Monday, September 23, 2019

Special effects (SFX) and prosthetic make-up can produce some of the most striking looks. From realistic wounds to terrifying monsters, both branches of make-up artistry are commonly used in TV, film and theatre.

SFX make-up is often used as a catch-all term to talk about both disciplines, and the line where SFX stops and prosthetics begins is blurred.

But to help you distinguish between the two, we’ve asked The Iver Make-up Academy Principal and SFX and prosthetics course tutor, Liz Tagg-Wooster, to explain the difference and give us a bit more insight into the variety of skills and materials that are used.

What is prosthetic make-up?

Prosthetics is the process of lifecasting, sculpting and moulding to create a make-up look that totally transforms the actor.

A prosthetic make-up piece being applied to a model

Prosthetic piece being applied to a model before colouring

What is special effects make-up?

Special effects make-up is the term used for the team who are applying the pre-made prosthetics or smaller on-skin effects. This type of make-up can include creating the appearance of things like wounds, scars and wrinkles for ageing effects applied directly onto the skin.

Example of SFX to create the appearance of a scarred eye

What products and materials are used?

The products and materials used will vary depending on the desired effect you are looking for, whether it’s small changes to the actor’s features, or creating an entirely new character.


A huge part of prosthetic make-up is creating the actual prosthetic pieces to use in the look. These are usually made from foam latex, gelatine, or most commonly, silicone. Prosthetics artists work with these materials to make the prosthetic pieces.

To apply prosthetic pieces, skin safe glues are used to stick directly onto skin, illustrator make-up palettes are used to add colour, and removers are used to dissolve the adhesives.

Special effects

The materials used for special effects make-up include on-skin silicone, liquid latex and gelatine which are all perfect for creating smaller pieces which will be applied to the actor’s skin.

Small pre-made appliances like scars and bullet wounds are also regularly used, along with pro-make-up palettes and blood products to make the effects look realistic.

Some of the products we use to create SFX make-up looks

What skills do you need to be a prosthetic or special effects make-up artist?

The skills make-up artists use across prosthetics and special make-up effects are very similar, and there’s a lot of cross over.

For prosthetics looks, the artist will sculpt, make moulds, pre-colour appliances and apply them. So sculpting, moulding and painting are essential skills for this craft.

  • Application and removal

Special effects make-up artists learn the intricate processes required to make, apply and remove special make-up effects. Bald caps are often used to create a blank canvas for the pieces to go on as well as form part of the make-up themselves so knowing how to apply bald caps is important.

Students applying a bald cap for a prosthetics look

  • Adding colour and detail

With both prosthetic and special effects make-up, they need to blend seamlessly into the skin and have realistic details. So being able to add colour and detail on top of those silicone, latex or gelatine appliances is essential.

  • Being creative and having an artistic eye

An essential skill for any make-up artist is having an artistic eye and an eye for detail. The ability to think creatively and translate this into reality, especially within SFX and prosthetics, is a must-have skill.

Student adding colour and detail to prosthetic make-up look before a wig goes on

  • Good people skills

Another skill that is essential for any make-up artist is to be good with people. But it is especially important for prosthetic and special effects make-up artists because the looks can sometimes take hours to apply. You’ll need to be good at making the person you are working on feel comfortable throughout the process.

What is prosthetic make-up used for?

As we mentioned earlier, prosthetic make-up can totally transform the look of the actor or model by changing their features, so it’s commonly used in film and TV and has helped create some iconic characters.

Famous examples include Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Oscar-winning ‘The Darkest Hour’ and the White Walkers in ‘Game of Thrones’.

Below is an example by tutor Jess Heath. This prosthetic make-up look uses several prosthetic pieces to transform the model’s face to turn her into a Woodland Creature.

What is special effects make-up used for?

Where special effects make-up ends and prosthetics start can be a grey area. But generally, special effects is used in film, TV and theatre to show injuries or make characters appear slightly older.

Some good examples include ‘Peaky Blinders’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ when characters have been in a fight or battle.

Here’s an example by The Iver Make-up Academy students which uses SFX make-up to create the appearance of facial cuts and wounds.

Make-up artists can be skilled in both prosthetic making and applying special make-up effects. When you’re working on a film or TV set, the more skills you have, the more employable you are. You might be asked to create a prosthetic look one day, and a smaller special effect look the next! However, it is possible to specialise in prosthetics only.

If you want to learn more about the industry techniques and skills it takes to be a prosthetics or special effects make-up artist, take a look at our specialist course page, or get in-touch to speak to one of our friendly team.


Read next: 

How to be the best trainee make-up artist on set

VIDEO: How to create a woodland creature prosthetic

How to find work as a make-up artist

Do you have a question? Want to learn more about IMA? Contact us for answers!
Contact Us

Today's must reads