Woodcarving Hollywood-Style


Woodcarving Hollywood-Style

When Hollywood execs descended on the Canadian city of Victoria, BC, they were pleasantly surprised to learn that local artists could provide the support needed to bring their latest film to life.

hollis wood carving

The finished likeness of Hollis created by Michael Léger.

In the made-for-television movie Pictures of Hollis Woods, Sissy Spacek portrays a retired art teacher with a passion for woodcarving. Although Spacek had virtually no prior experience in woodcarving, she wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty preparing for the new role.

Pictures of Hollis Woods is based on the Newberry Honor book of the same title by Patricia Reilly Giff. Jodelle Ferland plays the role of Hollis, a young girl who has spent most of her life moving from one foster home to the next. Spacek’s character, Josie Cahill, bonds with Hollis and together they explore Hollis’ artistic talents.

Throughout the movie, Spacek’s character works on several different sculptures, including a likeness of Hollis carved from Garry oak. The in-process scenes required several stages of carvings to be used as props. The movie also required Spacek to know some basic carving techniques for the scenes to be realistic. Luckily for the producers, carvers Michael Léger and Norma Lofthouse were there to lend their expertise. Michael Léger, a film prop sculptor whose work has appeared in X-Men 3 and the Chronicles of Riddick, discovered that producers were planning to shoot the movie in Victoria. As executives arrived to set up their office, Léger stopped in with his portfolio, introduced himself, and told them that he carves wood as a hobby.

michael leger carving on movie set

Michael Lèger created working props for the carvings used on the set of Pictures of Hollis Woods.

“I talked to them, and showed them my portfolio,” Léger said. “They told me that I was a perfect fit!”

Léger created two sculptures used in the movie; a sculpture of Ferland’s character, Hollis, and a similar sculpture of another character, cousin Beatrice. The process of the Hollis sculpture began with concept sketches, then Léger created a 3D model from clay. The script called for the sculpture to be created from Garry oak, a protected species on Vancouver Island. The Oak Bay Parks Department gave Léger a piece of Garry oak from a storm-damaged tree.

“The oak was quite hard,” Léger said, “but at the same time, it takes small details well.”

Despite the hardness of the oak, Léger carved the pieces using hand tools. “This is the first movie that I had the opportunity to carve wood for,” Léger admitted. “Most other movie props are carved from Styrofoam.”

Filming for the movie is not necessarily done in a linear fashion, and the script called for progressive views of the carving, which had to match perfectly. To account for this, Léger made resin casts of the carving at various stages of completion. Oak was grafted onto the casts so Spacek could carve the sculpture on film. The movie’s paint department added a faux finish to make the casts match the original oak branch.

Léger demonstrated mallet and chisel carving techniques for Spacek, but the script called for her to spend more time whittling. With Léger’s limited experience in that style of carving, he called on local artist Norma Lofthouse for assistance. The two carvers met while demonstrating at a woodworking event and bonded while sharing adjoining booths. Lofthouse, who considers herself a “whittler,” specializes in caricatures and rustic carving. Léger recommended Lofthouse as a whittling tutor.

Norma Lofthouse teaches Sissy Spacek how to carve

Norma Lofthouse provided specialized instruction to make Sissy Spacek’s carving appear authentic.

Lofthouse, a retiree who spends her time whittling and teaching beginners how to carve, relished the chance to share her skills with an Academy Award-winning actress.

“They checked me out beforehand,” Lofthouse said. “I got a call from the studio, and they asked to come and talk to me. We are working with sharp knives, so they wanted to make sure everything would be safe. They rented some of my tools to have them checked out.”

Lofthouse taught Spacek the basics of carving: how to carve safely with a glove, the basics of sharpening, and the basic cuts (paring, pushing, and stop cuts).

“Sissy was a quick study—a natural,” Lofthouse said. “She’s such a warm and gracious person. She was fascinated by the sound of the knife cutting through the wood. The tactile nature of wood really caught her attention. She told me she would like to continue carving.”

Bird carved by Norma LofthosueLofthouse met with Spacek at a studio workshop in downtown Victoria where artists make props and sets. While Spacek didn’t ask a lot of questions, Lofthouse noted that she seemed to absorb everything she taught her. The producers of the film also commissioned Lofthouse to carve a primitive bird in different stages of completion. During filming, Spacek worked on the bird to add to the authentic artistic atmosphere of the movie. “They hired me to teach Sissy to carve,” Lofthouse said. “It was important for me to be as professional as possible. I didn’t even ask her for an autograph.” Lofthouse took home many happy memories from the experience and Spacek took home several carvings as gifts from other local carvers.

Sissy Spacek fills the lead role in Pictures of Hollis Woods, but woodcarving plays an important part in the movie. In the Hallmark film which airs at 9pm EST Dec. 2, 2007 on CBS, Spacek’s character uses art and carving to connect with a troubled youth and to forge a bond that transcends generations.

Below is a how-to article to demonstrate how to carve this simple bird.

Comments are closed.