but was really impractical for filming. Plus we were lead by Peter Jackson, who is an astounding visionary.”
Much has been said about the huge scale of these projects – The Lord of the Rings is widely considered the biggest and most ambitious film project ever undertaken, and The Hobbit was certainly no small project either. Undaunted this only served to spur Peter and his team on – regardless of the challenging conditions posed by the varied New Zealand terrain or the innumerable character designs and requirements. “We became very intrepid,” King remarked, “And we were not fazed at all about the locations. For some of them we had to be helicoptered in, and the rivers, mountains, cold and heat all served as a challenge rather than an obstacle. Of course there were problems with make-up application in extremes of heat, so we soldiered through and all was actually fine.”
With a decade between the two film franchises, King and his team were quick to take advantage of the developments in technology to help with the enormous amount of prosthetics that were created for the dwarves and hobbits of Middle Earth. “When we came to do The Hobbit encapsulated silicon had come along,” King described. “This meant easier and quicker applications and, to a certain extent, more comfortable, within reason. This time the hobbits’ feet were a complete over the knee prosthetic, so they could be pulled on five minutes before we were shooting instead of the hour application that happened on The LOTR. We could do a dwarf make-up and hair in about 90 minutes, as opposed to Gimli taking nearly 3 hours previously.”
Lengthy prosthetic applications required!
However, that technology has wielded its own challenges for MUAs, in the form of HD and 3D film. “When HD first came out everyone was terrified of the clarity that they were now confronted with,” King remembered. “TV stations would only work with airbrush make-up artists, and quite a few new ranges of make-up came out for HD.”
He remains confident in his own abilities and techniques, declaring, “I have not changed the make-up techniques that I have always worked with. I do not air brush normal make-up. Airbrush is great with prosthetics and creature effects, though on a more normal look it sits on the surface and makes the person look as if they are made of wax. TV presenters look weird when they are air brushed. If you apply well and cleanly, then HD should not be a problem. I have never been a ‘trowel it on’ make-up artist, even if I want a lot of cover. To work with HD you have to scrutinise your work. You shouldn’t be scared of HD, but you should be respectful.”
One of his more obviously “made-up” projects is the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine, starring Ewan McGregor and Christian Bale, which revolves around the height of embellished glam-rock in the Seventies – a look and time which was held with fond memories by King. “I just recalled growing up in the ‘70s and it was probably one of the reasons that I got the film. I think I waxed so lyrical until they said “enough, you’ve got the job!” I was quite outrageous during that time, involved in theatre groups, street theatre and performance, and had all the references there at my fingertips.”
His work transforming Emma Thompson into the hideous Nanny McPhee also proved to be an interesting job. “We only did one make-up test before we started shooting. We had to go far enough without going too far and I think that is what we achieved. It had to be quite extreme at the beginning so we could reduce it over stages and achieve the desired effect. It was also very helpful working with an artist who was completely behind what we were trying to achieve.”
When discussing his hugely successful career with those nominations and Oscar wins, King remained completely modest. “I am always gobsmacked and surprised when I find out that I have been nominated for an award,” he insisted. “It’s not why you do this job, though I have to say it’s fantastic that people feel that I deserve these.”
When asked about advice for aspiring MUAs in the film business, he asserted that it was all about attitude. “My biggest piece of advice is that you leave your ego at the door. Be helpful and pleasant and you will gain the respect of those you are working with, and make-up artists will divulge a lot more information to you. We never know it all and can’t have that attitude in the make-up room.”
“At the moment I am working on Into the Woods, a new musical directed by Rob Marshall, with whom I did Nine and Pirates of the Caribbean,” King laughed. “It couldn’t be further from Middle Earth if you tried.”