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What is Prosthetic Makeup?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 21, 2024
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Prosthetic makeup is a type of effects makeup used frequently in film, theater and television. By sculpting enhanced body parts that are based on the wearer's actual body, makeup artists are able to achieve very real, believable results. With correctly applied makeup, a human being can age, grow, change shape, or become a whole different species, all through the skill of the makeup artist.

Most prosthetic makeup begins with making molds and casts of the actor's body. Using traditional sculpting techniques, the makeup artist or sculpture will create a lifelike model of the actor, giving them a base on which to work. This process, called lifecasting, typically is done during pre-production, long before the movie even starts to shoot.

With the lifecast, the makeup artist can then begin to alter and change the form to fit the design needed. Depending on the needs of the production, they can add scarring, wrinkles, veins, or skin discoloration to create age or injuries. The prosthetic makeup process can also give alien features to a familiar form, such as pointed ears, extra teeth, or even additional appendages.

The materials used in prosthetic makeup can pose some difficulty, as the finished product must be worn against an actors skin. Moreover, if the completed prosthesis is to appear real, it must move and look like skin. The most common materials used in final prosthetic masks and body parts are compounds composed of foam latex and gelatin. Good makeup artists must always have a backup plan, as some actors may have allergic reactions to one material and need a different choice.

Application of the prosthetic can take several hours, depending on the complexity of the mask or body part and the amount of blending needed to make the piece fit seamlessly with the actor's body. Using airbrushing and traditional makeup techniques, makeup artists will work around the edges of the prosthetic, making sure the skin tone matches and the edges are invisible. Because prosthetic makeup is now so commonplace in movie making, actors may have stipulations in their contract regarding how much time they can spend in a makeup chair per day.

Prosthetic makeup artists often work in concert with special effects wizards to create a completed effect. For the Harry Potter film series, makeup artists made the basic prosthetic mask for the evil Lord Voldemort, while computer effects were responsible for the character's snake-like, flattened nose. By combining the extraordinary abilities of prosthetic makeup artists and special effects designers, films are able to create creatures that capture the spirit of almost any fantastical creation.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for BeautyAnswered. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By cloudel — On May 20, 2012

I have a friend who learned how to apply prosthetic makeup in beauty school, and she used her skills to make the most awesome Halloween costume for herself. She totally transformed into another being, and the mask looked so lifelike that some people were afraid to go near her.

Wearing prosthetic makeup is a lot different than wearing one of those cheap face masks that you can get from a costume store. The makeup is designed to stick to your face like a second skin, and any areas that need to be raised are built up in layers from the base, so there are no floppy parts wiggling around.

My friend looked like a combination between an alien and some sort of fairy. Her face had a glittery pink tone and an out-of-this-world shape. She even made herself some pointy ears to match.

By Perdido — On May 20, 2012

@shell4life – Wow! That sounds like the most tedious job on earth. I couldn't imagine gluing on tiny facial hairs all day and trying to get an exact match with each one.

Just think, even after that, the actual prosthetic makeup application to the men's faces would take additional hours. I really don't know how anyone has the patience for it. I'm sure that the artists get paid really well, and so do the actors, but even if I were paid a large salary to do this, I think I would lose my mind!

By shell4life — On May 19, 2012

I saw a documentary on the making of a prosthetic mask, and the detail that went into it was unbelievable. There were two men who wanted to swap identities and see if they could fool their friends, so the prosthetic makeup team modeled the masks after their faces.

After the mask had been given its shape, it went on to another room, where actual human hairs were to be glued onto it. The artist held up samples to the men's beards so that she could get an exact color match.

Just gluing on the facial hair took hours. Things like small wrinkles and scars also had to be added, which took many more hours.

By wavy58 — On May 18, 2012

It amazes me what can be accomplished with makeup and prosthetics. It's actually kind of creepy to think of what people with the skills to transform others are capable of doing.

If a prosthetic makeup artist were to someday snap or become a stalker, they could totally disguise themselves as someone else and gain access to the person they were pursuing. They could manage to make their way into a person's home under false pretenses.

It makes me glad I don't live anywhere near a movie studio or Hollywood. The odds of someone in prosthetic makeup roaming around my small town are slim to none.

By candyquilt — On May 18, 2012

I don't know how actors are patient enough to get prosthetic makeup effects done on sets every day.

I read in a magazine that to simply get a bald look with prosthetic makeup, it takes four hours! Can you believe that?! That's just to cover up the hair! If that takes four hours, I can't imagine how long it took characters in Lord of the Rings to get ready for their scenes.

I don't think I would have the patience to sit through it, although I understand it's necessary for the film. It's smart of actors to put limits on this in their contract.

By ddljohn — On May 17, 2012

@burcin-- Artists who work in prosthetic makeup take courses or workshops on prosthetic making, makeup and mask making. Most of them are through beauty schools and some are workshops offered by people who have worked in the theater and film industry. Even if beauty schools don't offer these courses constantly, they often once a year workshops for them.

You can start out by reading up on the subject, there are a lot of books and even how-to-guides on prosthetic models. You can also buy a prosthetic makeup kit and practice at home. But you will still need to attend a couple of workshops for hands on experience.

Prosthetic makeup is fun but it's also hard work. I like being challenged so I enjoy it. But it has been becoming harder to find work in this area in the last couple of years. If you're planning on relying on this for money, you might want to do additional research to find out what the need for prosthetic makeup artists are in your area.

By burcinc — On May 17, 2012

I think prosthetic makeup is really cool and I would love to do this kind of work in the future.

The first time I was really impressed with prosthetic makeup was about a decade ago. I saw a foreign movie where the main actor played about six different roles in the movie. In one he was a young man, in another an old woman, in another an old overweight man and so on and so forth.

The makeup was so realistic that I didn't even realize it was the same person acting them all until I watched the making of it.

It's absolutely amazing how prosthetic makeup can transform people into something completely different. I'm so impressed and I think it must be a lot of fun to work in this area.

What kind of training do prosthetic makeup artists receive? And where do they take classes? I'm familiar with makeup schools but I don't think that they offer classes in this area.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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