Most Memorable Special Effects And Makeup Oscar-winners

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

With Awards season in full swing, we thought it would be a great time to reflect on some of our favourite classics that are closest to our heart at The Iver Makeup Academy.

The effects used in film transport us to different worlds, and it’s always a thrill for us seeing the candidates for Special Effects and Makeup at The Oscars. The Iver Makeup Academy has produced graduates who’ve gone on be a part of the winning team themselves and we’ve had a number of tutors who have been recognised too, for some of the films we talk about in this blog!

From deep space, to the deep sea, to middle earth… we’ve covered some of the most amazing special effects and makeup films ever made, and with some added insight on some of the techniques used.

Planet of the Apes (1968)

One of the pioneering sci-fi films of the era, and a groundbreaking one for its effects and makeup. Set in a dystopian future, a group of astronauts crash-land on a strange planet which seems desolate… but which they discover is dominated by a society of human-like apes!

The prosthetic makeup to create the apes was done by John Chambers and was hugely innovative at the time. The film was recognised with an honorary Academy Award for Chambers’ outstanding makeup achievement and set a benchmark for the genre for years to come.

Liz, who worked on Tim Burton’s 2001 reboot of the film, says of the makeup techniques used in the modern version: “The prosthetics team worked on shifts as the ape makeup took a long time. Much of the time the cast who were not in prosthetics arrived in the makeup room to get ready many hours after Helena Bonham-Carter.”

The Elephant Man (1980)

This heart-wrenching historical drama retells the true story of Joseph Merrick, a 19th century Englishman who had severe physical deformities and was ‘exhibited’ at a Freak Show as the Elephant Man.

Chris Tucker supervised the makeup, which on first application, took up to eight hours to apply to the actor, John Hurt, and two hours to remove. The process was so extensive that Hurt had to arrive on set at 5am and shoot scenes from midday until 10pm!

The Oscars received widespread criticism for not originally recognising the film’s makeup effects. This was rectified the following year when it was awarded the Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.

(Image courtesy of New York Post)

American Werewolf in London (1980)

Another cult classic! This time it was Rick Baker who created the effects for this black horror comedy, which follows a couple of American backpackers on a nightmare trip to the Yorkshire moors.

When the men are attacked and one is bitten by a huge hound-like creature, supernatural canine-based chaos ensues! Baker’s amazing makeup transformed actor David Naughton into a werewolf unlike any other seen in the horror genre before, and used equally impressive techniques to depict Naughton’s undead co-star Griffin Dunne.

As Baker said in a fascinating interview in 2016: “I think the wolf is very cool. John [Landis, Director] always said he was only going to show him for just a few frames and I intentionally sculpted a very extreme expression on him so that in a very short amount of time you could see that he was this evil hound creature.”

(Image courtesy of The Telegraph)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

One of the all-time great films, which pits archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) against Nazi German forces in 1936 in a quest for the Ark of the Covenant – a religious relic said to have untold powers.

The film scooped five Academy Awards, including Best Visual Effects. Largely practical effects were used as Spielberg liked to regularly check raw footage throughout filming, making for incredibly lifelike results for the time.

One of the most famous scenes, particularly from a makeup effects perspective, comes at the end when the Ark is opened… we won’t spoil it for you in case you haven’t seen it, but it was thought to be so extreme at the time that the film was initially classified with an R Rating in America.

(Image courtesy of IndieWire)

Mrs Doubtfire (1993)

Not only did this win the Academy Award for best makeup, but it actually showed on screen some of the process of what a character and a makeup team go through to make these prosthetic transformations.

The makeup for Robin Williams’ role took many hours to apply and incorporated a body suit. He even said at a later date that he used to walk through San Francisco, where the movie was filmed, in full Mrs Doubtfire makeup and costume!

(Image courtesy of Mental Floss)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

Jim Carrey is famed for his abilities to contort his face for comedic purposes even without the aid of any makeup, but for this film, the transition was far more comprehensive!

The Grinch suit itself was covered in yak hair, dyed green and then sewn onto a spandex suit, and Carrey’s make up application took hours. Kazuhiro Tsuji was responsible for the makeup and at times Carrey became so frustrated with the process that he became a challenge to work with… but we think all the effort was more than worthwhile in the end for the amazing results.

(Image courtesy of Hero Magazine)

Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

The first part in the classic trilogy based on R.R. Tolkien’s world-famous books made extensive use of digital, practical and makeup effects to create the world of middle earth.

One of our Iver Academy tutors was on the team which transformed actors and extras into all manner of hobbits, elves, dwarves, wizards, orcs and goblins. As Liz Tagg explains some of the complexities of working on a production of this scale, saying: “The biggest challenges on a film like this are not only the extent of the prosthetic makeup and wigs that all the cast area wearing, but also the sheer number of cast and extras that need to get ready for the shooting day.

“There are often a number of different units shooting different scenes on different locations. The logistics of running a team of this size are colossal!”


(Image courtesy of The Mary Sue)

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)

The second instalment in the swashbuckling franchise used a combination of CGI animation and prosthetic to create the hybrid sea creature-pirate crew of the Flying Dutchman.

For the character “Bootstrap” Bill Turner, play by Stellan Skarsgård, the crew initially tried to use prosthetics augmented with CGI to create his deep-sea look. This was abandoned which then meant that Skarsgård spent hours in the makeup chair and was ultimately given the nickname “Bouillabaise” on set!

(Image courtesy of Slash Film)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

For David Fincher’s interpretation of the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the makeup and visual effects teams were tasked with telling the tale of Brad Pitt’s character as a man who ages in reverse.

The film received a whopping thirteen nominations at the Academy Awards, winning Best Art Direction, Best Makeup and Best Visual Effects.

Greg Cannon was the makeup designer, and Pitt praised the effects in 2009 saying: “The makeup, I was so impressed with the detail… they sculpted each age that we wanted to portray in the film and they would switch a piece out for age 67, then for age 56, that they had to keep track of. [The change] is so minimal and you’ll just feel the gradual progression through the film, because it’s so seamless in its transition. It was really incredible.”

(Image courtesy of The New York Times)

Darkest Hour (2017)

The transformation of Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill in this wartime epic is one of the great feats of makeup artistry, coming from Kazuhiro Tsuji, but the team also included our very own IMA graduate, Jenny Watson.

Lucy Sibbick, Prosthetic Makeup and Hair Artist on the film, said of the efforts of the team on Darkest Hour: “Ivana Primorac and her team… Flora Moody, Heather Manson, Jenny Watson… they had so many people to make up, and lots of them had wigs done so well you’d never know! It’s really difficult to get period makeup looking natural, and they’ve done a beautiful job of everyone who’s in the film.”

(Image courtesy of The Telegraph)

If reading through this list of classics has whet your appetite for a career in special effects prosthetics or hair and makeup, then why not find out more about our courses and sign-up for a Taster Course!

Meet the Author
Liz Tagg


A highly talented and award-winning makeup artist, Liz has over 30 years of experience working in the film and television industry. A professionally trained makeup artist and hair designer, Liz’s career highlights include BAFTA and Emmy award nominations, as well as a recurring position as a member of the BAFTA jury.

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