Harrison Abbott chats with It Chapter Two make-up designer Sean Sampson…
It Chapter Two might not have quite recaptured the magic of its predecessor, at least as far box-office and critical reviews were concerned, but one aspect of the film that could not be faulted were its excellent practical effects. From the gory child corpses, to zombie teenagers, right through to the iconic clown makeup itself, there’s some truly amazing stuff on display.
To find out how everything achieved, we spoke to the film’s makeup designer Sean Sampson, a masterful technician and creative wizard who has significant experience in the field. Indeed, with credits on movies like Suicide Squad, Silent Hill and more than a few Guillermo del Toro productions (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, The Shape of Water, Kronos, Mimic), he certainly knows his way around creating fantastical characters that leave a lasting impression.
Not only that, but he’s also really keen to share his knowledge and insight with others. As such, we managed to cover a lot of ground in our conversation including: the subtle ways that they changed Pennywise’ look for the sequel; the difference between latex and silicone prosthetics; and how they pulled off that amazing spider-head sequence! On that note, if you haven’t seen It Chapter Two yet, then be warned that we talk about specific scenes on multiple occasions and go into spoiler territory throughout (even discussing the film’s ending). Anyway, enjoy!
Nowadays the lines between CGI and practical effects are so blurred, that it can be difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends. So for the sake of clarity, what exactly were your contributions to this project?
Well first of all, we slightly redesigned the Pennywise makeup for Chapter Two. This was mainly for the sake of applying the prosthetic and for time. We just wanted to make the whole experience easier on Bill [Skarsgård].
Generally speaking though, whenever the clown is on screen you’re looking at our work. Digital effects take over whenever the monster shifts into one of its other forms, or whenever it uses its ‘’kill mouth’’ to attack someone. But yeah, for the most part it’s Bill in the Pennywise makeup, just like it’s Javier [Botet] in the Mrs. Kersh suit.
Oh really? I didn’t realise that was practical too?
Oh yeah, it was a full upper-body, slip-on prosthetic. Javier would wear the whole suit – which we glued onto his torso and painted – in addition to a mask. In fact, that facepiece was used for the vast majority of the sequence. VFX only really got involved for the close ups, as well as the bits where the creature needed to talk.
Even the funhouse scene was done practically. We created a dummy Pennywise with a really soft face, so that it would flatten out when smashed against the glass. We then set this puppet up on a rig and physically moved it back and forth to mimic what Bill was dong. Again, the VFX guys only took over to refine things, like digitally inserting Bill’s arms and filling out the rest of the body.
It sounds to me like you were frequently blending different techniques. Did this necessitate close collaboration with the VFX teams, or did you each do your own separate thing in isolation?
No, we were working together from the very beginning. It all starts in the initial production meetings, where you get outlines of every scene, accompanied by the corresponding storyboards. All departments are present for these gatherings, in order to figure out who is needed for what and how we can all [integrate] to help each other out.
Once notes are taken from these [overarching] meetings, you then splinter off into smaller, team-specific one. For this movie, the VFX and costume guys would often tag along to the makeup meetings, as they knew that we would inevitably cross paths at some point.
You know, each department is kind of like a tool and we all strive to make each other’s jobs easier. For example, VFX might occasionally ask us to create a prop solely for their reference. It’s not necessarily going to be used in the finished film, but they can scan whatever we make to create a convincing CGI version, or to manipulate it digitally.
Oh really? So it’s not always the director who is requesting prosthetics? Sometimes it’s the other teams?
Yeah. If you remember the chinese restaurant sequence near the beginning – where the fortune cookies are all cracking open – there’s this one bug that has a creepy baby head?
Yeah I remember that, it gets a pretty big close-up.
Well we made that just for the VFX guys. We sculpted the head – gave it bloodshot eyes, added some wispy hair and some little jagged teeth – and then gave it to VFX who used it as a model that they could replicate in CG.
The same thing happened with the Mrs. Kersh character. When we had finished filming that scene, they took the mask that Javier was wearing and scanned it to make the lips move and the eyes blink.
Of course, you were credited on Chapter 1 as well. Did you learn anything from that experience that you carried over into the sequel? Any improvements or new things you wanted to try out?
On the first one, a company called Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. (ADI) designed the Pennywise prosthetic for us and shipped it over from L.A. So we didn’t get much of a say in terms of how the individual pieces were made: we just got the stuff in the mail and applied it to Bill.
That was the biggest change we wanted to make for Chapter Two. You see, the makeup had to be applied on a near-daily basis and we’d always be getting notes from Bill saying things like: ‘’This bit is too tight’’ or ‘’It’s bothering my eye here’’. Whilst we were able to make the necessary modifications over time, it just wasn’t as easy as making our own [bespoke] prosthetics. We were [inheriting] them from somewhere else, you know what I mean?
I think I understand. You were receiving this feedback from Bill, but you weren’t in full control of the parts that were being sent to you.
Exactly! Which is why, when it came to the sequel, we knew it’d easier on both ourselves and on Bill if we [oversaw] the entire process.
That brings brings me to my next question. When you’re doing all of these transformative things to an actor’s face, do you need to take into account their ability to emote and gesticulate? For example, when you’re giving Bill false teeth and slathering him in all this latex, how do you ensure that it doesn’t impede his performance?
For Chapter Two we definitely wanted to improve the brow, so that Bill could have a wider range of facial expressions. In the first film the application was quite thick and no matter what Bill did he couldn’t make the eyebrows move. You see, when you’re performing under a piece of foam, it acts almost like a cushion and your movements register less clearly on the surface.
