Makeup artist and Sherlock Holmes nerd David Elsey finally got his chance to transform the famous Baker Street sleuth in an entirely new way—as a 93-year-old struggling to solve the case that led to his retirement. (Watch a featurette on the film’s makeup above.)
“It was a great opportunity to do something fresh with the character and wasn’t just a disguise, and really help Bill Condon and Ian McKellen tell their story,” recalled Elsey, who shared an Oscar with Rick Baker for “The Wolfman.”
“No matter how old he got, we didn’t want to lose that Sherlock Holmes silhouette,” added Elsey, who with the aid of his wife and partner, Lou Elsey, alternated between the 93-year-old and 62-year-old Holmes for flashbacks.
However, even though Elsey had been on the project for a year, there was only a week of pre-production before the start of filming, which was quite a shock. With no time for a lifecast, he did preliminary designing in Photoshop and got a “Lord of the Rings” lifecast from Richard Taylor of Weta.
When Elsey finally met with McKellen, he aged him by concentrating on the eyes (crow’s feet and eyebags) and eventually found the right nose. But for the de-aging, he did reverse engineering, creating cheek appliances that smoothed out McKellen’s cheekbones and eyebags along with some clever re-sculpting of the nose and around those other areas.
“The other shock that we had, on certain days that he filmed, he was going to be old in the morning and then young in the afternoon. So that became a very hectic on-and-off ritual.”
Elsey also shaved McKellen’s hairline back to make it appear more receded. For the much older Holmes, he bleached his hair white and used shadow and highlight makeup to add sun damage.
But since the actor had recently undergone eye surgery, he didn’t want prosthetics glued too close to his eyes, so Elsey made sure that his cheek appliances overlapped the eyebags.
“He was instrumental in helping us with this crazy schedule. We had to do it in 45 minutes and Ian became part of this fantastic dance that we did, where me and Lou would apply the makeup and he would pull exactly the right faces at exactly the right moments.
“If we made him young in the morning, he would leap around and be young at 60. And if we was old, we’d have to help him off the makeup trailer because he had a stick and he walked with a limp. Basically, whatever age we made him, he stayed that age.”