In Depth History of Special Makeup Effects

-Michael Dinetz

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The History of Special Makeup Effects

Make-up is not a recent development.  As far back as ancient Egypt, people were putting various mineral and oil based paints on themselves to enhance their features.  Wigs have been used just as long, though their methods of manufacture have changed somewhat over the years.  As opera and theater developed in various forms throughout the world, various cosmetics were used to create the characters.  But it is only within the last 100 or so years that the concept of special make-up effects has developed in a form we would recognize.  


As many know, in the beginning of theater and film, actors did their own make-up.  So it is no surprise that the first great creator of effects make-ups was an actor, who performed in his own special make-up creations.  This actor was Lon Chaney Sr.  Chaney’s make-up case was legendary, and, in its day, held the magical ability to transform Chaney into any character than a production required.  His methods and materials would be considered primitive and even dangerous by today’s standards, but they revolutionized cinema.  He would contort his features with everything from hooks in his eyes to taut silk tape or fishing line.  He truly suffered for the success of the make-up.  He sculpted features from putty, and even used the first contact lenses in film, made of hard glass.  He fashioned false teeth, and used wigs, and bald caps.  The characters Chaney created are legendary, characters like the Phantom of the Opera, Quasimodo, the vampire in London After Midnight.  He was known as the man of a thousand faces, and rightly so.  

Following Chaney, was the advent of studio make-up departments.  Each major Hollywood studio formed its own make-up department, with a master at the head.  The most famous was probably Universal’s head, Jack Pierce. Pierce, took the next leap.  He developed the technique of large scale construction make-up, as well as early slip latex appliances.  Things at this time were still far from safety conscious though.  Instead of the latex we use today, harsher chemicals were soaked into the cotton wool to set it in place.  Pierce used a chemical called collodion, which was plastic and solvent (in most cases ether) based.  This construction method, of building up layers of cotton, soaked in collodion, was used to build one of the most iconic effects make-ups in history, Universal’s Frankenstein’s Monster.  This material left scars on the skin of his muse, Boris Karloff.  For later films, Pierce used a slip latex cap for the top of head, but still did the blending with cotton and collodion.  Pierce felt that the time consuming method of construction make-up was the ultimate way to convincingly alter a person’s appearance.  In the end, this may have proven to be his downfall.  As the industry changed, and make-up artists were switching to faster, more cost effective foam latex appliances.  Foam latex, though it took time to prepare in days prior to shooting, it took less time to apply.  As the rest of the industry adopted this method, Pierce stood firmly by his construction methods.


With foam latex came issues though.  The latex, whether foamed or not, was sensitive to most cosmetics, or more specifically to the oils inside, to the isopropyl myristate, which was the base of grease paint, the standard cosmetic foundation of the day.  The solution came from Max Factor, who developed the first rubber mask grease paint, which had a castor oil base.  The castor oil would not harm the latex. So technology slowly grew.  The foam latex of the early days is nothing compared to the stuff we use today.  It was far less stable, and it was a lot stiffer.  But, it opened a new door for the field of make-up effects.  Now, transformation was no longer limited to what you could build on an actor in a day from raw material.  You could take as much time in the laboratory to sculpt and mold and cast your appliances.  The sky was the limit.  

Over time, methods were perfected and limits were tested.  Many great characters were created, and time marched on.  A few decades passed, and then, in 1968, came the next great leap forward: Planet of the Apes.  John Chambers,designed the appliances.  They were applied as two or three separate pieces.  He spent countless hours at the zoo, studying primates, to unsure that the finished appliances that he produced would be realistic in appearance.  These make-ups were probably the most realistic looking non-human characters created for the screen to date.  They developed a more breathable foam latex formula, and came up with the innovative idea to prepaint their appliances to save time on set.  Until now, the appliance had always been applied uncolored and then painted on the actor.  Because of the massive number of actors that needed appliances, prepainting saved a lot of time.  For this massive achievement, Chambers received a special Academy Award, as there was not award for make-up at this time.


Interestingly, that same year, on the other side of the Atlantic, Stuart Freeborn, the man who would 12 years later would create Yoda, created another amazingly realistic simian make-up, for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Amazingly, the next great achievement in make-up effects came only two years later, in 1970.  In 1970, Dick Smith created the first multipiece overlapping appliance make-up.  Until now, Dick, a lesser known artist by comparison to the great many in Hollywood, was a lone operative in New York.  Dick had worked mostly in TV, as NBC’s head of make-up.  Being so far from Los Angeles, Dick had to teach himself, and little by little perfected methods of sculpting and molding, or created prosthetics with everything from elastic polymers to foam latex.  He developed formulas for gelatin appliances, and for paints.  But in 1970, he left his first really big mark on the history of make-up effects.  He designed this process in order to age Dustin Hoffman to the age of 121. Dick had discovered, as had everyone else using foam latex, that is shrinks after you remove it from the mold.  The larger the piece, the more it would shrink.  Previously, aging make-ups or any other make-up that might cover the whole face and neck, were done as a single appliance.  By separating the make-up into many smaller appliances, Dick realized that the shrinkage would be far less, and it would be easier to glue down each area.  This new process revolutionized prosthetic make-up.  Forty years later, this method is now the norm, the standard method for large appliance make-ups, whether they be foam latex, gelatin, silicone, or even ProsAide transfers.

