THE PLAIN DEALER | "Hairspray" effects man from North Olmsted transforms Travolta

North Olmsted native Tony Gardner creates John Travolta's fat suit for 'Hairspray'

Plain Dealer Reporter
If John Travolta were a plus-size, middle-age woman, what size bra would he wear?
The answer is lost to history. The man in a position to know -- "Hairspray" makeup-effects designer Tony Gardner -- didn't jot it down. "Once we were into triple letters, I kinda lost track," he said.
Gardner created the fat suit that transformed Travolta into Edna Turnblad, the overprotective, foodaholic mom of Tracy Turnblad in "Hairspray." The movie adaptation of the musical opened Friday.
Gardner is co-owner and lead designer for Alterian Inc., an Irwindale, Calif., company specializing in makeup and animatronic effects. Alterian worked on movies such as "Shallow Hal," "Three Kings" and "Adaptation." It is also behind the Geico cavemen commercials and upcoming television series.
But "Hairspray" is Gardner's biggest movie job so far. When Gardner, 42, was hired, the producers told him if Edna didn't work, they didn't have a film. "The pressure was on in the very, very beginning," said Gardner, who grew up in North Olmsted.
Travolta said he wanted to look like a curvy girl who grew up to be a mom. Gardner frequently e-mailed rough drafts of possible looks to the actor. "He's the one who has to wear it," Gardner said. "Everything he said was great."
The effects staff started work about three months before filming began. In early 2006, Gardner and his crew flew to Travolta's home near Orlando to do a life cast. Travolta stood on a tarp in his garage, which houses his extensive car collection, while effects specialists wrapped his body with plaster bandages to make a cast. He sat to have his head and shoulders covered with a masklike substance.
Later, fiberglass duplicates made from the plaster bandage mold and mask were formed into a full-standing duplicate body.
Gardner designed a body suit filled with a lightweight synthetic material, with pads overlaid like shingles to add heft. Silicone was used from the chest up; it had the added bonus of covering Travolta's beard. "I didn't want the guy growing through makeup in the middle of the day," Gardner said.
The first suit made Travolta look like "a dumpy, Alfred Hitchcock version of Edna," Gardner said. Validation came when Travolta, in character and makeup, greeted his fellow actors during a rehearsal in Toronto. No one recognized him. Then the actors broke into applause.
"It was what I needed as an artist and what John needed as a performer," Gardner said.

LOS ANGELES TIMES | ENTERTAINMENT: "Shallow Hal" Fat Suit Not Just Skin-Deep

'Shallow Hal' Fat Suit Not Just Skin-Deep

Even behind the scenes, Gwyneth Paltrow's form-fitting costume takes on a larger meaning.


Audiences have come to expect the outrageous from the Farrelly brothers, the directing duo behind the gross-out gags of "There's Something About Mary." But their new comedy, "Shallow Hal," offers perhaps the most shocking sight of all: famously svelte Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow emoting while encased in a fat suit.

In the 20th Century Fox film, which opens Friday, the looks-obsessed title character, played by "High Fidelity's" Jack Black, receives the ability to see women's exteriors reflect their inner beauty. Thus he sees Paltrow's good-hearted Rosemary as the actress' 120-pound self, while others see Rosemary in all her 350-pound girth.

The challenge of making Paltrow recognizable through the prosthetic makeup, wig and layers of foam and spandex fell to makeup-effects designer Tony Gardner. "No one had really taken a woman in a [fat] suit this far before," Gardner says.

Beginning with a body cast of Paltrow, the makeup effects team took three months to perfect the heavy makeup and construct her form-fitting suit, which actually weighed only about 25 pounds. Working on someone as thin as Paltrow was a plus, because her body formed a very solid, non-flabby understructure. The makeup was more difficult because Gardner had to preserve her most distinctive facial features, her cheekbones and jawline.

"It's a weird Catch-22," Gardner says, "because you need for people to see her enough to know that it's her, but you need to bury her in it successfully enough so that it moves realistically."

