Nick Maley discuss landmarks in the development of the movie Make-up Department........ Ergo

Make-up evolution and the secret of foam latex.


Ergo: "Who were the first movie make-up artists?"

Nick: "I can't answer that. I don't know. (perhaps someone will email and tell us). Certainly many of the silent movie actors were from theater and brought to movies the skills of theatrical make-up, which is a very old art. "

Ergo: "Charlie Chaplin and Bela Legosi etc..... they did their own make-up didn't they?"

Nick: " At the beginning certainly, but not every actor is skilled in make-up and I suspect that the it wouldn't have taken long for an out of work actor who was good at make-up to find himself a job. Ernert Gasser once told me that in Europe, (and I believe the same may be true of the US too) the Make-up and Special Effects Departments evolved from specialists within the Props Department. Many of the stories I was told about those pioneers showed them to be eccentric barbers, actors, singers and circus performers.

Ergo: "There were no movie prosthetics at that time huh?"

Nick: "Not really. The art of Make-up started out as the application of color to faces applied in a theatrical fashion to express character, create stereotypes and included the dressing of facial hair. That sounds pretty simple but a lot of people underestimate what a skilled make-up artist can achieve with color alone. Of course, it didn't take long for make-up artists to begin experimenting with physically changing the shape of the face....... what we now call movie prosthetics. Originally the masks they made were not very flexible. Understandably, they wanted their creations to move so they started looking for a softer and more natural material. Latex was easily available and proved particularly useful. Pretty soon they were doing Frankenstein and the Wizard of Oz and their repertoire of specialist materials was growing and becoming more and more involved."

Ergo: "Is latex a complicated material to use?"

Nick: "Not in its basic form. It's easy to work with once you've mastered the art of mold making, but it's also rather limiting. It didn't take long for make-up artists to take slip, (aka slush), latex as far as it would go and start looking for a material that would move more naturally. The problem was that they needed something weaker than the tensile strength of the skin they were covering, so that when an actor smiled the mask would move without distorting the face."

Ergo: "That must have been pretty hard in those days."

Nick: "It was. Over the decades they messed around with a lot of materials... plastics, polyurethane, foamed vinyl, baked silicon.... all kinds of stuff. All things considered, the best substance that they found was aerated (foamed) latex. The secret to it's success was its softness, it's plasticity and it's non-toxicity but with that came extreme sensitivity. It was subject to all kinds of contamination and was attacked by many every-day materials (including make-up and sunlight!) A set of unusual techniques were developed around this complex and comparatively unknown material."

Ergo: "I guess they kept their techniques real close to their chests huh?

Nick: "Certainly the process of producing foam latex was considered a trade secret for a long time, particularly in Europe. Prosthetic make-up artists developed into a strange hybrid....... artist-chemist-moldmakers, and many were more eccentric than ever. Make-up artists who didn't possess the secret would find excuses to visit the foam labs and sneak around writing down addresses, the names of chemicals and copying notes that they might find. There was a secondary art that developed in establishing a lab that was both impressive and intimidating and confusing. Some MFX artists went so far as to create graphs and formulas to hang on the wall that were deliberately misleading."

Ergo: "What about the other departments like SFX...did they have foam too?"

Nick: "Not at all. Of course they wanted it. The Props and Special Effects Departments were very interested in foam latex too since it clearly had a potential for other applications. But you have to remember that movie technicians exist in a freelance environment and any skills they have that make them more employable are liable to be protected. Naturally a mystique grew up around foam latex that few MFX artists, (with the notable exception of Dick Smith ) discouraged."

Ergo: "So when did foam get to be animated?"

Nick: "Well.... although there were many experiments concerned with animating prosthetic masks there were few celebrated advances, that I am aware of, until the apes of 2001 - A SPACE ODYSSEY. They were created by Stuart Freeborn, who was my mentor for many years, and I know Charlie Parker was closely involved with them too. It seemed as if mechanical masks were suddenly a reality. The stage was set for the development of animatronics and Rick Baker's extraordinary transformation breakthrough in AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON."

Ergo: "So there were very few people doing this stuff?"

Nick: "Well actually there were a lot of people all working along different lines towards the same goal at the same time. But the nature of history is that we always remember the guy who was first to realize that goal. Stan Winston was doing a lot of stuff which later materialized in THE TERMINATOR and of course Rick wasn't working alone. He assembled a regular team of bright young minds around him including Rob Bottin who did THE THING, (with help from Rick and Stan I believe.) I remember that prior to AMERICAN WEREWOLF, I was experimenting with radio control equipment applied to animated masks, work that I didn't get to show in a decent movie until KRULL. I think Bob Keen and I thought we were doing cutting edge stuff that would put us ahead of the crowd but when AMERICAN WEREWOLF came out we realized that while we had been off at a tangent Rick had left us all behind."

Ergo: "I guess it's just the luck of the draw."

Nick: "Not really. I was lucky enough to be a principle player for a while, but let's not underestimate the extraordinary vision that people like Rick and Stan, and Dick before them, brought to the art (of make-up and special make-up effects) over many decades."

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