Prosthetics designer Barrie Gower is nominated not once but twice this Emmy season for his work on The Last of Us and House of the Dragon. It’s a big accomplishment for the previous Emmy winner — three times for Game of Thrones and once for Stranger Things — but it’s all part of a lifelong passion. “I’m one of those annoying people who knew very early on what I wanted to do for a career, in my early teens, really,” he explains.
Gower grew up in the north of England, where his father managed a cinema. “He’d take me to press screenings and showings of films … I got to meet [animator] Ray Harryhausen when I was 4 or 5 years old. I was a big fan of the Sinbad movies, the visible stop-motion characters.”
As he became a teenager, Gower was heavily involved in art — mostly drawings and sculpture. “I came across a magazine called Fangoria,” he recalls, “which highlighted the special effects makeup artists in Hollywood. It showcased all their work. And there were lots of how-to demonstrations in [it], of how things were made. I was a big fan of monster movies, and creatures, and I couldn’t believe when I saw in this magazine that you could do this for a living — people actually made these things and got paid for it. So, I was very much on a mission, quite early on.”
Still, in those early days, his mission felt like more “of a pipe dream.” With the support of his mom, Gower applied for art programs, stumbling upon one promising option at the London College of Fashion. “[The] first year, I didn’t get in because it was a makeup, hair and prosthetics course. I had no evidence of doing any hairstyling or anything like that — no interest, really. But I had a portfolio and they said, ‘Go away, do some hairdressing and come back.’ ” His mother enrolled him in a hairdressing course, and the following year he was accepted at LCF, where he “managed to meet quite a lot of industry professionals.”
Following graduation, he went on to work for the BBC in the visual effects department. “They do loads of different TV shows, and I was getting to do prosthetics, prop-making … all kinds of different techniques. It’s a tiny little community, really, over here. I was fortunate to get involved with a few big prosthetic designers at the time and worked for a lot of different peers and with a creature effects supervisor named Nick Dudman, who was responsible for [effects on] the Harry Potter series.”
After 10 years working in the Harry Potter film world and then freelancing on other large-scale projects, Gower decided to start his own company, BGFX, with his wife, Sarah, also a prosthetics designer. They’d met working on a film in Budapest. At that time, she was part of the CGI visual effects department. “I always joke and say I brought her to the dark side and took her away from CGI,” he says. She already had an illustrious effects career of her own before joining him as co-director of their makeshift company, having worked at U.K.-based Framestore for several years after time spent at the Jim Henson Co.
BGFX began as an at-home studio but quickly was launched into the big leagues when it received its first major opportunity: designing prosthetics for season four of HBO’s Game of Thrones. “We got the call and got Game of Thrones. That was it, really, no looking back. That was just over 10 years ago. It’s gone from show to show since then.”
Thrones was the beginning of a fruitful relationship with HBO, one that has seen the couple spearheading designs for many more of the network’s biggest hits, among them House of the Dragon and The Last of Us.
For the former, the job primarily centered around the aging and decay of Paddy Considine’s character, the doomed king Viserys Targaryen.
“He had developed this flesh-eating disease, and he starts decomposing over the years,” says Gower. “It’s very different [from] Game of Thrones — the storytelling was told over several decades in this first season. I think Viserys’ illness was a really good tool to show that lapse of time. We also did a full-body makeup on a double of the character who was very slender, and we highlighted all his bone structures, and he had all these ulcerated wounds all over him. We shot Paddy’s performance, and we shot the double’s performance, and effects were able to replace Paddy’s head on the double’s body.”
Simultaneously, BGFX was handling The Last of Us, which Gower is quick to describe as “the biggest thing we’ve ever done.” For that series, the company was tasked with designing and executing a whole world consumed by a fungus, plus the resulting zombie-like creatures that are born out of those spores. They didn’t have to start from scratch, however, relying on the catalog of work created for the original 2013 video game by developer Naughty Dog.
“The IP was so strong that we were never really going to better the beautiful designs from the game,” Gower says.
There were still a lot of creatures to tackle, he notes. “We had about five different stages of Infected makeups, starting from very thin little raised veins, going up to really significant mushrooms and silicone and foam latex prosthetics for body makeups; to silicone appliances [for] our Clickers with these huge floral fungal headpieces; to our Bloater. A British stunt performer, Adam Basil, played [it] in a complete practical suit — it was the equivalent of Adam wearing a sofa.”
It’s gross, but gratifying — the kind of stuff Gower lives for.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.