The make-up for Little Big Man was just the beginning.  Dick would continue to innovate and invent new cutting edge techniques.  It is said that necessity is the mother of invention.  Where ever there was a challenge, Dick would find a solution.  In 1971, only one year after Little Big Man, Dick’s creative use of dental plumpers, a dental device designed to fit inside Marlon Brando’s mouth, enabled Dick to create jowls without the use of prosthetic appliances.  This was done because Brando did not want to wear prosthetics.

Then came the next big leap.  In 1973, came the film that took this craft to the next level.  That film was The Exorcist.  No longer would make-up effects be limited to foam latex appliance, or construction make-up, or a good old fashioned two dimensional painted make-up.  With TheExorcist came puppets designed to look like the actor, projectile vomiting, and words appearing raised on the skin.  All thanks to Dick Smith, and a lesser known artist, a young man named Rick Baker.  Baker would go on in later years to leave his own mark upon the industry. The Exorcist called for the possessed girl’s head to spin 360 degrees.  Obviously no person could do that, so Dick created a life sized duplicate of Linda Blair that could fully rotate its head.  This had never been done before.  That scene is now one of the most memorable scenes in cinema history.  The script called for letters to appear raised off ofthe skin.  Dick’s ingenious solution, apply a small amount of a special chemical to a foam latex appliance over the skin and it would swell to create the letter.  Dick even created a special tube rig that fit into the Blair’s mouth, hidden by appliances, that allowed her to vomit across the room.


In 1979, Dick created the first foam latex body suits and a whole host of other things for Altered States.  He invented the bladder technique.  The suits were big and Dick had to devise proper methods of life casting and molding them.  The bladder technique allowed Dick to create the simulated effect of movement under the skin, by alternatingly inflating and deflating thin latex bladders under a thin foam latex appliance.  In 1982, Dick’s aging skills were tested again.  For The Hunger, he was required to do a series of progressive aging make-ups on David Bowie, ranging from 40 to 150 years of age.  On this film he even developed the first collapsible core mold, so that the latter stages of aging could be done in one piece.  This technique was the reverse of molding at the time.  Instead of a multiple piece negative mold, the negative was one piece, and the core was multipieced, assembled inside the mold like a jigsaw puzzle.  This eliminated the need for patching and seaming.  Dick also created a series of corpse bodies designed to crumble when touched.

In 1984, after a career that had spanned 40 years to date, Dick received the recognition he deserved.  For his work in Amadeus, aging F. Murray Abraham, Dick received the Academy Award for Make-up.  Because of his ceaseless innovations and desire to share information to any that asked for it, Dick has been called the godfather of make-up effects.  It is safe to say that no other single individual contributed so much to this craft.

Back in Hollywood, the industry had slowly moved on, and the torch had been passed to a new generation.  This was the generation of Tom Burman, who had apprenticed under John Chambers.  Burman was probably the first person to coin the term “special make-up effects” and was also the first to set up a workshop outside the studio system, a company that provided make-up effects to any production that needed it, not just a single studio like Fox or Paramount.  Burman has been creating stellar make-ups for more than 40 years.  Now he works predominantly in TV, really pushing the envelope on what can be created fast and still look fantastic.  

I would say, however, that even more than Tom Burman, this new era, the late 1970’s, the 80’s, the 90’s and beyond, owes a great debt to two men: Stan Winston, and Rick Baker.  These men revolutionized not only Hollywood, but the entire world of make-up effects.  They spawned the age of modern effects and brought it to the spotlight.  Stan and Rick came from different backgrounds in terms of make-up.  Stan had come up through the Hollywood union apprenticeship program, and learned his early techniques from people like John Chambers and Tom Burman.  Rick, conversely, had worked with Dick Smith, in New York.  Yet, amazingly early in the career of both artists, they worked together on their first major undertaking, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a made for TV movie, for which they were required to progressively age Cicely Tyson to the age of 110.  For this tremendous effort, the pair won an Emmy Award.  After that, they went their separate ways.

