When actors are showered in praise for their work in film, there’s usually a universal sentiment like, “he/she disappeared into the role.” It’s the audience’s way of saying that they’ve forgotten that they’re watching movie stars like Christian Bale or Matthew McConaughey when they emote.
This is usually aided by period-correct costumes, altered hairstyles, and a damn good story to tell. But movie stars have also relied on a body transformation to embody a particular character. And as we are with most everything in popular culture, the more extreme it is, the more people and critics seem to notice.
From the earliest days of the movies, make-up artists have had to combine their art with film-making technology. Actors in silent films, for example, had heavy yellow make-up to compensate for the orthochromatic film that was insensitive to the red end of the light spectrum.
Today, makeup techniques and computer-generated images come together to create visions like Lord Voldemort’s snake-like face in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (2005). For that look, make-up was applied to actor Ralph Fiennes’ face in the usual way, but computer wizardry flattened his face and altered his nose.
From Spock’s ears in the “Star Trek” movies to Nicole Kidman’s glowing beauty, and Harry Potter’s scar to Hellboy’s red facial prosthetic, all sorts of cinematic magic have relied on the skill and imagination of movie make-up artists to tell a story of a character.
Movie makeup can do more than hiding imperfections and beautify actors. Well-designed makeup plays a major role in bringing a character to life.
Related: Top 20 Makeup Schools in the World to Propel Your Career
Top 50 Movie Makeup Character Transformations
Movie makeup can do a lot more than highlight a few wrinkles and make an actor looking their best. It has the power to bring imaginary characters to life. Here are some of the most fantastic makeup transformations actors have undergone for a movie role.
John Hurt in Elephant Man (1980)
In David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, the late John Hurt played John Merrick, a historical figure (real name Joseph Merrick) known for his severe deformities caused by elephantiasis. The makeup on Hurt took over eight hours to apply and two hours to remove. Christopher Tucker worked with his team up to 49 hours at a time for preparation. And to accurately simulate the real-life elephant man who died in 1890, Tucker worked of, not just cast made of his head, but his actual skeleton.
When Academy did not honor him with the special award, voters send in angry letters of protests, which prompted the Academy to introduce The Best Makeup Award category the very next year. That’s right; this is the movie that convinced the Academy to honor makeup.
Marlon Brando in The Godfather (1972)
Preparing Don Corleone was more about getting him in the right frame of mind than getting him done up as necessary. His heavy jowls, the way he spoke, and the manner in which he kept himself was mostly a product of Marlon Brando, to be honest. But he also had to look the part of course, which meant that he had abandoned his otherwise well-known good looks. And the makeup was on spot!
Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (1982)
As long as there are movies, people have been using makeup to turn men into women. The most classic gender swap of them all probably goes to Tootsie. Dustin Hoffman allegedly agreed to only take the role under the condition that makeup was good enough for him to pass as a woman on the streets of New York. So, movie makeup artist Allen Weisinger set out to transform him not into the character but the real thing. And it was no easy task. In addition to conventional makeup, Allen Weisinger stretched Hoffman’s face and provided him with thinner and longer teeth. And it worked. Hoffman even fooled his daughter!
Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice (1988)
Yes, this movie is from the 80s, but that doesn’t say anything about the movie makeup artist’s talent and the hard work that went into making Michael Keaton a strange character. And that character was in the hands of legendary makeup artist Ve Neill. She created the look with white face paint, heavy black shadow, a filthy set of teeth, and a green wig.
Neill won 3 Oscars for her makeup work on films; ‘Beetlejuice’ was her first. She also became Burton’s movie makeup artist of choice, working on all of his U.S. productions and receiving her third Oscar for 1994’s Ed Wood. (Her second was for designing Robin Williams’s Mrs. Doubtfire makeup.)
Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands (1990)
To create Edward’s iconic character (including his scissor hands), Burton employed Stan Winston, who would later design the Penguin’s prosthetic makeup in Batman Returns. Depp’s wardrobe and prosthetic makeup took one hour and 45 minutes to apply.
Tim Curry as Pennywise in It (1990)
For decades, Tim Curry’s ultra-expressive face made him a natural choice to work under heavy makeup. He played Darkness in Legend, Frank-N-Furter in Rocky Horror, and Pennywise the Killer Clown in It. Bart Mixon created and applied the terrifying Pennywise makeup to Tim Curry, without question one of the most iconic makeups in the entire history of horror. Interestingly, Tim Curry almost didn’t take the role of Pennywise because of the makeup. The initial designs for Pennywise in the 1990 miniseries were much more heavily made-up and dramatic.
