Interview: Blue Whale Studios Talks ‘Uncle Drew’ and Comedic Character Makeup

For basketball fans, the “Uncle Drew” film was a surprise hit over the summer. The small film starred many of the biggest names in basketball history, including Kyrie IrvingShaquille O’NealChris Webber, and Lisa Leslie. The comedy was silly and a love letter to street basketball. Yet the most surprising element was undeniably the make-up work that came from the film. Recalling previous makeup breakthroughs like “Coming to America” and “The Nutty Professor,” “Uncle Drew” featured full transformations for some iconic athletes. The incredible work came from Blue Whale Studios, a makeup company from Atlanta headed by Jonah Levy and Matthew Silva. They created over 3000 prosthetics for the film and applied over 200 old age makeup kits in the process. They sat down to discuss their work on “Uncle Drew,” creating old age makeup for a comedy, and how to handle makeup effects in the Atlanta summers.

AF: How did Blue Whale get started? 

Jonah Levy: Blue Whale was started about twenty years ago in Orlando. We started the company to serve the theme park and film needs of Central Florida. About two years ago, a little over two years ago now, my wife and I were moving up here to Atlanta and we were going to open a business here. But we met with Matt about joining forces. Matt had been here and Matt had his own studio. We decided to join forces and open here, and we became co-owners, partners, and decided to open here to serve the film and television industries here in Atlanta.

AF: How did you get involved with the “Uncle Drew” film? 

Matthew Silva: Well it was kind of a busy year for us last year. We didn’t really have anything slated for summer. We got a call from producer Marty Bowen and director Charles Stone [III], and they were looking for an effects team. There were quite a few teams they were talking to, and they chose us because we were willing to take on the crazy turn around to get these make effects done.

AF: How much time did you have from when you took the gig until the film started? 

Matt: On paper, we had about six weeks. We had seven characters that had to be in prosthetics for pretty much the entire shoot. However, because of casting problems, we had less than that. We got about one every week during that window, so for some, we had a six-week turnaround, some four weeks, some three weeks. We had one that was literally a week and a half to turnaround, and it was Chris Webber, who was basically one of the main characters as Preacher. He was also in full old-age makeup so it was pretty crazy. I’d say the average was probably three to three and a half weeks.

AF: Well when I talked to Shaq, he said the scariest part of the experience was the mold casting. Can you tell us how that process goes?

Jonah: Well Shaq was interesting because he was a little different. We actually flew into Orlando for this one. Shaq is a really good guy, one of those guys who likes to play and push the envelope. Well when we took the lifecast on him, he did not want his mouth or his eyes covered.

Most of the time, you sit your subject in a chair and you cover their hair (if they have any) with a plastic bald cap, and then you cover their face in a silicon rubber over their face. It covers their entire face, except they are breathing out of their nose. We then surround that with a two-part plaster bandage jacket, the same thing you use for a broken arm. After about thirty to forty minutes, you take everything off, and you now have a reverse copy of their head. We can then use that to sculp, and mold all the things we need to make the prosthetics.

AF: How many prosthetics did you have to create for this particular film? 

Matt: So we made just about 3000 prosthetics for 35 days of shooting. Of those 3000 prosthetics, we applied almost 200 makeup applications over 35 days. Considering it’s a basketball movie, there were almost 200 full old age makeup applications.

Jonah: Including all their doubles.

Matt: Right.

Jonah: So we had to cast their basketball doubles as well because we were limited in the time they could actually play basketball. This was because A) contracts or B) injuries.

AF: What was the most difficult prosthetic to create? 

Matt: Some of the most complicated make-up was Chris ebber’s. Obviously, there was the short turnaround, and he had the second most screen time of any the characters in old age makeup. You have to maintain the quality and still get it out on time. That was pretty challenging.

Next to that was Betty Lou, played by Lisa Leslie. She had to look so pristine. She didn’t have the pitting, and poor texture or wrinkles some of the guys had. Hers was the most complicated for sure.

AF: One of the things you obviously had to deal with by the nature of this being a basketball movie was deal with sweat. How did you approach this issue in the process?

Jonah: The challenge in this movie was you have a short turnaround, in Atlanta, in the summer, playing basketball during the day, on athletes. So we had never done anything like this so we could not fully prepare. It’s such a unique property, and there’s really nothing like that has ever been done before. On top of that, every character is always in makeup. It’s not a one-off flashback scene.

AF: Did this change your process at all? 

