Fraser’s performance as Charlie became a rare fusion between actor and extensive prosthetic makeup. Director Darren Aronofsky had envisioned Charlie’s weight to be at the farthest human extreme, severe enough to be life-threatening, but he also wanted to make sure that Fraser’s face wouldn’t be covered in a way that obfuscated his emotional range of expression. To accomplish this monumental task, the filmmaker turned to a trusted and deeply creative collaborator: Oscar®-nominated Adrien Morot, who worked with Aronofsky on The Fountain, Noah, and mother! For The Whale, Morot would pioneer the first-ever all-digital prosthetic makeup, among other innovations.
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So-called “fat suits” have had a fraught history in filmmaking, at times used to stigmatize or mock, which spurred Aronofsky and Morot to delve into how to create Charlie’s full size both organically and respectfully, approaching it as an extension to Fraser’s portrayal. “Adrien was one of the first people I contacted when I started thinking about The Whale. I knew without him the film wouldn’t be possible. He rose to the challenge with endless research and eventually it became clear he needed to reinvent the wheel by enlisting new technologies,” says Aronofsky. “He was a remarkable partner in figuring out how to make the illusion of Charlie’s body real.” Fraser found he was moved to his core the first time he saw the full set of prosthetics Morot had created. “I thought, ‘this should hang in the Tate Modern” he recalls. “The detail was so intricate; the airbrushing technique truly brought out the transparency of skin and the blue of the veins beneath, there was deep concern for physics and how gravity affects the skin, but you could also feel the love and compassion that went into creating it.”
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Over the 40-day shoot, Fraser would develop an intense love-hate relationship with the arduous makeup process, which took up to four hours each session to apply, and the suit, which took five people to get on and off at the end of each day. Once the suit was on, Fraser was able to remove an arm so he could eat, but even leaving the set momentarily for a break required the aid of others. The suit had a built-in cooling system much like those used for formula one race car drivers, though it was still incredibly hot. Fraser ultimately got so used to wearing it that when he took it off, he began to feel dizzy, lacking in equilibrium, the way you feel unsteady stepping onto land after sailing on a boat. “The part you can’t see on screen is how much intensive rehearsal it took to learn how to move inside it,” Fraser says. “I developed a whole new set of muscles I didn’t even know existed. It was by far the hardest physical journey I’ve taken as an actor. Running around in the desert when I was younger was a cakewalk compared to this, I promise you.”
The suit also had a more symbolic heft to it. “It was not just the physical but emotional weight of it that was important,” Fraser reflects. “When everything you do takes a monumental effort, it makes your choices feel that much more important.” Morot already knew Aronofsky likes to play at the technical edges while seeking perfection, a rather tricky combination. He has enjoyed rising to that high bar. But he still wasn’t fully prepared with just how far The Whale would push his skillset. He had done weight gain prosthetics before, but it became clear early on that the current technology and practices weren’t going to meet the standard that this film required. He would need to carve his own way. Morot began poring over every example of a detailed weight gain suit he could find throughout cinema history, but he was quickly frustrated by the fact that nearly all the relevant examples were either used for comedic or fantasy purposes. So, he shifted gears, realizing that what he wanted didn’t exist yet, and that he needed to study real bodies themselves to understand the task at hand.
As Morot began his early designs, it became clear Fraser would also have to wear facial prosthetics so the line between actor and body would be seamless. “Darren wanted a clear view of Brendan’s expressions, but we found ways to merge the prosthetics to his face that allows full movement of the muscles,” Morot says. This led to the decision to do all the prosthetics digitally— something never attempted before for a major feature. Unlike the standard method of starting with a life cast of Fraser, then sculpting the head manually with clay before forging silicon pieces, Morot streamlined the entire process inside a computer. He used 3D modelling to create a digital sculpture and then jumped straight to 3D printing for the entire process, skipping the clay sculpting entirely. “I had been testing this for a while, and I told Darren that this is going to be very risky,” Morot explains, “but it made some sense to try it. The advantages for The Whale were numerous, especially because Darren is such a perfectionist. Not only was it faster to get to the initial sculpture, but it was much easier to make Darren’s many changes to the sculpture. We were able to get the version he was happiest with right down to the size of the pores and wrinkles.”
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Morot says no matter how careful the makeup, it only worked because Fraser brought that emotional alchemy that enlivened it. “This is the first time in my career I’ve ever had tears in my eyes while working, and it happened several times watching Brendan. It’s an out-of-this-world performance, and I hope people don’t see the makeup so much as they see Charlie,” he says.
Read our review of the Whale here