Glenn Close in Hook (1991)
Before she earned an Academy Award nomination in Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close played Gutless the pirate in Steven Spielberg’s 1991 film Hook. Glenn Close undertook a different sort of character role in this movie with a cameo role as Gutless the pirate. Of course, we can hardly recognize her as a bearded pirate.
Gary Oldman in Dracula (1992)
When Dracula is first introduced, he arrives as the older man depicted in the novel. This is the first moment that the makeup design team (Greg Cannon, Michele Burke, and Matthew W. Mungle) gets to shake things up. The drama and detail in character (that high wig, the knifelike nails) are perfect imaginative creations of the makeup team.
For the movie, Gary Oldman was required to shave his hairline. It was one way in which Oldman was devoted to the role, and was mostly done to make the makeup application easier. You can see that Oldman’s forehead looks merely huge. It seems unnatural, but that hairstyle fits the character of Count Dracula.
Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
Makeup artist Ve Neill spent more than 4 hours a day transforming Robin Williams for his legendary role. According to reports, Williams’ own young son, Zak, didn’t recognize his father when he was in costume and makeup until he spoke to him directly.
One of the most beloved films of the ’90s, and perhaps Robin Williams’ most iconic role, the makeup team played an enormous part in the success of Mrs. Doubtfire. In the film, Williams transforms himself into the titular character to spend time with his kids as their nanny after going through a divorce. In addition to the brilliant wig, glasses, hair, and outfit, Williams has an entirely different face through prosthetics. This incredible transformation, plus Williams’ brilliant acting, helped create one of the most significant modern comedy characters. The film won the 1993 Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.
Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor (1996)
Rick Baker made an entire body cast of Murphy to create the lightweight, hand-carved eurothane foam and spandex suit that would make the actor appear 450 lbs. Other parts of the suit were filled with cellulose and water to make it move believably. It took three hours to apply the makeup each day for the entire 70-day shoot. Baker and his team would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Makeup for The Nutty Professor.
Maiwenn Le Besco in The Fifth Element (1997)
Did you know? The big blue opera singer is a sight to behold. When the original actress set to play the role stepped out, Besson turned to his wife for help. Maïwenn Le Besco was more than willing to help her hubby out and jumped into the skin of the blue-skinned opera singer. She didn’t do the singing for her though, that would go to opera singer Inva Mula.
Christopher Walken in Sleepy Hollow (1999)
His head has mussed up, jet black hair, ghostly pale skin, dark makeup around his eyes, pale lips, blackened eyebrows and razor sharp pointed teeth. This is the only non-speaking role that Christopher Walken has played in a film, so makeup played a huge part in defining the character.
Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich (1999)
Believe it or not, it was a makeunder — not a makeover — that put Gucci Westman on the image-making map and got her the lofty position of favorite makeup artist of celebrities like Cameron Diaz and Julianne Moore. As the makeup artist for Being John Malkovich, Westman turned the stunning Diaz into the homely Lotte. Gucci Westman stated “I’ll tell ya, it took a while to not to make her look ugly, just normal, y’know?
Jim Carrey in How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
Jim Carrey had already gone green in the 1994 classic The Mask, thanks to some impressive makeup work. And he went green again in the 2000 film How the Grinch Stole Christmas (an adaptation of the Dr. Seuss story). It was a stunning transformation into the Grinch’s hairy green character, with the makeup process taking between three and eight hours each day. The facial prosthetics were extremely uncomfortable and even caused Carrey some pain, seeing him ask a Navy SEAL for tips on how to defer pain. He also had difficulty seeing due to the thick yellow contact lenses. Breathing was also uncomfortable for Carrey, so we imagine he didn’t have too much trouble getting into the Grinch’s state of mind for the character. It all proved worthwhile in the end, as the brilliant work earned an Academy Award and nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.
Helena Bonham Carter in Planet of the Apes (2001)
Helena Bonham Carter took on a new challenge in 2000 when she played a chimpanzee by the name of Ari in Tim Burton’s ‘Planet of the Apes’ remake. The makeup process was intense. It involved everything from makeup to fake teeth to fake ears. The secret is in the snout, as Carter’s nose was buried under a mountain of makeup. She described the makeup as “cumbersome and crippling,” but those physical limitations taught her to use her voice to the “greatest extent possible” to express emotion.
Daveigh Chase in The Ring (2002)
In 2002, Chase starred in the role of Samara Morgan in the feature film, The Ring. Chase was awarded the 2003 Best Villain award at the MTV Movie Awards for her performance, beating out Mike Myers, Colin Farrell, Willem Dafoe, and Daniel Day-Lewis. In the sequel to The Ring, The Ring Two (2005), Chase was credited for her role as Samara Morgan because of the use of archive footage from the first Ring, but Kelly Stables performed all of the new archive footage.
Nicole Kidman in The Hours (2002)
Makeup artists had to transform Nicole Kidman into the homely novelist Virginia Woolf for “The Hours,” a task that took, well hours, every day. The key was a large prosthetic nose that rendered Kidman virtually unrecognizable. It must have been liberating not to rely on her looks because Kidman gives an Oscar-worthy performance in this must-see movie.
Charlize Theron in Monster 2003
Although gaining thirty pounds for the role certainly helped, Toni G went to far greater lengths to transform Charlize. She fried her hair, shaved and bleached her eyebrows, airbrushed her face with layers and layers to give her this skintone she had in this movie. Surprisingly, the only prosthetics in the movie were teeth. From a model to a serial killer in the makeup alone, this is one brilliant transformation.
Shawn Wayans&Marlon Wayans in White Chicks (2004)
Not surprisingly, turning the Wayans brothers white was no easy task. Transforming the African-American actors into ersatz Hilton sisters took up to seven hours a day. But human transformation is a specialty for Cannom – a multiple Academy award-winning makeup artist. The actors spent five hours a day for airbrushing their white skintone, applying prosthetics and adding contact lenses and wigs to round their undercover look.
Ron Pearlman in Hellboy I, II (2004, 2008)
The larger than life (and very red) protagonist of “Hellboy” fights, jumps, runs, and trash-talks all with the fluidity and ease of a flesh and blood character. The truth is that most of that flesh is latex in the form of prosthetic attachments. Designed at Rick Baker’s Cinovation Studio, the Hellboy costume is a masterpiece of modern creature makeup. After the costume was created, actor Ron Perlman selected Jake Garber as his makeup artist.
Ralph Fiennes in Harry Potter franchise ( 2005, 2007, 2010, 2011)
Ralph Fiennes brought the villain Voldemort to life in the Harry Potter film franchise. His terrifying transformation into Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter films mixed great makeup work with CGI. The English actor wore gelatin prosthetics over his eyebrows, giving his forehead an evil ridge and deep eye sockets. The character’s serpent-like nose, however, was added in post-production. Fiennes also worse dentures, contacts, and fake fingernails.
Doug Jones in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
High on the list is undoubtedly a magical creature of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Guillermo del Toro is known for bringing fantastical into life. And his faun from Pan’s Labyrinth is certainly our favorite. The makeup was an achievement not just in makeup, but in animatronics as well. The ears and eyelids were remote-controlled while Doug Jones acted underneath. And if you think that is heavy, consider the ten-pound horns he had to wear on top of it all. The result is an entirely magical transformation and just the type of makeup that brings dreams and nightmares to life.
John Travolta in Hairspray (2007)
Who knew that John Travolta could make such a convincing woman? The Pulp Fiction star played Edna Turnblad in the 2007 version of Hairspray. John Travolta’s transformation into Edna Turnblad, a character originally played by Devine, included a fat suit, wig, and plenty of makeup.
Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (2007)
To portray French singer Edith Piaf, Marion Cotillard endured hours of prosthetic applications every day. She wore a bodysuit to give her more bulk and latex prosthetic on her face combined with acrylic paint. The actress has stated she “sometimes wanted to kill all those around me, touching me.” But she also loved disappearing into the character. It paid off. She won the Best Actress Oscar for the film in 2007.
Cate Blanchett in I’m not there (2007)
She played Jude, one of six characters embodying a different aspect of the Bob Dylan’s life and work. And may we say that she is our favorite! With a little bit of help of hairstyle and makeup, she embodied Bob Dylan character like no other actor.
Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
There’s makeup to age a character, and there’s ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,’ which took aging makeup to the extreme. Different actors portray all of the stages of age, but the challenge was to make them all recognizable as the same person.
We all wonder what we will look like when we are older, and Brad Pitt experienced this when he played the titular character in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. In the film, Benjamin Button is a person that ages backward, which required Pitt to undergo several transformations. The magic of the movie would be lost if these transformations were not visually impressive, but the makeup team was certainly up to the task. Makeup was done by famed makeup artist Greg Cannom, who picked up an Academy Award for his impressive work (one of three Oscars he has won).
Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008)
Heath Ledger gets most of the credit for reinventing The Joker with his performance in the 2008 film The Dark Knight. But creating a look for the character that diverged from the comic books was a collaborative process, and makeup artist John Caglione Jr. played an essential role. Caglione worked with Ledger to scrunch and contort his face as he applied the makeup—an old trick borrowed from theater. This method resulted in lines and creases in the paint that made it look like the character had been wearing his makeup for days.
Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder (2008)
There was hardly a moment in makeup history so funny as when Tom Cruise showed up as Les Grosman in Tropic Thunder dancing across the screen in gold chains and a fat suit.
Jared Leto in Mr. Nobody (2009)
If you thought Jared Leto’s transformation in “Dallas Buyers Club” was extreme, wait until you see him in the indie flick “Mr. Nobody.” The 41-year-old star plays Nemo Nobody, a character the film follows from birth until he is 120 years old and the last man to die a natural death.
In the video below, in only one minute, we can see the whole of Jared’s six-and-a-half-hour transformation.
Eric Bana in Star Trek (2009)
In the new Star Trek movie, Eric Bana, who plays the villainous Nero, was so well made up that his agent failed to recognize him on set. He went through hours of makeup to play his Romulan character. His look is so different than the first day Bana’s agent visited the set, and he did not recognize his client. The makeup was one reason Bana wanted the role. Most of his acting jobs, from Troy to Munich did not require such transformations.
Benicio Del Toro in The Wolfman (2010)
While the film itself received mixed reviews, nobody denied the brilliance of the werewolf makeup, which earned an Academy Award. In The Wolfman, Benicio del Toro stars as Lawrence Talbot, who is attacked by a werewolf. The makeup artist Rick Baker had plenty of experience in creating werewolves, and he jested that this transformation was not too tricky as del Toro is such a hairy man. The process involved using foam rubber and latex instead of a mask, plus laying loose yak hair by hand on del Toro’s face and body. The result is a terrifying beast, and del Toro plays a powerful werewolf in a creepy setting.
Helena Bonham Carter in Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Atwood put Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the Red Queen, in an Elizabethan dress designed to make her head seem larger. Though Bonham Carter’s head is digitally enhanced to appear three times its normal size, she also wore a prosthetic forehead that pushed her hairline back and a three-pound heart-shaped wig. See what her makeup artist has to say on the look in the video below.
Johnny Depp in Alice in Wonderland (2010)
From Edward Scissorhands’ gothic pallor to Jack Sparrow’s guyliner-friendly swashbuckling, his rose-tinted Mad Hatter to his dazzle-painted Tonto, Johnny Depp has always been partial to a bit of greasepaint. Johnny Depp designed the mood colors of the Hatter. Patty York and Valli O’Reilly, who even won Oscar with the best make-up, did the make-ups that Depp wore. O’Reilly transformed the sketches, that Depp made years before the movie, onto Johnny Depp’s skin, using his features and mood colors idea
Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady (2011)
One of the most astonishing elements of Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated performance in The Iron Lady is how much the actress resembles former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Meryl Streep sat in makeup for over two hours every day to transform into Margaret Thatcher for her Oscar-winning role in The Iron Lady. She wore dentures, had her hairline pulled back, and wore a mask to nail Thatcher’s cheekbones and skin.
Jennifer Lawrence in X-Men (2011)
Prosthetic master Gordon Smith has orchestrated dozens if incredible mutant transformations for the film. From Sabertooth, Nightcrawler, to Senator Kelly, but our favorite is, without question, to his most powerful mutant of them all – Mystique. And while her look is best known for how revealing it is, she was covered in silicone prosthetics before being airbrushed from head to toe.
Kae Alexandra in Game of Thrones (2011)
It’s not a movie, but today’s TV shows are a bar to bar with the big movies, anyway. Kae Alexander looked unbelievable as Leaf in the hit TV show – Game of Thrones. And no wonder, besides great design, her final look was a product of 10 hours of makeup application!
Les Misérables (2012)
The makeup artists on the film were tasked with transforming the beautiful actors and actresses into, well, hot messes. Watch and see how the magic was made.
Halle Berry in Cloud Atlas (2012)
A story about how past life actions affect not only the past but the present and future, Cloud Atlas shows us how everything and everyone is connected. This means we are following certain characters for a few lives. In the movie, Halle Berry plays a total of six characters, and each one is from a different era and even race. This makes for some pretty wild makeup transformation that. And at times it had us guessing if some characters were her or not. Not only did she come as a white woman, but she also became an elderly Asian man! How weird is that?
Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
When you think about the look of Dallas Buyers Club, makeup probably isn’t top of mind. Everyone knows about Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto’s extreme physical transformations and Jean-Marc Vallée’s preference for natural light and handheld realism. Still, to the untrained eye, beyond the transgender beauty makeup on Leto’s Rayon, it might be hard to see on the surface why the film is one of the three Best Makeup and Hairstyling Oscar nominees.
