Before the Lights, Camera, Action!

Imagine actor Jim Carey as The Grinch without his green makeup. No glowing, yellow eyes, furry green cheeks or smiling snout. It just doesn’t seem like a Dr. Seuss classic without The Grinch looking, well … Grinch-like. Or, try to picture Hollywood legend Heath Ledger as the iconic Joker in The Dark Knight without his makeup. The Joker wouldn’t have been the same menacing figure without his signature dark eyes and garishly exaggerated red lips.

What do these characters have in common? Expertly-applied makeup. Beyond helping people look more beautiful or even natural, makeup can transform people into characters they can completely embody, physically and emotionally. Along with costumes, makeup is an essential tool for anyone looking to become something other than themselves. And, while it’s a critical tool in transforming an actor into a different mindset, it’s just as essential to help the audience believe in that character. In many ways, makeup is as vital to the performance as the acting itself.

Theatrical makeup, or stage makeup, has always been a part of performances in many cultures throughout history. In Greek and Roman theatre, actors wore masks, which allowed them to portray characters of different genders, ages and even animals. During Medieval times in Europe, actors began coloring their faces with gold, white and red paint. In Elizabethan England, actors would paint their faces with chalk to represent ghosts or spirits. In silent film era of the mid-1890s to the late 1920s, actors wore white makeup, heavy black eyeliner and darkened lips, which was actually black lipstick, to make their features look more distinct.

There are thousands of performances throughout the century that one can recall just from their makeup transformation. For instance, who doesn’t think of The Wizard of Oz and immediately picture the silver face of the Tin Man, the folded cheeks and whiskers of the Cowardly Lion or the mossy green skin of the Wicked Witch of the West? The paint, makeup and prosthetics techniques used to transform the Wizard of Oz characters were nearly as important as the storyline itself.

One iconic modern film performance was that of the late Health Ledger in the 2008 film The Dark Knight. The film won dozens of awards for its direction, production design and costumes and was nominated at the 2009 Academy Awards for best makeup. The dramatic and chaotic look of actor Health Ledger (who won Best Supporting Actor), with his character’s dark eyes, messy red lips and dirty-looking white skin, made him incredibly believable. It was a sharp and marked departure from the 1960’s version of The Joker in the Batman television series.

John Caglione is an Academy-award winning, New York-based makeup artist with more than 30 years’ experience in television and film makeup and was responsible for conceptualizing and creating The Joker’s makeup in The Dark Knight. “For almost all the actresses and actors I’ve worked with, makeup, hair and wardrobe are the vital tools or building blocks required to help enhance the actor’s belief in a particular character.” He says he drew inspiration for The Joker’s makeup from the artist Francis Bacon, whose paintings often depicted ghostly and blurry human forms. He says looking at Bacon’s images helped him find his way to a final design ethic because, as an artist, his first few attempts were too clean and neat looking.

“One of the many things that separated The Dark Knight from the earlier Batman films was a more realistic, non-comic book look. In this regard, we portrayed Heath Ledger’s Joker as a psychopath who would apply his own makeup and live in it for days at a time,” says Caglione. “Both Director Christopher Nolan and Heath wanted a very lived-in and broken-down look for this Joker makeup design. I learned that for this Joker makeup, imperfection was perfection for this character.” During his award-winning career, he notes, keeping up with the latest trends and materials in makeup has been an important step. “Really it comes down to a keen creative eye for painting and sculpture, and fertile imagination doesn’t hurt.”

Laura Schakosky, a Dallas-based celebrity makeup artist and life coach, echoes Caglione’s sentiments regarding the makeup artistry process in transforming characters for a role. “When I do makeup for film, I base what I do on the storyline. As a makeup artist, I have to get into the head of the character. The makeup ends up being a portrayal of what the character would or wouldn’t do. We have to think about the environment, such as are they in a big city or a small town? How they react or not react? With those scenarios in mind, their makeup can change even within one scene.” Schakosky, who was once the makeup artist for The Drew Carrey Show, says her favorite part of being a makeup artist is the people she meets and the transformation she achieves. “I’ve integrated what I’ve learned from Hollywood to create a beauty from within experience,” she says. As a professional makeup artist for fashion magazines, television and special events, Schakosky says the makeup process can not only be transformative, but often healing. “A lot of actors and actresses use being on camera as a source of healing for themselves. Why not bring the knowledge of Hollywood I’ve learned to people for personal growth?”

While actors went from stage to screen, the invention of motion pictures, or film, changed a lot within the makeup industry. In the late 1990s, high-definition television created a highly pixelated image, so clear you can see down to the pores of the skin, including blemishes and wrinkles. With everything about a person’s face in sharp display, makeup artists have adapted their techniques. The style of heavily-laden ‘pancake’ makeup and powder that created the flawless, almost rubber look used decades ago in television and films has given way to a more natural and subtle technique.

Caglione says digital filmmaking has been the most significant change in beauty or prosthetic makeup. “High definition photography has been a game-changer in the areas of makeup materials and applications. Makeup artists had to adjust to the new high-resolution image. For prosthetic makeup, we use intrinsically skin tinted silicone prosthetics, painted mostly with airbrushes, which looks more lifelike in high definition. For beauty and corrective makeup, and overall, it seems like the rule of thumb is, less is more in the age of HD.”

Schakosky says, “I don’t use the same makeup as I did decades ago. Now, makeup on camera is more vibrant, but it looks more natural on camera. The technology and cameras in film and production have altered the foundation of makeup.”

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Lisa Dawson is a full-time working mom of three, a freelance writer and a Frisco resident.