American actor, Doug Jones, as one of Crimson Peak's many ghosts on set in Toronto.
In an age of computer-generated imagery (CGI) wizardry, bloated budgets and more explosions than even a teenager can handle, it’s easy to overlook the meticulous work of the talented few who create the real, tangible gore, magic and monsters in film. Far from the madness of Hollywood, in Poblenou, DDT Effects is doing just that and is arguably the greatest team currently working on traditional special effects in the industry. Widely known for the fantastical props and creatures that feature in the bulk of Guillermo Del Toro’s filmography, DDT have witnessed the changes in the trade first hand over the past 25 years.
“When we first started, in 1991, we were doing a lot of commercials because the movies at the time were all civil war or comedies, rather than thrillers, sci-fi or fantasy, something we could work with.” explains David Martí, co-founder. “Then in ‘94 and ‘95, films like Jurassic Park came out and before that Terminator 2, and they had amazing computer-generated images. We were like, ‘Oh my god, this is a computer? We’re done!”
Far from it. Such a leap in the industry resulted in a gap in the market for the rare few who could produce the make-up effects that Martí and his team could. “There was a step in-between that some had missed. They would make a commercial and have some guy transform—that morphing effect was really fashionable at the time—into a monster or a vampire. However they needed the final stage, the monster, so then they began to call us.” Soon the work began to take off, and with every job, new techniques and challenges were faced.
Martí’s passion for the big screen developed early. A love of Spielberg’s early work and access to his dad’s Super-8 camera had the young David desperate to find a way into the industry. “I was driving my mum crazy. I wanted to do this, but back then, in Spain, there was nothing. We started to look for art academies and, to me, everything looked so boring. I wanted to make movies, not vases!”
Finding Spain’s art system at the time both stale and secretive, Martí looked abroad for help. Reading magazines, such as Fangoria, he stumbled upon an advert that helped change everything. “In 1992, I got in contact with Dick Smith, the makeup artist for The Godfather and The Exorcist. He was selling a distance-learning course. I was expecting the material to include lots of pictures, but the information he sent was text only. I had to try and understand all of this in English. So, it actually ended up being an English course as well.” A great relationship began, with Smith happy to share all his knowledge with his young apprentice, teaching him that it is not what techniques you use, but rather how you use them. Later, some rather grisly work on a short film named Aftermath resulted in the group heading to the Sitges Film Festival and having another encounter that helped change the course of the company.
“They put the short film on and this guy was laughing, and when it finished he shouted, ‘Where’s David? Where are the DDT people?’” It was a very young Guillermo Del Toro. He said ‘I wasn’t aware these kinds of effects could be done in Spain. Whenever I come here to shoot a movie I want you to do the effects.” A long wait followed, Del Toro first having to learn the pitfalls of working the Hollywood studio system, but starting with The Devil’s Backbone (2001), DDT became his effects company of choice.
Photo credit David Martí / DDT
Above: DDT co-founder, David Martí, works on Doug Jones’ prosthetics as ‘The Mother Ghost’ in Crimson Peak.
Despite winning an Academy Award for Best Make-up with Pan’s Labyrinth in 2007, the company still like to keep things small, understanding that passion is the greatest asset when working the way they do. “At the moment we have 15 or 16 people,” said Martí. “Last year we had more, while we were working on the new J. A Bayona movie, A Monster Calls. We had to make parts of a giant monster that looked like a tree. We had 45 people; it was our busiest time.”
It has taken much experimentation, growth and sweat for DDT to get to where they are, so it is almost impossible to pinpoint one particular skill that makes a good make-up artist, but Martí offered some words of wisdom. “Make-up effects involve sculpting, painting, creating moulds, and attaching prosthetics to the actors. Practise but don’t expect awards and recognition or glamorous work. We’re talking about 12-hour shoots, followed by four hours applying make-up, one hour removing make-up, three hours sleep and then back to the set. It involves sacrifice, but if it’s something you really want to do, it is worth it. That’s what happened to us with Pan’s Labyrinth. It was such a sacrifice, but it was worth it in the end—not for the Oscar, but because we created two characters, ‘The Pale Man’ and ‘Pan’ that are now icons.”
Now busier than ever, the group spend their time on local and international movies, a small team often having to fly out to locations, to help put together the wonders they have created here in Barcelona. New generations are being trained and new challenges, as ever, are being met. It has been a long journey maintained through late nights, intense teamwork and, perhaps most importantly, holding on to that childhood imagination that started it all.
Oscar Winners (Best Makeup and Hairstyling)
An American Werewolf in London (1981, Rick Baker)
Amadeus (1984, Paul LeBlanc and Dick Smith)
Mrs Doubtfire (1993, Greg Cannom, Ve Neill, and Yolanda Toussieng)
Braveheart (1995, Peter Frampton, Paul Pattison, and Lois Burwell)
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001, Peter Owen and Richard Taylor)
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, David Martí and Montse Ribé)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008, Greg Cannom)
Les Misérables (2012, Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell)