Peek inside the toolkit of a prosthetic make-up artist and you will discover a mass of strange and tactile materials. Since the 1900s, special effects artists have sculpted prosthetics from substances such as putty, wax, gelatine, foam latex and silicon, and then moulded them onto the faces and bodies of actors to create extraordinary creatures and characters. In the beginning of the film industry, it was performers themselves who usually created and affixed exaggerated facial features, grotesque appendages and fabricated wounds to become everything from mythical beasts to injured mortals.
One example is Lon Chaney, who wasn’t just famous for being the star in Universal Pictures’ The Phantom of the Opera (1924), but is also considered one of the earliest makeup artists to help revolutionise the industry. Like many silent-era stars, he applied his own makeup and prosthetics for his roles (including the Phantom), gaining acclaim for his monstrous transformations in horror films. His legendary skills earned him the nickname ‘the man with a thousand faces’ and he was so dedicated to his metamorphosis in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) that he was left short-sighted in one eye from the thick makeup he wore as the titular character.
When Lon Cheney died in 1930, makeup artist Jack Peirce became Universal’s go-to makeup artist for its early roster of horror hits, including Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931) and The Wolf Man (1941), the latter of which actually stared Lon Chaney Jr. On Frankenstein, Pierce used collodion (a flammable, syrupy solution of nitrocellulose) and cotton to shape the monster’s head, creating an extra-large, surgically tampered-with skull. The cotton-constructed, famous forehead took six hours to craft each day but was well worth it to enhance camera angles, silhouettes and make the most out of black-and-white cameras.
From the early days of cinema until now, techniques have continued to evolve with the availability and discovery of new materials and technology, as well as the contribution of pioneers who followed in Chaney and Pierce’s footsteps like Dick Smith (The Godfather, The Exorcist), John Chambers (Planet of the Apes, Star Trek), Stan Winston (the Terminator series, Aliens, Jurassic Park), Rob Bottin (The Thing, Total Recall), Ve Neill (Bettlejuice, Mrs. Doubtfire) and Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London, Ed Wood). Like the revolutionary introduction of latex in the 1930s, which made it easier to pre-prepare facial features, CGI is now used alongside prosthetics and makeup to dramatically improve realism – think about characters like Golem in The Lord of the Rings – but there’s no shortage of appetite (or necessity) to keep using practical makeup effects, like the scars on the War Boys in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and the mouth of the titular monster in The Babadook (2014).
Here are some of our favourite and unforgettable prosthetic moments in film.
Gill Man in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
While it may seem like men were behind the majority of the wonderous and monstrous creatures brought to life in early cinema, one of the most iconic movie monsters owes its legacy to Milicent Patrick, who was not only one of Disney's first woman animators but the person who designed the infamous Gill Man. While sculpting was done by Chris Mueller, it was Patrick's designs that gave the prosthetics artists the blueprints to build the legendary Creature from the Black Lagoon (which we're screening in 3D this June). After a whirlwind press tour promoting her involvement developing the creature, Universal Studios' head of makeup Bud Westmore flew into a jealous rage, demanding that Patrick be distanced from the project and credit redirected to him. Because of his monstrous tantrum, which inspired publicity exec Clark Ramsay to say “I think we all agree that Westmore is being a little childish over the entire matter", Patrick has long been forgotten by history until Mallory O'Meara's The Lady from the Black Lagoon set the story straight about the forgotten feminist trailblazer.
Gender-bending in Suspiria (2018)
When Tilda Swinton hid her identity under prosthetics to play Dr. Jozef Klemperer in Luca Guadagnino’s horror Suspiria (2018), the world was tricked into believing it was an unknown male actor and not her playing the role. Coulier used mostly silicone to transform Swinton into the 82-year-old German psychoanalyst. “It feels like real skin and you can soften it down to however you want,” he said. Coulier covered Swinton head to toe in various pieces of silicone which were then painted. A tubular neck was made to pull over her head and thicken her neck. “Separate cheeks, a chin, top lip, nose, forehead, ears, back of head, hand prosthetics, fingernails,” were sculpted to cover Swinton’s feminine features Coulier said. As per Swinton’s request, Coulier and his team also made her male reproductive organs to wear. “She had this nice, weighty set of genitalia so that she could feel it dangling between her legs, and she managed to get it out on set on a couple of occasions,” Coulier said. The look took four hours to create each day.
Hobbit feet in The Lord of the Rings (2001–03)
New Zealand’s Weta Workshop made 1,600 pairs of hairy hobbit feet and ears out of foam latex for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Unlike most films, the feet were never re-used because of the continuous wear and tear on set which made the delicate latex crumble, so a new pair was worn each day. To keep up with the production and replacements of prosthetics, a special foam latexing oven ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week while filming.
Sean Astin, who plays Samwise Gamgee, said wearing the prosthetics on set was “freezing cold” and like having ice cubes strapped to your feet. Dominic Monaghan, who plays the hobbit Merry, recalls how he and the other hobbits were required to wake up one hour earlier than the crew to have their oversized feet glued on by painting the bottom of their own feet. The prosthetics were then set by using a hairdryer to stick the latex to their ankles, then painted and airbrushed.
Scars in Black Panther (2018)
The scars glued to Michael B. Jordan’s body to play Killmonger in Black Panther are a prime example of the way prosthetics can help tell a story. In the blockbuster superhero film, one scar represents one kill but the entire scarification also represents an oceanic culture ritual celebrating manhood. According to ScreenRant, the Chambri Tribe from Papua New Guinea, believe humans evolved from crocodiles and deep incisions are made across the back, chest, and arms of young men to create crocodile-like skin. Makeup artist Joel Harlow designed around 3,000 prosthetic dots, molded from glue-like material, and stuck them to Jordan’s skin. Harlow explains that one of the biggest challenges was keeping the hashmarks on Jordan’s body, especially while shooting scenes in water or while fighting, “water is the natural enemy of makeup”.
Electric blue eye in Harry Potter (2005–10)
The fake eye Brendon Gleeson wore to play Mad Eye Moody in the Harry Potter series went through multiple stages of development before a final concept was reached. Sacrificing his left eye during a battle against the Death Eaters, his empty socket was filled with a glass, painted ‘magic’ eye and leather and brass strap. This prosthetic has become a popular costume for dress–ups with many people creating their own with ping pong balls, a milk bottle lid and old watch straps.
Full-body prosthetics in Game of the Thrones (2011–19)
There were six Children of the Forest in the cave battle scene in season six of Games of Thrones. Actors were covered head to toe in silicone suits, makeup, hair and pull-over masks to form the creatures. Prosthetics designer Barry Gower and his team glued the actors into the painted prosthetics each day at midnight for them to be ready on set by 10am, taking the team up to nine hours to complete the look each day. Stunt coordinator Rowley Irlam explains the consideration needed when shooting battle scenes in these very thin, delicate prosthetics: “we had to try and make the floor a bit friendlier… because we’re going to kill them and throw them on the floor”.
You can see the process of transforming a young woman into a menacing witch in The Story of the Moving Image in a display from the Academy Award-winning Australian VFX experts Odd Studio, who took home an Oscar for their makeup and hair work on Mad Max: Fury Road, where they used prosthetics (among other techniques) to create scars on the faces of the War Boys.
Learn more about the use of prosthetics to create the iconic Gill Man with an exclusive in-conversation recording with The Lady from the Black Lagoon author Mallory O'Meara and Maria Lewis following 3D screenings of Creature from the Black Lagoon.