Paltrow's suit needed to be designed for mobility as well as form; ultimately, Gardner had multiple suits built at his Los Angeles shop to simulate how weight shifted when she was sitting, standing and running. The suits were built in pieces: an upper body that zips up the spine and a lower half, from the 48-inch waist to the kneecaps, that zips up the front like a pair of pants. In addition, there were separate pieces for each calf and gloves for her hands made of silicone. (The prostheses were built by Artist's Asylum.)The first time Paltrow saw herself in the full suit and makeup, at a test in a New York hotel room before filming began, she was overwhelmed. "I had a thousand emotions. I was laughing and crying, and I was shocked and loved it," she says. "It was very intense."



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FOXNEWS.COM: Meet the Real Grandpa Behind the Oscar-Nominated "Bad Grandpa"

Meet the Real Grandpa Behind the Oscar-nominated “Bad Grandpa”

Johnny Knoxville’s elderly character in “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” was based on an actual person, says the film’s makeup effects designer Tony Gardner, whose company's work in the film has been nominated for an Academy Award this year.
“It’s true,” Gardner stated, “Johnny Knoxville’s character, ‘Irving Zisman,’ was based on a real person…someone from Cleveland, Ohio, actually. It’s important to state up-front though that the person we referenced for “Bad Grandpa” was referenced more for their looks than their antics.” Gardner added, “Our reference model was definitely a character, but not enough of one to join the lineup at a strip club or get up close and personal with a soda machine like Irving did.”

Johnny Knoxville's old man character first sprang to life in 2001 on the "Jackass" television series as more of a disguise for Johnny Knoxville's antics. “Then, when Johnny was paired up with an elderly actress named Dottie Barnett as his character’s wife for the first film, we decided to lighten up the old man's look, and actually re-sculpted several of his facial prosthetics with less intense features. For the finale sequence of the first feature, 'Jackass: The Movie,’ we were tasked with putting all nine of the cast members into old age prosthetics as elderly versions of themselves, including Johnny, so we ended up altering Johnny’s prosthetic makeup yet again so that the new version was more of a physical match to Johnny’s features."“'Irving Zisman proper' was actually created in 2006 for ‘Jackass Number Two,'" said Gardner. "Johnny was up for going into prosthetics again for the sequel to the first film, and Producer Spike Jonze wanted to get involved in the antics as an old lady, so ... the characters of Irving Zisman and his lady friend Gloria were born.”The intent with Irving for ‘Jackass Number Two’ was to revise him to make him a kindler, gentler Grandpa figure, but one that was doing things that weren’t so kind.  One of the skits for the 2006 film (titled appropriately “Bad Grandpa,”, involved Grandpa and a child actor out and about town, messing with the unsuspecting public as grandfather and grandson, so the goal was to make Irving even friendlier than he'd been so far. The need for a solid, softer Irving for "Jackass Number Two" was where the real-life Grandpa reference came into play.

“The Grandfather that we referenced for Irving back then was my own Grandfather, actually,” admitted Gardner. “Mr. Fred Cooke from Fairview Park, Ohio….my mother’s father. We had his photos around the shop back then, and used them as character reference for Irving. We used him for so many elements, really... the mustache, the glasses, high collared shirt, the receding hairline, length of sideburns, the shape of the nose, the jawline....the only changes that differed from our reference material were minor. We whitened up his hair and messed it up, gave him rosacea, and turned his mustache into more of a handlebar mustache … little character traits, really, with the hope that people would notice and focus more on those aspects than on the fact  that they were interacting with a thirty-something actor wearing prosthetic makeup.”

Irving and Gloria were a big hit in “Jackass Number Two,” which meant they'd be back for the next film, and their appearances would need to be altered yet again, but for different reasons. It had only been two years since “Jackass Number Two” had been released, and "Number Two's" version of Irving was all over the Internet. “The whole point originally was to make Johnny unrecognizable so that he could blend in with real people and prank them, and now all of a sudden we had to disguise these fictional characters from looking like the last public incarnation of  these same fictional characters. So, Gloria gained about 200 pounds, and Irving’s cheekbones and chin were built out to make his face more angular, his skin texture was roughened up, and we made him a bit better groomed overall."

