[Review] - X-Men Master: Gordon Smith Exhibition, At TIFF

No photos were allowed in the exhibit.
All pictures via alternate sources.
I may have mentioned once or twice my admiration for practical special effects over computer effects. A real thing is always going to look better on film then something that has been digitally created. Chief among the practical effects I hold dear is the work of the special prosthetics makeup artist. The skill to transform actors into creatures, monsters, mutants and older versions of themselves is enviable. So it was unexpected delight that I discovered the X-Men Master: Gordon Smith exhibit at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and an even more unexpectedly, that the exhibit was completely free.

Gordon Smith has been working in special effects makeup for thirty years, his work on display in movies such as Born on the Fourth of July, Jacob's Ladder, and five separate films directed by Oliver Stone, as well as several Canadian television series. His greatest recognition came when he was hired to bring the X-Men to life in Bryan Singer's X-Men and X2 films. This exhibition, made up mostly of Smith's privately owned materials left over after the completion of the films, highlights the creation of seven characters, and explores how the imagination of Marvel comics was initially brought to life.

Hit the jump for the review, which has a wicked tongue.

The exhibit is small, but that doesn't diminish the effectiveness. Plus, it's free, so what do you want? The exhibit opens subtly, with several concept drawings and sketches of the designs of the major prosthetic-requiring characters, and those that formed the bulk of the exhibit: Mystique, played by Rebecca Romijn; Nightcrawler, played by Alan Cummings; and Wolverine, played by Hugh Jackman. Before entering the main gallery, a cabinet of contact lens greets visitors, and was honestly one of the more fascinating things in the exhibit. Many characters in X2 featured at least one scene with silver eyes, the effects of the mind control, while others like Romjin or Cummings, wore contacts throughout the majority of their performances. Most unsettling, at the base of the display were two molds of Ian McKellen's eyes, looking up at the viewer.

The first major props on display were the various pieces of Nightcrawler. Tail, feet and hands, along with the various tools and paints that were used to transform the actor. The tail piece was particularly interesting. Attached to the back of a abdominal support belt, which allowed the tail to move with the actor's hips. I knew that for certain scenes the tail was digitally created, but never questioned the logistics of attaching the tail otherwise. The tail itself was semi-rigid, allowing for posing, while keeping a desired shape. A tattoo map was also included, so the application of the body scars would be consistent.

Smith was also responsible for creating the less intensive prosthetics for the film, including Lady Deathstrike's fingernails, Wolverine's blades, and Sabertooth's claws, each of which was on display. Sometimes we forget about the little things that are altered, like wigs or hair lines, and so it can be a little curious at first to see alongside a set of ten inch Ginsu knuckle-knives, a tuft of hair that functioned as a side burn, or an eyebrow. Exhibits like this a wonderful reminders of exactly how much goes into the minutia of movie building that attention is rarely drawn to, yet make the experience all the more real.

I wasn't expecting the amount of materials from Toad, Ray Park's lackey character from the first film. On top of a collection of the various goggles he wears throughout, three separate molds of the goo he spits were on display, each molded to fit Famke Janssen's face (I'm sure that was a joy to sit through). And a tongue, about five feet long. I wouldn't have guessed, in any of the scenes where Toad's tongue is at full length, that it was a practical effect. Even in those early days of CG penetration, I figured it was digitally created. But there it lay, encased in glass, and very disgusting looking. So, I guess, a success.

The literal centrepiece of the exhibit were three head casts, one of Jackman, one of Kelly Hu, and one of Bruce Davison. The level of detail and life like quality, though less so on Jackman's then the others, was astonishing, but expected, considering that they were expected to fill in for the actors without us realising. Davison's bust was used to slide his head between the bar's of Magneto's fortress, a scene I was, again, certain was digitally created. I felt the need to rewatch the films after seeing this exhibit, to reconstruct my notions of what was real and what wasn't, with the knowledge that, as before, I'm probably still wrong.

The finale of the exhibit was a build up to the creation of Mystique, which you will remember was all everyone was talking about leading up to the film's release. Setting aside that the actress was essentially nude during the performance, but everyone was fascinated by the elaborate makeup. I distinctly remember one reporter pondering if she would be safe from skin suffocation, like the girl in Goldfinger. Clearly, this was from a time before the Mythbusters busted that movie myth.

Each stage of the process was given focus, starting with a simple mold of Romijn's arm, which Smith used to develop the texture of the makeup, and to build the hand prints to her specifications. Next was the development of the skin itself, created in fillet like sections, applied in turn and joined together with more standard colouring.  The process, and the exhibit, culminated with a life sized mannequin, with the full makeup applied. It looks good on film, but it looks stunning in person. The individual scales don't give you the impression they would feel like rubber, and I assure you that each individual scale was detailed.

It doesn't take long to wander through, but if you are fans of the X-Men films, or just a fan of movie magic, there are certainly less productive ways to spend some extra time. Especially if you're already down stairs for the Designing Bond exhibit (more on that later this week). X-Men Master: Gordon Smith is free at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, in Toronto, until March 31st. I recommend it.

For information, visit TIFF.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


  1. Anonymous7 December 2012 at 23:02

    My friend has always asked about the whole Toad's slime mask. He wanted to get into makeup and such, so is there anymore information on that?

    1. by MR. Clark9 December 2012 at 13:06

      Well, the three forms used in the film are on display (as seen in the photo above), with a small information card explaining what thay are, that they were made for Famke Janssen and if I remember correctly, what they were made of. Nothing more then that, I'm afraid.

    2. Anonymous10 December 2012 at 18:00

      Well is there a more detailed photo of the small information card along with more to do with Wolverine's Claws and more on Toad.

    3. by MR. Clark11 December 2012 at 08:39

      No sorry. No photos were allowed to be taken in the exhibit, the above examples I pulled from the various media coverage when the exhibit opened. Your friend might consider contacting the exhibit, they might be able to point them in the right direction.

  • Danny O.4 May 2013 at 01:16

    I heard Famke Janssen is extremely claustrophobic. So I assume when applying the makeup for the slime trap, she wasn't too willing to act the scene. Lol her freaking out might have been real during that scene.


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