How Did They Do That? Best Movie Makeup Effects

Long before computer-generated imagery and other digital special effects editing existed to bring creatures like Gollum to life in The Lord of the Rings, Hollywood relied on special effects makeup artists to transform an actor’s appearance. While the industry no longer depends solely on movie makeup to create its creatures, the tricks of the trade are well preserved on film.

These five best examples of movie makeup effects are incredible – the new and the old.


5.) Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a Young Bruce Willis (2012)

movie makeup joseph gordon-levitt

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While many makeup special effects artists are enlisted to transform actors into fantastical creatures and characters, there’s something to be said for artists capable of more subtle transformations. In the time-travel film LooperJoseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis share the character of Joe/Old Joe, with Gordon-Levitt playing the younger version.

Rather than rely on the audience’s suspension of disbelief to accept Willis as a younger version of himself, Gordon-Levitt enlisted the help of makeup artists Jamie Kelman and Kazu Tsuji for the transformation. With the aid of nose, lip, ear prosthetics, plus a little help with the hairline and eye color, Gordon-Levitt became a believable Bruce Willis lookalike.

The creation of the movie makeup was created by Kazuhiro Tsuji, who has also worked on The Grinch and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He initially turned down the job but after Rian Johnson persisted, he of course accepted.

4.) Rebecca Romijn as Mystique (2000)

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While many actors have suffered the process it takes to don a prosthetic or two, none have endured the up to nine-hour ordeal Rebecca Romijn faced transforming into Mystique for the X-Men film. One thing is definitely for sure, Rebecca Romijn is a patient and dedicated woman.

Prosthetic artist Gordon J. Smith and makeup supervisor Ann Brodie collaborated on the costume that had Romijn filming scenes wearing nothing but blue body paint and the 110 self-sticking silicone prosthetics that covered over 60 percent of her body.

3.) Boris Karloff as Frankenstein (1931)

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The iconic makeup, worn by Boris Karloff in 1931, has now become the enduring image of Frankenstein’s monster with a flat-topped head, bolts in the neck, the large scarred forehead and heavy-lidded eyes.

Jack Pierce is the Hollywood makeup expert behind Karloff’s famous Frankenstein makeup, a man still revered by many of today’s top special effects artists for his monster creation skills. Crafted in the days before foam-rubber prosthetics, the oversized Frankenstein head was built on Karloff’s head each day with cotton, collodion, spirit gum and green greasepaint.

One of his most subtle but creative tricks was to give Karloff’s complexion a greenish tint. The green tint in a black and white film translated into a deathly gray on the screen.

After the success of Frankenstein, Pierce went on to work on other iconic horror monsters like The Mummy (1932) and The Wolf Man (1941).

2.) Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

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You’ve gotta give props to a man willing to wear fish skin as part of his monster makeup. That’s reportedly what Lon Chaney did to create the skull-like visage, an idea that helped earn him the nickname “The Man With a Thousand Faces.” He would stretch a strip of translucent fish skin between his bald cap and his nostrils. The actor became completely unrecognizable as the hero of Gaston Leroux’s novel. Chaney also used a combination of cotton and collodion to alter his cheeks and a viscous liquid that created the appearance of scarred skin. Dark eyeliner was applied to his face to give himself a hollow-eyed appearance.

While Chaney’s makeup tricks are a mystery to this day, his ability to transform himself is still astounding and was ahead of his time. His appearance as the Phantom was so horrific for the era that audiences screamed and fainted when his Phantom was finally unmasked.

1.) David Naughton as the Werewolf (1981)

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The elongating hands and feet, the painstaking progression of hair growth, the bubbling spine and jutting shoulder blades, the protruding jaw and bulging eyes. David Naughton’s transformation into the titular character in An American Werewolf in London is so well done, it’s almost painful to watch. It’s even more amazing to realize that this illusion was created in the movie without today’s computer-generated special effects. The transformation scene is still seen as one of the best examples of great movie makeup.

Engineered by special effects master Rick Baker, the almost three-minute clip took over a week to film. It required numerous casts of Naughton’s face and body. Baker’s work on the film was so impressive he was awarded the very first Oscar for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup.

So makeup isn’t always used just to make our Hollywood actors and actresses look more appealing. There are very talented people who use makeup to transform actors and actresses into something or someone completely different. These five movie makeup examples completely exceeded the average expectations.

For more makeup tips for yourself that are a little less dramatic, check out these posts: Stunning Eye Makeup Looks That Will Make You Stand Out In A Crowd and These Amazing Lip Art Ideas.

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