A Guide To Prosthetics In Film

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Since the beginning of filmmaking, the role of makeup artists has been crucial. Skilled artists are responsible for enhancing the look of actors and actresses for the big screen and sometimes making them totally unrecognisable to audiences with the help of prosthetics and special effects makeup.

But it wasn’t until 1981 that the first Oscar for best makeup was awarded. Rick Baker was the first winner for An American Werewolf in London – famous for the use of prosthetics and special effects makeup to the achieve gruesome looks.

That’s not to say the use of prosthetics and special effects makeup wasn’t used before then. As early as the 1920s, Lon Chaney was transforming himself for film roles, making him known as ‘The man of a thousand faces. And in the 1930s, makeup artist Jack Pierce was creating now iconic character looks like Frankenstein’s monster.

A short history of prosthetics in film

As prosthetics evolve, their use in film becomes more and more ground breaking. Take a look at some of the most notable uses of prosthetics in film – from silent movies to modern day blockbusters.

1. The Phantom of the Opera 1925 – Lon Chaney

In what might be one of the earliest uses of special effects makeup, Lon Chaney starred as the ghoulish phantom, and did his own makeup. The studio remained secretive about how the look was achieved, but it’s rumoured that Chaney stuck fish skin to his nose to achieve the tilted-up effect.

2. The Mummy 1932 – Jack Pierce

In the 1930s, makeup artist Jack Pierce and actor Boris Karloff worked together on several films where Karloff was turned into visually breath-taking monsters. In one of their most famous productions, The Mummy, Karloff was turned into a decaying Egyptian priest. Pierce wrapped Karloff in linen bandages and used materials including collodion and spirit gum to create the character, something which Karloff described as “the most trying ordeal I ever endured”.

3. The Godfather (1972) – Dick Smith

It’s a common myth that Marlon Brando stuffed cotton balls in his cheeks to get that jowly look that Don Vito Corleone sports in The Godfather. In fact, makeup artist Dick Smith created a dental prosthetic and used resin plumpers to make Brando’s jawline more drooped.

At the time of filming, Brando was only 47 and had to sit through 3-hours of makeup everyday so he appeared aged.

4. Edward Scissorhands (1990) – Ve Neill

Ve Neill has been awarded 3 Oscars over the course of her career as a makeup artist. Her work on Edward Scissorhands was also nominated for an Academy Award. The character’s pasty white complexion was covered in scars, which Ve Neill created using sheets of ready-made scar effects that were stuck to Johnny Depp’s face. By the end of filming, the wardrobe and makeup team managed to get the application time down to 1 hour and 45 minutes.


5. Darkest Hour (2017) – Kazuhiro Tsuji

Lately, everyone has been talking about Gary Oldman’s unrecognisable look as Winston Churchill. Prosthetics makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji came out of retirement and said one of the biggest challenges was that Gary Oldman’s eyes were totally different to Churchill’s.

To overcome this, Tsuji used prosthetics only where it was necessary, and created a wig from baby hair to achieve a realistic look.

What the expert says

We asked prosthetics expert and course co-ordinators at Iver, who’s worked on productions including Doctor Who, Saving Private Ryan and Ex Machina, his thoughts on how special effects make up has evolved…

In these early days of black and white films, special effects makeup had its limitations and actors had to work hard to bring the character to life. Over time, as technology has developed, new products have come to the market allowing makeup artists to do even more with the tools they have.

What is special effects makeup?

Prosthetics and special effects makeup is used in film to turn the cast into characters, or advance a storyline with effects like injuries and ageing. It’s even used to create the life-like puppets or dummies, like corpses, you see on screen.

It’s been around long before CGI and continues to be an important aspect of filmmaking. In modern filmmaking, it’s likely that a combination of practical special effects makeup and CGI are used to achieve the desired look.

What materials are used to create prosthetics?

Some early uses of prosthetics in film may seem a little primitive today. When Jack Pierce created Frankenstein’s monster, he had to glue cheesecloth to the actor’s face and used a green greasepaint to cover it.

Black and white films didn’t pick up as much detail as today’s high-resolution cameras capture, so makeup artists could use the most practical materials available to them.

Today, developments in technology means high-resolution cameras are more sensitive to colour and materials need to be more refined, so they look realistic.

The demand for prosthetics to look and move like real skin has led to the popularity of silicone.

How are prosthetics used?

Silicone has been used to create materials like Sculpt Gel. One of the most popular materials in the industry, Sculpt Gel can be used to create ‘out-of-the-kit’ wounds and effects.

Makeup artists can mould facial features, scars, and more with Sculpt Gel and it sticks to mobile areas of the body like the mouth and neck – so actors’ appearances are altered without restricting movement.

For larger pieces, foam latex or silicone rubber is frequently used. A life cast of the actor is taken and the sculpture is created before a mould is taken and the silicone or latex poured into the mould. This is popular for creating masks or body pieces like in Planet of the Apes.

Our special guests will be delivering the 3-week Prosthetics Course here at The Iver Makeup Academy.

Meet the Author
Liz Tagg


A highly talented and award-winning makeup artist, Liz has over 30 years of experience working in the film and television industry. A professionally trained makeup artist and hair designer, Liz’s career highlights include BAFTA and Emmy award nominations, as well as a recurring position as a member of the BAFTA jury.

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