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WORKING HOLLYWOOD

'Inkheart' makeup designer is a font of tattoo tales

Jenny Shircore breaks out the stencils for the medieval fantasy adventure.

January 25, 2009|Cristy Lytal

Jenny Shircore has an uncanny ability to make people's faces read like books. On the set of director Iain Softley's new fantasy adventure "Inkheart," Shircore created hundreds of intricately lettered facial tattoos to signify that certain characters in the film had been brought to life from the pages of works of literature.

Born in India during the days of the British Raj to an Armenian father and a French mother, Shircore moved to England at the age of 10. As a child, she loved doing her friends' hair, so she went to study at the London College of Fashion. "My first thought was to travel, and I wanted to work on a luxury cruiser as a hairdresser and therefore travel and do hair at the same time," she said. "But I was put off that idea by somebody who had done it."

Warned off the seafaring life, she applied to the BBC, where she did hair and makeup for period films and Shakespeare adaptations for 15 years. "I was with the BBC for so long," she said, "and I suddenly thought, 'I can't walk down these corridors for another day! I can't drive through these gates another day! I have to change!' And so I left the BBC and went freelance."

Shircore's first film as an independent contractor was 1985's "Dreamchild," a dark glimpse into the later life of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's masterpiece "Alice in Wonderland." From there, she went on to win an Oscar for her work on 1998's "Elizabeth" as well as to lend her talents to more recent projects like the period drama "Girl With a Pearl Earring," the 2004 musical "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Inkheart."

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Not exactly by the book: Though "Inkheart" is based on a popular series by author Cornelia Funke, none of the characters in her source material sport facial tattoos. "In the book, they're deformed, but Iain Softley didn't want the deformities, so we did the lettering instead," Shircore said. "It was a filmic thing. We thought it would be pretty cool if they had some of the lettering on their faces to show that they had been [brought to life] out of a book. All of them really were done individually. I did pick out every single passage -- poetic passages and just passages that had relevance to the story."

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Font of ideas: Since the characters hail from medieval times, fonts from that period inspired Shircore's tattoos. "For the soldiers, for the baddies, I knew I wanted a very strong font, and we just used a straightforward Roman font," she said. "When we came to doing the girls, I took a little bit of license there, and that is a gentler, more feminine font. We also used a less aggressive color, so it was more gray and blue rather than the black that the soldiers had on."

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Words per minute: Some mornings, Shircore and her team had to apply tattoos to more than 100 actors in half an hour. "We had to figure out methods of doing it very quickly," she said. "We have a very clever man here [in London] called David Stoneman, who does lovely tattoos and makes makeups to your requirements. And he made up quite a lot of tattoos that you would put on the face like you would an ordinary temporary tattoo. And we also had passages from the book cut out with laser cuts so that you could just press it up against the face and then fill it in like a stencil.

"But there were lots of problems. The ink would run through the stencil. Sometimes, we found that the writing came out back to front and upside-down. But with the men, we had to just get them in and get them out fast, and sometimes if it smudged and some letters were bolder than others, I think it just added to the way they looked aggressive. But on the girls, we did freehand work, so we actually painted them on. You couldn't do a stencil in that beautiful lettering."

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A horse of a different color: The biggest diva on set proved to be the white Italian horse that played the unicorn in the film. "You have this stencil, which was about six feet long, to place across the horse and then to stamp the makeup into it," Shircore said. "An assistant to myself went in there into his truck to put the painting on him, and he was kicking the place down. And I said to my assistant, I said, 'No deeds of bravado. He stops kicking, or we get out of here.' Anyway, we did it, and I thought it looked fantastic, and we risked life and limb for it. I showed it to [the director], and he looked pensively at it and said, 'Can you move it 6 inches over?' I think he was pulling my leg!"

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