August 4th, 2014
Warpaint has been fascinated by the work of FangsFX for a while, so we took the M40 out of London into deepest, darkest Buckinghamshire to discover a little more about Chris Lyons at FangsFX, the go-to man for character teeth.
With film and TV credits that would stretch at least twice round the block, you’d think that Chris Lyons, the dental maestro of many an iconic movie character look, would have an army of technicians designing and delivering teeth all over the world. So it was quite a revelation to discover that FangsFX isn’t such a behemoth – it’s Chris and his assistant – and what’s more, he’s pretty much the only man in the country who can do it.
Chris, it turns out, has been in the tooth game for nearly 30 years, not that dentistry was something he initially fancied as a career. “My Dad was well known in the dental technician world and in my idealistic youth I wanted to do something different, break away from the family firm so to speak,” Chris explains. “I took myself off to train as a Quantity Surveyor, before trying my hand working in the dental profession with other companies. This experience just showed me how good my Dad was, how well respected and how mad I must be not to work with him.”
So Chris began work with his father Colin Lyons, though at this point Fangs and the glittering world of Hollywood couldn’t have been further from his mind. “I concentrated on learning my profession to be the best I could be. We were innovative and reliable, creating appliances for dentists all over the UK, and it was a chance meeting that got us into the movie business,” Chris goes on. “They were having problems with the teeth on Legend, the Tom Cruise Fantasy tale; Colin offered to help and haven’t really looked back.”
That was back in the mid ‘80s and since then his credits spread over pages and pages on IMDb. FangsFX has created dentals for Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Nanny McPhee to Les Miserables and The Iron Lady as well as Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful and Ripper Street to Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway and Walking with Cavemen – the list is endless. He’s made teeth for Madonna, “We close her lucky gap,” Chris smiles. “I’ve even made teeth for the Dobermans that feature in a Kanye West video. The worst thing you can say in this game is ‘impossible’ and I refuse to be beaten by a request, even when you’re asked to create gold teeth for a dog.” Fangs is also responsible for the teeth in some of the biggest movies franchises of all time: with all seven Harry Potters, Stars Wars: Phantom Menace, Bond’s Skyfall already under his belt, Fangs’ work can be seen in Marvel’s latest blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy and they’re currently working on The Avengers, Tarzan and Peter Pan as well as a few top secret projects – and no, he really wouldn’t tell me.
So why is the work of Fangs so prolific? Chris puts it down to professionalism, pure and simple. “That and diplomacy,” he laughs. “You also have to remember not to let it all go to your head. You are only as good as your last job and for me the relationships with the British MUAs that I have built up over the years are key. Nothing is too much trouble, it can’t be. It’s also important to constantly be evolving technically, and because we still have a dentistry arm, we are able to lead the way in techniques, adaption and creation of new materials. I try to stay one step ahead and vow to try and learn something every day.”
This strive for innovation has allowed Chris to reduce the thickness of some pieces to 0.1 millimetres. “People think we just create monster teeth, but we also create perfect smiles and regardless of whether I’m creating character teeth or a Hollywood smile, the actor needs to be able to speak clearly and for the dental piece to not affect their performance.” This was of particular use when Fangs was called upon to create two sets of teeth for Javier Bardem in Skyfall that had to be worn one over the other. “Javier had to have bad teeth over his own, which were then covered with perfect teeth as his character was something of a chameleon and need his appearance to change. The fact that we could get them so thin meant he was able to still act.”
When asked about his favourite project to date, his quick reply is, “my most challenging.” You’ll be surprised as it’s not a massive global box office smash with a huge budget but an Art House Francis Ford Coppella film with Tim Roth, Youth Without Youth. “Roth plays a 70 year old professor of language and philosophy in Romania who is suicidal: the love of his life is dead, and he remains unable to complete his life’s work on the origins of language. Then, he’s struck by lightning and he grows younger, which included regrowing his teeth.” Chris explains, “We not only had to create teeth at each stage of regrowth, but there’s a scene when his teeth are all loose and the doctor runs his hand over them to demonstrate this in the film. I had never created anything quite like this and it took hours of brain power to think round how it could be done. When we delivered the teeth, I genuinely had no idea if it would work. Thankfully it did and the final effect with incredible – three months’ work that I am incredibly pleased with.”
It’s clear as we talk that it’s Chris who the industry’s biggest names industry have on speed dial and his phone is often busy during our interview. Apologising profusely for the intrusion, he quickly organises for a set of teeth that have been driven from set to be fixed, drivers are constantly arriving to pick-up and drop-off. I find it hard to comprehend how he manages to juggle all these mega watt MUAs together with the stars who will go to no one else – Meryl Streep, Madonna and Helena Bonham Carter to name but three. “There is no one else,” he explains simply and without a hint of ego, “I am a trained dental technician, and dental technicians cannot take casts on ordinary members of the public – only a dentist can do that. But as my work for the movie industry isn’t a permanent dental appliance, so I now hold unique insurance to be able to do my job, and I go and take the casts, or they come to me. Casting teeth is incredibly personal, I have my hands inside someone’s mouth and it’s important that I’m insured to do that. I must be aware of dental work already done; many actors already have veneers, I need to work around things like if the mouth is sore or if there are medical issues and privacy is incredibly important. I am the keeper of many dental secrets.”
This is a huge responsibility considering whose teeth Chris casts. “I do have a couple of dentists in LA and NYC that I use if I need to, but what we do is so exact, I often find only I know what I need and how to get it. Invariably it’s me travelling to the far flung corners of the world to get an impression,” Chris explains, “The longest I’ve ever been in Dublin is two hours, I’ve been to New York and LA for a day and also almost had to do the same to Sydney. I had a 6am call in Marrakesh and was back by 9am. I have two bags permanently packed ready: casting and fixing, adapted for hand luggage regulations so I can literally drop everything and go. I’m in and out so quickly that often the Heads don’t even know I’ve been.”
It struck me that this is quite a big ask for one man, especially when he’s sometimes called upon to cast 45 sets in a day, which happened on World War Z. “It has caused problems in the past, though I’m hoping that my son will eventually take up the Fangs mantle,” laughs Chris. “I’m letting him seek his fortune elsewhere at the moment, but he is keen to keep Fangs in the family and so when the time is right I will bring him in.” Although to be fair that fortune at the moment lies with rowing and Team GB, as Lyons Jnr is currently working on Rio 2016 and has a father so proud it was palpable.
Chris however is keen to spread his own brand of professionalism to the next generation of MUA, and regularly lectures on the potential dangers of prosthetic teeth at Neill Gorton’s School. “The chemicals we use are dangerous, they’re medical grade and we need to be working in specialist environments.” I found it was macabre in fact, that one of the specialist environments resembles a morgue of character teeth. “The ones we get back or those from the first in a series of movies need to be stored correctly or they degrade – in liquid, air tight and at the right temperature,” Chris goes on as he shows me the shelves stacked high with boxes emblazoned with the names of the biggest movie stars in the world.
As I take one final look around his workshop, I can’t help but be incredibly impressed that Chris Lyons has been at the top of his profession for three decades and we muse on how the industry has changed. “It’s not so much the industry for me, although obviously new materials and technique are developing all the time, but mostly the type of teeth I make. Previously I would make bad teeth look good, now I make good teeth look bad. That age old complaint about actors’ teeth is becoming a thing of the past. Most have beautiful teeth, even the Brits. Les Miserables is a good example, all the cast needed dirty rotten 18th century teeth; I spent a long time making them to put over the perfect ones they had. 10-15 years ago I wouldn’t have had to bother!”