The competition was fierce, but never unfriendly between these two artists.  Each surged ahead.  They both did a lot of character prosthetic work over the next decade, but that all changed in 1981.  In 1981, Rick Baker was going to push make-up effects further than they had ever gone before.  The film was called American Werewolf in London.  Werewolves were nothing new to the movies.  The Wolfman had premiered 40 years before, and there had been many incarnations since.  But none before had been so frightening, and real, and none before had every shown the transformation from man to beast on the screen.  That all changed in 1981.  Rick created something he called a change-o-head.  He created a mechanical way to stretch and contort the limbs of the person to become those of a wolf.  This was groundbreaking.  It was so expertly executed that the transformation sequence still holds up to this day, 30 years later.  And it should come as no surprise, that in this year, 1981, Rick Baker, for this amazing work in American Werewolf in London, took home the first ever annual Academy Award for make-up.  Coincidentally, his competition for that year was Stan Winston, who had done his own innovative work, on a small film called Heart Beeps.  Stan was the first to do a full facial transformation using gelatin.  Until now, gelatin had been used for small things like a nose or a chin.  This is what they did, both Stan and Rick, they pushed the boundaries of what could be achieved.

The next major achievement went to Stan.  In 1984, a little film from an unknown director named James Cameron, called Terminator, changed everything.  Stan created multiple appliance make-ups and full scale animatronic puppets to provide life to Cameron’s designs for his killer cyborg from the future.  Seven years later, Stan would take home the Academy Award the sequel to this film.  As a follow up to Terminator, Stan gave the world Predator, probably the singularly most recognizable creature ever made, maybe with the exception of the gillman from Creature From The Black Lagoon.

Stan and Rick’s work would become the standard that this industry was held to.  They always remained friends, until Stan’s untimely death in 2008 from cancer.  Rick Baker once said of Stan, “Stan took make-up effects out of a garage and into a studio.”


It can be said that Rick and Stan spawned the next generation of effects artists, people like Rob Bottin, Greg Cannom, Steve Johnson, Tom Woodruff, and Alec Gillis,Howard Berger, Greg Nicotero, and Robert Kurtzman.  In one sense, this is true, because they all, with the exception of Bottin, worked at one time or another for either Rick or Stan, or both.  Now, they run the largest effects companies in Hollywood.


Rob Bottin, has created some of the most memorablecreature effects in cinema history, ranging from the werewolf in The Howling, to the millions of horrific incarnations of an alien lifeform in John Carpenter’s The Thing, to Meg Mucklebones and the Lord of Darkness in Ridley Scott’s Legend, to Martian mutants in Total Recall, to Robocop.  Bottin retired quite young, in 2003, but he left an indelible mark on this industry.  His endless imagination and high standards lit up the screen.  

Greg Cannom has made aliens, mutants, robots, and monsters over the years, but there is nothing more impressive than his old age and character make-ups.  His work in films like Hook, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Forever Young, Mrs. Doubtfire, Thinner, Titanic, Bicentennial Man, Ali, A Beautiful Mind, Bulletproof Monk, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was ground breaking.  Consistently, time after time, Greg has delivered stellar aging make-ups.  He also pioneered the use of silicone appliances.  


Steve Johnson was the guy you could go to if you had something crazy, something over the top and ambitious in your film.  Early on Johnson had worked for Rick Baker, and then he handled all of the make-up effects for Boss Films, so he created the plethora of gruesome ghouls in Ghostbusters (I and II), the aging and creature make-ups in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, and Poltergeist.  After that he formed XFX.  He would go on to make the underwater floating aliens from The Abyss, the slick and sexy alien in Species, and the horrific Reapers in Blade II.  Johnson retired in 2005, but his innovative and high concept work will forever be remembered.

Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis are the co owners of Amagamated Dynamics Inc., better known as ADI.  The pair met while working for Stan Winston and then, in 1990, they struck out on their own.  ADI started with Tremors, a film full of giant sand worms and crazy kills. Since then, ADI has established itself as one of the foremost make-up effects companies in Hollywood. ADI is probably best known for its work on Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, The Santa Clause films (1,2,and 3), Alien VS Predator, and Alien VS Predator: Requiem.  They were also the first effects company to use silicone for fake bodies, for the film Death Becomes Her.


In the modern age of make-up effects, it is hard to talk about this craft without mentioning KNB EFX Group, the effects mega workshop founded by Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, and Howard Berger.  These three men met while working in various make-up effects workshops in the mid 1980’s.  They formed a friendship early on, and decided in 1990 to set up their own shop.  They started off slow, with films like Reservoir Dogs and Army of Darkness, but soon picked up speed.  Before long, their business was booming.  Robert Kurtzman left around 2003 to move to the Midwest and start a production company of his own.  However, Howard and Greg are still going strong.  In 2004, KNB took home their first Academy Award, for the Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.  Though many shops in LA and throughout the world have built successful relationships with well known directors, it is safe to say that none have done so more than KNB.  KNB are the go to guys for Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Sam Raimi, Eli Roth, George Romero, and Frank Darabont.  At this moment in time, it is probably also safe to say that KNB may be the single businest effects workshop in the world, handling as many as 18 large scale productions in a single year.  


