October 9th, 2014
With the popularity of TV shows based around Army life, from Soldier Soldier, to The Crimson Field and the BBC’s latest offering, Hellmand-set Our Girl, it’s fair to say the British Public love a man (or woman) in uniform. But with troops set to leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, you cannot fail to be aware of the ultimate sacrifice some of our service personal paid in that conflict, and the lasting, terrible legacy of the IED. Clearly creating a drama around these circumstances carries a huge weight of expectation.
This isn’t just in regard to the actual combat procedures, but also the recreation of terrible injuries sustained. Warpaint had the very great pleasure of meeting Sjaan Gillings, Our Girl’s MU head, to talk about shooting in the South African heat and the immense pressure to “get it right”.
Sjaan’s 20 year TV career began after training at Greasepaint in 1997. “My first job was on The Big Breakfast and since that, I have just taken everything that’s come my way (dailies, blocks, main team) from contemporary (Eternal Law, DCI Banks, Skins) to period (Foyle’s War, Game of Thrones, Leonardo, Downton Abbey, Indian Summers) to prosthetics (DhoomII, Jamie Oliver’s Fat Kids). My first big prosthetic job was with hybrid FX on DhoomII in India, which was an amazing experience. I guess I really cut my teeth on doing injuries on low budget films and crime dramas.”
It’s the prosthetic work that you first notice in Our Girl, as in the first episode, Combat Medical Technician Molly Dawes, played by former Eastender Lacey Turner, sees close up the damage an IED can do. That sort of damage was very much Sjaan’s responsibility.
“I started prep in February, but I knew from the beginning of January that I’d be working on Our Girl, so I did a lot of research and make moulds for injuries such as bullet wounds and broken bones,” Sjann explains, “But in reality, I had two weeks to prepare. The pressure was immense but luckily Tony Grounds, our writer, had also researched injuries that would happen in the script. My work was more about the detail, for example the script would read something like: ‘Single gun shot, man down, Smurf’s been shot in groin.’”
From that, I know that it’s a sniper with a high calibre, long distance shot. I would then double check with our military advisors what sort of guns the Taliban/insurgents would be using and this gave me a calibre (bullet size) so I’d then go off and research injuries made by that particular gun.”
It wasn’t just information about the right type of injury that Sjaan found helpful, “the Directors too would liaise the generics with me, ‘gun shot wound left shoulder’ or ‘IED explosion burns, camera right side’ and then leave the details down to me. It always makes your life easier when they tell you what they envision, but trust in you and your team to let you do the creative side.”
Sjaan is incredibly indebted to Nigel Partington (Colonel retired NBE Royal Army Medical Corps) the Army Medical Advisor who had had that essential first hand experience with war zone injuries, “as there’s only so much searching you can do through books and the internet,” Sjaan explains, “to be able to view actual photos of different types of injuries and get the details first hand was a great help.”
Help that was evident in the IED aftermath at Bastian Hospital in the first episode, “Ben, our injured Marine, had lost his leg only three months beforehand which was so raw and recent that it was quite sensitive for him. On the day, he was nervous so we talked at length beforehand, the look and feel of the piece and the process for me in making it, obviously it is an emotive subject so hopefully by going through whole process it helped separate the real from the fiction . It is a tough one though, as on one hand we are very empathetic but on a creative and artistic level we are detached emotionally in order to be able to view such graphic and real photos. I think no matter what project you’re on, you want your work to be authentic so that pressure is always there, but with something like this, it does affect you emotionally, as it brings home.”
The injury to which Sjaan refers in a blast injury where the Marine’s lower leg has been blown away, leaving an open wound, tremendous blood loss, together with flash burns, and it took some making. “I began by prepping a stocking onto a leg, arm, head, and tentacle shape. You can see from the pictures we nicked some parking cones from location along with bin bags,” Sjaan smiles, “You had to get creative as we were halfway up a mountain with nothing in sight other than our crew. The cones we ended up hanging from the ceiling of the make up truck and the funny thing was, none of the actors noticed!”
Sjaan used Platsil to mix parts and colour together, bone colour if necessary, but easier still she cut off some foam/prop bone and fixed it to the stocking so it could be changed to: sinew (off white – like camembert), muscle (like raw steak), fat (bright yellow) as well as flesh tone. “I gradually layered it up, starting with the deepest layer that we could see, which for us is the muscle colour, you can taper it or make a ball shape for a joint/swelling, as you like. I then let it run, drip and build up, sponging in stringy textures,” Sjann goes on, “then I added sinew colour over in varying intensities, adding a bit of lumpy fat and then poured over skin tone. Once it was thick enough, I sponged some skin texture onto it and peeled back the flesh layer. Once I’d painted, punched hair, applied burns, blood and dirt, it took roughly two days to fabricate.”
As is always the way, such intricate and authentic prosthetics went by in a flash, but Sjaan was certainly kept busy, losing count of the different wounds she created. “Different bullet wounds entrances and exits, missing limbs, injuries with blood pumps, broken bones, burns, blisters, shrapnel wounds, cuts and grazes. They were all a challenge for various reasons but mostly due to the heat/ dust and time, but I found silicone injuries worked the best for me on this occasion. My favourite? Without doubt, the broken bone.”
Our Girl is filmed on location in South Africa, not quite the Afghan desert, but still incredible hot, humid and dusty, not conductive to any make-up team. “We had plenty of fans, sunblock and ice wrapped in chamois. On the plus side they were meant to be mostly sweaty and dirty so we tried to use this to our advantage,” Sjaan laughs. “I think the biggest pressure was not having everything with you, not knowing where the nearest supplier was and generally not being familiar with the area, people, places and half the time we were in the middle of a game reserve or up a mountain but it also makes it a joy too.” Sjaan had two teams: in SA she used local crew, Supervisor Monique LeRoux with Quimaine Fourie and on prosthetics, Marguerite Bloom. “As SA was where all the injuries were filmed, Marguerite was a Godsend.” The UK crew was Linda A Morton and Clementine Jones.
Shows like Our Girl really need the endorsement of the Army itself if they are to work, and Sjaan found that the famous British Army camaraderie, their loyalty and support was overwhelming. “They were on set the same hours as the crew and would run round each department and deal with their queries as and when needed. They were great to have nearby as they could give you details that no book or picture ever would. Although they never got in the way, they did start to pop on the bus for hair cuts, which I think was secretly to admire the injuries hanging from the roof of our make-up truck and to feel the silicone wounds.”
There’s no doubt when talking to Sjaan that she is incredibly proud of her work on Our Girl, “due to budget restraints and location I didn’t have the money or the variety to get a prosthetic company in to do all the big prosthetics so I made them myself. It was great to have that challenge as it pushes you outside your comfort zone and also gives you complete freedom to be creative. I did however constantly worry that I made the wrong choice of doing it myself and that it may look better if a prosthetic company had done it. I was extremely lucky to have a wonderfully talented team behind me and a supportive production/crew to enable me to do this.”
Too modest by far, as Sjaan’s talents has allowed her to launch her own prosthetics supplies company, Creative Skins FX, with Linda Morton supplying ready-made generic silicone injuries to buy off the shelf, already stocked in both in Guru and PAM.
Let’s hope she gets to use plenty of them in a second season of Our Girl, and if the legions of Captain James fans are anything to go by, the BBC better listen. And Sjaan, well she’s just hoping she’s the lady that gets to stick on his blisters all over again.