actors, culture, History in Films, movies, oscars

Makeup Effects in Film

When I was a kid, occasionally you’d catch a showing on TV of Tony Randall and Barbara Eden in the 1964 film,  The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao. It was a treat for me. I loved the premise behind the mysterious 7,000 year old sage who entered an Arizona town and put on a circus that featured himself (selves) and gave life lessons via mythological creatures. Surely influenced by the 1962 Science Fiction story by Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Come? Perhaps it’s too corny for today’s viewers used to CGI, but emotionally, I hold a soft-spot for the film. William Tuttle won an honorary Oscar for his make up contributions.

Time moves forward and special effects in film evolve and what a fun process to experience. Makeup effects are artistic creations and still preferable to me than CGI. Another special effects master was John Chambers called upon by Hollywood/television to create various parts for various stars–those Leonard Nimoy ears? Made by Chambers. That Lee Marvin nose in Cat Ballou? Chambers. However, it’s the work Chambers did in the original Planet of the Apes series that earned him the other honorary Oscar for Makeup Effects. By the time The Elephant Man released in 1980, enough people felt makeup/hair effects deserved its own category at the Oscars.

Terrence Mallick was offered to direct the film, but declined The Elephant Man. David Lynch accepted and created a mesmerizing black and white Victorian masterpiece. Is it a biopic of the poor deformed John Merrick? I don’t think so. David Lynch took many liberties with the real story behind John Merrick and I would categorize it as a film “inspired by true events”. Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, and John Gielgud never acted better. Nominated for 8 Oscars including Best Picture, the make-up job was a major factor.  Christopher Tucker designed the makeup while Wally Schneiderman applied and supervised.


Rick Baker won the first award in 1982 with my personal favorite dark comedy/horror film, An American Werewolf in London. Here’s a fun video showing how Rick’s team and David Naughton created the monster. It’s a pivotal film in special effects with makeup. When I saw this in the cinema, I was awestruck. It’s hard to pull off a love story, a comedy (the score adds to the humor), and a horror story effectively. I watch it every Halloween and it still holds up 30 years later. If you have 3.5 minutes, take a look:

Since 1982, Rick Baker has won more awards than any other with 11 nominations and 8 total wins: An American Werewolf in London(1982), Harry and the Hendersons (1988), Ed Wood (1995), The Nutty Professor (1997), Men in Black (1998), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2001), and The Wolfman (2011).

Making a film is an ensemble effort. Yet, one rarely hears about the artisan who does the grudge work and gets little of the limelight. Isn’t it interesting how a “bad film” has radiant elements? A toast to the underrated makeup artists who supply key ingredients to the overall magic of the film. Here are some earlier Oscar winners. Which ones are your favorites?

32 thoughts on “Makeup Effects in Film”

  1. Great piece. Rick Baker and the team are brilliant in the way they work with the actor to make the effects work. I think the work they did on Hellboy with Ron Perlman is a great example. It’s completely fantastic yet believable.


    1. Great example, Dirk. I couldn’t agree more. Did you like The Wolfman? Del Toro is pretty hairy in the first place so I bet he transforming was not such a hard thing to watch. Emily Blunt is in it as well as Sir AH. Is it worth the rental?


  2. Great post Cindy! I love that you highlight one of the unsung heroes of cinema. Make-up artists are so under-appreciated but in the business of bringing fantasy to life, their roles are indispensable! A lot of these movies owe so much to their amazing work.


    1. Thank you, Ruth, as always. I love the history of special effects. We take it all for granted, I think. Especially before CGI, I guess because of my age, the art has been transformed to a different medium with CGI with varying results. I like to sing the praises from my youth. 🙂


  3. When I was a kid, a friend of my mother was John Snyder’s private secretary and she took us on a tour. One display was the aging process they did to Audrey Hepburn – That stuck in my mind and the artistic abilities of the movie and TV industry continue to amaze me.


