Here are a few recent collaborators from head make up designer Ve Neill's resume: Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, Gore Verbinski and Ron Howard. Big name players call on Neill to supervise the design and construction of elaborate make up creations for some of Hollywood's biggest projects, including Pirates of the Caribbean, Sweeney Todd, Chronicles of Riddick, Eragon, Austin Powers: Goldmember and Constantine (and that's just in recent years).
Her latest is The Hunger Games, the blockbuster hit currently preparing for another number one weekend at the box office. The dystopian sci-fi is in a world of its own, full of extravagant citizens of the Capitol to the grungy inhabitants of District 12, and each one required its own makeup job — and amazingly, especially for a major event picture, Neill had little time to create all the visual styles seen in the movie. "I had two weeks prep on the movie, and we started in the woods," she tells Hollywood.com in an exclusive interview. "I can sit and draw all the pictures in the world, and until you see it on somebody, you’re never really going to know what it looks like. Basically, we did it within a week. We attached the week before we started working there.
Neill's showiest production may be the much-discussed Effie makeup for actress Elizabeth Banks, for which she took careful consideration in conceiving. "She has to go out to the districts, so she can't be totally outrageous. She has to be attractive in her grotesqueness. I really wanted to give her a soft, but off look. You have to take into consideration that her clothes are really flamboyant, and if you put garish makeup on her, she'll look like a clown." While Hunger Games lead fashionista has a distinct look, Neill's subtle work in Peeta' Hunger Games camouflage may be the film's most impressive makeup job.
"It was actually applied by my third Conor McCullagh, because I was already in Charlotte starting work for Capitol City. Before I left I did a test on one of our P.A.’s legs. I mixed together clay and glycerin and a couple of other components to create this mud so that we could actually emulate the rocks that were there. We had done one previous to that where she was in the moss, and it just wasn’t really what we decided we wanted to have, because it should have been something that [Peeta] could have sculpted. It was just basically molding it into a rock.
"[It took] least an hour. To get it on and to mold it all around [Josh Hutcherson], to be all in his features and to really get him laid in their properly, and then to dress all the shrubbery as well — the moss all over the rest of his body and everything — it was probably three people working on it to get in there, because we didn’t want him lying there longer. He was probably getting numb anyway. Then we had the spatter, the speckles to match the rocks. I’m sure it took an hour, maybe an hour and a half, to get him completely camouflaged into the rock."
We also have Neill to thank for Wes Bentley's swirly Seneca Crane beard, which director Gary Ross wasn't so keen on. "I had to fight to get that beard on Seneca. The first we did it, [Gary] said, 'Oh my God, Mephistopheles.' I said, 'No, no, he's got to me the ultimate bad guy here!' We had to make him distinctive. He thought it was too extreme." Neill admits that she did have to tone down the wild facial hair a bit. "The little curly cues that were on his check were big "V" cuts. It almost looked like a tribal thing on his face."
With Hunger Games reaping the big bucks at the box office, a sequel is all but a given — and Neill is already hard at work conjuring up new ideas. "I am prepping for the next one. There's a lot of makeup in the second book. I just read it a couple weeks ago and then…all the dyes and the burns. There constantly getting hammered with physical things that are happening. And I have to start thinking about the fact that they're always going to be around water — and that's salt water to boot."
Next up for Neill is the upcoming superhero reboot The Amazing Spider-Man, which features a reptilian baddie: The Lizard. The villainous alter ego of Dr. Curt Connors will be almost fully CG, but Neill made sure to convince that practical makeup was essential to his realization. "I worked with Legacy Effects, they designed the creature in it. Originally he was never supposed to have but one little piece of makeup, and I kind of forced them into doing a lot more. There's definitely practical stuff. Marc [Webb, director] is very collaborative because I said, 'I think that blah blah blah' should happen and he said, 'Ve are you trying to rewrite the script?' and I said, 'No I'm just trying to have it make sense to everybody!' you know, as far as his character goes. And he said, 'that's a great idea.'"
Having worked with so many talented directors over the years, who is Neill's favorite creative partner? "Joel Schumacher. He's very art based. He was a costume designer, an art director, a lot of things before being a director. He let me do whatever I do! The two Batmans [Batman Forever and Batman & Robin] I did with him had a lot of makeup in them!"
The Hunger Games is in theaters now.
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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.