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Creating Realistic Casualty Makeup Effects

Casualty makeup effects

Casualty makeup effects are fun to create. It’s relatively easy to make something look realistic – with the right steps. Rushing in and banging on some blood or bruise gel is OK for fun. However, when creating makeup for a media production, more preparation should go into it. A poorly executed or out-of-place effect catches the viewer’s eye – and makeup should never be a distraction to a scene.

WARNING: images of blood and minor injuries (real and fake) illustrate this post.

Consider How the Injury Happened

When creating casualty makeup effects, think about how the injury happened and how it will progress. Also, think about the normal healing process or what the outcome is. More than likely, this will depend on many factors.

For example, when creating a gunshot wound, how the bullet injury will look depends on all sorts of things, including:

  • The weapon and bullets used.
  • How close the shooter is to the victim.
  • If the bullet passed through anything first.
  • The position of the victim when shot and any exit wound.
  • If the victim survives, how the injury will heal.

Research how the bullet wound would really look under this situation – it helps to create something more realistic. Generally, a real bullet wound isn’t a bloody wax volcano bang in the middle of the forehead!

To summarise, all injuries and illnesses have a natural progression from onset through to recovery or outcome.

Use Accurate Information

  • Books – there is lots of accurate information out there to help you create realistic casualty makeup effects. We like medical and forensic science books because they have accurate pathology. They also have background information on all sorts of injuries, with great (if sometimes slightly disturbing) photographs to illustrate.
  • Medical websites – have a look at medical and forensic websites for information.
  • Speak to specialists (or other knowledgeable people) in a particular injury or illness for further information.

Use Reference Pictures

  • Know what you are looking at – use reference pictures when creating casualty makeup effects, but know what it is. Meaning, a picture has far more value if you know a bit about it, like how old the injury is and what caused it.
  • Collect a whole range of pictures of the same type of injury. It gives you a more rounded view of how that injury can look on different people. It will also show you the normal characteristics of that type of injury. Furthermore, it pays to collect pictures of how injuries progress as they heal.
  • Less is often more! Sometimes even real injuries can look over-the-top or fake, simply because of how that injury came about and ended up looking. Reference pictures here are helpful as they demonstrate how not to go – basically, sometimes less is more and looks much more realistic.

Build a Casualty Effects Library

  • Create a library of pictures. A collection of pictures and reference material allows you to be ready to create an injury or illness. It is possible to get called upon to create something at the last minute.
  • Keep all research from old jobs.
  • Take pictures of injuries (your own, family or friends), recording how it heals daily. It is useful to know because injuries progress as a storyline continues.
Creating casualty effects
Collect pictures of the same type of injury to build a reference library.

Read the Script

  • The first step is reading the script. It is how you know what injuries or illness take place in the story. Go through the script, highlighting anything that refers to 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 person becoming injured – the who, where, what, and why?
  • Consider what happens to the injury afterwards, such as how it progresses for the rest of the story.
  • Sometimes the script describes how the injury looks. Of course, the head of makeup should have spoken to the director about their visualisation and wishes. The director might want something that is not realistic, or is over the top to create impact and so on. 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 timeline.
  • Use your reference pictures for design inspiration and authenticity.
Creating casualty effects and breaking down a script
Highlight any makeup effects in the script, so it stands out. 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 to achieve a believable casualty makeup effect. For example, if the script indicates that a character is bleeding profusely from the nose, the blood could end up on clothing or the floor. A squeaky clean costume might look unrealistic. In short, burns, dirt, and blood do not stop at the neckline or avoid furniture and floors. Therefore, talk to other departments to agree on what to do.
  • Never apply blood or any other makeup product to props or costumes without permission from the relevant department. Props and costumes are not part of the makeup department.
  • Sometimes aspects of an effect have to be completed in situ. For example, the character is lying on the floor with a fresh, heavily bleeding cut on their head. With this in mind, there’s no point putting runny blood on them when sat in the makeup trailer – gravity means the blood runs in a different direction to how it would when someone is lying on the floor.
  • Let the AD department know if you need time to complete a makeup with the actor in situ. It allows them to plan accordingly for that shooting day and give you the required time.

Use the Right Products

  • Use the right product for the injury – for example, when creating a new deep cut, use runny blood that is the colour of fresh blood, not congealed blood or scab blood.
  • There are alternatives to special effects makeup products – we’ve made 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 look on camera.
  • Technology can impact makeup. Different cameras, film 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. It means that thick edges on prosthetics or poor colouring and blending will look bad on screen.
  • All special effects makeup should be safe to use. Most professional products will not cause any irritation or reaction. However, it is essential to carry out a skin test for some products (like latex or Collodion) to ensure someone is not sensitive or allergic. Carry it out during pre-production or at least 24 hours before using that makeup product. Barrier creams are helpful for someone with sensitive skin.
Professional makeup brands provide products specifically for media SFX.

Less is Often More

  • Know when to stop – creating casualty effects is about discipline. Some 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. However, it doesn’t always manifest itself in a sea of blood or endless solid purple bruising. Less is often more!
  • 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 harder 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 and the monitor. If something isn’t registering as you want it to, then 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. Also, it does not arc perfectly when allowed to spurt free, cunningly avoiding the shirt and hairline. Similarly, if someone fell in a thorny bush, they would not have equally spaced grazes of the same length forming a pretty pattern.

Continuity Pictures & Notes

  • So you’ve created an amazing injury, based on solid research using photographs of actual injuries. It has been checked from all sides and watched the monitor. Now you just have to think about continuity.
  • Take pictures from all angles for the continuity file. Remember, actors are seen from all sides. Therefore, taking good pictures from all around will help you to recreate the injury on future filming days.
  • Make concise notes on the makeup products and method used. It will also help with getting the continuity right.

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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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Casualty makeup effects