Costumes and Makeup: Activity 4

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Makeup: Beginnings

Like costume designers, makeup artists are storytellers. Whether the script requires actors to look beautiful or ragged, younger or older, or like monsters or other fantastic beings, makeup artists and hairstylists help audiences believe that what they see on the movie screen is real.

Movie makeup is a combination of art and science. It is both corrective, covering flaws and emphasizing attractive features, and creative, enabling actors to inhabit almost any type of character. Movie makeup that is used to hide pores, wrinkles, and other facial imperfections must withstand close scrutiny when magnified on screen. Makeup and hairstyles must look natural, but be durable enough to last for long hours under hot lights while actors fight, kiss, and sweat. Good makeup design requires research, experimentation, and sometimes inventing makeup products or appliances.

In 1914 Max Factor, a makeup artist and chemist, created the first makeup specifically for movies: light, semi-liquid greasepaint. Early black-and-white film stock did not register a range of colors. Red tones, for example, looked black on screen, so actors compensated by using makeup with blue or green tints. After the development of panchromatic film, which recorded the entire color spectrum, more natural-appearing makeup, called panchromatic makeup, was developed.

Most silent film actors created and applied their own makeup. One of the most inventive was Lon Chaney, who is often called the “man of a thousand faces.” He used materials such as fish skin, mortician’s wax, and wigs to shape his characters. In the 1926 film The Road to Mandalay, he wore a glass eyepiece similar to a modern contact lens to make one eye look blind. For his role as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Chaney devised a 20-pound plaster hump held on by a leather harness that temporarily deformed his posture.

Lon Chaney Sr. is widely acknowledged as the most important early innovator of motion picture makeup effects; he transformed himself into many iconic characters that still resonate decades later. Top row (left to right): Chaney in the disguise used by Inspector Burke in London After Midnight (1927), the costume worn by the Phantom in the masquerade scene from The Phantom of the Opera (1925), the Phantom as he appears after being unmasked in The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Bottom row (left to right): Chaney in a studio publicity portrait illustrating his reallife appearance, as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), and from an unidentified film. Photos from the collection of the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


In 1931, makeup artist Jack Pierce created the memorable monster in Frankenstein. Pierce researched surgical techniques and human anatomy to imagine where the monster’s skull bones might have been joined if a scientist could actually construct a man. He soaked layers of cheesecloth in a thick liquid called collodion and used this to painstakingly build up actor Boris Karloff’s face. A heavy layer of greasepaint covered the entire construction.

Later materials such as latex rubber resulted in lighter and more flexible appliances and prosthetics such as fake noses and ears. Unlike the wax used by Lon Chaney, latex didn’t crack and could be applied in thin coats for a more lifelike appearance. The 1939 film The Wizard of Oz was the first major film to use foam latex prosthetics on a large scale. Makeup artists Jack Dawn, Charles Schram, and others attached previously prepared pieces to the actors’ faces every morning, which saved time in the makeup chair and ensured consistent results throughout filming.

Contemporary prosthetics may be as subtle as the nose worn by actress Nicole Kidman in the film The Hours (2002), or involve a more complicated transformation. James McAvoy, who plays Mr.Tumnus, a half-goat, half-human faun in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), was fitted with a fiberglass skullcap, silicone ears, and a radiocontrolled device to make his ears wiggle.

In recent years, digital technology has been used on its own or in combination with traditional makeup techniques to create effects that would not have been possible in the past. The hairy parts of Mr.Tumnus’s upper body and face were laid down by hand using traditional makeup techniques, but to create the faun’s goatlike legs, McAvoy’s own legs were digitally removed from all frames, and the faun’s legs digitally inserted. New software programs can be used in postproduction to remove wrinkles and blemishes, enhance muscle definition, and whiten teeth.

High definition (HD) digital technology’s greater sharpness and clarity poses further challenges to makeup artists and hairstylists. Because current film makeup looks too heavy in high definition, makeup artists are developing more translucent and reflective products. High definition also changes the way hairstylists approach their task. Rather than trying to keep styles looking the same from frame to frame, hairstylists working in HD must develop more relaxed, natural-looking hairstyles and less reflective hair products.

Ask your students to design a makeup. This could be as simple as cutting pictures from magazines or as complicated as the students’ abilities allow. Ask each student to make a life-size drawing of his or her face, carefully measuring the placement of the eyes, nose, mouth and other features. These can be very basic drawings.

Ask the students to choose a type of makeup such as aging, monster, beauty, or fantasy. Have them sketch the look by adding facial angles, hair, teeth, and color to their drawings. Again these drawings can be very basic sketches. Discuss what they did in their drawings to modify their expressions and their anatomy. Ask them how they might go about creating their designs. You may want to show the students a film that includes special effects or aging makeup, such as The Chronicles of Narnia, Click, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events or Elizabeth, or pictures of different makeups in books or magazines.

Supplemental Activity

Have your students assemble makeup items including mascara, eye pencils, lipstick, powder, rouge, foundation, artificial fingernails, teeth, wigs, cotton, and anything else they might use to create the makeup they designed. Age makeup can be created using simple elements such as glasses, wigs or powdered hair. Scars can be made by applying a thin 3/8-inch-wide surface of rubber adhesive on a fleshy part of the face or arm. (Duo Adhesive or similar rubber adhesive for false eyelashes is available in most drugstores or department stores.) Dry the adhesive and pinch the skin together. The two sides of the adhesive will hold the skin together in the shape of a scar. Slightly diluted unflavored gelatin can be used to make scabs. Eyeliner or grease paint can be used to draw wrinkles, black eyes, or dark circles under the eyes.

Two tablespoons of red and two teaspoons of yellow food coloring mixed with one pint of clear corn syrup and two tablespoons water makes a satisfactory fake blood. Wet cotton can be stuck to the face with corn syrup to change facial contours. Cotton or tissue can also be used with a coating of eyelash adhesive over the top. Dry the adhesive and color it and the surrounding flesh with rubber-base makeup. See “Additional Resources” for more ideas. Encourage the students to experiment with other household items. Photograph or film the results.

Costumes and Makeup: Character By Design

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Costumes and Makeup Activities Guide (PDF)

Activity 1: Costumes: Telling the Story

Activity 2: Costumes: Creating Characters

Activity 3: Costumes: Painting the Frame

Activity 4: Learning from the Best

Activity 5: Creating the Character

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