The 10 Best Makeup Effects in Film


Using Makeup to Create A Style
Example: Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Edward Scissorhands

While Edward Scissorhands may be one of Burton’s most beloved characters because of Johnny Depp’s performance, the character is also memorable for his looks. For starters, there is his birds-nest hair. The wispy cob-webb look not only reassured audiences of Edward’s sad, lonely and parentless existence, but it also became an easy identifier for Burton’s gothic style. Indeed, Edward’s wild, untamed yet solid hairstyle was similar to that of Beetlejuice, whose film came out two years prior, and would be similar to many other characters we would see in later Burton films.

Edward’s pasty white make-up helped audiences to understand that he was not just a normal man. The pale color of his skin helped to highlight his hair and black clothing, but was also used to emphasize the raised scars on his face. By directing audience’s attention to the accidentally self-inflicted wounds, the audience in a way feels sorry for Edward, which is a necessity for the story to work. Finally, the character of Edward Scissorhands also owes a lot to special effects supervisor Stan Winston, who had previously worked on Aliens, The Thing, and The Terminator. In specific, Winston brought his knowledge of working prosthetics to Edward Scissorhands to create the character’s most memorable feature.

Using Makeup to Make a Point
Example: The Fly (1986)

The Fly

While most of Cronenberg’s films feature commendable make-up efforts, I chose to highlight The Fly because the make-up effects are a very important part of the film and its story. The film won an Academy Award for artist Chris Walas and his team’s’ work in transforming scientist Seth Brundle into a human/fly hybrid. The film is said to be a metaphor for the effects of aging, and therefore, the effects team focused on making Brundle’s appearance seem more fragile over time. This includes adding skin blemishes, hair loss, and increasingly hunched body posture. They started by first creating the look of the final stage of the transformation and then worked backwards from there to depict different steps during the course of the film. Cronenberg really wanted to show the helplessness of us all as we age, and he used scenes such as Brundle’s fingernails falling out to remind us of our mortality. While grotesque and disturbing, the makeup and creature effects used in The Fly are nonetheless effective.

Makeup as a Plot Device
Example: Tootsie (1982)


Make-up allows actors to transform into their roles, and no movie highlighted this observation as well as Tootsie. In the film, Dustin Hoffman plays an actor named Michael Dorsey who can’t get a job as himself. As a result, he dresses up as a woman and creates a new identity. He becomes infatuated with his new persona, and due to his success, becomes more confident. The film thus becomes an interesting exploration of inner and outer beauty as well as the impact makeup and appearance can have on the life of an individual. On one hand, the makeup makes Dorsey more noticeable and when people notice him, they appreciate his/her talents. On the other hand, once he becomes this new character he noticed things he never noticed about himself before, which he misses. When Dustin Hoffman signed up for the role, he wanted to make sure that the female character he portrayed looked as realistic as possible. The makeup team went through many rounds of tests in order to get the look just right on film.

Innovative Use of Makeup to Create Something New
Example: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

wizard of oz

The Wizard of Oz was the largest movie production of its time, and really set the stage for sophisticated makeup and costumes for the coming decades. With so many characters that needed makeup before shooting, the studio actually created an “assembly line” to reduce the prep time. This advanced planning for aspects of production like make-up was an important turning point in film production that would later become a necessity as films became bigger and more complicated. For audiences, it was exciting to see a mainstream film with varied and realistic-looking characters who were not human. The film’s success and lasting status helped to convince studios that more realistic makeup and costume effects may be worth the extra effort.

Indeed, the actors in Wizard of Oz endured much struggle in order to get everything just right. The Tin Man was originally supposed to be played by Buddy Ebsun, but he developed an allergy to the makeup which put him in the hospital for 6 weeks in order to recover. Jack Haley was his replacement and he had to work in an incredibly restricting metal suit that did not allow him to sit down. The costumes and makeup for the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Wicked Witch were so realistic that employees of MGM who weren’t part of the production thought they were real. MGM made the actors playing these characters eat their lunch in their trailers when in costume because they were scaring people too much. Finally, the film also designed its costumes and makeup around the Technicolor process. The color filming required lots of lighting, so makeup did not need to highlight facial features as much as was typical in black and white. Instead of silver slippers as in the book, one of the film’s directors chose ruby red slippers to highlight the color effect. Similarly, white did not show up well in Technicolor, so instead, a light shade of pink was used where white costumes were required, such as Dorothy’s blouse.