Jonah: We made our prosthetics a little bit differently and tried to problem solve while we were making the pieces. We had to decide how soft they were going to be. Another factor was using the right kind of adhesives and how to prepare their skin. It really took as much time to kind of prepare, knowing the experiences we would be under. We kind of knew what products would work, and for the most part, we didn’t run into a lot of problems. There were touch-ups, but overall, they really held up amazingly well. Now Matt can get into the story about Chris, which was really challenging.

Matt: Yeah, each character had a different amount of prosthetics. A lot of that was based on their character design and their anatomy. So we knew that Chris was down to wear a lot of prosthetics, so he either had the most or second most pieces applied. However, it wasn’t until right before shooting that we realized he had a sensitivity to the silicon prosthetic glue. So we had to switch to a water-soluble glue that wasn’t meant for silicon. As soon as he started sweating playing basketball, it was like we were chasing a circus tent around his neck.

AF: That seems difficult.

Jonah: Yeah it was rough.

Matt: Yeah, but you know, people didn’t think this movie would be successful. You tell people that it’s based on a Pepsi commercial and that you had six weeks, it created an underdog spirit to the whole thing. Filming in the heat, with water-soluble glue to protect the talent and a tight budget on top of it, we got through. We were really happy to see that when the movie came out, it was met with so much love.

Jonah: We were also so lucky to have an amazing director in Charles Stone, and producers Marty Bowen and John Fischer. They were all such huge supporters of ours, it was a big part of the success. The heart that they were able to instill in the movie was one of the reasons it was successful.

AF: So going back real quick, you mentioned it was based on a commercial. How did you guys go about creating all the other characters based on the “Uncle Drew” commercials? 

Jonah: Our design with Uncle Drew was a little different. We wanted to take that original design, which was done by Ed French, but we kept it as true as possible and added our own flair for the big screen. For all the other characters, we had pretty much free reign to design. I went back and photoshopped, and sent back and forth designs. Matt and I thought about what would be cool, and what to add. Once we had the photoshop designs done, we got to move forward with the sculpting.

AF: You mentioned that Charles was a big supporter. Did he give you free rein or was he hands on? 

Matt: Well he was hands-on in the beginning. He is a makeup enthusiast, so he was familiar with a lot of the makeup and pop culture magazines, like Fangoria and Makeup Artist magazine. He was really into it, and he had a lot of valuable and insightful input. Sometimes you get directors and producers who are now well versed in the craft, so they don’t know how exactly to communicate what they want.

But Charles, Jonah, and I sat down with Johnetta [Boone], the costume designer, and we got to communicate what these characters would look like, what clothes they would wear, and he was hands on. But the flow was so good, there was never really any big pushback. It was very positive, and we knew that it was a comedy. These are characters, and it could be larger than life. It’s not like we were doing a congressional hearing drama piece. We had a lot of fun and you can see that in the characters.

AF: Now old age makeup is very difficult, so how did you approach it through the comedic lens? 

Jonah: Well we had two things to look at. A) They had to have realistic old age looking makeup, but B) we had to keep in mind it was a character makeup movie. We looked at inspirations like “Coming to America,” “The Nutty Professor,” and “Dick Tracey,” movies were the character makeups were center. While we were designing, we kept in mind the elements of their characters.

That allowed us some room to play, and we didn’t have to ask ‘how is Shaquille O’Neal going to look when he’s older?’ Instead, we could ask, what might these characters look like when they were older. It added a fun element to the design, and we wanted to bring something that would be fun for the audience instead of standard old age makeup.

AF: One of the things that stood out to me was how you designed the non-basketball players. Both J.B. Smoove and Mike Epps looked great in their makeup too. How did their makeup differ from the players? 

Matt: Well J.B. was one of the first people we got into lifecasting. We had the most time to take care of his makeup, and it was really vindicating. He was the most excited about the makeup, and our lead sculptor is just amazing. The thing is, J.B. is a really good actor, and one of the big elements we had talked about with Charles was getting the athletes to be actors. Makeup is just makeup, and the performance is everything.

J.B. sold it to them because you can get someone looking good in old age makeup, but if they can then bring it to life with the performance, if there are any flaws in the makeup, you’re too busy falling in love with the character.

AF: So what’s up next for Blue Whale Studios?

Jonah: Well we just wrapped up some stuff with Marvel, so that will be really exciting.

Matt: Yeah, and we’re looking for very particular work if we can get it. We’ll do anything, but we love doing old age makeup, character makeup, and things that are really fun to work on.

AF: Well thank you so much for your time, and I wish you the best of luck in the season! 

What do you think of the makeup in “Uncle Drew?” Do you think it can make the Oscar shortlist? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below! 

“Uncle Drew” is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD. 

Be sure to check out the Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where this year’s films and performances rank among the contenders!