Special effects makeup artists may just have the best job in Hollywood. The field of special makeup effects combines art disciplines like sculpture and painting with construction and design skills that might be as well suited to an architectural or interior design firm. Except this is way more fun.
The most obvious places to find special effects makeup artists are on the sets of horror and sci-fi films and tv shows like “Star Trek” or “Battlestar Galactica.,” and sure, horror and sci-fi provide fantastic opportunities to change humans into otherworldly creatures, but special effects makeup also creates the scars and wounds in action films, the age makeup for a character in an epic saga, and the new facial structure that turns a well-known face into a distinctly new character, or an actor into a well-known face from history.
Film Makeup Artist Schools
Let’s say you have a prosthetic you’d like to apply. How’s it done? Assuming you’ve already laid out your overall design, you’ll need to consider where to place everything, and if there is overlap, which should go on top of the other. Your appliances should generally conform to anatomy, either of a person, or the creature you’re trying to emulate. The less you conform, the less people will be able to understand it. The audience needs recognizable elements in order to define what you’re trying to convey. Unfortunately the human body doesn’t always lend itself to your design. Hair for example, is often a major obstacle to be overcome.
We’ll start with premade appliances. These are the simplest to use, but they offer the least amount of customization. Use these when you don’t have a lot of time to invest, but be aware the “one size fits all” nature of these items can lead to design limitations and ill-fitting applications. Don't be afraid to use premade appliances in ways they are not meant to be used. Let’s say you have a pair of premade horns. Instead of using them on the head, use them as tusks or shoulder spikes instead.
If you do place them on top of the head, you’re going to have to deal with your subject’s thick head of hair. You could ask them to shave it all off, but don’t expect a positive response. In this case we’re going to apply a bald cap over the hair that will also serve as a new foundation for appliances. Flatten the hair as much as possible with a strong hair gel. Place the cap over your subject. Long hair can be flat braided and fed down the back of the cap and tucked inside the wearer’s costume. You may have to shape around the ears, but keep at least a quarter-inch border to cover side burns and hairlines. Mark trim lines with a wax or grease pencil and trim smooth edges. Leave the back as long as possible as you can tuck it inside the wardrobe.
Apply a small line of spirit gum to the inside edge of the mask along the forehead. In most appliances you need only apply the glue to the prosthetic, but since this is the most important seam, and will suffer a good deal of strain, you might want to apply some to both surfaces. This could make removal more difficult though and provides an increased risk of lumps, so minimize this practice as much as possible. When the glue is very tacky, smoothly lay the seam back down onto the skin and hold lightly until it sets. Continue to glue down the sides and around the ears. Stop at the top just as you start to go down the back of the ear.
Have your subject tilt their chin up slightly now and tape or glue down the back of the bald cap to the base of the neck. When they return to a normal posture, the cap should be without tension, yet taught and without wrinkles. At this point, finish gluing down the remaining edges from the top of the ear down the neck. Learning how to avoid bunching, folds and loose edges will mean the difference between a successful appliance and a sad one. Always glue from one location outward. You never want to start at the sides and work to a central point. If you need to glue down directly over thick hair, like eyebrows or sideburns, then be sure to coat them in Vaseline so they don’t pull the hair out upon removal.
A light brushing of spirit gum or latex over the cap will provide a base suitable for makeup and other attachments. You can now glue the horns anywhere on the head or cap. Whenever possible, keep seam lines to shadows and undercuts, or at least away from the direct camera sight. Smooth transition lines as necessary with latex or mortician’s wax using a makeup sponge. You can also hide edges with hair or makeup. Finally, keep in mind the textures of your appliances. Horns shouldn’t flop when the character moves. On the other hand, making them too heavy can make them uncomfortable or fall off. Packing hollow appliances with light foam or even cotton is, in most cases, all that is necessary.
If you’re going to conceal blood tubes, lights, or other effects under your appliances, run them first. Follow the same seam lines and run them to hidden access points under clothing or hair. Be sure not to pinch your tubes when you apply the makeup. Applying makeup effectively is an art all its own and requires as much practice as prosthetics themselves. Stippling with sponges, drawing with brushes and even airbrushing are all techniques to experiment with and develop over time. As a beginner, try your best to follow this rule: blending is important to the overall look and accentuating the transition from light to dark will help define your shapes.