He has stood among the dead, even perpetrated the atrocities of war, but never fought the battle. He has performed open heart surgery, dissected John F. Kennedy’s brain and transplanted metal claws into Hugh Jackman’s hands, all done with no medical qualifications.
Gordon “FX” Smith was always a benign Dr. Frankenstein. He’s a graying special effects prosthetics wizard who preferred leather to lab coat and is as enigmatic and controversial as the illusions he created.
Retired last year at 65, the Canadian special effects pioneer took 15 years to develop the innovative silicon prosthetics still used in the film industry today even during the age of CGI.
Last year Waddington’s in Toronto auctioned off a 155 – piece collection including a life-size mannequin of Mystique, the blue shape-shifter from X-Men originally played by actress, Rebecca Romijn (now Jennifer Lawrence sports the seductive blue suit in Bryan Singer’s new X-Men: Apocalypse,) and the iconic metal claws of Wolverine, the mutant played by Hugh Jackman throughout the blockbuster franchise. There were model assault rifles from Platoon; a life-size zebra model from Legends of the Fall, and a plaster composite life mask of John F. Kennedy from JFK. They were valued by the auction house at between $45,000 and $70,000 each.
Smith was responsible for bringing to life the characters of Nightcrawler, Sabertooth, Toad, Lady Deathstrike and of course, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine among them – in director Bryan Singer’s X-Men and its sequel, X2. But it was Smith’s reptilian work on Mystique that helped to propel his creations into the limelight and was a character everyone was fascinated by at the time.
Smith originally used food colouring to paint Romijn blue in X-Men!
“I said to Bryan Singer, ‘It’s all fabulous, it’s all great, except it can’t rain because the dye would wash off,” Smith recalls. “’Singer said, ‘I want it to rain.’” “‘I want her to be NUDE!” So instead, we created the special prothetics suit.”
Smith’s back story is as facinating as the Hollywood creations he has brought to life.
Self-mockingly calling himself a “hippy entrepreneur,” Smith was alternately acting, directing, running a small theatre company and building props as favors to friends. Thirty years ago, one such favor changed his life. He created 16 decomposed bodies for a movie called Vile. That project led to a phone call from director, Richard Pearce in California and work on Threshold starring Donald Sutherland, about the first artificial heart transplant.
Ironically, Smith, suffered from a near paralyzing blood phobia as a young man but exorcised his demons by forcing himself into his career as a form of self-help therapy.
“My father died of leukemia when I was born. It absolutely ruled my life to the point where I could pass out cold just talking about it. I’m still repulsed by horror films and will not go to see them.”
“I said to myself, if this (film) allows me to deal with my phobia, I’ll be more than happy to do it. This way I even get paid for my therapy!”
In Threshold, Smith had to reproduce five stages of open heart surgery working with doctors at Toronto General Hospital.
“It was impossible to reproduce the heart as sculpture without seeing, feeling or touching it so we went directly into the operating room. Then we went to the morgue and made castings from actual heart tissue,” Smith explains.
Smith was also featured on the CBS-TV show, 48 Hours.
“They were doing a show on phobias and were looking for somebody who did blood, guts and gore in the motion picture industry so that they could point a finger at me as someone who creates images to agitate people with phobias. Well, were they surprised that not only did I have a blood phobia, but that my line of work contributed to my recovery. And, I was the only person on their program that had actually managed to deal with their phobia – everyone else was still in therapy!”
When renegade director Oliver Stone wanted gushing wounds and severed limbs for such movies as Born On The 4th of July, Platoon and Salvador, he called Toronto-based Gordon Smith, who would go anywhere to get the job done. Smith was flown by helicopter to the top of a remote glacier in British Columbia for six weeks, to recreate the victims of a plane crash and the toll on its survivors for the film Alive!
He worked on Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, shot in the U.S. Midwest; Dieppe, that aired on CBC Television (for which props woman and Smith’s wife Ginny Stolee supervised the prosthetics for more than 200 war-wounded extras,) and the film epic, Legends Of The Fall, starring Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt and Aidan Quinn, shot in Alberta.
Both a visionary and pariah, his obsession with research and authenticity (medical texts on reconstructive surgery, gunshot wounds and burns lined his office bookshelves,) he made his company, one of the most sought-after design studios in the industry. He was even investigated by the CIA twice for his work on the film, JFK.
“Oh yes, they have a file on me,” he said. “Because I recreated the head of JFK for the autopsy scenes and the work was incredibly detailed, they thought I probably had the strongest evidence about the shooting! That frightened the hell out of me!”
Smith defends his craft against those who might equate his work with horror or slasher films.
“First of all, I’m not pre-occupied with mutilation. I worked in the realm of high realism and I hired the finest sculptors in the industry to portray it. Effects such as those in Platoon, were quite horrific but not for horror’s sake. I’ve always maintained that if we were forced to see the full consequences of what a weapon is capable of, there would be no wars. Ask any soldier.”
TOP PHOTO: Actress, Jennifer Lawrence plays Mystique in the seductive blue prosthetic suit created by Gordon Smith in Bryan Singer’s new X-Men: Apocalypse. Photo courtesy Marvel Comics