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For TV Stars, High Def Is Dicey

3 minute read
Jeanne Mcdowell/Los Angeles

All right, Mr. DeMille,” says aging actress Norma Desmond, played by aging actress Gloria Swanson, as she leans seductively into the camera in the final scene of the 1950 film classic Sunset Boulevard. “I’m ready for my close-up.” If Norma were working in today’s high-definition television (HDTV), she would be inching away from that camera.

As the number of shows filmed in HDTV grows, actors and actresses are facing the ugly truth: HDTV gives new meaning to the word close-up. In high definition, no wart, wrinkle or blemish is safe from the camera’s eye, forcing makeup artists to scramble for cover-ups. “Everything shows,” says veteran sitcom makeup man Tommy Cole. “Everything is clearer, and the contrast is sharper. Some people are very worried.”

Nowhere was the downside of high definition more apparent than at the Academy Awards in February, when the few viewers with HDTV caught Hollywood’s biggest stars working the red carpet. By some accounts, actor-producer Michael Douglas, 59, ruggedly handsome on film, became downright old, especially next to his high-def-defying spouse Catherine Zeta-Jones, 34. Even the thirtysomethings had their problems. Renee Zellweger’s lightly blotchy red face showed through her makeup. And gorgeous fashion model turned actress Uma Thurman took a hit: the blush on those high cheekbones looked exaggerated and clownlike in HD.

In the struggle to keep the stars flawless, television’s makeup artists are introducing a variety of new techniques and products. While heavy pancake makeup typically covers all sorts of sins on analog TV, high def calls for thinner, better-blended foundations. Too much powder can make a star look mummy-like. Ken Diaz, makeup boss for the PBS series American Family, which is filmed in HDTV, waters down his bases. “It’s a wash of color, like a stain, rather than a pigment,” he says. Lori Madrigal, chief makeup artist for CBS’s HD hit Joan of Arcadia, concedes that she no longer uses lip gloss on actresses. “Gloss looks like oil in high def,” she says.

For middle-aged actors, who aren’t supposed to look that way, the battle is constant. On the set of NBC’s sitcom Happy Family, makeup artist Patty Bunch continuously applies light moisturizers with anti-shine creams to actress Christine Baranski’s face and lights the area around her eyes to make sure they don’t look too deep-set. The series’ hair stylist had to darken veteran actor John Larroquette’s graying hair because it was glaring white in high definition before a lighting solution was found.

Many makeup pros are literally spray-painting their clients’ faces, applying a thin layer of makeup to cover the surface with thousands of tiny dots (think ink-jet printers) that conceal flaws and don’t smudge. Others are working more closely than ever with lighting directors, hiding extra lights in cabinets and other secret places on a set so actors’ faces are bathed in more brightness and look softer. “I am always telling Christine, ‘Keep your chin up. Stay in the light,'” says Bunch.

Hollywood’s beautiful people and their makeup illusionists aren’t taking kindly to high def, but they realize that the technology will soon dominate television. Like it or not, they’re all going to have to be ready for their close-ups. –By Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles

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