    1. How awesome! Wow. I’m jealous. You’ve touched one aspect of the power of makeup effects. I remember Dustin Hoffman in ‘Little Big Man’ and there’s an example where someone should have won an award….


    1. Hi Bill, Wow! You have exceptional taste in films and so many I have not seen! How did I miss the 1963 John Huston, George C. Scott thriller? Okay, maybe it’s the year I was born, but never even heard of this nor Kind Hearts and Coronets with Alec Guinness. Yahoo. Thanks for sharing.


  4. Elephant Man was by far one of the best makeup effects, in my opinion. Are you watching Space’s “Face Off”? I love to watch what they can do in just hours! Great post, as usual. 🙂


      1. The series started last year and I just enjoy it. Unless you enjoy sci-fi though, you may not enjoy it as much. But to learn the craft, and to see inspirationturn into something tangible is quite something!


  5. Great post. My favourite bit of makeup remains F. Murray Abraham’s transformation in Amadeus – I’m still yet to see old age makeup half as effective as that film.


    1. Dave, excellent example. When I watched Grand Budapest Hotel, I was struck at how ageless F. Murray Abraham looked. Speaking of great old-age jobs, Tilda S. was done up quite well, too.


      1. Yes! She was a tad fake-looking, but she was barely recognisable as Tilda and the edge of “fakeness” perfectly suited Anderson’s artificial aesthetic.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Part of me grieves over the fact that CGI has taken such a big piece of the pie where amazing talent used to reside. I hope this art will long continue, it deserves to be protected.
    You’ve listed so many wonderful films–some my kids are-still to this day-drawn back to are those in the Harry Potter series. Magical stuff.
    Terrific post, Cindy

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Brilliant piece Cindy. These guys do get overlooked too often, especially in an ever-increasing digital age. An American Werewolf in London has some amazing make-up, and I really love Pan’s Labyrinth too.



  8. Hi, Cindy:

    Excellent and well explained choices for a worthwhile, though rarely touched on topic!

    ‘The Planet of The Apes’ is a hallmark of mass, standardized use of appliances that does not get the credit the craft or its cast deserves.

    Part of the magic about make up effects is living and becoming comfortable with a new appearance.
    Writ large in ‘The Elephant Man’. And as mentioned above, ‘Hellboy’. One of my unsung favorites is Mickey Rourke. Under very heavy make up and prostheses, vocal metering and slurred lisp in the beginning of the contemporary 1989 Neo Noir, ‘Johnny Handsome’, directed by Walter Hill. Which may explain Rourke’s ease in adapting to and being Marv (A role which Rourke NAILS!) in the recent ‘Sin City’ films.

    Excellent catch on ‘An American Werewolf in London’ and ‘The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao’.

    Would add an Honorable Mention and Personal Favorite to Robin Williams and whoever designed his hands, huge fore and upper arms endured throughout his role in Robert Altman’s ‘Popeye’!

    Another treat where the entire than big name cast (Robert Mitchum, Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas) have their moments to shine under prosthetics and make up is ‘The List of Adrian Messenger’. Directed by John Huston, from 1963. A cracking good, old school British sitting room “Whodunnit!?”


    1. That’s two of you who have mentioned ‘The List of Adrian Messenger’ (Bill). I really want to see it. I’m glad you mentioned Popeye with Robin Williams. Forgot all about that film! And while it certainly had it’s faults, only Robin could have been Popeye and the make up effects were impressive. Micky Rourke is quite a talent and I couldn’t agree with you more regarding Sin City and Johnny Handsome. Thank you very much, Kevin.


  9. Cindy … I love this post.. truly cool… It is nice to know about makeup effects particularly those which are not related with the digital era!.
    Thanks for sharing… By the way, I have nominated you for an award. Don’t know if yours is a free award blog… Anyway, it is a friEndly recognition, no more.
    Check out the nomination here (Just scroll down the page and look for your blog’s name):
    Congratulations and best wishes,
    Aquileana 🙂


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