Box, The: Transforming Frank Langella’s Face

The Box, writer-director Richard Kelly’s latest film, is starring Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, and Frank Langella.

The brilliant Actor Frank Langella, Oscar-nominee last year for “Frost/Nixon,” renders an interesting, elegant portrayal of the enigmatic messenger Steward, which contrasts sharply with Steward’s hideous disfigurement.

“As the victim of a lightning strike, his face is a vivid reminder of what he’s gone through,” says visual effects supervisor Thomas Tannenberger, whose recent credits include “2012.” “On Arlington’s face there’s a lot of scar tissue. You will actually be able to see through his teeth into his mouth because his left cheek is missing. Production designer, Alexander Hammond, and his team did a great job researching lightning survivors and our make-up department head, Louis Lazzara, designed the make-up.”?

Combining CGI and practical effects to finalize Steward’s raw visage, Kelly describes the process as “subtractive,” meaning, “Rather than piling on layers of prosthetic rubber and traditional make-up, we digitally removed that portion of his face. By painting his face green and applying motion-capture tracking dots to it, we created an anchoring mechanism through which we could then imbed the digital make-up, the disfigurement itself, directly onto Frank’s face and not interfere with the way he talks or moves.”?

Langella, who endured two hours of make-up daily for his Oscar®-nominated performance as Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon,” was pleased to find that his transformation into Arlington Steward took only 40 minutes. “That first day, after we got past all the connect-the-dots jokes, nobody thought anything about it,” he recalls. As for his appearance being a distraction to his cast-mates, Marsden attests, “All you have to do is look Frank in the eyes and everything else fades to a blur anyway.”

Though not innovative in itself, the motion-capture technique is rarely used this way. Says Tannenberger, “Conventionally, it’s either a pre-process or an after-process, where you record an actor’s performance in a vacuum and then transfer that to a CGI avatar of him or some other creature. In our case, it was done live, on-set.”

For every scene that Langella shot, the filmmakers then employed six cameras for a wraparound view of the empty set so they could later replace the backgrounds audiences will see through the space created where his cheek is missing.

No wonder it took eight months to complete the digital work on Steward’s face.