How I taught myself prosthetic make-up and made an underwhelming short film

Since last year’s relatively successful entry into the 48hr film competition as part of London’s Sci Fi Festival (we came 6th) I decided I wanted to have a crack in 2013. Being an egotistical maniac, I wanted to write, direct, act, edit, do visual effects, props and teach myself prosthetic makeup so I could have some nice practical effects rather than slathering the film in CG, which is what a lot of entrants tend to do. And do the sound fx/score.

The competition rules are simple: You get a text before 12pm on Saturday, containing your film’s title, a line of dialogue, and a prop. You then use this information to film, edit and upload a film of 5 minutes or less before 12pm on Monday, two days later.

So some preparation is possible, and to some extent encouraged. This usually means finding some actors, props/costumes and a cool location, and getting together some vague plot ideas that you can mold around your title/dialogue.

The coolest of all cool locations turned out to be Pyestock, an abandoned jet propulsion test facility, less than an hour away. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to film there for many reasons, like the fact it was being demolished.

But it looks amazing!

Thankfully, I managed to get the hovercraft location from last year’s shoot for a few hours, and a handily located, albeit plain meeting room for when we arrived back in Brighton.

Making the prosthetic makeup

After doing some headache-inducing bouts of internet research, I ordered my alginate (seaweed-based stuff in powder form) which is used to make casts of teeth, and plaster bandages to toughen up the cast once it was ready. Then with some invaluable help from Sophie, we mixed up the alginate and then encased my head in it for 30mins.

This feels very strange.

The result is negative mold of my face.


…which gets filled with plaster to make a bust.


Wait for it to dry…


Take off the bandages.


And eventually, my very own head!


Then, I used (oil-based) clay to slowly sculpt up a clay version of the final prosthetic bit I wanted to stick on my face.
This took forever, ’cause it turns out oil-based clay is rock hard, and it was a freezing day. And the 99% alcohol didn’t really seem to help much with smoothing it.


Once that’s ready, I needed to make a well around the sculpt to hold the wet plaster I then poured over to make a negative mold of that clay sculpt.
The point of this is to make a negative mold of face plus prosthetic. When you sit that on top of the head cast, the gap between them is exactly the same size/shape that you sculpted out of clay. So you fill the negative mold with silicone/latex – or gelatin, which I used ’cause it’s cheap – and then squash the two molds together. The extra gelatin gloops out, and hopefully you’re left with a gelatin prosthetic which perfectly fits your face.


I squashed my head cast together with the gelatin-filled mold you see in the last picture above, and waited.
After leaving for an hour to dry, I ended up with this:


Which, once painted and glued on to my face (which is a bizarre experience – you have to glue your eyebrows flush onto your face so they don’t get all stuck to the gelatin) – looked like this:


It was nigh-on impossible to get the edges thin enough to blend seamlessly with the skin, but with enough shadow and careful angles, it didn’t look that bad.


As much fun as it was learning this stuff and prancing about with pork glued to my face, I didn’t realise quite how uncomfortable it would get. Once I was halfway through the two hour drive back from Portsmouth, sweating in the lovely sunshine after a pretty stressful 6 hours out of the 48, I wasn’t enjoying it quite as much. So I got home and snipped off everything from the top of the nose down and tried to blend it in so it didn’t look too bodged.
Although not perfect, this meant I could carry on with the rest of the day’s shooting with relatively, rather than dangerously high stress levels. Plus I could breathe easier. And the stuff we’d shot of me on the hovercraft was all medium-far shots so you couldn’t see the face that clearly anyway.

Despite all the usual problems and strife encountered while trying to do something creative with no money or time, we managed to get something done and handed in on time. The biggest spanner in the works was getting the text message with our crucial info at 1:30pm, when we were supposed to receive it before 12. That pissed me off. I’d already shot a fair bit of stuff by then and struggled to self-apply and paint my makeup, in a small public toilet visited annoyingly frequently by very bemused hovercraft enthusiasts, who were greeted with me wearing a monk’s robe and in various stages of face-painting and gelatine-gluing.

Time was against us as we raced to the station to drop off Brad, one of our lovely actors, so I decided to shoot some things I’d planned for the hovercraft location at home, against a green screen, and ‘fake’ the backgrounds later. On the way back to Brighton I worked out a vague story which sort of combined the stuff we’d already shot with what we needed to inclue from our text message rules, and then started fantasising about sleep and chips.

In the second location we got to play around a bit more with my props, which consisted of loads of weird/stupid light things that made everything look slightly more sci-fi, and some light-up guns which I’d sandpapered and painted to give them a more substantial and weathered look.

Some more lovely actors and crew people met us in location two, and we just about managed to film enough stuff before our 10:30 leaving time. Soundman Rob and assistant director/driver/actor Simon were fantastic and helpful, as were my actors Sam, Russ, Chrissy & Simon. I probably murmured something incomprehensible and angry-sounding, which in my head meant ‘I love you all dearly’ before heading back with Simon for chips and sleep.

Before I tucked into my chips, I made what turned out to be a very good decision, and got Simon to film me against greenscreen while I was still in makeup. I did some generic reaction shots, evil eyes etc in case I needed footage to stick in somewhere of me all aliened-up. I’d already decided I couldn’t be arsed applying the prosthetic/makeup again for a second day, so this was my last chance to get those shots.

After just under four hours sleep, day two began! Some more greenscreen shots, but from behind me (so I didn’t have to have any makeup on), and then the mammoth task of editing something vaguely comprehensible out of the footage, before sending it off to Rob for sound syncing and sound design, and Dan & Russ to work their special effects magic.
While those guys were doing their thing, I trimmed and tweaked the edit some more, and did all the greenscreen shots. Which was interesting as I’d never done any greenscreen stuff before. In fact I hadn’t really done any effects stuff before, so I had to learn quickly!

After some emails, phonecalls, three hours sleep, surprisingly few technical hitches, and starting the music 40minutes before the deadline(!) I managed to get a file uploaded with five minutes to spare. Phew!

It’s a bit of a mess, and some bits work better than others, but I’m immensely proud of having done it for the sheer amount of work in such a short space of time, and for all the new stuff I learned with regard to makeup/prosthetics, editing, directing, props, etc etc. The fact that we managed to finish something, no matter how iffy, is brilliant.

If I’d been less of an egomaniac and delegated a couple more things and not tried to do quite so much myself, the film would no doubt have benefited, but I was determined from the start to try and do as much as possible myself, just to see how far I could stretch before exploding.

So here’s the final thing, but with some tweaks to fix a few things that didn’t quite get finished for the deadline. I’ll link to the one I submitted when I can find the link, but this is a slightly polished version with respect to the sound/music and vfx. The edit’s exactly the same, I think.

Until next time..!

1 Response

  • Nicole // //

    Omg this is amazing!

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