John Chambers

Thursday 06 September 2001 00:00
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John Chambers, make-up artist: born Chicago 12 September 1922; married; died Woodland Hills, California 25 August 2001.

In 1968, there was no such category as "Best Make-up Effects" at the Academy Awards, so a special Honorary Award was given to John Chambers for his ground-breaking work creating the make-up for the original film version of Planet of the Apes.

Considered a master of his trade – Planet of the Apes was recently cited by Total Film magazine as the best effects film of the pre-digital era – Chambers also worked on such films as The Phantom of the Paradise and The Island of Dr Moreau, and the television series Lost in Space and Star Trek. His name is revered by "Trekkies", since he is the man who designed the famous pointed ears for Leonard Nimoy in his role as Mr Spock. Michael Westmore, who became a make-up designer and supervisor for the Star Trek franchise after studying under Chambers, said, "John brought new techniques and materials to the motion picture business that are still being used today." Along with his Oscar, Chambers also won an Emmy and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Of Irish ancestry, Chambers was born in Chicago in 1922 and worked as a commercial artist, designer of jewellery, and sculptor prior to serving as a dental technician with the US Army during the Second World War. He gained knowledge of facial prosthetics while working with disfigured veterans after the war, providing them with artificial ears, chins, noses and sometimes complete faces. He is credited with helping to develop new techniques with rubber compounds and prosthetics in those early days of cosmetic surgery, but he confessed later that the work was emotionally highly taxing.

In 1953 he joined the make-up department at NBC in Hollywood, his television shows including The Outer Limits, The Munsters and Mission: Impossible. Many productions at that time were broadcast live, and for a Playwrights '56 production, The Battler, starring Paul Newman as a boxer, Chapman had to apply convincing abrasions to the face of the star as quickly as they would have appeared during a real boxing match. Chambers was soon in demand by the major film studios and for a time headed the special make-up effects department at Universal, where his films included John Huston's The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), which employed the gimmick of having its stars, including Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis and Robert Mitchum, play their roles heavily disguised.

Chambers later related that Sinatra was the only one who refused to be fitted for his mask at the studio. "He needed a life mask, but he couldn't stand to have plaster or foam rubber on his face. He gave me a sculptured bust to use as a pattern. The bust was made in the 1940s and his face had changed so much it was useless." Chambers's solution was to take photographs of Sinatra's face from which he took precise measurements of his features. He then found a colleague with the same facial dimensions as Sinatra and used his face to make the mask. "When I tried it on Sinatra, everything fit perfect."

Planet of the Apes (1968) was to prove a particularly daunting challenge, since no one had ever before tried to present on screen an ape that talked. The film's star, Charlton Heston, said,

The whole film depended on that make-up. It originally took myself and director Franklin Schaffner two years to sell that film to Fox. Finally Dick Zanuck, who was running the studio, asked some of the most intelligent questions I've ever heard a studio head ask. He said, "You're not going to use real monkeys, right?" We said, "Of course not! They will be actors!" Zanuck asked, "With make-up? What if the make-up looks funny? What if audiences laugh at the make-up? You've got no picture, right?" We agreed. And he said, "I'll spend whatever it takes to test the make-ups. My make-up people will work it out."

Ben Nye was the head of Fox's make-up department at the time, with Chambers his assistant, but while the film was in preparation Nye left. Chambers said, "After a few months, Ben said, 'You're starting to go into this now, heavy. It'll be huge. I'm quittin'!' He thought it would give him a stroke, so he left. Even though he didn't work on the film, I demanded that he got a credit." After spending a lot of time studying monkeys at the Los Angeles Zoo ("People came to look at me instead of the monkeys") Chambers decided that by working backwards on the evolutionary scale he could create the sort of animal face that would not repulse the audience.

I just didn't want the audience to laugh, and my contention was, since we were making speaking apes, that's an evolutionary step, so I could take the transformation a bit further and show them going towards the human. I tried to keep close to the actor's face. I tried to make characters out of them, exaggerating certain areas but still keeping most of their looks by really bringing it back to their face.

Kim Hunter, who played the simian Zira in the film, said,

One of the problems was, the "appliances" had to last throughout the day. It was difficult – it took about four hours to get into it, and an hour and a half getting out. We could never repeat our appliances. They had to be brand new every day, because the alcohol and stuff used to take them off destroyed them. They were foam rubber, not the plastic they frequently use.

The foam rubber was a new compound created by Chambers after weeks of experiment to find a facial appliance which allowed heat and sweat to pass through the material's pores – the type normally used trapped moisture under the foam, causing discomfort and peeling. He also devised new adhesives and a non-cracking paint so that part of the face could be painted while part was left exposed to allow the ape's features to wrinkle and express emotion. Hunter stated that, though she was unrecognisable in her role, this did not upset her. "Because of John's incredible make-up the audience saw the character I was playing. That's all I cared about."

Chambers's pioneering work was to make him only the second make-up artist to receive an honorary Oscar (the first was given to William Tuttle in 1965 for The Seven Faces of Dr Lao). In 1981 the Academy established a competitive make-up category.

John Chambers's other work included creating the artificial nose worn by Lee Marvin for his Oscar-winning performance in Cat Ballou (1965), Tony Curtis's false nose in The Boston Strangler (1968), an American Indian nose for Howard Keel in Red Tomahawk (1968) and a false chest for Richard Harris in the famous ritual scene in A Man Called Horse (1970) in which the actor is hoist into the air with pins in his chest.

A stout man with a jovial sense of humour, Chambers was both admired and respected by his colleagues. His main workshop was his garage, where he did much of his experimenting and also trained and encouraged young make-up artists. Michael Westmore said, "Before John, studios had their own little, quiet labs. Nobody talked or inter-related." The veteran make-up artist Maurice Stein, another Chambers protégé, said, "Anybody who ever needed help, he'd spend his time giving them an answer. The only thing he asked in return was that we be willing to do the same as him, that we pass it on to a new generation."

Among Chambers's innovations was a new way of making "bald caps" to give an illusion of complete baldness. Instead of using rubber, he sprayed liquid plastic on to a metal form of the actor's head – now a standard technique. He also devised veneer theatrical false teeth (used by Lana Turner among others) and created a plastic-based material for making scars and wounds.

For many years Chambers also worked quietly making prosthetics for hard-up cancer victims. "We are all here to help one another," he said in 1969. "If I can do something to relieve other people's suffering, why not?" Chambers himself suffered a stroke in 1991 which left him partially paralysed, and he moved into the Motion Picture and Television Fund retirement home in Beverly Hills, California.

Tom Vallance

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