Editorial Feature

Materials Used in Movie Prosthetics

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You may wonder how makeup artists turn actors into animals, monsters and aliens - using prosthetic makeup, a person can be turned into virtually anything. From adding extra body parts to aging a person by 50 years, for film, theater and television the sky is the limit.

It is essential to achieve the right mixture of materials for this art as the comfort of the actor is paramount throughout their performance. In addition to this, the prosthetic should look believable and must move in a similar fashion to natural skin. Materials and compounds containing gelatin and foam latex tend to be used in this industry, however, some actors can be allergic to these materials and so other materials are now being explored.

How Are They Made?

Firstly, casts and molds of the actor's body are made. Conventional techniques are used to do this and often a life-like model of the actor will be made for the artists to have a basis to work from. This is usually done pre-production and is known as "life-casting".

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The artist will then manipulate this life-cast to fit the needs of the design. Wrinkles, scars, veins, skin discoloration and a variety of effects are created on the life-cast to plan how the prosthetics will be applied to the actual actor.

This can take several hours depending upon the complexity of the body part and it must blend seamlessy with the body of the actor. Artists use a vast array of different types of makeup, particularly around the edges of the prosthetic, to ensure it matches the skin tone of the actor.

What Materials Are Used?

Gypsum Cement in Prosthetics

Comprised of mainly gypsum, this cement is a type of plaster that contains calcium sulfate dehydrates. It is often used in flooring, ceilings, drywall and in creating sculptures due to its strength, durability and its ability to retain a polished shine.

Ultracal, a commercially named type of gypsum cement, is used in prosthetics to make strong, hard and precise molds. These molds are suitable for foam latex to be applied to.

Foam Latex

Used extensively in the 1930s for the Wizard of Oz, foam latex is soft, lightweight and is an excellent material for facial prosthetics. It has since been used extensively in television and stage productions.

Its key components are foaming agents, latex bases, gelling agents and curing agents. Additives can also be added as required for the specific application.

Foam latex has been used vastly in stop motion animation to form the muscles and skin of puppets. It was used in Celebrity Deathmatch to produce the characters which, appeared to be made of clay, but were in fact made from foam latex over wire armatures.

Gelatin

Gelatin has high elasticity and a flesh-like consistency, making it ideal for prosthetic makeup. It can also be recycled, provided it isn't heated beyond a certain threshold. It can be remelted and recast several times, enabling artists to take their time to get the perfect look.

One issue with gelatin is that it is not porous to air or sweat and so small pockets of moisture can collect on top of the skin below the prosthetic and eventually cause it to pull away from the face. It is not ideal for stunt films or in warm climates as it is heavy and can cause the user some discomfort.

Despite these drawbacks, gelatin is very popular as it matches skin translucency and is easy to produce. Gelatin prosthetics can be completely undetectable.

Silicone

Similar to gelatin, silicone rubber is durable, waterproof and can be used over a broad temperature range. It can be used to form intricate, life-like details. As a result it is often used in movie prosthetics. A prosthetic or mask is typically created from a liquid silicone rubber base and a curing agent or catalyst. Molded pieces can be as thick as only a few layers of skin, and are directly applied to the face with an adhesive like spirit gum.

Notable Uses of Movie Prosthetics

Bizarre creatures and monsters can now be created thanks to prosthetics. Characters from authors' wildest imaginations can be easily brought to life. In the Harry Potter film series, Lord Voldemort's prosthetic mask was created by makeup artists and then special effects designers helped to create the snake-like flattened nose. The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe won the 2005 Academy Award for Achievement in Makeup due to a number of characters having indistinguishably life-like silicone prosthetics.

References

Alessandro Pirolini

Written by

Alessandro Pirolini

Alessandro has a BEng (hons) in Material Science and Technology, specialising in Magnetic Materials, from the University of Birmingham. After graduating, he completed a brief spell working for an aerosol manufacturer and then pursued his love for skiing by becoming a Ski Rep in the Italian Dolomites for 5 months. Upon his return to the UK, Alessandro decided to use his knowledge of Material Science to secure a position within the Editorial Team at AZoNetwork. When not at work, Alessandro is often at Chill Factore, out on his road bike or watching Juventus win consecutive Italian league titles.

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