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What is Prosthetic Makeup?

Planet of the Apes prosthetic makeup

Prosthetic makeup is a specialist field of makeup artistry. It is used to create a variety of enhanced three-dimensional character looks and effects, from ageing and injuries to all sorts of creatures. These effects can be subtle or create a major impact by changing someone’s appearance. This post looks at what prosthetic makeup is, with an overview of how prosthetic appliances are made.

Prosthetic makeup is a highly skilled and complex discipline. In brief, it is the process of designing, making and using prosthetic pieces to create special makeup effects. These pieces are generally known in the industry as “appliances”.

Prosthetic appliances are created using traditional sculpting, moulding and casting techniques. Individual pieces can be made from suitable materials such as gelatine, silicone and foam latex. The appliance is stuck to an actor’s skin using medical-grade adhesive. Specialised makeup products are used to add colour and detail.

Basically, prosthetic makeup includes everything from designing the look, making the appliance to using it on the actor.

Prosthetic makeup often comes under the term “special effects” or “SFX makeup”. However, this is a broad term used to cover any makeup technique that creates injuries, ageing, creatures or other such effects. Whatever term is used, prosthetic makeup always involves the creation of appliances.

What Does a Prosthetic Artist Do?

A prosthetic artist uses design, casting, sculpting and moulding techniques to create prosthetic appliances. They also glue appliances to an actor’s skin/face and colour with specialist makeup products.

A prosthetic artist will most likely be on set to apply and colour the larger and more complex designs, as well as being there to remove it all at the end of the day. However, smaller and more simple pieces (like small scars or cuts) may be sent to the production for the makeup team to then apply.

Most prosthetic artists work in a workshop, be it at home or in a business premise. They could work alone, running their own workshop, or be permanently employed as part of a larger team.

What Can You Achieve With Prosthetic Makeup?

In a nutshell – anything you want really! Prosthetic makeup is commonly used in TV and film productions to:

  • Make an actor look like another person – for example, Gary Oldman was transformed into Winston Churchill for the film Darkest Hour (2017). A more extreme example is John Hurt as Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980).
  • Age an actor – prosthetic appliances are used to create saggy jowls, wrinkles, eye bags, balding scalps and any other ageing feature required. For example, Brad Pitt was aged for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
  • Add weight to an actor.
  • Create creatures and monsters – from mythical creatures, cartoon characters, aliens and demons to an array of different humanoid species. The list is seemingly endless! There are many examples, including Pan’s Labyrinth, Star Trek, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and all sorts of creatures from the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
  • Create injuries and wounds – any injury can be made from a prosthetic, including bullet wounds, bites, broken limbs, burns, cuts, and old scars. Likewise, stitches, autopsy closures and bloody guts pulled from stomachs are all achievable.

How a Prosthetic Appliance is Made

It is possible to purchase flat moulds online or from specialist makeup suppliers that allow you to make simple prosthetic appliances at home or on set. These tend to be for small and less complicated effects like scars, bites, gun shot wounds and cuts. 

Flat moulds are perfectly fine for many makeup effect needs and can be quite handy to have in a kit. Also, they can be used over and over again, so you can certainly get your money’s worth from them.

However, for more unique and complex creations, it is better to have them made specifically to fit the actor that is going to have to wear it. 

It is this process we are going to take a quick overview of here. Some of the steps can be slightly different, all depending on what materials are used to cast and mould. Likewise, it depends on how the artist prefers to do these things, but the general process is similar.

1. Concept & Design

It all starts with the script and the director’s vision. For the most part, this is what all makeup and hair designs are based on. The actor may also have an input into their character’s appearance.
Ultimately, the prosthetic artist will liaise with all relevant parties to create their designs. 

Design work can be done using a combination of drawing skills and computer programmes (like Z-Brush, Substance Painter, Maya, Adobe CC and GIMP). 

In addition, miniatures – called maquettes – can be sculpted to test forms and ideas without the time and expense of a full-scale model. Even 3D printers and scanning technologies are used nowadays to put a design idea into form.

2. Life Casting

This is essentially a two-part process, which results in having a realistic three-dimensional “positive mould” of the actor’s body part onto which you can sculpt the design.

The first part of the process involves taking a life cast of the actor’s body part where the prosthetic will be applied.

After the skin and hair is prepped to prevent sticking, special alginate or silicone products are smoothed onto the skin. They are used as they are non-toxic, do not burn and get into all the skin’s nooks and crannies. Never use plaster direct on skin – it will cause serious burns!

Once this soft layer is set, plaster bandages are gently smoothed over the top to give the life cast a more solid and rigid structure. As soon as the bandages have gone off, the life cast is carefully peeled off the actor.

While this cast creates a 3D exact replica of the body part it is, however, an “inside out” version, called a “negative”. So the second part of the process involves creating the “positive” mould. This is done by filling the negative mould with a suitable material like plaster of Paris or epoxy resin.

Once set, the mould is turned out to create the positive mould on which the sculpt takes place, though it may need a little “cleaning up” before this process can begin.

A “master cast” can also be created to use again and again, as some casting materials have a limited number of times that a mould can be taken from it.

3. Sculpting

The design is created in clay or plasticine using sculpting techniques. In particular, Chavant clay products and Monster Clay are popular types of clay to use, as they don’t shrink or dry out, making it great for the fine detail and thin edges required.

