Italian author Carlo Collodi’s 1883 book “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” as most everyone knows, is about a wooden puppet that yearns to be a real boy. Director Matteo Garrone’s new Italian-language adaptation of the beloved story (starring Federico Ielapi as Pinocchio and Roberto Benigni as Geppetto) faced the exact opposite challenge.
Eschewing digital effects in favor of practical makeup magic, Garrone’s task was how to turn the 8-year-old Ielapi, along with nearly two dozen other human actors, into an elaborate array of storybook creatures, keeping true to Collodi’s original vision. And not only a wooden puppet, but also a cricket, an owl, a dog, a gorilla, a snail — and, yes, even a philosophical tuna fish, who Pinocchio meets in the belly of a giant sea monster.
Garrone turned to the British prosthetics maestro Mark Coulier. An industry veteran for three decades, Coulier began his career creating creatures for horror films like Clive Barker’s “Nightbreed,” and his many achievements include turning Ralph Fiennes into Voldemort in the “Harry Potter” series, plus twin Oscars wins for aging Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady” and Tilda Swinton in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
“When I first went to Matteo’s office, he had a little storyboard that he’d done when he was 10 years old of Pinocchio,” Coulier told TheWrap. “He wanted the story to be rooted in Italy, and particularly in the poor, rural Tuscany area. And to be as faithful to the book as possible. We looked at the Enrico Mazzanti drawings in the book and sort of drew our own versions of those.”
Garrone wanted his “Pinocchio” to be rooted in tactile, practical effects, which was a godsend to Coulier.
“Matteo is very performance-driven and that is very reassuring. If he can achieve something in the camera, he’d much prefer that,” Coulier said.
His work on “Pinocchio” has been shortlisted in the Best Makeup and Hairstyling category at this year’s Oscars. Nominations will be revealed March 15.
Coulier spoke to TheWrap from inside his workshop-like office at Coulier Creatures FX near St. Albans in England, where he has half a dozen projects in various stages of development. He walked us through his extraordinary work on five characters from the new film.
Pinocchio (played by Federico Ielapi)
The texture of Pinocchio’s “skin” looks strikingly lumber-like.
“It’s actually silicone rubber, so it’s like soft skin,” Coulier said. “We made the pieces very soft because we needed the movement around the eyes. You can pretty easily achieve what people perceive to be wood, but it looks fake. It looks like cartoon wood. I wanted this to look real, so we analyzed real wood grain. But the makeup team also worked to retain that friendly and innocent nature that Pinocchio needs.”
The character’s limbs and his neck were originally going to be rendered digitally. “But Matteo realized we could get the whole things as a prosthetic, and he preferred that,” Coulier said.
Pinocchio also meets a gang of fellow wooden characters in a traveling puppet theater.
“We were able to go a bit stronger on the wood because those characters had been puppets longer and they are more cracked and textured,” Coulier said. “We could exploit certain levels of crudity in the sculpture. That was helpful because we still wanted Pinocchio to stand out.”
The young actor Federico Ielapi, now 10, was 8 when the film was made.
“He was very patient, such an incredible and intuitive actor, but still a kid,” Coulier said. “And this was a 50-days shoot, so we tried to get the makeup application done in two hours. The hands and legs extended the time to two-and-a-half hours or nearly three, depending how restless Federico was.”
Coulier continued: “If you’ve ever ever done a 20-minute makeup job on a kid for Halloween, you’ll understand how difficult it is to keep a child at that age still. Federico is a little bundle of energy, which is what makes him such a phenomenal actor, but it’s like sticking makeup on a restless puppy.”
The Tuna (played by Maurizio Lombardi)
“Yes that’s a prosthetic head on an actor,” Coulier raved. “Matteo had always said, ‘Ah, I wanna do a tuna fish makeup.’ I thought that sounded quite impossible. I kept saying to my team, ‘Oh, that will end up as a digital creation.’ But Matteo was really insistent. He wanted it to sit with all the other characters who converse with Pinocchio.”
The actor Maurizio Lombardi is recognizable to American audiences from roles on HBO’s “The New Pope” and SundanceTV’s “The Name of the Rose.”
“Lombardi is such a great actor and once we got his head cast made, we realized that, proportion-wise, we could actually pull this off,” Coulier said. “It was a huge makeup. We had a big foam head piece and a silicone makeup on the front. Then we added the body and a tail flopping around. The front half is all makeup.”
The Tuna’s body does involve a small degree of digital work, but Coulier said the combination of makeup and CGI is reminiscent of the famous He Who Must Not Be Named.
“When we did the makeup for Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, only his nose was removed digitally,” Coulier said. “The rest of it is practical makeup. We blocked his eyebrows out and we painted veins. But the combination works beautifully because the human eye dean’t really pick up the effect. The practical and the digital merge into a very believable character.”
The Snail (played by Maria Pia Timo)
“We took a full body scan of Maria,” Coulier recalled. “We did a face cast, head cast, hands cast. We scanned her body and then printed a 3D miniature version of her. Then we built a miniature of the entire character.”
Coulier and his team studied the shells of actual snails and insisted on accurate proportions.
“Once we had a full body printout of the Maria done, then we scaled everything up full size,” Coulier said. “The snail trolly was snapped onto the actress through a vest, and then the fiberglass snail shell was lowered onto the trolly. So she did actually physically pull around this huge snail shell. Powering herself along and keeping her head still. It’s a wonderful effect.”
Doctor Crow and Mastiff #1 (both played by Massimiliano Gallo)
“Massimiliano plays the circus master as well, in addition to these two characters,” Coulier said. “With the bird characters, we didn’t want to cover them with huge feathers. We did a transition from very fine hair and then punched in some fur and then some feathers. From very fine to big thick long feathers at the back of the head.”
Coulier also decided to only give the actors a top beak over their mouths.
“That was so that the actors could talk and deliver lines,” Coulier said. “With a bottom beak it looks more puppet-like and less anthropomorphized human. And they are still convincing as birds. People don’t question where is the bottom beak.”
With the Mastiff, Coulier said, “the character doesn’t speak too much, so we were just making the dog along the shape of the actor’s face. He’s pretty hangdog, so there’s not sure an emphasis on the range of expression.”
Crucial to director Garrone was that the actors’ own eyes remained visible through the makeup.
“We didn’t even think about contact lenses,” Coulier said. “So they were always unaltered eyes. I knew from past experiences that it would work. Audiences will look at a crow or a dog or a wooden puppet, and will read the real human eyes as normal.”