Sixty year old Gordon Smith looks like an ordinary aging man; he is tall and thin, his hair and beard long since faded to white. Yet anyone who knows superheroes, or makeup for that matter, knows Smith is so much more than he appears to be. A Canadian legend, Gordon Smith is the makeup master that brought the fictional characters of X-men to life.
The X-men Master: Gordon Smith exhibition at the TIFF Bell Lightbox takes up the near-impossible task of doing Smith’s special effects makeup justice. The exhibit showcases designs from seven X-men characters, “making of”-style videos and legendary items from Smith’s personal collection.
Entering the exhibition centre, a small room filled with glass cases and sketch-lined walls, the most visible piece is, of course, Smith’s famed makeup chair. A minty green leather, with stains, rips, and creases. This is the legendary chair in which Rebecca Romijn became Mystique after 10 hours of labour and makeup. It is the chair that held Hugh Jackman and Tyler Mane as they became bigger, hairier, and scarier; when they finally stood up, they were transformed from men into Wolverine and Sabretooth. Celebrities sat down in it one by one, and almost magically, they became more than just actors; they became living, breathing comic book characters.
Later, after browsing through makeup cases and colour contacts, we come to the full-body Mystique costume, life-size, but slightly smaller then Romijn’s build. Smith used revolutionary technology to finalize and create this look; silicone prosthetics were created by moulds to make a full-body suit of blue scales that stuck onto Romijn’s skin during filming. After the silicone suit’s application, a group of four painters would apply makeup to finalize the look. The scales and stickers would be used up to three times, Smith told me, after which the adhesive would begin to give and they would be given to a stunt double. It takes about a week and a team of seven workers to produce the full-body suit each time it needs to be reused.
The TIFF exhibit celebrates the creative work of Gordon Smith and, in a way, makeup artistry as a whole. Though the space itself is small and the tour is short, it still feels like there’s a lot to see, from the different claws used for Sabretooth to Nightcrawler’s tail and harness.
In all honesty, when I first went in, I was a bit afraid. Afraid to lose the magic of X-men and worried the seamless film artistry would disappear once I knew how it all happened. But by the time I left, X-men only seemed more magical.
text by Sofie Mikhaylova