Free Film School #109: A Brief History of Movie Makeup

Planet of the Apes

Welcome, my dear students, to the latest edition of CraveOnline's Free Film School, authored by your humble professor Witney Seibold, and now reveling in its 109th week. This film school, by the way, is easily eight times better than any ol' USC or NYU indoctrination. Not only is the information of a much, much higher quality (much!), but the courses are more fun, the price is much better, and I will openly and happily allow you to attend in the nude, sleep through whatever lectures you like, and eat ice cream while you take notes. Is this school great or what? This week's lecture will be a brief history of movie makeup, and how it has changed over the years.

Makeup – like costume design or stuntwork – is one of those facets of filmmaking that is often marginalized by critics and essayists and film students as an ancillary art. Why talk about makeup when you can talk about theme and structure and camera placement? The fact remains that makeup is an invaluable piece of the film world, and every single film you have seen – yes even that one – has had a hardworking makeup artist on standby to ensure that the actors you so love look presentable on film. Film, after all, may reflect reality, but they may also, through their varying photochemical and digital processes, show the wrong details on an actor's face. As such, a makeup artist is required to smooth skin, color people correctly, and ensure that they look like attractive people, rather than altered by happenstances of lighting and camera. Makeup provides a consistent actorly image that we tend to take for granted. Also monsters. A good makeup artist can make a monster. And a wound. All kinds of cool wounds.

Clara Bow

Film makeup has evolved drastically over the years, starting with thickened pancake whites, and leading into the extended subtle shadings we have today. In the early days of film, the celluloid film strips required huge amounts of illumination to be properly exposed. This meant huge white lights pointed at the actors, often washing out their features on film. Surely you've seen overexposed films (or tinkered with your own digital camera's lighting effects) where people lose every feature but their eyes, teeth and nostrils. In the silent days, to counteract this effect, actors had to be painted with heavy thick deep pink makeup, dark black eyeliner, and really heavy deep red lipstick. This paint would, of course, making working under those hot lights even hotter, and actors must have endured all manner of physical trials just to stay alert on set, much less act. Actors typically applied their own makeup at this time, so if you've ever seen an old silent film where someone's lips or eyebrows tend to change shape, that would be why.

As film evolved, so did all the art forms that went into in including acting, lighting, and makeup. Two enterprising wigmakers in the 1920s began to see the importance of the cinematic closeup, and began to develop a new form of film makeup to match. One of those men was George Westmore, the first of a long Hollywood dynasty of makeup artists that is still working today (his grandson Michael Westmore, invented most of the makeup for the various “Star Trek” TV series). The other was Max Factor, whose name you have probably seen in makeup aisles in department stores. Between these two, makeup – like acting and lighting – began to take on a much more natural consistency that was more conducive to a cinematic form that was keep on closeups and putting the audience really, really close to an actor's face. The films they worked on were not anything too notable (aside from Factor's wig work on The Wizard of Oz), but they are often credited for inventing the techniques of film makeup that kicked off a cinematic revolution.

At the same time, there was the genre side of the coin, wherein famous creatures began being created for the screen. Literary monsters can be described by however the author imaginatively wants to describe them, but movie monsters required actual actors in actual masks or makeup to achieve. As such, equally enterprising makeup artists began to visualize, for the first time, actual human vampires, golems, phantoms, and the like. Monsters were coming to life, and someone had to conceive of the fangs, claws, scowls, drooping cheeks and curled lips of these beings.

Phantom of the Opera

The most famous and easily one of the best of all makeup inventors is the actor Lon Chaney. Nicknamed “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” Chaney would submit to – and often invent himself – all kinds of weird facial tortures to become any number of bizarre creatures. He would force wires up his nose, wear false teeth, smear his face with mortician's wax (a common tool for makeup artists, still used to his very day), and contort his face in such horrible ways, that his astonishing and monstrous creations are still being imitated to this day. Even if you haven't seen 1925's Phantom of the Opera, you know what Chaney looked like. In addition to the Phantom, Chaney also played the Hunchback of Notre Dame, old women, people of all races, ages, and persuasions. Chaney was, perhaps, one of the single most devoted actors the film world has ever seen, partly because he was a stellar talent (see He Who Gets Slapped sometime if you can), and partly because of the pains he endured to become the creatures he did.

Monsters took off in earnest in the 1930s, and Jack Pierce became the reigning monster maker. Pierce's name is one you should know, as he was the one who invented not only the famous sleepy-eyed, square-headed zombie for Frankenstein, but also the menacing and scary furry beast for The Wolf Man. He thought to give Dracula a widow's peak. He made the terrifying grin for Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs. The fur, by the way, on most fake monsters in the movies was constructed with yak fur, as it was thick and easy to manipulate. It also had to be applied a layer at a time, making applying it an hours-long process. We've all heard tales of how certain actors endured extensive makeup challenges to transform them. It all started here.