Creating a Setting with the Help of Makeup
Example: The Lord of The Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)

hobbit feet

Would Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films been as impressive if his hobbits didn’t have insanely detailed hobbit feet? Or if the elves didn’t glow? Or if the orcs didn’t all look unique? The answer is yes, but this doesn’t discount the painstaking efforts that went into all this work and the value that it added to the film. The production of all of the LOTR films featured very large makeup and costume departments who, because the filming was often on location, were mobile. Special attention was given to scars, dirt, and prosthetics depending on the scene and the actions in that scene. All of this work helped to add a lot of detail to the production, which made the characters fit into their environment.

1000 suits of armor were created for the first trilogy, and 1800 hobbit feet. In the second trilogy, the hobbit feet were molded latex, which made them easier to apply and more durable. In the first three films, the feet were painstakingly applied for each scene, and the materials were not that durable. Therefore, even though there weren’t many hobbits featured in the films, they wore through their feet quickly, hence the number of feet required. And it wasn’t just about big feet and dirty orcs. The soft makeup for the elves had to be coordinated with the cinematography so that it would be easy for their faces to glow in order to make them seem magical. These were all details planned and executed by the cast and crew in order to give the film more depth, and add validity to Middle Earth, even if these efforts didn’t actually impact the story. 

Artistry in Makeup
Example: Hellboy (2004)


Another director who often uses makeup to great effect is Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro is famous for creating beautifully weird creatures in his films, most of the time with expert makeup artistry.  I chose Hellboy as a good representation of his devotion to the art as well as a highlight among comic book/graphic novel films where makeup and costumes are very important. Ron Perlman’s transformation into the character of Hellboy is a complete one. Not only does he wear prosthetic pieces on his head, but he has a full body suit to give him extra bulk, a tail, and all of his exposed skin is painted red. Perlman’s makeup artist for the film was Jake Garber, who also worked on Kill Bill, Independence Day, The Hulk, Austin Powers in Goldmember, and The Nutty Professor. He used his experiences in those films with make-up, costumes, prosthetics, and animatronics to help create a character in Hellboy that literally jumps out of the source material.

For prep work on this film, Perlman and Garber would show up 4 hours early for shoots in order to finish the get-up. Hellboy is also notable as CGI is used to enhance the character’s motions and looks rather than create them entirely. Where some films would use motion capture suits draped on actors to create computer-generated characters like Hellboy, del Toro’s approach creates a much more pragmatic outcome. The extra effort to create something from scratch, and the work of the actor to bring it to life are not only impressive to watch, but they give the film a certain credence that it would otherwise be lacking. One day CGI characters may be able to surpass costume and makeup in terms of realism, but until then, Hellboy is a great example of how traditional makeup techniques still have an important role in today’s high-technology films.    

Makeup as a Shock Device
Example: Day of the Dead (1985)

Day of the Dead

Makeup can help to tell a story by shocking the audience. This is no clearer than in horror films, as blood, guts, and gore are a pretty effective way of getting a response from an audience. Day of the Dead is one such film where the makeup effects play a major role in the film. Makeup effects creator Tom Savini was in charge of the makeup effects here, and would work on other films with George A. Romero. He worked on the first four Friday the 13th films and would later go on to work with Robert Rodriguez. Savini was a pioneer of prosthetics, helping them look more realistic on film and at times giving them a functional role when needed. He used his experiences as a combat photographer in the Vietnam War to make his effects more realistic. Day of the Dead uses Savini’s talents to great effect, such that his work is the highlight of the film.