Amidst all of these powerhouses came the birth of new artists, who might be considered the future of this industry, innovating and creating new methods and techniques in an age when some thought we could progress no further.  The two names that come most easily to mind are Christien Tinsley and Kazuhiro Tsuji.  


Christien Tinsley started out working for industry greats like Steve Johnson or Greg Cannom.  He is a clever and exceptional artist, always thinking outside the box.  Someone once said to me of Tinsley, “He can do anything.  Just give him a problem to solve, and enough time, and he will find the solution nobody else can.”  Tinsley quickly became known for his tattoo transfers, creating very realistic work in transfer form, making application of complicated pieces fast and easy.  But he did not stop with tattoos.  He took the idea of a tattoo transfer to injuries.  Now, you could apply a bruise, a cut, a scar, or even a puncture, instantly.  Every innovating, this was not to be the last amazing breakthrough.  In 2003, Tinsley was hired to work on Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.  They had to devise a way to cover the actor playing Jesus (Jim Caviezel) with a massive quantity of wounds, in varying stages, quickly.  Hours and hours of application time simply was not an option on this film.  They also needed it to be cost effective.  The solution: 3D transfers.  Tinsley took the idea of a tattoo transfer and turned it on its head.  He devised a method of transferring appliances made of gelled thickened ProsAide adhesive.  They were so much faster than traditional appliances.  They required no positive molds.  They were cheap.  They were also self stick, so no additional time was needed to apply adhesive.  Since then this technique has taken the industry by storm.  Tinsley even won a technical Academy Award for the process.


The final artist, that many, including his mentor and friend Rick Baker, call the future of make-up effects, is Kazuhiro Tsuji.  Kazu, as many know him, comes from Kyoto, Japan.  He initially met Dick Smith, via correspondence, after being accepted to Dick’s training course.  So impressed with his work, Dick helped to bring Kazu to the US, and introduced him to some major players in Hollywood.  This was in the mid 1990’s.  Kazu went to work for Rick Baker, and quickly began to gain recognition for his amazing sculpting and painting skills and his attention to detail.  Kazu was continuously seeking perfection.  After only a few years, everyone in this industry knew his name.  And things moved on from there, bigger and bigger projects, chances to department head.  In 2005, Kazu changed everything.  Until that time, even though more and more artists were trying to use silicone for appliances, it proved problematic.  Silicone would only stick to itself, so you needed special adhesives that were super strong.  More importantly, no paint truly bonded to its surface.  With foam latex, you could prepaint in rubber cement, or paint in PAX, or alcohol activated make-ups, and all of these would stay put no matter what happened.  With gelatin, you could also use alcohol activated make-ups, and they would stay all day.  Nothing would stay on the silicone for any length of time.  In addition, it was incredibly hard to blend the edges of the silicone appliances.  You could not melt the edge like you could with gelatin, and you could not feather it away like tissue thin foam latex.  You could not seal it in place with a layer of adhesive.  Well in 2005, Kazu changed all of that.  Rick Baker’s Cinovation had been contracted to do all of the old age make-ups and a fat make-up for Adam Sandler’s new comedy Click.  They knew that silicone was the answer.  The problem was how to solve all of these issues that came with using silicone appliances.  Well, Kazu had a simple answer: bald cap plastic.  He devised a system of encapsulating the gelled silicone inside a thin membrane of the vinyl based bald cap plastic material.  Now, any adhesive could be used to apply, though silicone adhesive was still favored for its strength.  In addition, the super thin edges could be melted away into the skin using a bit of acetone, in the same way that warm astringent is used to blend the edge of a gelatin appliance.  Further more, the alcohol activated make-up systems would bond very easily to the plastic surface.  Now this method is being used all over the world, and has become the standard for silicone appliances.


I think that in some ways this industry has come full circle.  The birth of the mega shop, and the mid level workshop, in conjunction with the resurgence of independent film in the 10-20 years, has led to the creation of dozens of new small workshops, based out of home garages, back yards, or small industrial units, much the way the original mega shops of today started so many years ago.  The day of the studio make-up department are assuredly gone.  Now, an artist is free to work for any movie company that will hire them.  In one sense there is more freedom, but in another there is more competition.  I think that CGI is replacing some things, like three story tall animatronic dinosaur, but creating new opportunities for make-up as well.  As many times I wonder if we have reached the plateau in terms of new products and new techniques, I realize the possibilities are in fact endless.

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