Arjen’s Sense of Unbegryplik Wonder
Updated: Feb 11
The string-powered hands he built worked like real ones, and it was pretty cool. Still. Arjen's dreams did not suggest a path from the Dutch village of Haskerdijken to Hollywood. “I was desperately looking for a place.”
She doesn’t tiptoe in. She runs into Arjen’s room, or walks briskly, anyway. It’s probably too breathless to write “She bursts into Arjen’s room!” Though the occasion would merit that, the simple object is just to wake the kid up, so let’s start there. It’s the middle of the night. Mom walks in. Briskly. “Arjen.” [Ar-yen] “Arjen! Wake up.”
In distant and unthinkable 2018, Arjen Tuiten will be a self-possessed Academy Award® nominee, an acknowledged master of his Hollywood craft. Just now, though, he’s a skinny nine-year-old, sprawled under the sheets in the way deeply slumbering kids sprawl—like he’s fallen into bed from a helicopter. His hair is whipped crazily to one side by the tossing rigors of kid-sleep. “Arjen. ARJEN.”
Outside, a Frisian night wind murmurs through the narrow streets of Haskerdijken, the foliage outside Arjen’s window rustling companionably in the dark. He’s been asleep for hours. It takes some effort to wake him. Mom shakes his bony little shoulder through the coverlet. “Arjen!” He startles awake with a jolt. “What! What is it?” He sits up and rubs his eyes.
“There’s something you have to see,” his mom tells him. “You’ll like this.”
With that she strides to the bedroom door and turns. The hallway light defines her familiar silhouette and Arjen sees that she is gesturing. “Come on, Arjen!” she says again. Daydreamer, village curiosity, apple of his mom’s eye, the nine-year old throws back the covers and swings his feet to the carpeted floor.
The producers had a problem. They couldn’t get their movie off the ground until they figured out exactly how to render its lead character. Auggie Pullman is a strange-looking boy, as difficult to look at as he is tough, witty and embraceable.
Based on R.J. Palacio’s beloved novel of the same name about a kid with Treacher Collins Syndrome, nearly every scene in Wonder would be centered on Auggie; a fifth grader whose unorthodox looks make him a social pariah at his public elementary school, an initial shock to the movie audience, and finally a magnetic figure of singular empathy and (yeah) beauty on the screen.
“For Wonder they had talked to so many makeup artists. They were considering going fully to visual effects for Auggie, because no one could quite figure out how to do it, no one dared. I believed that it could be done. There had to be a way.”
Arjen Tuiten (“Ar-yen Touten” approximately) is an in-demand special effects makeup maestro with his own studio/fiefdom, a burgeoning reputation, and in 2018 an Oscar® nomination. He’s also a smiling 30-something Dutch guy with kind eyes, dark, swept-back hair, an infectious easy laugh, and a seeming seven or so feet of lanky height; a Giacometti effect exaggerated by his habit of dressing in black.
Since excitedly barging his way into the business at 18 and being taken under the wings of several legendary sponsors, Arjen has brought his handiwork to bear on such stuff as Iron Man 2, Maleficent, the Twilight Saga, the wryly funny laugh-through-your-grimace Hellboy 2—and that other little Guillermo del Toro project.
Something about the Spanish Civil War? Oh yeah; Pan’s Labyrinth—where at del Toro’s suggestion Arjen crafted one of the most unnerving nightmare figures in modern cinema; the child-eating Pale Man—the drooping ghoul with his eyes in the palms of his hands. So Arjen had seen some action, and he threw himself at Wonder’s considerable challenge.
“With makeup and lunch, from end to end you have maybe only six hours of shooting a day. That was very stressful for (director) Stephen, so I knew I had to design it in such a way, sculpt and mold it in such a way, that it would look completely real, and it would have to go on in about an hour and a half. And eventually an hour and 15 minutes. ”
Many an actor whose role requires being swaddled in prosthetic effects has publicly griped about the hours spent in makeup. How much more lamentable would the experience be for a child? “Jacob, as good as he is and professional as he is, he’s still a kid. I knew from the start I was aiming for an hour and a half.” During his time in “The Chair”, young Tremblay would watch a select video lecture or documentary to comply with his on-set schooling requirement.
Arjen innovated a symbiotic facial rig to present Auggie’s Treacher Collins look. The pliable prosthesis, based exactingly on molds taken of Jacob Tremblay’s head, neck and shoulders, begins below the collarbone and effloresces upward to envelope the neck, ears, and top of the head, augmenting Jacob’s own face just enough to convey the Treacher Collins facial signature while allowing the young actor to expressively, and movingly, bring Auggie to life.
Surrounded by Arjen’s team, Jacob would vanish in the swirl of painting, daubing, and gluing, and emerge from the chrysalis an unexpected butterfly, unique and heart-stirring.
For all that, digital seems to be the default magic-maker in movies these days, such that the filigreed, painterly, manual magic of makeup effect legends like Stan Winston and the towering Rick Baker (both early Arjen boosters) seem almost anachronistic.
Arjen sees the Effects Future (so to speak) another way, and the industry would seem to agree. “As long as there are actors, there will be makeup. And I’ve seen productions turn back a little bit. I have several friends in visual effects and they’re great people, very talented, and sometimes even they say ‘oh, let this effect be practical’. There’s a connection you have when an effect is on set in front of the camera. It’s a happy accident, there is nothing like it.”
What do actors think of subjecting themselves to these makeup effects? “Not all actors like it, but I have had most actors say that, as much as they don’t enjoy the process, it does really help them find their character.”