"Cut to six years later, and we’re getting ready to start work on what would become 'Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa,' knowing that we have to change up Irving’s look yet again, to 'disguise Irving from being recognizable as Irving.' Without intending so, by reducing the mass of the makeup overall, we really fell back into the “Jackass Number Two” / Fred Cooke look for the character."

"My intent was to alter the broad shapes of his silhouette, but also bring the makeup in closer to his real features everywhere else so that it could be thinner and Johnny could be more expressive. The ears would be bigger and the hair altered so that his outline was different from the front, and altering his nose and hairline would change his appearance in profile.  Smaller things were tweaked a bit as well, like widening the base of his nose."

“Once we had our first makeup (and only) makeup test at Alterian, we all agreed to thin out Irving’s hair as one more way to make the character look different from his previous incarnations. I had done a test makeup on a bust of Johnny Knoxville in advance of our makeup test on the actor just for peace of mind, and once we had that new thinner wig, I put it on the bust …and well, Fred Cooke just kind of jumped back out of the design again.”

“I think that subconsciously maybe I was steering the ”Bad Grandpa” character in that direction as we were putting him together. The hair, the style of glasses, widening the nose, all of that. By the time it all came together you’d only need to darken the hair and add a bolo tie to channel Fred Cooke...or at least his brother. Then on set our lead artist on this character, Steve Prouty, gave Irving a bit of a tan and slicked his hair down a bit flatter too, which made him appear even more like our original reference material. We weren't trying to create a likeness makeup of Fred, obviously, but from certain angles he'd show up every now and then.”

“What would make more sense than to base a “grandfatherly” character on your own grandparent, right?" Gardner recalls, "I remember during ‘Jackass Number Two’ not wanting to clue my mother into what I was doing with the Irving character, as being part of a Jackass movie didn’t seem like the best way to honor the memory of her father. But now that the makeup in “Bad Grandpa” has been nominated for an Academy Award for Makeup & Hair Styling, I think it’s okay to fess up, and I’m hoping that maybe she’ll see things aren’t so bad after all."

THE INDEPENDENT: Bad Grandpa: When Jackass was nominated for an Oscar...

Bad Grandpa: When Jackass was nominated for an Oscar...

The make-up and hair team of Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa have been nominated for an Oscar

Tim Walker

“The producer overheard a 10-year-old kid saying, ‘Dad, that’s Johnny Knoxville.’ His dad didn’t believe him. It turned out the dad was a doctor!” Bryan Christensen

In Bad Grandpa, the latest movie from the Jackass stable, an 86-year-old named Irving Zisman takes a kooky, cross-country road trip with his young grandson. Along the way, the pair shock, unnerve and offend a succession of unsuspecting bystanders, before making a subversive appearance at a child beauty pageant. So far, so Little Miss Sunshine.

Yet what sets the former film apart from its  influences is that the witnesses to its wacky set-pieces are not actors but real people, and Zisman is played not by a real eightysomething, but by Johnny Knoxville, who is 42. That his  elderly disguise was so convincing explains why Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is this year’s most unlikely Oscar nominee, in the Make-up and Hairstyling category.

Tony Gardner, one of the make-up special- effects specialists behind Zisman, says, “If  the make-up doesn’t work, the movie doesn’t work. Most of the time comedies aren’t recognised [by the Academy Awards]. But the platform that this film’s make-up stands on is the fact that the character worked in the real world, in real light, in front of real people.”

The named nominee is Steve Prouty, who worked with Gardner’s firm Alterian to create Zisman’s face, and then applied it to Knoxville’s head in daily two-hour, 45-minute make-up  sessions. “What an honour,” said Knoxville of the nomination.  “Am I as stunned as everyone else we didn’t get the nod for Best Picture? Well, of course, duh. But I won’t let that take away from my happiness for Steve, Tony Gardner and our whole make-up team. Wahoo!”

