A closer look at the extraordinary contributions of special effects makeup artists. What’s your favorite transformation in movie history?
Before 1981 there was no special effects makeup category in the Academy Awards. One movie changed that: An American Werewolf in London. The film’s first transformation scene was shocking in its realness. It took a frightening folklore tale and dragged it, growling and biting, into the real world. Rick Baker, the special effects designer and creator of the film, is now a legend in the special effects makeup industry.
The film industry can thank horror movies for many things besides introducing a special effects makeup category to the Academy Awards: the films are notoriously reliable moneymakers for studios, and many A-list actors have gotten their start in horror, including Kevin Bacon and Renée Zellweger. Horror franchises themselves have built cult followings that have morphed into yearly conventions, turning D-list actors who hadn’t managed to move up the alphabet into beloved celebrities in their own right. But perhaps the greatest contribution horror has given the film industry is the progression of special effects makeup.
Horror films are a lot of shock and splash on the surface, but any real fan knows to look for and appreciate the details, because they all make a difference. Just as the films, masked as simple stories of primal fear, often reveal themselves to be a far more insightful glimpse into the human condition than anyone might first imagine, horror films add layers of interest and reality into each created world. One of the ways they build these worlds is with an incredible amount of behind-the-scenes work on special effects makeup.
Take, for example, the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London, which lasts just under three minutes and depicts protagonist David Kessler’s tortuous metamorphosis. David writhes in pain, his body sprouting dense, black hair; his limbs elongate and bend into more wolfish shapes; his spine ripples and his body stretches and thickens; his face contorts in agony as his mouth and jaw finally extend into a wolf’s toothsome muzzle.
The scene took six days to shoot and more than 30 technicians, resulting in about half an hour of usable footage. It took 10 hours each day to get actor David Naughton into his makeup and three hours to remove it, leaving very little time left to shoot. The end result is astonishing, however, and holds up after 30 years, even when compared to more recent effects created with CGI.
Most makeup jobs aren’t this elaborate, according to New York–based makeup artist and director Jessica Jade Jacob. When she first started about 15 years ago, she did many more practical effects. CGI is replacing a lot of that work, however. “I do more beauty and basic effects than anything else,” she told Crixeo. “Most common are creating bruises, making people look dirty, making people look sleepy or drunk.” However, there is still a lot of interesting work to be done. “Currently I have been researching people freezing to death in water for a shipwreck movie I’m working on. I’ve been playing with different gel stains and paints to create the various stages of frostbite, and mixing fake snow powder and crystals with different mediums to create a fresh ice look.”
Jacob recalls being inspired by the special effects makeup work in The Revenant. “I can only imagine how intense it was for the cast and crew to film in such freezing conditions, and I was super impressed with how well all of his character makeup held up through all the tough weather conditions.” Jacob also found it validating when Leonardo DiCaprio gave a special thank-you to his makeup artist Sian Grigg during his Golden Globe acceptance speech.
Since she was six, Jacob has admired Jaws for its special effects. “I just love that darn shark so much,” she says. More than any other film, the movie has influenced her work in special effects makeup. “The gore effects still look good, and I think it’s one of the best examples of editing working with the limitations of practical effects to create a cinematic psychological mind trip.”
In school Jacob saw many works inspired by the films all the students loved. She saw multiple Freddy Kruegers, Gremlins, Critters creatures, characters from Legend, the Facehugger from Alien, everything from Star Wars and zombies. “Walking Dead has a cult following among most makeup artists I know,” Jacob says, “and we discuss it all the time. Labyrinth and Dark Crystal are also super influential because of their unique creature designs.”
Melissa Vento is a makeup artist currently working in Los Angeles, and she agrees that zombies are a favorite topic of discussion among makeup artists. Although zombies appeared earlier in films, Vento says Night of the Living Dead (1968) was the film that brought these creatures into the spotlight, so to speak.
Now zombie makeup is so specialized that character designs reflect the environment. Makeup artists for The Walking Dead give their zombies leathery skin to show they’ve spent a lot of time outdoors in sunny Georgia. They also have their process down to a science: a team of four makeup special effects artists can finish 40 to 50 zombies in an hour.
One of Vento’s favorite examples of great makeup and practical effects comes from the 1986 movie The Fly. “The most impressive part of the human-to-fly transformation is that you see the protagonist slowly morph into the fly. The number of phases of the fly is impressive.”
The special effects makeup team, led by Chris Walas, created the Brundlefly character makeup in five different wearable stages, as well as additional stages that involved animatronic limbs and creature constructions manipulated by a team of assistants. The way Walas’ team worked was to first envision the final stages of a human/fly hybrid and then work back from there to imagine each step such a transformation might take.
“I feel like creating a character like the Fly requires more skill and attention to detail and some research,” Vento said. “This type of makeup transformation also requires a lot of testing and sketches. Adding texture is just as important as color and depth.”
Vento says her appreciation of The Fly’s practical effects has influenced the types of effects she enjoys working on beyond the usual blood, scars and cuts. “I love it all, but I do love to create fake tattoos and building a beard or facial hair, because it requires more attention to detail and skill.”
Makeup artists deal in mimicry, making young actors seem old, or adding scars and bruises to otherwise perfect skin. They deal in the fantastic, creating creatures from imagination using a little makeup, a little paint and some well-placed, animated foam/latex appliances. An exquisite amount of detailed work is put into creating special effects makeup, but its success is determined by how seamlessly it blends into the world of the film. All these effects are created with the sole purpose of drawing us, the viewers, into the film, to make it more real and all the more engaging.