- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2006

In the gleefully macabre world of television makeup, delicious things can be done with tofu.Stephanie Fowler, head of the makeup department for TNT’s “The Closer” and FX’s “Nip/Tuck,” once used the gooey substance as a stand-in for human brain matter.

“We take things out of the kitchen and create disgusting, morbid things,” says Ms. Fowler, a three-time Emmy nominee.

It is not simply the gory fare of slasher flicks. On crime dramas like “The Closer,” it’s an art in itself: the highly precise craft of making live actors and dummies look like death warmed over — or cooled over, as the case may be (decomposition, you see).

Strictly as a matter of storytelling, the first glimpse of a cadaver on crime dramas (the most popular thing on TV, with the exception of reality shows) is an obligatory establishing shot from which the plot will radiate in multiple directions. Shows such as “Law and Order” playfully tease the viewer with idle chit-chat, with the routine bustle of a big city, until — hello — someone stumbles on a bloody pulp or bag of bones and promptly calls the cops.

Viewers have become increasingly sophisticated about criminal investigative methods and, more specifically, the pathological information that can be gleaned from dead bodies. The ketchup-y fake blood dripping out of the side of the mouth or the gushing artery simply won’t do in this day and age, what with shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and its offshoots banking on audiences’ understanding of forensic science.

“It becomes very specific, and we like to make it as true to life as possible,” says Greg Solomon, the managing partner of Optic Nerve Studios Inc., a Los Angeles effects company that works on NBC’s “Crossing Jordan,” which stars “Law and Order” alum Jill Hennessy as a crime-solving medical examiner.

How specific?

Have you eaten?

Mr. Solomon says it depends on what the script calls for. For example, if it’s just a passing shot of a cadaver from afar, makeup artists can get away with a flat sheet of latex to pass for the deceased. But for a close-up — an autopsy, let’s say — accuracy becomes much more important.

What does a body look like one hour after expiring? Twelve hours? Twelve days?

(The faint of heart, and the full of belly, may want to skip to the theater reviews right about now.)

“When the person is cut open, we have to create the fluids you see oozing out,” Mr. Solomon says. “We’ve created bodies to simulate a pulled-off rib cage, where you can see the internal organs underneath.”

Clear silicone and gelatin are the (highly pliable) materials of choice for conveying the three-dimensionality of body parts. Makeup artists will use latex for small appliances on live actors and silicone for the bigger job of molding a cadaver from scratch.

“Let’s say they’re looking for something specific in the lungs,” Mr. Solomon stipulates. “We need to make that lung look right from the outside and the inside.” That might mean a “porous” lung with “large gaps in the bronchia.” Or it could simply mean discoloration, or just a bruise on the outside of the organ.

Steven Lawrence, who has worked on “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” for five years, in addition to two years on HBO’s “Oz,” says that while makeup artists are always aware of the sensitivity of showing gore on the small screen, many like to push the envelope of broadcast standards. “If it’s an open cut, you make it look as deep and nasty as you can,” he says.

Makeup artists who specialize in creating cadavers or otherwise violent material come from various backgrounds; in their teens, they might have been monster magazine-reading geeks; in Ms. Fowler’s case, she worked the B-movie circuit as a generalist and is as pleased to make actors feel pretty as she is rendering cuts, black eyes and corpses.

What they have in common is a keenness for the telling detail and the patience to wade through dense medical textbooks.

A vivid imagination is essential for the job, says Mr. Lawrence, but “I use forensic books.”

Mr. Solomon’s team does its own research, right down to cracking dermatology texts to bone up (no pun intended) on skin conditions. He also employs Gary Kellerman, an investigator with the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office, as a technical adviser.

As part of her technical regimen, Ms. Fowler took her team on field trips to L.A. morgues. “We wanted to see exactly what gunshots look like, what they do after autopsies,” she says.

The verdict: “Disgusting but interesting.”

That brings up the million-dollar question of TV’s death-simulation artists. Do they ever get squeamish on the job, or is it always just another day at the office?

These are folks, all of them, who aren’t satisfied with their job performance unless their actor colleagues report that unpeaceful, queasy feeling — if not utter revulsion — at least some of the time. (Mr. Lawrence is most proud of a sequence on “Oz” when sturdy stars Ernie Hudson and J.K. Simmons recoiled aloud during rehearsal after his creation, a prison guard with eyes gouged out, crashed through a door.)

Mr. Solomon perhaps speaks for the most well-adjusted of TV cadaver creators when he says that the fake stuff never bothers him: It’s pictures of real human remains that stop him in his tracks.

That reaction might well explain why murder-centered dramas, why human death and disfiguration, have become so ubiquitous on television.

“The realization that we’re all going to be there someday really enhances the drama,” Mr. Solomon says. “Death is part of life.”

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