In 2012, Kazu Hiro retired from the film industry. At that point, he had been Oscar-nominated for Best Makeup for his work on 2006's Click and 2007's Norbit, but the special effects makeup artist and prosthetics designer had grown disillusioned by the moviemaking process. Had he stayed in retirement, we would have missed out on some of the most incredible transformations in cinema history.
In 2015, Gary Oldman enticed Hiro back with The Darkest Hour, which required the artist to transform the actor into Winston Churchill. For it, Hiro won the Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling at the 90th Oscars (shared with David Malinowski and Lucy Sibbick). Hiro won his second Oscar in 2020 for his work on Bombshell, which included transforming Charlize Theron into Megyn Kelly. (That win, Hiro shared with Anne Morgan and Vivian Baker.)
"Before The Darkest Hour, I knew the movies I worked on wouldn't win, because they were comedies and kind of silly movies. I thought no one cared," Hiro recalls. "But with The Darkest Hour, I was crazy nervous. I went into the theater and, when I sat down, I thought my heart would burst because I was so nervous. After my name was called, going onto the stage and the whole thing, I actually don't remember. But it was an amazing experience, because in the film industry, that's the one thing you are aiming for."
Hiro first became interested in special effects makeup while still living in Japan. He'd picked up an issue of Fangoria magazine, which included an interview with makeup legend Dick Smith. Hiro wrote to Smith, and Smith responded. When Smith eventually came to Japan to work on Kiyoshi Kurosawa's horror film Sweet Home (1989), he hired Hiro to work on the crew and became his mentor.
Hiro's latest project is Maestro, which tasked him with transforming Bradley Cooper into composer Leonard Bernstein. Even all these years later, Hiro still remembers what he learned from Dick Smith. "It's about being innovative and improving every time, and just defining your skill. That's important," he says.
"The other thing he was really good at was sharing knowledge, and by doing so, that raises the bar and raises the standard of everybody. We cannot keep doing the same thing and stay in the same place, and that's not fun either," Hiro adds. "Without Dick Smith, there wouldn't be any advancement. We all learned from him."
Below, Hiro shares with A.frame his Top 5, including the Dick Smith movie that most inspires him and the movie he's been waiting his entire career to work on.
Directed by: George Lucas
Star Wars left a big impact. I was in Japan, and I was kid. I was somewhat interested in filmmaking, but it wasn't that deep. I loved watching movies, but the Japanese films at that time, they used really cheesy visual effects. Even when I was a kid, I felt it was kind of comical to look at it. You could tell right away, it's a fake monster — it's someone in a suit — or it's a model airplane exploding with a firework. So, when I watched Star Wars, I was really inspired. There was a better way to do something, and that believability really inspired me to be a filmmaker. That was the first time I felt that.
Directed by: Miloš Forman
I saw Amadeus around the time I started to have an interest in special effects makeup. Eventually, I met Dick Smith, who did the old age makeup on Salieri, and that was really a big inspiration for me. The movie itself is such a perfect movie — the characters and acting and storytelling — and I loved the cinematography too. Everything was so perfect. It's very funny, and it talks about the artist's struggle, and it's talking about jealousy, and envy, and making it in the art world. But when I saw that makeup, I felt like, oh, this is really amazing! I have to really refine and work hard myself to get to that level. I contacted Dick Smith, and that was a start of a relationship with him. He was a mentor, and I was really fortunate to have him in my life.
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
I didn't understand 2001: A Space Odyssey when I saw it the first time, because I was too young for it. As I got older, by watching it again and again, I started to understand how amazing that filmmaking was. I'm more of a visual person, and how Kubrick made that was perfection. That's another film that really inspired me. I don't think I need to talk about it more, because you just look at it and you can tell it's still one of the best films ever made.
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Seven Samurai came out before I was born, but I saw it several times on the TV. I was quite fortunate to work with Akira Kurosawa [on Rhapsody in August]. It was only once, but I started to realize what it takes to make an amazing film by working with him. Before I started the production, I heard lots of rumors that he's the hardest person to work with, so I was curious about how he communicated with the crew. I was really nervous, but the first time I met him, I realized that he's such an amazing person.
He was almost 6'2". He was a giant. As I talked to him, I realized as long as you do a good job, there's nothing hard about working with him. Most of the crew, he has worked with for over 30 years. The set was amazing. I'd never seen a set that amazing and believable. He's a perfectionist. And I understood why he was one of the best directors who ever existed, and one of the best filmmakers, because he inspired everybody to be better.
Directed by: Bradley Cooper
Maestro was something I was waiting for my entire career. It had everything: A great actor, a great story, a great subject, and an amazing director. And I was doing character makeup in many different stages over a lifespan close to 50 years. Bradley brought me a gift that no one else could have given to me, and it's the best gift I ever received. And I love the film, because every crew member was amazing. The cinematography is amazing, the costumes are amazing, the production design is amazing. And because of Bradley, we connected so deeply. It was like a big family. What an amazing experience that was.