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The special effects of makeup

Posted in Actors, Cinema, Historical articles on Tuesday, 28 June 2011

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This edited article about cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 979 published on 13 December 1980.

hunchback, picture, image, illustration

The hunchback of Notre-Dame was played by the versatile Lon Chaney. Picture by Arthur Ranson

Since the early days of the cinema, special effects have played an essential part in the art of film-making. The first silent films were little more than theatre plays photographed with static cameras, but as filming techniques and cinè equipment improved, it became obvious to the directors that the medium lent itself to creating illusion.

Trick photography and special effects with make-up, costumes and ingeniously designed sets attracted the public, and box office receipts grew.

At first, the trick effects were crude improvisations by the director, his small crew or the actors. However, in a short space of time, specialists were employed and departments set up in each studio to cope with the work.

Initially, film-makers concentrated on make-up and costumes, as complicated technical and processing apparatus were still in their infancy.

Without sound, the cinema had to intrigue its audience visually, and the ideal subjects were horrors or fantasy stories with grotesque characters in sinister settings.

The most highly acclaimed exponent of make-up in the silent era was Lon Chaney, who had studied the art when working in the theatre and brought it successfully to the screen.

Chaney devised and applied his own make-up, often taking hours in front of the mirror to get exactly the right result. His characterisations of the Phantom of the Opera and Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame are good examples of his brilliant work, for not only did he create them facially, but also physically.

To achieve this, Chaney twisted and strapped his limbs into the most unnatural and painful positions, and wore heavy, uncomfortable body-padding.

It was not unusual, either, for him to distort his eyes, nose or mouth with tape to get the desired effect. As a result these processes had a damaging effect on Chaney’s health. He died as the cinema embarked on the sound era.

Chaney made up before going in front of the cameras, but it was not long before movie-makers devised a way in which an actor’s face could change character as the viewer watched. This was done by applying a little make-up at a time, and exposing the actor’s face to the film after each application.

It was a slow process, and tedious for the actor, who had to remain as still as possible, not only while the segments of film were being shot, but also between takes, while the make-up was put on.

The finished result, once the completed film sequence was run through the projector at normal speed, made the actor’s transformation look smooth and natural.

As the industry grew, make-up materials became more specialised, enabling the technicians to age, distort or simply change an actor’s features to any given specification.

One of the main tools of the trade is latex rubber, a solution which can be painted on to the skin in layers to build-up or reshape the features before the colouring is applied.

In some cases it is used in taking a complete mould or mask of the face, so that this can be extensively altered, after which the actor can wear it over his own features.

Making a latex rubber face piece is a lengthy process. Colouring and hair have to be added afterwards, but the effects of using the material for make-up can be stunningly realistic.

If the actor’s eyes need to be altered, to bring them into line with the role he is playing, then a whole range of contact lenses are available. Different colours, shapes or even the look of blindness can be achieved.

In recent years, the most acclaimed film for make-up techniques has been The Planet of the Apes, in which astronauts pass through a time warp, and land back on earth in the future to find it dominated by apes.

It took three hours to make the actors up as apes, and they were obliged to stay as such until each day’s filming was completed.

Initially, the project was beset with problems. It was difficult to link the actors’ mouths with that of the ape make-up so that they looked as if they were speaking naturally. A special channel had to be inserted in the upper lip, as it was found that the actors could not breath properly through the ape’s nostrils.

The film was shot in Arizona in the United States, where temperatures are very high, making it extremely uncomfortable for the actors to work under the burden of make-up. A heat-transmitting, plastic-based paint, consisting of small particles, formed the basis of the make-up. It left tiny areas to allow for overheating and perspiration. For added comfort, the actors were kept in refrigerated trailers between filming sessions.

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