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Creating Realistic Casualty Makeup Effects

Casualty makeup effects are fun to do and, if the right steps are taken, it is relatively easy to create something believable. Rushing in and banging on a bit of blood or some bruise gel without really thinking about it is OK for fun, but when creating a casualty makeup effect for a film or TV production, a bit more thought and preparation should go into it. A badly executed or out-of-place casualty effect catches the viewer’s eye – and makeup should never be a distraction to a scene. WARNING: we use images of blood and minor injuries (real and fake) to illustrate this post.

Consider How the Injury Happened

When creating an injury or illness for a production, consider how it happens, how it will progress and what the normal healing process or outcome is. More than likely, this will depends on many factors. For example, when creating a gunshot wound, how the bullet injury will look depends on all sorts of things, for example:

  • The weapon and bullets used;
  • How close the shooter is to the victim;
  • If the bullet(s) pass through anything else first;
  • The position of the victim when shot and any exit wound;
  • And, if the victim survives, how the injury will heal – and research how the bullet wound would really look under this situation. Generally it isn’t a bloody wax volcano bang in the middle of the forehead.

Injuries and illnesses have a natural progression from onset to recovery, and this also affects how they change over time.

Use Accurate Information

There is lots of accurate information out there to help you create accurate and realistic injuries. We like medical and forensic science books as they have accurate pathology, lots of background information to all sorts of injuries and great (if sometimes slightly disturbing) photographs to illustrate. There are also some good medical websites online. You can also speak to knowledgeable people or specialists in a particular injury or illness for further information.

Use Reference Pictures

  • Use reference pictures, but know exactly what you’re looking at. A picture has far more value if you know a bit about it like how old the injury is, where it is and what caused it.
  • Collect a whole range of pictures of the same type of injury so you get a more rounded view of how that injury can look on different people and parts of the body. It will also show you the normal characteristics of that type of injury. Also, collect pictures on how each injury progresses as it heals.
  • Sometimes even a real injury can look over-the-top or fake, simply because of how that injury came about and ended up looking. These pictures are also useful to show how not to go.  

Build a Casualty Effects Library

A casualty effects collection of pictures and reference material is great. It allows you to be ready to create an injury or illness, should you get called upon to create something at the last minute. Keep all research from old jobs. Take pictures of your own or friend’s injuries, recording how it heals on a daily basis. It is often not just about the initial injury, as storylines continue and an injury goes with it.

Collect pictures of the same type of injury.

Read the Script

The first step of knowing what injuries or illness has to be portrayed in a production comes from reading the script. Go through the script and highlight anything that refers to a character’s look, including any injuries:

  • An injury happens to a character at a certain point in the story for a reason. Think about all the factors that resulted in the character becoming injured – the “who, where, what and why”. Likewise, consider what happens after the injury has taken place and how it will progress for the rest of the story.
  • Sometimes the script gives a description of how the injury looks and, of course, the head of makeup should have spoken to the director about their visualisation and wishes. All this contributes to the final makeup, as well as solid research.
  • Have a complete script breakdown for each character and note how any injury progresses with the story’s timeline. Use your reference pictures.
Highlighting any makeup effects in the script. Here, two bullet wounds in the man's back are probed. There is a scar on his hip - which side needs to be clarified. A cut is made and a tube is pulled out.

Liaise with Other Departments

  • Liaison between departments is essential for some injuries in order to achieve a coherent casualty effect. For example, if the script indicates that a character is, say, bleeding profusely from the nose, where could that blood end up? Blood is indiscriminate, affected by gravity and movement, and does not stop graciously at the jaw line. If a character has a bloody injury yet their costume is squeaky clean and untouched by the sticky red stuff, it will not look realistic. Likewise, if props or the set has not a splash of blood anywhere, it might not look right. Burns, dirt and blood do not stop at the neckline or avoid furniture and floors. Therefore, talk to other departments to create a coherent effect.
  • Sometimes aspects of an effect have to be completed in situ. Say the character is laying on the floor with a fresh, heavily bleeding cut on their head. There’s no point putting runny blood on them in the makeup trailer when gravity and the position they are in means the blood runs in a different direction to how it would when someone is lying on the floor! Let the AD department know that you need time to complete the makeup with the actor in situ so they can plan accordingly for that shooting day.

Use the Right Products

  • Use the right type of product for the injury – for example, if you are creating a fresh deep cut, use a runny blood that is the colour of fresh blood, not a congealed blood or a scab blood.
  • There are alternatives to special effects makeup products – we’ve made our own blood, slime and ice when on a tight budget using food products. However, you have to know how it will appear on the skin, including its texture and colour, and how it will last.
  • Technology can impact on makeup. Different cameras, films stocks, lighting and filters can affect how colours look in particular. For example, high definition picks up on reds and, because of the clarity of the image, it also picks up on edges. This means that thick edges on prosthetics or makeup, poor colouring and blending will look bad on screen.
  • All special effects makeup should be safe to use. It is essential to carry out a skin test to ensure someone is not sensitive or allergic to an ingredient or product. This is especially important with things like latex or Collodian that can cause irritation on some people. This should be done during pre-production or at least 24 hours prior to that makeup product being used. To be extra safe, barrier creams are useful for someone with sensitive skin.
Professional makeup brands provide products specifically for media SFX.

Less is Often More

  • Know when to stop – some casualty effects go astray as people get carried away, throwing blood, dirt or bruising around like the apocalypse is coming. An injury is the result of damage to the body and it doesn’t always manifest itself in a sea of blood or endless solid purple bruising.
  • Subtle shading, a dab of texture, a stipple of colour or a hint of redness can often look more realistic and less like the character fell into a pot of jam. Remember – the effect has to be in context with the acting, the set, props, costume and the storyline. 
  • You can always add more makeup – but it is a big deal to take it off. If you’re not sure about how it will look in situ, start with less and check the makeup on camera/monitor. If something isn’t registering as you want it too, add a touch more.
  • Think random – generally, we do not want order and uniformity for casualty effects. Blood does not disperse itself in equal proportions. In addition, it does not arc perfectly when allowed to spurt free, cunningly avoiding the shirt and hairline. If someone fell in a thorny bush, they would not have equally spaced grazes of exactly the same length forming a pretty pattern.

Continuity Pictures & Notes

So you’ve done an amazing casualty effect based on solid research using photographs of actual injuries, checked it from all sides and watched the monitor. 

Now you just have to take pictures from all angles for the continuity notes. Remember, actors are seen from all angles and sides, therefore, taking good pictures from all round will help you to recreate the injury on future filming days. Making notes on the products used will also help with continuity.

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2 thoughts on “Creating Realistic Casualty Makeup Effects”

    1. Hi Jenny,
      We don’t know of any one online resource. A variety of research has worked for us, e.g. Googling the injury and using reliable sources like medical/forensic books (can be pricey to buy!).
      If you do find a database or something, please let us know!

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