The people bringing monsters to life- a history of prosthetics.

The History of Prosthetics on screen

Since the very birth of the film industry they have been a crucial part of the team behind the scenes, so today we are taking a look at some of the fore-runners in the history of make-up prosthetics, and their place within the industry.

A skilled make-up and prosthetics team can make or break a movie in terms of realism, so the highly skilled men and women who change the faces and bodies of our on-screen actors and actresses makes them highly prized within the industry, but it sadly took until 1981 for the Oscar for best make-up to be introduced. The very first recipient of the award was the talented Rick Baker for his work on the movie ‘An American Werewolf in London for his use of special effects make-up prosthetics that created the macabre looks.’


Lon Chaney ‘The man of a thousand faces’

Famous use of Prosthetics on the big screen.

The early black and white movies formed a firm foundation for the success of the prosthetics industry, with one of the first credited usages of prosthetics in the 1902 film ‘Trip to the Moon.’ By the 1920’s performers such as Lon Chaney were blazing the way to the forefront of entertainment with their use. As a result, Chaney became known as ‘The man of a thousand faces.’ He paved the way for groundbreaking productions like Frankenstein in the 1930’s where make-up artists such as Jack Pierce found fame.

Some early examples of special effects make-up and prosthetics in the movies.

  • Lon Chaney did all his own make-up for the role of The Phantom of the Opera, his creations were shrouded in mystery, and the studio kept tight-lipped about and is rumoured to have stuck fish skin to his face to achieve the look.
  • The 1930’s saw new and inventive techniques from the likes of Jack Pierce who worked with Horror superstar Boris Karloff on the 1932 production of ‘The Mummy’ Karloff was not overly keen on the techniques used to create the famous mummy, the bandages were attached with amongst other things collodion, spirit gum and linen, it certainly worked on the screen, terrifying audiences with the realistic-looking bandages Karloff made a fantastic mummy but he described the transformation as ” The most trying ordeal ever endured.” it must have been an awful job trying to remove it after the filming.
The Mummy 1932 Boris Karloff
  • We all remember the 1972 movie classic The Godfather, Marlon Brando’s iconic portrayal of Don Vito Corleone, with his stressed weathered face and jowly jawline, but it is a widely held myth that the make-up look was supplemented by Brando stuffing his cheeks with cotton balls. The look was actually created by make-up wizz Dick Smith, who took 3 hours every day creating an aged look to Brando’s face as he was only 47 at the time and the character was much older, and Smith even built up a dental prosthetic with resin to plump out the jaw and make his face look more drooped.

  • Ve Neill worked on Edward Scissorhands (1990) where her work on the movie got her nominated for an academy award, and over the course of her career, she won a total of 3 Oscars. Ve created the scars covering Johnny Depp’s face using latex prosthetic scars layered into a sheet that was then stuck to Depp’s face. The look took at least 1hr 45 min to create!
Johnny Depp-Edward Scissorhands
  • A recent interesting make-up prosthetic transformation is that of Gary Oldman by Kazuhiro Tsuji for the 2017 film  Darkest Hour. The transformation is so incredible that Oldman is no longer recognisable as himself under the layers of make-up. Kazuhiro who actually came out of retirement for the movie said that the most difficult part of the transformation was the hair and eyes, the hair was made from baby hair crafted into a wig to create a real-life look, and prosthetics were used to draw the eyes away from the bits they don’t want you to look at and create focus on those which they do want you to look at such as hairline and jaw.

  • Jennifer Lawrence’s transformation into Mystique famously took 8 hrs at the beginning, with the application of the scales first, then bodypainting applied after that, the actress used to stand or sit on a bicycle while the make-up was applied. The team reduced that time over the years but have now altered the process to include latex bodysuits.


The make-up prosthetics artist will begin by taking a mould of the actor’s body part or face, wherever the prosthetic will be applied, this is called a lifecast. These were for many years prosthetic alginate ( a clay-like substance) but recently silicone rubber. This will create a very soft flexible mould, so a second harder one is needed as the next step. This is called a Matrix or jacket, is typically made of something like fibreglass which goes on the outside of the flexible layer to provide a strong outer support structure.

This is then used to provide a strong hard cast of the body part of the actor in plaster or resin which is called the positive lifecast and is a real representation of the actor’s body part or face, so this becomes the base for the prosthetic, which is built on top using clay to build the shape, then a reverse mould, and finally the prosthetic is created from that reverse mould. This could be made from a range of materials including latex rubber, gelatine and silicone, It is a complex, highly skilled and time-consuming process, which is why prosthetics are expensive in productions.


As the world of special effects continues to evolve and become more heavily CGI based, some people worry that we will see these skilled techniques disappear, and a redundant industry replaced by computers, but the lifecast prosthetics guys are not overly concerned, they are still heavily involved in the CGI process which needs real-life to base its fiction upon, and are convinced the two branches of special effects can continue to work in tandem for the foreseeable future. One of the most incredible artists of the moment who really must be mentioned is the fantastic Valentina Visintin who has worked with her team on everything from Doctor Who to Harry Potter to create the most wonderful prosthetics, keep up the good work everyone in the prosthetics industry, the movies and shows that we love just wouldn’t be the same without your input.

Valentina Visintin Goblin Prosthetic



-Article Emma Murfin for Movie-Reliquary