Every special make-up effects artist wants to create a fat suit. Adding pounds to a slender actor demands skill in sculpting, painting, hair styling and punching, make up application, costuming and materials. When the drama department at Carnegie Mellon University contacted Tolin FX about making a fat suit for their upcoming production of THE FULL MONTY, directed by Mr. Patrick Wilson (Nightowl!!) we jumped at the chance. As you may know, this musical revolves around the idea of, well, the full monty. The challenge was to create an expertly crafted, highly realistic suit as it would not always be hidden under layers of clothes.
The first step was to make a lifecast of the actor. Sometimes a lifecast just involves a a part of the body, an arm or a head. But because the fat suit we were to make encompasses the whole body we needed to have a full body lifecast on which to sculpt the form. The process was intense but actor Michael Leadbetter was a good sport! We demonstrated the life casting process as a master workshop, and were joined by a number of technical theater students from CMU for the day.
Then the fun part: sculpting the body! Kyle Roberts, Don Bumgarner, Aaron Parkus and myself sculpted the desired body shape onto the form we created from the lifecast. We worked with the costume and design crew of the production to find the perfect body shape – not too big or cumbersome but with appropriate heft. We looked at many reference pictures for inspiration and specificity of design. As our mentor Doug Henderson used to say of reference: “If it’s good enough for Rick Baker, it’s good enough for you.”
Our design concept was to let the shape taper off from the thighs, forearms and neck, so only the torso and upper arms and thighs needed to be sculpted. As the suit would be seen in its entirety for the stripping scenes (late spoiler alert, sorry) the genitals had to be sculpted, and the back of the suit had to seem to be intact (no seam / zipper up the back.)
Once the sculpt was finished and approved by Mr. Wilson and the [costume/production designer] it was time to mold and cast it. With a suit this size we would probably have cast it in foam latex so that it would not be to heavy, but latex was out due to a latex allergy (it happens.) Instead we set our sights on silicone, specifically Dragon Skin and Soma Foama to create the final suit. We reinforced the silicone with an Under Armor performance shirt. The weight of the suit (which came in at 30lbs!) created a very realistic movement and jiggle.
We tried several different methods of engineering and casting the suit. It started as a makeup design but quickly became solely a costume piece. Eventually we decided to separate the top from the bottom so that the actor could wear it more like a costume, pants and a shirt. Abby Moller and Lesley Morton created a suspender system to hold the legs and pelvis piece, while the upper torso had 3 feathered seams on each arm and the neck, and a zipper and clasp system up the back to hold it closed. The zipper was attached so snugly and overlapping that you couldn’t see the seam up the back.
Next we color matched Michael’s skin and did some paint tests. Then Kyle painted the silicone paint job of his career, inspired in large part by Jamie Grove’s tutorial from the Stan Winston School of Special Effects. The paintjob is truly beautiful.
Finally it was time for hair punching and tying. We used hair to create character and realism, but also to help hide the seams. Paige Piotti and I came up with a new design for the leg hair (I’m sure someone else has done this, but we’ve never heard of it) by tying individual hairs into nylon dancer’s tights and gluing the top edge of the stockings directly and permanently to the suit. This allowed us to have a hair piece for both legs with no silicone or hair laying, but more importantly served to hide the leg seams. And then the entire suit was hand punched a hair at a time, using tons of reference. Many hours were spent punching and was the step that involved the most artists at the shop. Just about everyone got their hands on it.
In the end we are very proud of this piece. It looks great on stage and is a big part of the show, we were able to work closely with the students and faculty at CMU for the first time in a large capacity (if you don’t count the prop pig we made last fall entirely out of sex dolls for their production of Lord of the Flies!), we got to meet and work with Patrick Wilson, and we finally got to make our fat suit!