Julia Roberts said something to that effect on the Wonder set, and you can see the effect of Arjen and Jacob’s combined artistry in her heartbreakingly nuanced performance, and that of the surprising Owen Wilson. Then there was this. “On the first test makeup day, Stephen (Chbosky) wept when he first saw Auggie.” When you can startle a film’s director to tears, you’re on to something. Arjen Tuiten’s Oscar® nomination this year for his groundbreaking work on Wonder says the Academy agrees.
MCs Hammer and Escher
So, between the 4th century BC and Napoleon’s humiliation in 1813, a bunch of wandering tribes on the North Sea coast intermingled with Saxons, conquered a few of the offshore islands, were slapped around in many battles, and eventually coalesced into a curious Dutch outlier province that is today called Friesland, in northwest Holland.
Friesland has its own language, Frisian, which your average Dutch speaker is at a complete loss to understand, and which is said to be, along with Scottish, the closest living language to English. Friesland’s most famous native son (for the moment) is the artist M.C. Escher, whose photorealistic pencil drawings of endless staircases and impossible architecture are known to many, and inspired countless black light posters in the 60s.
Arjen Tuiten comes from this singular province in the Netherlands, which may explain a lot. His home village of Haskerdijken has a current population of 385. What was a boy to do? Neither hip-hop parties nor sports were on the radar.
“Since I was the age of four, I was always drawing, always sculpting.” In school, Arjen would blow the doors off with his arts and crafts skills, his woodworking acumen, his ability to make things. it was all in his hands.
“I’m very dyslexic. I can’t write or calculate very well but I could always excel at doing things with my hands. I was never the kid to go out and play soccer, I would stay in and make things. I was a doer. People would be like, ‘that’s a bit of an odd kid, isn’t it?’” He laughs. “Especially in a little village like that. Everybody knew each other, and I was just the quiet little boy.”
Alles of Niets
Like a lot of kids with non-establishment-approved talents and passion, by the time he’d churned his way through high school, Arjen was 16 and unsure what to do with his spark, which on his own time he’d been fanning into a flame, building a Terminator out of cardboard, aluminum foil and a hairdresser’s styrofoam head, for instance. The string-powered hands worked like real ones. His immediate field of vision, though, did not illuminate a path from Haskerdijken to professional ‘bot-building. “I was desperately looking for a place.”
As happens sometimes (not often enough, arguably) rescue arrived. From the living room. His single mom conspired with a former elementary school teacher of Arjen’s to concoct a plan for the young artist, and Arjen was accepted at a renowned private school for stage makeup, in Amsterdam.
The school’s name—Alles of Niets—would become Arjen’s unspoken professional credo in an incomprehensible future just beginning to suggest itself—that faint brightening of the sky in the hour before sunrise. The school was called “All or Nothing”.
“It was five days a week, but I was there seven days. I was living with a family in Amsterdam in a little room. I would bike every day. I didn’t party around, I was completely focused. I was there for one and a half years, absorbing like a sponge.”
While studying at Alles of Niets he began a correspondence course with NYC-based Practical Makeup Effects grandmaster Dick Smith (The Exorcist, The Godfather, Amadeus), who convinced the driven young guy to come to Los Angeles and see how he mixed with the business out there.
Arjen took that advice, to his own initial disbelief interning for a number of effects studios in L.A., finally landing in the studio of Stan Winston (The Thing, Aliens, Edward Scissorhands, Terminator), who was so taken with Arjen’s enthusiasm, talent and drive he eventually sponsored Arjen so he could live and work in the U.S. and get his green card. A gesture Arjen has described as life-changing.
By the age of twenty, Arjen Tuiter was delicately touching up the Schwarzenegger endoskeleton for the actual Terminator film franchise, a Hollywood-caliber effect that likely didn’t use string to power its fingers. Destiny Schmestiny, right? Still later, Winston would ask him to travel to Barcelona to see about helping out on an odd little movie called El Laberinto del Fauno by the young director Guillermo del Toro, an instant modern classic to which Arjen would contribute one of cinema’s most lasting and disturbingly beautiful id monsters.
From Winston’s nurturing studio and mentorship, Arjen would be taken under the wing of legendary creature effects kingpin Rick Baker (American Werewolf in London, Planet of the Apes, X Men, the Star Wars Cantina scene – and much else) who on retiring would convince Arjen to begin his own makeup effects studio; advice the young artist took to heart when he began R-E-N Studios. A circle is complete, to paraphrase Darth Vader in some movie or other. Though given Arjen’s youth, energized demeanor, and success, that circle is opening out into a forward-pointing line. Big time.
Does Arjen Tuiten—whose increasingly rare moments of quiet reflection find him reeling from his hard-won success—have a sense of mission? His long view is project-by-project.
“I like to throw myself at one thing at a time. It’s not a great business model, but it’s something Rick also liked to do. I really fit into that way of doing things. I want to really focus on something, make it really really great, and then move on to the next thing. I lose work because of that,” he laughs lightly, “but my heart has to be in it. That’s what makes me most happy. I may lose some income because of it…” Arjen pauses…”But in the end, Auggie will outlive me.”
“Come on, Arjen!” she says again. What could be so important? Arjen pads out of his room, follows his mom down the hallway rubbing his eyes, but she has disappeared around the corner. Nearing the turn to the living room, the hallway fills with the ambient, gezellig, late-night glow of the television set.
It’s a British TV series called Movie Magic, this particular episode about prosthetics, makeup, and cinematic wonder. Mom looks at him and grins. Eyes widening, Arjen sits on the couch next to mom, and together they drink it all in.