Alterian’s HQ is a warehouse on a non-descript industrial estate in the unremarkable LA suburb of Irwindale. But hidden behind its beige facade is a workshop filled with weird creations coming to life, and an office decorated with previous  on-screen triumphs: a dog in a full-body plaster cast from There’s Something About Mary; John Travolta’s female fat-suit from Hairspray; the  titular robot from the sci-fi dramedy Robot & Frank. One memento sadly missing is a 14-foot replica of David Hasselhoff that the firm made for The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie – now being used as the base of a glass-top table at the Hoff’s home.

Turning heads: Tony Gardner and Lilo Tauvao work on ideas for ‘Bad Grandpa’ (Bryan Christensen)

Irving Zisman’s features were based in large part on Gardner’s grandfather, Fred. The face was made from silicone, paper-thin and translucent. The ears and the back of the head were latex. Then there was the wig, the eyebrows, the moustache, the dental veneers, and the liver-spotted backs of his hands. The team also made a  wrinkled torso for Knoxville to wear in scenes where he removed his shirt, as well as some other anatomical items that it would be inappropriate to describe in the pages of a family newspaper. Each make-up element had to be mass-produced so that Knoxville could be disguised anew for every day of the 60-day shoot.

Remarkably, his cover was rarely blown. “There was a scene when he went to a Jacuzzi and dropped a colostomy bag in the water,” Gardner explains. “The producer overheard a 10-year-old kid turning to his dad and saying, ‘Dad, that’s Johnny Knoxville.’ His dad didn’t believe him –  he said: ‘Look at all the wrinkles on his stomach. It’s a real guy.’ It turned out the dad was a doctor!”

Gardner, who is 50, grew up in Ohio but moved to California in the 1980s to study film at USC. Ostensibly as part of his studies, he engineered a meeting with legendary special-effects man Rick Baker, who offered him a four-week job as a  production runner. “Four weeks turned into four years,” Gardner says. He subsequently worked with Baker on projects as varied as the music video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Gorillas in the Mist, and established his own company while working on the cult horror The Return of the Living Dead in 1985.

One of the key members of the Jackass gang is writer-director Spike Jonze, whom Gardner met while working on David O Russell’s Gulf War movie Three Kings, in 1999. “Spike was one of the people I was doing make-up on,” Gardner recalls. “He kept saying, ‘I’ve got to get back and edit my movie.’ I was like, ‘Oh God, this is one of those actors who wants to be a director.’ But we really hit it off, and it turned out later that he was in the middle of editing Being John Malkovich.”

Gardner worked on Jonze’s second film, Adaptation, and then Jonze introduced him to Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, better known as the enigmatic French dance duo Daft Punk. Alterian was instrumental in the design of the helmets worn by the band for their public appearances. Gardner and Bangalter bonded over a shared love for the 1950s sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, and the  helmets were influenced by the Gort, that movie’s alien robot.

Bart Mixon works on Johnny Knoxville’s make-up (Sean Cliver)

Alterian recently completed work on the comedy sequel Dumb and Dumber To, though the firm’s relationship with gross-out auteurs the Farrelly Brothers stretches back to There’s Something About Mary in 1998. “I had little kids at the time and I was taking phone-calls at home that involved asking people things like, ‘The sperm on Ben Stiller’s ear: is it clear or white? How long is it? Is it chunky? The boobs: do you want her nipples out or down? The balls in the zipper: do you want veins?’ These are not conversations you want your kids to hear!”

Today, the SFX industry is under threat from the rise of its rival, VFX, and Gardner explains that where Alterian might once have made creature suits for actors, film-makers now just cover their actors in coloured dots and add the creatures as post-production CGI. Though the company specialises in overweight and old-age make-up such as Zisman’s, even that business is being usurped. “There are films being shot as we speak, with younger actors playing older, and they’re experimenting with dots and digital make-up  instead of physical.”

For the real-life survival drama 127 Hours, Alterian made the fake arm that James Franco sawed off using a blunt penknife. The prosthetic was so anatomically convincing that Gardner has started a side business creating life-like babies and combat wounds to help train emergency room doctors and army medics.