Using their hands, fingers and various tools, the prosthetic artist presses the clay onto the positive life cast mould to create the basic thickness and profile wanted. 

After this, they sculpt the contours, textures and all the fine details (like pores, veins and wrinkles) into the clay. Because it is hand-crafted to such detail, this can take a while to complete, depending on the size and complexity of the overall final look.

Finally, the edges are blended away to an appropriate thickness. This depends where on the skin it will be and how much of it will be visible. 

Ultimately, incredibly fine and thin edges are essential for blending the appliance into the skin where it will be on camera, as a thick edge leaves a hard and very noticeable line.

Placing the clay/plasticine onto the positive mould where it is needed.
Sculpting the fine detail and adding texture. From Stuart Bray’s excellent video “Sculpting Skin Textures”.

4. Moulding

This stage creates the negative mould of the sculpt. Subsequently, this mould is used in conjunction with the positive life cast mould already made to create the complete appliance mould. Moulds can be made in various ways, some of which depends on what material the appliance will be made from.

Whatever the method, mould “keys” are useful in ensuring the two moulds line up precisely. They can be an indentation or protrusion on the positive mould (the one with the sculpt) that will be mirrored on the negative mould about to be made. As a result, the two halves should line up perfectly.

Once the negative mould is completed, everything needs to be fully cleaned of the sculpting clay. Therefore, when the negative sculpt mould is placed onto the positive life cast (using the keys to line it up properly), there will a gap between the two moulds. The gap is basically where the clay sculpt was.

Prior to pouring any material into the moulds, a release agent is applied. This allows the prosthetic artist to remove the appliance easily from the moulds. The two moulds are then clamped or bolted together to create a really tight bond – those thin edges, so carefully sculpted, can be lost if the bond is not tight enough!

Prosthetic appliance material is then poured or injected into the gap between two moulds and left to set. One set, the moulds are unclamped, and the appliance is removed and cleaned up.

Using a Prosthetic Appliance

1. Preparation

Before the actor arrives, as with any makeup, everything needed should be clean and set out in an orderly fashion. Furthermore, the makeup area must be prepped for the actor to be as comfortable as possible – they may have to sit for a long time while the prosthetics are applied.

The appliance must be clean and properly prepped before it is stuck onto the actor’s skin. Likewise, the actor’s skin must be free from oils, makeup, dirt and anything else that could reduce the bond between the appliance and the skin.

2. Gluing the Appliance

Before any adhesive is used, the appliance is placed on the area it will be used. This is to help make sure the final positioning is right.

Special adhesives are used for sticking down appliances onto skin. Products include Pros-Aide, Telesis, ProBond and Snappy G. The right adhesive should be used for the material that the appliance is made of. For example, Telesis and Snappy make glues specifically for silicone appliances.

Always follow the manufacturer’s guidance on the correct use and application. However, one thing they all have in common is that the adhesive must be allowed to dry off and become tacky before pressing the appliance onto the skin. When the glue is tacky it will bond so much better. Simply put, wet glue will not stick!

The appliance is glued from its middle outwards to the edges, which are the last aspect of the appliance to glue down. Once everything is pressed into place, make sure contours and curves are stuck down correctly with no bubbles or gaps.

Obviously, the actor has to be able to move in their “second skin” and a poorly applied appliance could restrict their movement unnecessarily.

Prosthetic makeup adhesives used
Just some of the adhesives on the market for sticking down appliances.

3. Blend Away the Edges

Once the appliance is glued down, the thin edges can be blended away into the actor’s skin.

The right liquid product needs to be used on the material the appliance is made from. For example, witch hazel will melt away gelatine edges and acetone will melt away silicone. A cotton bud soaked in the liquid is the common way to do this.

Finally, a loose powder is gently patted or rolled over the appliance to remove any tackiness. Brush away any excess powder.

4. Colouring

The process of colouring and creating the right sheen brings the appliance to life. Specialist makeup products are used for colouring appliances, such as Skin Illustrator. Likewise, PAX paint is great for foam latex.

Various skills are needed to get the colour application right and to disguise the edge of the appliance. For example, appliances that are to blend into the actor’s natural skin, an understanding of skin tone, colour theory and a good eye for colour is essential. For injuries, an understanding of how that type of injury looks is important.

In summary, an eye for the little details and being able to create life in a prosthetic makeup are all valuable skills.

5. Removal

Of course, between step 4 and getting to the removal stage is a whole heap of filming, which involves things like maintenance and continuity. We are jumping to the final stage of the whole process, namely removing the appliance from the actor.

The correct adhesive remover is used to remove the appliance, with a brush being worked carefully under the appliance. Some appliance material peels off quite easily.

Removers include Super Solv, ProsAide Remover, Ben Nye Remove It All and ProClean.

The skin will also need a thorough but gentle cleanse and moisturise to keep it in good condition. Wearing prosthetic makeup day-after-day under filming conditions means the skin – and your actor – needs to be looked after.

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2 thoughts on “What is Prosthetic Makeup?”

  1. Good simple article on prosthetics basic – answered a few questions for me as my son is very interested in this field of work and I knew nothing of it really! All a bit clearer now. Many thanx, Teri

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Planet of the Apes prosthetic makeup