As a pioneering zombie movie, the film showcases a lot of gag-inducing moments in order to push audiences towards the edge of their seats. If the visuals were not realistic-looking, audiences would have had a difficult time cheering on the protagonists in their fight against the undead. To accomplish this realism for shock value, Savini and Romero created a lot of sequences where the makeup effects are dynamic. When a character is shooting a gun, the camera isn’t just focused on the person firing the gun, it shows what happens to the zombies, instead of having them just fall over incapacitated. The film uses real meat for the zombies to munch on to mimic human flesh, including one moment where a zombie takes a bite out of a living person. Another iconic sequence that showcases Savini’s aptitude for prosthetics is when a character is literally torn apart by the zombies. Such violent and bloody imagery is difficult to forget since it is executed so convincingly.

Makeup to Transform Actors into Animals
Example: Planet of the Apes (1968)

planet of the apes

Walking, talking apes are a considerable challenge for a makeup effects creator. Planet of the Apes needed actors to look realistic as apes, but not be hindered in their performances by masks or makeup. There had been actors depicting other creatures in film before (see Wizard of Oz) but not to this extent and complexity. Makeup artist John Chambers turned out to be the right person for the job. He was a medical technician in WWII who made prosthetics and facial-reconstruction patterns for the wounded. He came up with a foam prosthetic that is applied to each actor’s face. The foam prosthetic was then detailed with makeup every time it was applied, which was at the beginning of every shooting day. By eliminating a latex mask and not just adding the texture directly to the actor’s faces, Chambers created a look that allowed actors’ emotions to come out clearly. He created a special school to instruct his team who would be working on the film, and his efforts were rewarded when the producers petitioned the Academy and he was given an honorary Oscar for his work (this was before there was an Academy Award for makeup effects). Chambers would go on to work with the CIA to create spy disguises, and later he gave Spock his famous ears. Planet of the Apes is a successful film franchise because of its makeup effects. Even though the look may seem a little dated today, the outcome is nonetheless effective and very memorable.

Makeup to Transform Actors into Different People
Example: Monster (2003)


While Planet of the Apes showed us how makeup can convincingly change actors into animals, a more common use for makeup is to change actor’s looks to make them appear as someone else. Monster is a great example of how makeup can accomplish this. Charlize Theron was cast as Aileen Wuernos, a prostitute-turned serial killer. The problem was that Theron was a former model, and the character she portrayed had to be, well, ugly. She gained weight and shaved and her eyebrows, but the rest is the work of excellent makeup stylers. To achieve the blotchy skin, her skin was layered with washed-off tattoo ink. Her hair was thinned and then fried to make it look more raspy, and what was left of her eyebrows bleached to match. Finally, she wore dentures that looked like rotting teeth. But the role wasn’t great just because of the makeup, Theron put extra effort into all the details. This included creating an off-kilter gait for the character in order to make her seem physically imposing, and of course making sure the way the character spoke was fitting with her look. These efforts made Theron unrecognizable in the role, and really helped the film have an impact. The performance won her an Oscar for Best Actress. The Godfather is another great example of how makeup can be used to transform an actor into a character, but that transformation is less severe than in Monster.

Makeup Combined with CGI
Example: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Benjamin Button

A common use of makeup in film is to age a character. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button takes this to the extreme. Not only does the age of the main character change throughout the film, but he ages backwards. On top of this, all of the various stages of age are portrayed by different actors, but they all had to be recognizable as the same person. To solve this problem, the filmmakers used a technique of imposing one actor’s face on top of another’s body. Brad Pitt plays the main character. For some sequences, Pitt could play the character directly with the help of makeup and hairstyling, but for others his facial features had to be replicated on another actor’s body (the filmmakers have said that 52 minutes of the 166 minute film don’t feature any direct footage of Brad Pitt). This was most obvious at the beginning and end of the film. At the beginning of the film, the character is a baby who looks aged. For these sequences, the studio took digital images of Pitt’s head and aged them with the computer, rather than taking a digital image of Brad Pitt in makeup to look aged. Still, the expressions of the character during those sequences are modeled exactly after Pitt’s performance. To make sure all of the actors who portrayed the various stages of Benjamin’s life looked similar, they created prosthetic busts of Brad Pitt at various ages for the actors to wear. For other sequences, Pitt himself had prosthetics and makeup applied to make him older. There is only a short period of time in the film where Pitt plays himself without effects to make him look older or younger.