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A new exhibit at TIFF Bell Lightbox features the work of famed Canadian special effects artist Gordon Smith, who worked on the first two X-Men movies, among many others.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Canadian comic book fans know that Wolverine's claws come out of his hands – many might also be surprised to know they also came out of Toronto.

Hogtown special makeup effects artist and designer Gordon Smith was responsible for bringing to life the characters – Hugh Jackman's Wolverine among them – in director Bryan Singer's X-Men and its sequel, X2. Much of his work is now on display in X-Men Master: Gordon Smith, a new exhibition at TIFF Bell Lightbox. If you've ever wanted to get up close and personal with Mystique, the shape-shifting blue beauty played by Rebecca Romijn, this is your opportunity.

The free exhibit, opening just in time to capitalize on Fan Expo, a comic book convention happening in the city later this month, features pieces of seven characters from the X-Men movies. There's a set of Wolverine's claws, a full-size Mystique, and other highlights, including Sabertooth's claws, Toad's six-foot long tongue and his glasses as well as Nightcrawler's feet, hands and tail. There are also dummy heads of Wolverine, Senator Kelly and Lady Deathstrike, which can take up to one month to create. It's not as fully immersive and informative as some comic book diehards might want – some of the videos accompanying the exhibit are just clips from the X-Men movies shown on a loop – but it's still a fun chance to see the movie magic used to make super heroes.

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"When I saw how extensive Gordon's work was, I was really kind of blown away," says Sylvia Frank, director of the film reference library and special collections at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

That work runs through everything from Born on the Fourth of July through several Oliver Stone films.

The exhibition focuses solely on Smith's X-Men creations in part because it will likely draw a large fan base and, as Frank says, it was Smith's work on Mystique that helped to propel his creations in to the limelight–it was a character everyone was fascinated by at the time. "It really intrigued people," Frank says.

Every superhero got that way thanks to an unexpected twist of fate – a bite from a radioactive spider, exposure to gamma radiation, exile from the home planet. Smith can't fly or move objects with his mind, but he does have a superhero-worthy origin story.

Back when he was just a classically trained actor, Smith, now 61, received a phone call from a production company asking him to reproduce open heart surgery for the 1981 movie Threshold. It was odd, because he had no experience doing makeup effects whatsoever.

"I think they thought I was Dick Smith," he says, referring to the legendary makeup effects artist.

But he took the job, in large part to conquer a terrible phobia of blood. Amazingly, he figured it out, and a career was born. Smith's natural problem-solving skills helped him to pioneer the use of silicon in special makeup effects.

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"Now everyone in the world uses this technology," Smith says.

Of course, sometimes characters can be created using simpler materials. For instance, Smith originally used food colouring to make 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. "He said, 'I want it to rain.'" So instead, they used paint.

Entering the fantasy world of the X-Men actually took much of the pressure off for Smith, he says.

"Technically it was probably pretty challenging, but from a creative standpoint it was easy because they're blue. I'm not having to pull the wool over anybody's eyes."

Normally, he is tasked with copying real-life people and situations that everyone is familiar with, such as the assassination of JFK.

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"In this case, I just have to make really, really cool stuff." Smith says.

X-Men Master: Gordon Smith runs from Aug. 17, 2012 to March 31, 2013 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More


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