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How ‘Pinocchio’ Oscar Nominees Created the Story’s Most Faithful Vision

From snail slime to dirty wigs, the "Pinocchio" Oscar nominees for best makeup and hairstyling and best costume discuss how they made the wooden boy real.

Pinocchio

Federico Ielapi spent three hours each day in the makeup chair to play “Pinocchio.”

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The story of “Pinocchio,” the wooden puppet who wants to become a real boy, has been retold since the publication of Italian author Carlo Collodi’s book in 1883. However, Matteo Garrone’s 2021 Oscar-nominated live action version is almost certainly the first to deal with the hazards of a slime trail.

“Mamma mia, it was a nightmare!” said costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini, recalling how one actress would routinely fall on the sludge left behind by the giant snail (Maria Pia Timo, inside a vast latex suit on wheels) as the blue Fairy (Alida Baldari Calabria) followed. “More than once, alas, the little girl slipped. The stains that were getting onto the costume of the fairy were, of course, very difficult to remove.”

In an era of sophisticated CGI-driven storytelling, Garrone’s “Pinocchio” stands out for its unique focus on practical effects, snail stains and all. While not devoid of digital assistance, the movie provides a welcome balance between handcrafted textures and modern tech. Where Disney’s 1940 adaptation sanitized the “Pinocchio” saga, Garrone’s version comes much closer to representing the rough-and-tumble nature of Pinocchio’s often harrowing journey through an imaginative Italian landscape rooted in earthy details.

The delectable blend of realism and storybook imagery lead the 2019 production — which was a box-office hit in Italy before its North American release last year — to become a surprise Oscar season crafts contender.

Parrini was nominated for Best Costume Design, while Italy’s Dalia Colli and Francesco Pegoretti shared the Makeup and Hairstyling nomination with two-time Oscar winning British prosthetics guru Mark Coulier (“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Iron Lady”). For Coulier, who has juggled everything from “Suspiria” to “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the past decade, Garrone’s “Pinocchio” provided the chance to unleash his prosthetics wizardry on a classic story dying for a master craftsman’s touch.

“After ‘The Iron Lady,’ we did loads of old-age makeup, and after a while you just want something a bit different,” he said. “Slotting in this fantasy fairy tale, with all these beautiful characters to design, was just incredible. You don’t get that many make-up jobs like this that come along that often.”

Garrone initially intended to lean far more on digital effects, with plans for the hands, neck, and body of Pinocchio (Federico Ielapi) to be rendered on a computer. “Once Matteo viewed the sculpts we had, we realized this could be really makeup driven,” Coulier said. “It didn’t need all those digital effects. This would tell the story on a more personable level.”

Coulier was quick to note that while “Pinocchio” may demonstrate the lasting power of practical effects, it wasn’t a repudiation of 21st-century technology. “We had a really great relationship with the visual effects team,” he said. “We really collaborated more than any other film I’ve ever worked on in terms of everyone understanding what we were doing.” When Pinocchio makes his disturbing transformation into a donkey, and when his nose grows, the practical effects take a backseat. “I thought they did a beautiful job,” Coulier said.

Still, the makeup chair was a busy place on “Pinocchio,” with Ielapi sitting for three hours every day as the two teams sculpted an intricate wood pattern onto his face. There were around 70 versions of the mold prepared to account for one for each day of the shoot. “It was a lot of work for that one character,” Coulier said.

Every day included intricate physical challenges — hair punching and feather work, blending of wood grains around the eyes. “The story is known as being very soft and lovable,” Colli said. “We wanted to do it differently.”

Parrini, whose costumes populated previous Garrone efforts such as “Dogman” and the similarly fantastical “Tale of Tales,” used 18th- and 19th-century period photographs and paintings as his main reference points. He designed over 30 costumes for the movie. “I believe the main difference between our ‘Pinocchio’ and the other versions are that it originates from reality,” Parrini said. “This is the closest version to the original story. Matteo wanted to achieve very tangible characters so that the movie gets really close to its characters.”

pinocchio snail

The Snail proved to be one of the more challenging characters to create.

Even comedy legend Roberto Benigni, who portrays the kindly Gepetto (after playing Pinocchio himself in a misbegotten 2002 version he directed) faced a new experience when Pegoretti got the actor to wear a wig for the first time in his career. “Matteo said he wanted Gepetto to seem like a poor clown with dirty hair,” Pegoretti said. “He has never known a comb in his life. He was a poor character and we needed to feel this poverty.”

