Film Junkyard: Use of Prosthetics

By Kavishna Wijesinghe

There is plenty of professional work required in a film before it gets premiered. In the film industry, “makeup” is one of those huge departments which has a number of people working with a common motive.

A movie makeup artist is usually successful in their job when their work is unnoticed. This does not imply that the job of a film makeup professional is simple; it takes years of training, experience, and incredible dedication to do a masterpiece. But if the viewers realise that it’s just piled up latex and cosmetic makeup, the film might lose its illusion, and thereby the excitement.

The use of prosthetics is an interesting topic that hardly gets the limelight it deserves. Prosthetic makeup (also known as special makeup effects and FX prosthesis) is used in films to turn the cast into “characters”, or to advance a storyline with effects like deformities, injuries, and realistic wounds to terrifying monsters and more. The process of using prosthetics includes sculpting, moulding, and casting techniques to create advanced cosmetic effects.



Creating the unreal

Modern prosthetic makeup was revolutionised by popular special makeup effects artists like John Chambers, who was behind the Planet of the Apes series, and Stan Winston, who is known for The Terminator series, Aliens (1986), Avatar (2009), and Iron Man (2008). These artists inspired the next generation of SFX makeup artists, offering us screen iterations of characters like Grinch, Fantastic 4’s Ben Grimm, Voldemort, and Marvel’s Deadpool and Thanos.

When Jack Pierce made “Frankenstein’s monster”, it’s said that he glued a cheesecloth to the actor’s face and covered it with green greasepaint, as monochrome films did not catch many details during that time. But today, with the developments in technology, we have high-resolution cameras that are prone to capture the details in materials, and the creators are extra careful of the details such as texture and seams.

However, prosthetic makeup is not solely used for creating monsters and creatures; it could be used to show ageing as well – like Charlize Theron in Bombshell (2019) or turning Gary Oldman into Churchill in Darkest Hour (2017).


Special effects maestro Stan Winston PHOTO © STANWINSTONSCHOOL.COM

The process of creating special effects makeup

Applying prosthetics typically begins with concept art, created by the artist or production. After the actor has been chosen, the effects artist will prepare the actor for the process by taking a mould of the actor’s face, head, or body part, which is called “lifecasting”.

Lifecast moulds are made from prosthetic alginate or skin-safe platinum silicone rubber. These moulds are initial and flexible. A hard mother mould (Jacket or Matrix) is typically made of plaster or fiberglass and created around the initial flexible mould to provide support. Likewise, multiple moulds are used to design stages of prosthetics or different prosthetics for the same actor for sculpting purposes. 

Once the stages are completed, the prosthetic is carefully removed and prepared for painting and/or application to the actor. When applying prosthetic pieces, skin-safe glues are used to glue them directly onto skin, and then illustrator makeup palettes and fake blood are used to add colour and depth.

In Deadpool, where the lead character’s terminal cancer and accelerated healing process makes his face badly disfigured, the SFX wizards held the task of transforming Ryan Reynolds into the character pragmatically. The character’s three stages of look – pre-Deadpool handsome, disfigurement after the accident, and then his evolution into the suit and mask – were designed by Oscar-winner Bill Corso, with the help of Andrew Clement’s Creative Character Engineering. They spent days making sculptures of the face and painting the moulds to get the best out of it.


Bill Corso Geoff Redknap and Mike Fields transforming Ryan Reynolds into Deadpool

SFX and VFX: A perfect combination

SFX (special effects) are on-set practical effects and techniques, as discussed. As the film industry grows with newer technologies like CGI (computer-generated imagery), VFX (visual effects) cannot be neglected. VFX is done in the post-production stage and often creates imagery that does not physically exist in real life.

However, overused or terrible VFX can also make movies look fake and unappealing. It might deliver a superficial feeling or detachment, whereas integrating authentic SFX would give exceptional results in credibility. It would feed more depth and feel. On the other hand, with the help of SFX, actors may perform better, indulging in the character well. Due to this reason, more films opt to go for a combination of SFX and VFX to enhance their special effects makeup in post via CGI.

Junkyard Theory is Sri Lanka’s first and only film education platform that brings on veteran filmmakers from Hollywood as guest speakers. Their webinars, hosted by Akash Sunethkumara, have been recognised on industry sites such as ‘No Film School’, and the team now runs film courses for upcoming filmmakers in the country.

Are you fascinated with this topic? Yesterday Junkyard Theory hosted makeup and SFX artist Justin Raleigh, who has worked on massive films and TV series such as Aquaman, Westworld, the Conjuring series, and Stranger Things, on their webinar. You can watch the full session on their YouTube channel!