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Make Up Copyright 2000 Robert C. Huber

Make up is very close to the soul of theatre, for make up is the modern manifestation of the mask. The mask is the physical sign of transformation--that the actor has become someone else. Even more than being in costume, when actors look into the mirror to see a complete make up job, they begin to feel the part.

Straight Make Up

Straight make up means that the actor's natural appearance is close enough to the character being played that no alteration needs to be made. The primary purpose of straight make up is to compensate for the normal conditions of performance: distance and strong lighting. In the theatre, actor's faces must be read from the back row of the balcony. The natural features of the face tend to become indistinguishable at that distance unless heightened with make up. While distance is usually not an issue for screen actors, bright lighting is. The face is a three-dimensional object with both peaks and valleys. The nose is the highest peak and the eye sockets the deepest valleys. We can distinguish these features most easily when light falls on them from a single angle above, like the sun or an overhead lamp. This creates a natural interplay of highlight and shadow which reveal the fine contours of the face and its expressions. Stage and studio lighting tend to be much stronger than natural light, and comes from several angles. This tends to erase the natural face shadows. With make up, facial highlights and shadows are re-created with paint so that lighting cannot erase them.

Character Make Up

Sometimes a character is substantially different in appearance from the actor playing the part. The most common difference is age, but temperament, health, race, and even sex can be convincingly changed with a skillfully rendered character make up. A very complete make up will often include hairpieces such as wigs, mustaches, beards, or eyebrows; as well as changes to the teeth and hands. Other special character make ups include monsters, animals, and likenesses of famous people.

Prosthetic Make Up

Most make up is done with some form of greasepaint, colored pigments suspended in an emulsified oil base. But sometimes face painting is not enough. For more drastic changes and for close-ups, some form of three-dimensional make up is often employed. The original form of 3-D make up was nose putty, but today the profession has gone far beyond this simple solution. Beginning with the Planet of the Apes films, foam latex appliances have become the standard technique for making radical changes to the face. It is a time consuming and costly process, but the results are stunningly realistic. The procedure begins by making a plaster bust of the actor's head and neck. Then the desired features are sculpted in clay on the bust. Next each clay feature is covered with more plaster. After the plaster has hardened, it is pulled away from the bust and the clay features are removed and discarded. What remains are negative molds of the new features that fit precisely on the actor's bust. A "mousse" of liquid latex is poured into the molds and baked. When cool and dry the pieces are removed from the molds and glued to the actor's face. They fit perfectly and move with the actor's own facial muscles. When painted and detailed they create a very convincing effect.


The typical steps in applying a character make up are as follows. First, a base color is applied with a foam latex sponge. In the old days greasepaint came in toothpaste-type tubes and was very oily and messy. Today's version is a "cream-stick" which is much neater and easier to use. Some actors prefer a water-based pancake product. The base acts as a kind of medium into which the later layers of detail work can be blended. The base also establishes the complexion of the character. Then, the contours of the face are modeled in highlight and shadow: lighter and darker versions of the base. Next, lines, folds, and wrinkles are modeled with a brush using even stronger highlight and shadow colors. Then skin texture may be added with a stencil-like black plastic sponge. Next the make up is powdered to "set" it, that is to absorb excess oil to keep it from smearing. The powder also helps absorb sweat while the actor works under lights. A once-over with a damp sponge removes surface powder particles and brings out the color. Finally, details such as eyeliner, lip color, and hair graying are added.

Make Up Artists

As with the other technical areas, there are those who primarily design the make up, and those who apply it. In practice, most do both. Like the other areas make up can be designed ahead of time, but unlike them it must be created anew at the time of each performance. Historically actors have done their own make up, and some in the theatre still do so today. Film and television are so extensively unionized that actors normally are not allowed to do make up in those media. Professional make up artists may be members of the Society of Makeup Artists (SMA) and/or a Make-Up Artists & Hair Stylists local of the IATSE.

A make up designer begins by reading the script and doing research into historical styles if required. One common practice is to take 8 by 10 black and white photos of the actor's faces, transfer their features onto tracing paper, then render the make up color and details over the features. Other designers use freehand renderings or pre-printed fill-in charts. Ultimately the make up is tested on the actors either on camera or on stage under lights before production. Additional make up artists are hired to apply the make up in production.