That was one thing that Andy expressly wanted us to change: the curvature of those brows. So I reduced the thickness by about 50% and swapped the foam latex material for silicone, which is far more accommodating.
Is latex really that restrictive? I always assumed it was the go-to material for prosthetics.
Oh latex is usually fine, in fact it’s very soft and pliable. The problems only arise when it gets too thick. Visually it’s actually perfect for a clown, because you’re using these acrylic-based paints that run in a nice opaque white, giving you that ‘’doll head’’ look. Silicone on the other hand has a translucent quality that makes it harder to achieve a [solid] colour.
So both materials presented their own challenges. The latex looked good but was too thick, hindering Bill’s performance in the forehead region. Meanwhile the silicone was flexible, but required a lot more paint to hide that translucency. One kind of counteracts the other, but at the end of the day the movement was what we decided to prioritise, so we went with the silicone.
When you were first handed the reigns to design the makeup for Pennywise, how much had already been defined by Andy Muschietti and the concept art? Was there a detailed outline, or did you have a bit more creative freedom?
For the first movie, Andy did a little thumbnail sketch on a napkin and gave it to ADI, who used that art as the basis for their designs. Of course, a lot of other companies also bid on the project [each of whom] brought in their own interpretations. What ended up happening was that an amalgamation of all these different ideas was used by ADI to create the final look.
Then when it came to the sequel, Andy had a couple of things that he wanted to fine-tune. After all, he must have been looking at that design for months-on-end during Chapter One’s edit and I guess he realised that there were some things he wanted to do differently. Nothing major: just little changes like making the brow more sinister and expressive. He also thought some of the cracks in his face were too deep and asked us to reign that aspect back a little.
The great thing was that we had a valid excuse for all the adjustments we were making, because it’s supposed to be 27 years later and Pennywise would naturally look more weathered.
Plus he is a shapeshifter, so there’s extra justification there.
Exactly. But at the same time, we did try not to change it too much. We didn’t want to mess up people’s memories of the first one.
From a makeup design point of view, would it be fair to say that this is a dream project? Because there’s unlimited scope in terms of what the villain can look like. There aren’t really any restrictions, just whatever your imagination can cook up.
That’s true! Because it’s almost like every time the losers encounter the creature, they end up seeing a different incarnation of it! You know, Andy is such a great artist and he would give us these fantastic [outline] sketches as inspiration, before saying: ‘’This is what I’m looking for, now show me what you’ve got!’’
I think the hardest thing to do was probably the death of Pennywise, because there were so many stages to it. Andy wanted this sad, deflated look as he’s cowering back into the crater –
And how did you achieve that?
Well that was another makeup. We used the same size headpiece, but made it wrinkly and pruney, whilst also adding a thinning wig, as if his hair was meant to be falling out. Then, when his head slams into the back of the crater, we wanted him to resemble a deflated balloon, like he’s completely flat and his face is sinking into his head.
To do that last part, we made a fake Pennywise that had a hole where it’s face should have been and made it part of the set. Then Bill was able to come in from behind [the set] and slot his face into that frame, in order to make it look like he was part of this tiny, deflated body.
You just talked about how exciting it was to be able to experiment and sculpt all these different designs based on Andy’s sketches. But I was wondering if there are any cool ideas that didn’t make it onto the screen?
Well, as far as the characters and creatures go, we did everything that we needed to. There was nothing that was left unshot, no characters that were cut out. Our final designs are all on screen.
However, we have a whole team of designers who each came up with their own versions for each of these designs. And the thing is they were all good, but you have to pick one. Some were so wild and over the top, I don’t even know how they would have done them.
And out of all of the finished designs, do you have a crowning achievement so to speak?
I’m really fond of the original Pennywise in the makeup cart, when he’s playing Mrs. Kersh’ father. That was really fun to do because it was something different, it wasn’t really a monster. I also really the Mrs. Kersh character itself.
Yeah, they were both really cool. Personally though, my favourite was the spider-head.
I thought it was really well done because it looked tactile and real but, at the same time, was moving in a way that suggested that it had to be digital. I honestly couldn’t tell how this was achieved. Was it a combination of the two methods?
Oh yeah, that was one of the first things we worked on! We got Wyatt [Oleff] and did a life cast of him. Then we used that to create a severed head that still had the bitemarks he received in Chapter 1.
We made two props: one hero head and then a stunt head that could be used to roll around on the set. We basically put it on a stick and moved it around, mimicking what it would look like if it had legs. Then VFX tracked it and animated the spider limbs in there.
But when you see him in the fridge […] we had a mangled dummy body that didn’t have a head or any arms. Then we cut a hole in the back of the fridge so that Wyatt could come in from behind and fill those gaps. That way we could have his performance mixed in with this twisted, contorted body.
So it’s a proper mixture of techniques then.
Yeah, we were basically there for reference. And whenever the actors were holding the spider-head back or being attacked by it, then we used these bungee cords – kind of like rubber bands.
What did they do?
Basically the cord was wrapped around both the prop and the actor’s head, pulling the two of them closer together. Which meant that the actor is then actually resisting against something and is really trying to push the head away, rather than just simulating a struggle. After that, VFX just erased the rubber bands and replaced them with the spider legs. It’s a good little trick, but at the end of the day, it was all visual effects. They replaced everything, we just gave them a tactile blueprint.
Many thanks to Sean Sampson for taking the time for this interview.