Today in Quick Cuts: To makeup artists of days gone by, a love letter

Back in the 1920’s, Lon Chaney terrified audiences to the still new attraction of cinema with his roles in Phantom Of The Opera, London After Midnight, and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. Much of the makeup he used was self-created, and often he would simply try out physical facial expressions in the mirror to see what he could make next. This earned him the nickname, “The Man of a Thousand Faces“.

by Martin Readshaw

One of my favourite aspects of the wonderful world of movies, something that’s always fascinated me, is make-up, and not the beautifying kind; no, not lip gloss, eye-shadow, or mascara, but the kind that turns actors and actresses into aliens, monsters and creatures right off the page.

“It’s aliiive!!!” – Victor Frankenstein

Jack Pierce was instrumental in creating the iconic look of the monster in director James Whale’s 1931 film Frankenstein. The design was so distinctive, it’s still employed to this day. Think of the character: you’re thinking of the flat head, neck bolts and stitches, aren’t you?

Boris Karloff sat through four hours of uncomfortable prosthetic application every day to become the creature. Along with the makeup, the boots weighed 11lbs each and the bulky costume meant he had to lean against a body board instead of sitting down. This took its toll on the actor physically, and led to severe back problems in later life, although he would return to Pierce’s make up chair again for Bride Of Frankenstein and The Mummy. While filming the 1939 film, Son Of Frankenstein, he received the news that his wife had given birth, and went to the hospital in full makeup – possibly frightening a few (un)expecting mothers into an early labour!

Lon Chaney Jr. became a horror icon, in part, thanks to his collaboration with Pierce on The Wolf Man in 1941. As Karloff had before him, Chaney spent many hours forced to sit perfectly still as hair was glued in stages to his arms, legs and face during the transformation scene.

Speaking of hairy transformations: let’s jump ahead forty years in time to An American Werewolf In London. Rick Baker got one of his earliest credits working on the various characters seen in Mos Eisley’s cantina in a little-known indie sci-fi film that no studio wanted to make called Star Wars (…!); you’ll likely also know his work from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, Gremlins, Harry And The Hendersons, and Men In Black to name just a few.

Baker was inspired to create his own make up designs as a kid after watching Frankenstein and other Hollywood monster movies on TV. He created that unforgettable sequence in American Werewolf, where the main character David Kessler (David Naughton) endures a horrific, bone cracking, limb-stretching lycanthropic metamorphosis to the tune of Sam Cooke’s “Blue Moon“.

I remember seeing this scene on a TV show about movie make-up, and was so horrified – it would be years before I saw the actual film! Watch it now: it’s still one of the best ever uses of make-up in a horror scene.



“You’ve done terrible things, Lawrence. Terrible things…” – Sir John Talbot


Years later, Baker fulfilled an ambition to work on a remake of The Wolf Man starring Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt; disappointingly, much of the creature transformation and look was accomplished by CGI. It was a few years after this films release, that Baker acknowledged that the increasing reliance on computer generated effects meant his expertise was no longer as in demand as it had been, and announced his retirement.

(Baker is one of my personal movie heroes, and owner of the greatest pony tail in Hollywood.) Other great artists and visionaries in the field that I’d be ashamed not to mention in this love letter include (selected credits only):

  • Stan Winston (The Terminator, Predator, Jurassic Park),
  • Dick Smith (The Godfather, The Exorcist)
  • Michael Westmore (Raging Bull, Mask, Star Trek: The Next Generation),
  • Ve Neill (Beetlejuice, Batman Returns, Mrs Doubtfire), and…
  • Rob Bottin (John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Howling, Robocop).

Chances are, you’ve seen all of those names and movies and instantly thought of their work on the big screen.

CGI and motion capture may be the go-to medium for directors nowadays, and it works brilliantly. Without it, we wouldn’t have Gollum, the Hulk or most of the characters in the new live action Disney remakes. But, for me, CGI will never hold a torch to the real thing, and that’s a testament to the talents of the aforementioned artists; the creators of alien races from the depths of space, the makers of comic book superheroes, disfigured villains, and the architects of all manner of faces and features that stay with us long after the credits roll.

A long time fan of Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel, DC, 80s Sci-fi movies, Stephen King and sandwiches, Martin is a 40yr old big kid/grumpy old man, who lives in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire.


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