The changing face of movie special effects

According to George Lucas, special effects are "cool". A lot of directors rely on special effects to make things exciting on screen but how does adding new technology affect everyone else in the movie-making business?

Florence Carter is a special effects artist responsible for the guts and gore in Spartacus, the make-up in the likes of the Woman in Black and The Da Vinci Code, and, more immediately, Intruders starring Clive Owen which is soon to hit on Blu-ray. We wanted to pick Carter's brains about the changes in the industry but the price, it seems, was that instead she would show us.

Intruders is a horror movie with a faceless being scaring the bejesus out of Owen and his daughter, eventually turning her into a quasi-faceless monster herself. Carter's fun for the day was to turn Pocket-lint into that monster.

We sit down in the make-up chair and a substance, which in any other context would have looked slightly suspect, is smoothed over our face. Very quickly the movie business seems a lot less glamourous.

Carter tells us that the rise of high-defintion content has posed all sorts of problems for movie make-up artists, particularly when it comes to silicone and producing the masks like the one sitting in front of us. 

“Special effects have had to improve with the unforgiving Hi-Def cameras. Silicone gels have become high quality and less expensive,” she says.

"The masks I made for this were Plat Gel 10 [by Mouldlife] a popular and versatile silicone that is translucent and fleshy and warms to body temperature, allowing the actor to talk and move under the prosthetic.”

Laid out in front of us is a selection of five faces, a bit like what we imagine Hannibal Lecter’s dinner table to look. We sit down and one of the masks is picked up and slapped on to our own visage. All around the make-up studio are all sorts of weird and wonderful goos and gunks. Most, we imagine, are for creating wounds and other gruesome effects, although there are some which would look more at home in a torture chamber than on a make-up artist’s table.

Normally a mould would be taken of our face before a mask is produced but in the interests of time here Carter has used a generic face shape. Putting one of these together is incredibly complex, requiring a lot of skill in terms of mixing latex and dyes as well as handling touches such as individually attached eyebrows. Attention to detail is crucial, or it just won’t look good on screen.

“3D means that all actors have to be perfect from all angles and lumps and bumps are easily spotted.” explains Carter.

“Actors who could hide behind thick makeup, low-resolution pictures and flattering lighting are now exposed with every pore and wrinkle visible. Makeup has to be effective but invisible, even powder can show up on HD.”

In its slapped-on form, the mask looks fairly unconvincing. It’s also incredibly claustrophobic. It blocks our eyes and nose entirely. As if blindness and the inability to breathe weren’t bad enough, the next thing we know, we feel fingers beginning to poke our face as the artist starts twisting the mask around to fit. On the plus side, once you relax into the experience it’s rather like a face massage - which is why we fell asleep.

When our eyes open we’re greeted by a terrifying sight. Sitting opposite us in the mirror is something that resembles the girl from the Ring crossed with that moment in the Matrix when Neo’s mouth closes over. All the same, our transformation is incomplete. The corners of the mouth, in particular, and the eyes are a dead giveaway. Carter then shifts into top gear as she works her magic blending the mask into our face.

The Matrix moment is what siliconework is all about. At the moment CGI is heavily used in movies, including Intruders, to create monsters and the like that would traditionally be put together using sfx make-up. So, for Carter, doing things that CGI just can’t do is vital.

“A lot of effects that used to be make-up are now often CG, putting SFX makeup artists out of a job! It can often be cheaper and save time to do it 'in post’ with varying results,” she explains.

“It is quite common to have an actor wearing a prosthetic which is then enhanced with CGI, particularly when a ‘negative space’ is required - like a bullet hole or a missing nose.

“I think it helps an actor’s performance to have a prosthetic to react to - I really enjoy being able to make wounds quickly and cheaply. On-skin Silicone [by Principality FX] can be applied directly on to the skin and sculpted into cuts and wounds with blended edges that don’t show up - even in HD.”

While blending we ask Carter what her toughest job in special effects has been. She describes an as yet to be released movie (sorry we can’t share) in which she had to transform an entire elderly man’s body into an alien. It took her nearly a day to do and months of preparation. Just getting the person to sit still was problematic but then with things like changing light and different shooting climates, it just gets harder and harder.

We get the impression that this is where the real skill lies as it was the longest part of the whole process. Minute strokes with an airbrush across our cheeks help bring form to the mask as does a Blade Runner-style make up job on our eyes.

“Airbrushing is increasingly popular as the atomised makeup creates a fine layer of tiny dots on the skin that are less visible on screen. Airbrushing has been popular for special effects makeup for many years for colouring, shading and used with stencils,” says Carter, while nearly blinding us with a blast of make-up to the face.

Black rings and plenty of what we can only describe as smudging bring the whole shebang together. A brief wig adjustment and that’s it, we have become a terrifying teenage girl.  What is most bizarre about wearing the mask is that it almost tricks your own brain. We have the same clothes on yet, looking at ourselves, it feels like an entirely different person. Another side effect is that the silicone begins to warm up to your body temperature so you can’t even feel it on your own face, and that makes it truly surreal.

Now to the peeling off. Imagine bikini waxing your face and you will get a good idea. Thankfully the shave we had in the morning helped. Grabbing the corner of the mask at our neck it’s slowly removed while inflicting the minimum amount of pain - but pain it is, nonetheless, thanks to the sticky silicone. Think of it like a Mission Impossible moment or a painful episode of Scooby Doo.

Mask hanging half off our face and looking like a slightly melted plastic surgery balls-up, we take a brief respite from the pulling pain. Then back to the final grab and the mask is off. The result is us returning to normality after just a few brief minutes of being a girl. It’s not a look we miss, if we're honest. Carter then tells us she might have to do this 10 or 20 times a day on a film set. Think of all those sore faces.

The real amazing thing from the whole experience is just how quick the transformation is. In just an hour we were turned into a very convincing character from Intruders which even under close scrutiny is just as good as the CGI work in the movie. After a brief but enjoyable lesson in the ways of the movie make-up masters, we left the studio looking slightly red faced but altogether masculine again.

For those interested in seeing a the Hollow Face ghost in real life Intruders is out on DVD and Blu-ray now. For those looking to add some production quality to their low budget films, then follow Carter's make-up and SFX advice.

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