Special Effects in Makeup

Written by johanna t. baker
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Special Effects in Makeup
Make-up can be used as a special effect that can bring out an exotic flair. (Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images)

From the big screen to the stage, special effects are used in the vast majority of films, shows and productions. Actors and actresses often wear make-up applied by special-effects artists. These artists spend a great deal of time on performers to create the perfect visual look. By using make-up to create special effects, a young man may appear decades older or from another world.

The Pioneers of Special Effects in Makeup

Max Factor may not be a household name for many, but his contributions to movie make-up are legendary. In 1914, he perfected a greasepaint that gave a natural look to actors on film, a significant improvement on the dyes being used at the time. While this may not seem impressive in today's cinema, audiences at the time where impressed with the effect. By 1931, a man named Jack Pierce took special effects further, when he used make-up to achieve the frightening look of Frankenstein's monster. Pierce went on to design the look of other movie monster classics, such as the Mummy and the Wolfman.

Character Design

Character make-up is used to create a new face on performers. Natural features are highlighted along the brow line and cheek bone, and contrasted in the eye sockets and jaw. With basic cosmetics, artist can make an actor look older, thinner or even fatter. Colours such as dim browns, soft greys, and earthy purples are used to cast false shadows on a face, or to create a gaunt look. Up close, this make-up may seem gaudy or over the top, but when on the stage or on film, the effect is solid.

Three Dimensional Makeup

To create truly believable beings, special effects artists sometimes use foam latex, silicones and gelatins to mould new surfaces on performers for a truly fantastical look. Because every face is unique, artists use a material known as alginate to create a custom cast of an actor's face. With this cast, make-up artists can perfect foam latex designs that fit on the actor's face naturally. This foam can be moulded into a variety of shapes, from a protruding brow line to a monstrous jawline, and fits comfortably on an actor's face. After the foam is applied to the face with a skin-safe glue, basic cosmetics are then used to blur the line between real skin and the foam. However, achieving this effect is a delicate process and can take up to five hours in one sitting.


Although special effects are employed in almost all productions, using make-up to achieve bloody effects is a category all its own. Every horror film, every thriller, has made use of artificial blood or false wounds. These effects are applied in much the same way as previous methods but use a specific set of tools. Foam latex crafted into grievous wounds or scars are then covered with a basic substance known as stage blood, a gelatin-like liquid with a peppermint flavour.

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