So, Why the Make-Up?

This has been a question buzzing around my mind for a while whenever I would sit down and start really analyzing television shows or movies since I have vague ambitions of one day writing my own TV series. In between noting the camera switches, scene change techniques, staging, and the story-telling aspects, I started noticing that everyone was wearing make-up on camera and that every major actor had an assigned and named in the credits make-up artist.

So, me being me, I decided to try to figure out why this was going on without resorting to Google. After several theories that ranged from “plausible” to “completely bizarre,” I finally broke down and sought the wisdom of Google. As it turns out, some of my more plausible theories were pretty close. Therefore, I’d like to share some of my theories with you and explain where I got things right and where I got things wrong.

1) Theory: Make-up hides blemishes which is why everyone’s using it — What I got right: it is indeed used to hide blemishes even on men. Though most men do not wear make-up in day-to-day life, when on camera, it’s generally applied to them to smooth out things that will only be noticed during close-up shots such as uneven coloration or small scars. What I got wrong: the idea that it was done out of the actor’s (or the director’s) sense of vanity or personal aesthetics. It’s got nothing to do with overall good looks and more to do with cameras not being as kind or as clear as eyeballs.

2) Theory: To hide sweaty foreheads — What I got right: having worked in theater growing up, I knew that the stage lights can get very warm. Base and foundations were used to mask the sweat a bit and to keep foreheads, noses, and chins from shining. The same thing applies on camera — the lights are just as hot (if not hotter) and the actors are standing under them for much longer. What I got wrong: nothing. My guess here was spot-on.

3) Theory: To enhance colors — What I got right: I know that women generally wear make-up to bring out their natural colors and beauty (and any girl who slathers on war-paint to try to hide an imperfection quickly learns that she’ll look like a circus clown). Eye shadow, eye liners, and mascara are all selected to bring out the natural color of the irises and draw attention to them. Rouge is used to bring out a healthy-looking blush and glow for the cheeks. Lipstick is used to complement the eyes, cheeks, and to enhance the lips. The same things apply for on-camera make-up but even more so. Since cameras tend to flatten effects and high-definition cameras can even overemphasize natural imperfections, make-up is used to bring out colors in the eyes and lips and to keep the actors from looking sallow and washed out. What I got wrong: the application process for on-camera make-up is a lot more involved than the application for normal or even for stage make-up and takes into account a lot of other factors ranging from time of day, time of year, natural and artificial lighting, lighting gels, and whether the shots will be ranged or close-ups.

4) Theory: Because there’s a shortage of natural zombies walking around — Okay, this one really goes more into masks and make-up for special effects. I’ll confess to an early fascination with the original Planet of the Apes movies and having spent hours studying them trying to figure out just how they made the masks for the chimps, gorillas, and orangutan actors look so convincing (this was in the days before all of the documentaries on this came out). In cases like this, make-up is required to achieve a look that nature did not grant us. For actors who are playing zombies, characters with animalistic features, supernatural characters, or other characters that fall into the “not quite average human” mold, make-up becomes a vital, lengthy, and complicated thing to get them looking the way they need to in order to bring their character to life.

However, in this same vein, actors who are playing certain kinds of characters will often make use of different make-up techniques in order to bring out certain things about the characters. For instance, in The Crow Brandon Lee wore face-paint and make-up we normally consider reserved for the goth crowd. In the Batman films with the Joker, the actor wore clown make-up.

What are some of the things you’ve wondered about actors and on-camera make-up? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll try to tackle your questions in a future entry!

— da Bird