Pegoretti took many of his cues from Enrico Massanti’s illustrations in the original text. For the puppet characters that Pinocchio meets after he runs away from home, Pegoretti studied the Italian tradition of street puppetry known as commedia dell’arte. “I created these little wigs using traditional material they used, very poor material like animal hair,” he said. “It was amazing work to recreate this old world using very traditional material, like yak or horse hair.”

Parrini also took cues from commedia dell’arte and let the material show its age. “The creative challenge I had to overcome was to adapt my costumes to these puppets,” he said. “They were made out of ancient fabrics I obtained. I wanted to convey this idea of tired puppets, which I conveyed with these aged costumes.”

For Pinocchio and other key characters, Parrini embraced the inevitable wear-and-tear of the production, as the wooden boy journeys to a far-off kingdom and survives the belly of a whale on his Homeric trip home. “I really wanted the costumes to age during the shoot,” he said. “They had to convey the spirit of the movie. So if they were getting dirty or stained because the character was wearing the costumes in the water, the dirt, the mud, while eating. All of these elements would add onto the truth that these costumes had to convey.”

cat and fox pinnochio

The Cat and the Fox in “Pinocchio.”

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By design, the quest for authenticity often clashed with the artifice onscreen. For the thieving characters of the Cat (Rocco Papaleo) and Fox (Massimo Ceccherini), prosthetics took a back seat to crusty hairstyles as the actors transformed the characters into a pair of clawed and bumbling street urchins. “These animals had to be in the middle — not animal or man, but these fantastic characters,” Colli said. “But that allows you to see their humanity.” For their sharp, dirt-encrusted claws, Colli created molds of nails made in plaster and resin. She often worried that they would fall off during takes. “At the end of the movie, I kept these nails like a treasure in a box in my laboratory,” Colli said.

Coulier acknowledged that the $13.2 million budget, a far cry from the experiences on studio franchises like the “Harry Potter” movies, had its limitations. “It was a pretty hectic schedule,” he said, but found an upside as well. “I’m not saying the big movies aren’t made with passion, but there’s definitely more of a family feeling on a smaller-budget movie.”

Coulier relished the opportunity to mesh with an Italian crew. Not long after “Pinocchio” wrapped, he got a call from Sacha Baron Cohen, who was on the brink of plotting to crash Mike Pence’s 2020 CPAC speech in a Donald Trump outfit for “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” “He wanted to know if he could walk into a room wearing a prosthetic dressed as Donald Trump and have people believe he was Donald Trump,” Coulier said. “I said to him, ‘These are hands, not wands!’”

Sacha Baron Cohen transforming into Donald Trump for "Borat 2"

Sacha Baron Cohen transforming into Donald Trump for “Borat 2”

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Nevertheless, Coulier managed to figure out how to build a sculpture of Trump on top of Baron Cohen’s head cast. Wearing a fat suit also helped. “We found that because you’re making him bigger — Trump’s fatter — at least you have some leeway there,” Coulier said. The rest is history. “Sacha called me up after it all happened and he said he was escorted off by 12 security men who interrogated him for an hour,” Coulier said. “None of them realized he was in makeup, which is cool.”

Coulier said his experiences with “Borat” and especially “Pinocchio” were fundamentally different from less-friendly encounters on studio projects. “I have a definite preference to films where there’s communication going on between the director and the visual effects team,” he said. “On the big-budget movies, that all gets lost. Makeup is just not as highly regarded in those bigger films, where it’s much more visual effects-driven and we’re just lending a hand. I much prefer to work with a director who I can email a reference picture rather than booking a meeting three weeks in advance.”

Other “Pinocchio” nominees echoed that assessment. Colli recalled her experience on the set of the Tom Hanks thriller “Angels and Demons” over a decade ago. “I could never talk with the key makeup artists,” she said. “We were a a part of the crew, but not all together. When we work in Italy on the set, we’re like a big family.”

Parrini put it bluntly: “I would say the main difference between European and Hollywood productions is that you have a better chance of expressing your creativity, even if — or maybe because — you have fewer financial means to support you. That just makes you more creative.”

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