And yet, he says, manufacturing believable make-up is only half the battle. “Half the success of make-up is the person wearing it. With James Franco, the arm was great, but if he hadn’t made it real, you wouldn’t have bought it. We can make Johnny Knoxville look 80-something, but if he doesn’t own it and sell you on it, you’re not going to buy it. It’s a collaboration.”

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"It was like Hasselhoff all over the place."

LOS ANGELES TIMES | ENTERTAINMENT: “Addams Family Values,” How did they do that? Featuring Tony Gardner and Alterian Inc.

The Sleight of Hand in 'Addams' : Movies: How did they do that? Tony Gardner's Alterian Studios was responsible for much of the special effects in 'Values.' It's all a matter of 'illusion,' he says.


Wednesday Addams is standing against the wall at Alterian Studios. As soon as her wig comes back from the production company, Wednesday will join Darkman, the Tommyknocker and a life-size hippo on permanent display of Alterian's most beloved children.

Much of the special-effects work that Tony Gardner's Alterian Studios did for "Addams Family Values" ended up as "blink and you'll miss it" moments in the film, but if you don't blink, you'll go home wondering, "How did they do that?"

And that's just the reaction Gardner hopes for.

"I think it all goes back to starting as a magician," Gardner said. "The whole thing was the illusion and being able to fool somebody."

Gardner, now 30, got his start apprenticing with three Academy Award-winning special effects artists--Rick Baker, Stan Winston and Greg Cannon (who won for his work on "Bram Stoker's Dracula"). Two particular illusions Gardner created with his studio stand out in "Addams Family Values": Wednesday's blending into the woodwork--literally--and Baby What, Cousin Itt's new offspring.

For the scene in which Wednesday (Christina Ricci) camouflages herself as part of a wall to spy on the sinister new nanny, Debbie (Joan Cusack), Gardner and his crew had to make a full body cast of Ricci and manufacture a stand-in dummy. Instead of needing two hours to be put into full makeup, Ricci could simply lean into the dummy's fake neck, leaving only her face needing to be made up.

Gardner didn't have to worry about dealing with a potentially prickly actor with Baby What: the tyke is entirely mechanical. There were other challenges, though. The guidelines he received from director Barry Sonnenfeld and visual effects supervisor Alan Munro: "Here's a ball of fur: make it cute, make it happy, make kids want to relate to it, make adults think it's precious and want to hold it, and . . . good luck."

The resulting Baby What gets one of the biggest laughs in the movie, but more rewarding to Gardner was the reaction of the film's crew. "I think the reward," he says, "really comes from going on set and taking something that's a bunch of motors and foam wrapped over fiberglass, creating something that's alive and watching a film crew--probably your most jaded audience in existence, because they've seen it all--get excited about it, whether there's a person in it or not."

Gardner's studios also built the miniatures that stand in for the Addams house and Uncle Fester's new house ("We called it Debbie's Dream House" for the nanny character played by Cusack, who plots to wed Fester). The Addams house is in many shots, but Debbie's Dream House was built for one main purpose--to blow up.

"It was designed to explode and obliterate itself instantaneously, like a Looney Tunes cartoon," Gardner said.

Though called a miniature, the exploding house was actually 16 feet tall and 28 feet long, taking up a large chunk of the warehouse where Alterian is situated, in Irwindale.

"Everyone had to work around it and walk around it," Gardner said. "(Then) all this stuff drives out to the set one day on a Friday and they come back on Monday with two milk crates"--all that was left of Debbie's Dream House. Even the tables the house was built on were destroyed.

The house wasn't hard to build, Gardner says, because "we'd done a lot of exploding bodies in the past and we were able to use a lot of the existing technologies for it," and there was a certain amount of professional satisfaction in those two milk crates.

As a child, Gardner might have had a premonition about the line of work he would eventually end up in. He was fascinated by the magic set his grandparents bought him when he was 6.

"I picked up this box where you put a card in and it's got a fake bottom and (the card) falls. Well, I picked it up without reading the instructions, put a card in it, closed it and opened it and the card was gone. . . . Then I turned it over and I shook it and the card fell out from the fake bottom. Then I got it. I was like, 'It's fake! It's not real!'--and I was hooked."