Behind The Scenes

The Astonishing Power of Makeup in the Darkest Hour

Oh, the power of makeup! Kazuhiro Tsuji amazes audiences by using prosthetic makeup to transform Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill for 'Darkest Hour'.

Jan 23, 2018

'You're looking for the secret...but you won't find it because of course, you're not really looking. You don't really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.' - The Prestige (2006)

By Lexi Stewart

The ability to transform an actor without inhibiting their ability to evoke emotion while also hiding it from the audience is a real show of craftsmanship. 2017 was a stellar year for makeup and hair design and boasts an impressive diversity of looks in some of this past year's best films. In December, we were gifted with Joe Wright’s latest film Darkest Hour, a British biographical war drama based on Winston Churchill. The act of turning an actor into a historical figure with entirely different features seems an insurmountable task, but the right marriage of actor and makeup designer has resulted in an astounding achievement.

(Gary Oldman with Kristin Scott Thomas in ‘Darkest Hour.’ Photo: Jack English / Focus Features)

In usual fashion, Gary Oldman sets about to become unrecognizable in Darkest Hour, which follows the true story of Winston Churchill’s early days as prime minister during WW2. Coming off the back of Christopher Nolan's war epic Dunkirk, Wright offers a different perspective set further behind the lines of war and into the British halls. Oldman was initially hesitant, but the script and director won him over. He then dedicated almost a year of preparation to it, and once production got underway, he had immersed himself body and soul. It’s a bold performance from Oldman indeed, and one that is garnering much Oscar attention. However, he remains humble as ever and never forgets to credit the man who helped him transform.

(Kazuhiro Tsuji working in his studio. Photo by Sandro Baebler,

While pondering the process, it was clear to Wright that the success of the character was going to weigh heavily on overcoming the physical demands. As a result, Oldman decided that if he were to undertake this metamorphosis, he would need the best man for the job ('the only man on the planet who could do it'). Enter Kazuhiro Tsuji, a hyperrealist sculptor and fine artist who, less than a decade prior had spent 25 years working successfully as a special effects makeup artist in Hollywood. In 2012, he retired from the film industry to pursue other creative desires and retreat from a career that had drained him of his mental health and wellbeing. So the last thing he expected was an email from Gary Oldman, enticing him back with a project he couldn't ignore.

Oldman was adamant that he wouldn't move forward without the artist by his side. Tsuji then had to choose between continuing his quiet, creative life in peace or saying yes to being thrust back into the industry for the opportunity of a lifetime. He decided he couldn’t say no. ‘This was the kind of the film I had wanted to work on my whole career. Character make up on an amazing actor, in a great film with a great story’, he told SWSCA.

(Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in ‘Darkest Hour.’ Photo: Focus Features)

The first issue Tsuji had to overcome was the fact that there were little to no similarities between Oldman and the icon himself. Because of this, most of the face was going to require prosthetics. However, Tsuji's genius combined with six months of makeup tests and preparation resulted in a flawless makeup, offering Oldman all the freedom he would need to carry out his role in the dialogue-heavy drama. The fluidity of the makeup design is because of his detailed understanding of human anatomy.

He explains, ‘It’s very important to understand the anatomy of the face and the mechanism of the makeup. To know what to cover and what not to cover by an appliance, along with what cannot be done by makeup is also important as well. Human skin is very complex, and because we are trying to mimic it with fake skin on top, a lot of experiences and tests are necessary. Everyone’s face is different.

The result, which complements his features rather than smothers them, took approximately four hours every day. Vanity Fair explains, "A prosthetic cast mold made of silicone rubber was applied to Oldman’s entire face except for his forehead and lips so that he could convey facial expressions. A foam bodysuit was specially constructed for Oldman to add extra weight to his slight frame. Also, Oldman had his head completely shaved so that a wig and hairpieces could be easily applied."

(Kazuhiro Tsuji applying hairpiece to Gary Oldman. Photo: Jack English / Focus Features)

Agreeing to sit in the makeup chair for 200+ hours over the course of the shoot was the price he had to pay to evolve into Churchill without adversely affecting his health. However, Oldman found the process liberating to watch, and it ultimately helped him disappear into the character each day.

Of course, this feat was no one-person show. Taking care of the on-set application was David Malinowski and Lucy Sibbick, who applied the makeup as directed by Tsuji and did a flawless job of it. Utilising 'DDT Effects Especiales' and 'Super Suit Factory' for manufacturing, much of the lab work happened at 'Vincent Van Dyke Effects' in Los Angeles. For the lab work and casting, many familiar names arise including Carl Lyon, Rob Freitas, Manny Lemus and Will Thornton. Kazuhiro's team was made up of skilled artists and technicians who would be able to carry out his ideas while he worked on the finer details back at his studio.

Wright has succeeded in keeping his audience engaged through tension and timely comedic beats, but really, it's Oldman who carries the weight of this film in his hands, and rightly so. The effort hasn't gone unnoticed, and he's the current frontrunner for Best Actor along with Tsuji and team, who are on the shortlist for Best Makeup & Hairstyling. In former years, The Academy has always had a soft spot for subtle makeups and historical makeovers, but winners from recent years show that anything can happen. Will authentic likeness prevail? Only time will tell now.

(Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in ‘Darkest Hour.’ Photo: Jack English / Focus Features)

In an increasingly escapist world where we are spoon-fed creatures, aliens and zombies at every turn, it’s refreshing to see this subtle, yet sophisticated prosthetic makeup find it’s way into such a historical moment in time. Kazuhiro Tsuji, wizard of realism, has conquered a seemingly impossible task that so many have chosen to avoid in the past. ‘Makeup needs to be invisible in this kind of film. I feel very fortunate and honored that Gary Oldman requested me to work on Darkest Hour.’ Respectively, the film proves how the power of makeup design can affect a film in a monumental way and teaches that it’s not just about being big, bold or hyper-physical. Makeup is always at its' most potent when hiding in plain sight and sometimes it’s merely about blending in and convincing the audience that it doesn’t even exist. In any case, it's worth a watch. The makeup design in Darkest Hour should be seen on the big screen to be appreciated in all its' glory.

(Check out more of Kazuhiro Tsuji’s work: Website / Facebook / Instagram)

The team that worked on Gary Oldman's transformation, as listed by Kazuhiro Tsuji himself:
Kazuhiro Tsuji - Prosthetic Makeup & Hair Designer
David Malinowski  - Personal Makeup Artist & Prosthetic Supervisor
Lucy Sibbick - Prosthetic Makeup & Hair Artist
Vincent Van Dyke Effects - Prosthetics Lab work (LA) 
Carl Lyon - Lead Mold maker 
Rob Freitas - Key Mold technician 
Manny Lemus - Lead Silicone casting 
Will Thornton - Silicone casting technician  
DDT Effects Especiales - Prosthetic Manufacturer 
David Marti Mayor, Montse Ribé - Supervisor
Natalia Aguilar, Joan García - Technician
Paula Comesaña - Production
Super Suit Factory - Body Suit Maker
Bob Kretschmer, Diana Yunsoo Choi - Wigmaker
Isiah Adams - Kazuhiro Tsuji’s Production Assistant