The best ever prosthetic movie makeups according to special FX artists

Ben Falk
·6-min read

We all know the greats – An American Werewolf in London, Planet of the Apes, The Elephant Man…spectacular special FX and prosthetic makeups that transform actors’ faces and bodies, immersing the audience in a character or an alien world.

The artists who create and execute these techniques are cinematic pioneers – frankly, we’re in awe. So we thought we’d ask some of them what their favourite prosthetic effects are, a bit like asking Michelin-starred chefs where they go to eat.

Here’s what they came up with.

Hellraiser (1987)

English actor Doug Bradley as Pinhead, leader of the Cenobites, in a publicity still for the film 'Hellraiser', 1987.   (Photo by Murray Close/Getty Images)
English actor Doug Bradley as Pinhead, leader of the Cenobites, in a publicity still for the film 'Hellraiser', 1987. (Photo by Murray Close/Getty Images)

Chosen by: Neill Gorton, CEO of Millennium FX

Credits include: Doctor Who, Ex Machina, The Witcher

“Pinhead from Hellraiser is still a favourite prosthetic makeup character of mine. By the time Hellraiser hit our screens the video revolution of the 80s had sparked a renaissance in teen horror movies, but by 1987 it was all getting a bit predictable. Each new video nasty villain, usually disfigured and deformed in some diabolical way, had to terrify more scantily-clad young women and spray more gallons of blood than the one previous.

Read more: How de-ageing VFX works

“So when Pinhead strolled calmly from the bowels of hell bedecked in S&M couture to eloquently explain to the movie’s heroine that he would ‘...tear her soul apart!’ I was utterly transfixed. As a prosthetic makeup, Pinhead is a triumph of design. Designed by author, artist and filmmaker Clive Barker and executed flawlessly by prosthetic makeup designer Geoff Portass, he’s like the iPod of prosthetic makeup horror villains. Its simplicity and economy is its strength, allowing actor Doug Bradley to deliver his lines unrestricted while providing us with the arresting image of a man with nails driven deep in to his face and skull in geometric precision. Disturbing and fascinating in equal parts.

Thirty odd years later, Pinhead is an enduring and instantly recognisable pop culture icon. He’s the perfect combination of prosthetics, performance and high concept body horror.

Suspiria (2018)

Chosen by: Suzi Battersby, founder of Red Girl FX

Credits include: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Morbius, The Kid Who Would Be King

<p>Swinton finally confirmed she played Dr Klemperer under prosthetics after <em>Suspiria</em>‘s release. </p>
Swinton finally confirmed she played Dr Klemperer under prosthetics after Suspiria‘s release. (Amazon)

“Well, for me I'm always most impressed when I see something that looks so real, I struggle to tell how it was done. I’m drawn to how expertly well a prosthetics team can imitate life and fool an audience, so Mark Coulier and his team's work on Suspiria is just remarkable.

“I can't mention Suspiria without talking about Tilda Swinton's complete transformation into Dr Jozef Klemperer. When I first saw images of the makeup, my jaw dropped. Gender-swaps and aging are notoriously difficult to pull off naturally and without straying into uncanny valley. Oftentimes actors can look as though they are wearing a rubber mask, but this was flawless work.

“I believe a big part of the success of the makeup is having an actor like Tilda absolutely committed to the role and the effect; every inch of her face, head and neck was covered in prosthetics and she even wore a weighted undergarment to give her the feeling of having male genitalia which would affect how she held herself and moved. The production even tried to pull off that the part was played by an unknown 80-something actor named Lutz Ebersdorf before her identity was revealed! It's almost a shame that the secret got out, but I'm glad it did just so we can see how special it is; a real work of art in its own right.”

Little Big Man (1970)

Chosen by: Mark Viniello

Credits include: Lord of the Rings, Stranger Things, Bad Hair

CALGARY - DECEMBER 23: LITTLE BIG MAN, theatrical movie originally released December 23, 1970.  The film directed by Arthur Penn. Pictured, Dustin Hoffman (as Jack Crabb) at age 121 years old. He recalls, I knowed General George Armstrong Custer for what he was. And I also knowed the Indians for what they was.  Frame grab. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
LITTLE BIG MAN, directed by Arthur Penn. Pictured, Dustin Hoffman (as Jack Crabb) at age 121 years old. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

“In 1968, Dick Smith was approached to age a 34-year-old Dustin Hoffman to the 110-year-old Jack Crabb for Arthur Penn's Little Big Man. The film is told in flashback and would feature Hoffman in close up for several scenes. Up until this time, makeups of this kind were achieved by the artist creating a full-face mask and gluing it to the actor’s face. This was not ideal as the main material used, foam latex, tended to shrink and as a result, the makeup had to be stretched over the actor’s face, causing some discomfort and distortion.

“Dick Smith decided to break down this makeup into individual appliances that would overlap one another once applied to the actor’s face, thereby essentially neutralising the shrinkage that was inherent to the material. He was also able to craft very delicate eyelid appliances that were sculpted like an accordion bellows and would blink when the actor blinked! Unfortunately, the way the film was edited, there is not a single blink in the entire sequence.”

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Chosen by: Matt Winston

Credits include: co-founder of the Stan Winston School of Character Arts

Sarris in Galaxy Quest. (Dreamworks)
Sarris in Galaxy Quest. (Dreamworks)

“Although my father Stan Winston is most well-known for his contributions to the Terminator franchise, the Jurassic Park films, Predator 1 & 2, and James Cameron's Aliens, one of the coolest technology breakthroughs he and his team developed can be seen in the sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest.

“For the lead villain, Sarris, the Stan Winston Studio mechanical team created an ingenious transfer mechanism that allowed the actor, Robin Sachs, to articulate the prosthetic muzzle with his own lip movement. Stan and his mechanical wizards had originally developed this cutting-edge yet elegantly intuitive technology during the R&D phase for a remake of Planet of the Apes that never got off the ground. Stan was thrilled when he finally got the opportunity to use the technique in Galaxy Quest.

“Looking back on the film, it's wonderful to see that the FX by Stan Winston Studio have held up so well over the last 20 years. Whenever I watch it, I'm especially thankful that Stan and his team were able to take a technological risk with the Sarris character. The results aren't perfect, but they're pretty great.”

Coming to America (1988)

Chosen by: Michael Key, editor of Make-Up Artist Magazine

Credits include: How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Planet of the Apes (2001)

Eddie Murphy in Coming To America. (Universal)
Eddie Murphy in Coming To America. (Universal)

“This marks the first teaming of Eddie Murphy and Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker, a combination that has brought forth some of the best makeups in history.

“Baker transformed Murphy and Arsenio Hall into several characters for Coming To America. The best was Murphy as Saul, an old Jewish man. Turning a black man into a white man is a very challenging makeup. Darkness right up to the eyelids is a challenge to make that skin significantly lighter in colour. Baker's design and application was so successful that Murphy, walking the Paramount Studios lot, made a date with an old lady and tried to pitch an idea to a producer without them ever knowing he was in makeup. Baker knocked it out of the park.”