Zoe Saldana in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Zoe Saldana’s convincing turn as the green-skinned alien assassin Gamora made her an immediate fan favorite in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. Of course, it took a great deal of time and consideration to arrive at the right shade of green. Especially for a character that would necessarily be spending a lot of time in front of a green screen. It all means five hours in the makeup chair every day, getting covered from head to toe in layers of green makeup. If it all seems like a lot of trouble, well, it is. But if the Guardians franchise wants us to believe that a raccoon can talk (and curse), then it’s certainly not about to cut corners to convince us that a stunning alien assassin can be green.
Tilda Swinton in Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Yet again, Tilda Swinton blows us away with her incredible on-screen transformation. This time it’s her role as 84-year-old Madame D. Mark Coulier, who did the prosthetic makeup on all of the Harry Potter films, joined the ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ team to focus on aging Tilda Swinton.
Coulier shared the makeup and hairstyling Oscar nomination with Frances Hannon, who handled pretty everything that didn’t involve prosthetics. According to the makeup team, Swinton was very involved in the look of her movie makeup.
Eddie Redmayne in Danish Girl (2015)
Here are so many seemingly perfect things in Eddie Redmayne’s new film, The Danish Girl. Timely topic? Check. Amazing cinematography? Check. Film-friendly makeup base made from beeswax? Hell ye—wait, what?
We owe the latter to hair and movie makeup designer Jan Sewell, who cleverly devised this approach to Eddie’s flawless façade. The Oscar award-winning actor plays a Danish painter named Einar Elbe, who later on assumes his real person Lili Elbe. Set in the 1920s, the film allows a creative yet truthful execution of the cast’s period makeup. With Eddie, Jan made sure his physical transition to femininity is clear. After shading and highlighting to achieve Eddie’s masculine Einar look, she took a beeswax makeup base that sinks into Eddie’s skin. This creates a natural, smoother finish in front of the high-definition camera when Eddie becomes Lili in her more dramatic scenes. Jan also worked directly with a makeup company to create period-appropriate palettes.
Johnny Depp in Black Mass (2015)
Movie makeup designer Joel Harlow worked with Johnny Depp at least ten movies. They created characters like Jack Sparrow in the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ Tonto in ‘The Lone Ranger,’ and Mad Hatter in ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ But Depp’s transformation into mobster Whitey Bulger in ‘Black Mass’ shows Harlow’s talent. Depp and Harlow (and the team) created a Boston mafia boss whose psychopathy radiates from his piercing blue eyes, stained teeth, and creepy smile with a light complexion that gives very little hint of the actor.
Idris Elba in Star Trek Beyond (2016)
The British actor was unrecognizable as the main villain Krall in ‘Star Trek: Beyond’. Elba reported that the makeup process took around three hours, with his days usually starting at around 4:15 a.m. Joel Harlow, the Academy Award-winning movie makeup artist, did Idris’ makeup for the film. He also did impressive work on many movies. Some of them are the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies, ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Marvel,’ and ‘Black Panther.’
Oscar Isaac in X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
The handsome actor who charmed a whole new generation of fans in Star Wars: The Force Awakens has his face buried under loads of purple (or blue) makeup to transform him into the world’s first mutant. It’s quite the achievement. The character had some CGI overlays. Still, the computer effects and practical effects will be working together to craft the character’s look.
Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour (2017)
Movie makeup maestro Kazuhiro Tsuji explains, “Likeness makeup is almost impossible to pull off because everybody looks different.” He added, “If the two people have proportions that are close, it’s easier. But these two are totally different. So I had to figure out the best balance to make him look like Churchill, but not [like he’s] wearing a mask.”
Doug Jones in The Shape of Water (2017)
Doug Jones is a movie makeup artist’s dream. His height and crazy features mean that he’s played some pretty crazy characters. He was the Faun and the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth. He also worked for Guillermo del Toro in Hellboy and Mimic.
Christian Bale in Vice (2018)
In taking on the challenge of transforming Christian Bale into Vice President Dick Cheney for Adam McKay’s $60 million Vice, movie makeup designer Greg Cannom had to use every tool in his toolbox. Everything, that is, except digital touch-ups. He opted for a combination of makeup, prosthetics, and wigs so that Bale, 44, could play Cheney from age 21 up to about 75.
Robert De Niro in The Irishman (2019)
Because it spans over 50 years, “The Irishman” required “a huge range” of looks for Robert De Niro. Movie makeup artists had to age him in a couple of stages, starting with what they call ‘the younger old age'” where they covered up the bags under his eyes with two prosthetic pieces.
For his much younger years, De Niro wanted to know how far can you go down with practical makeup in terms of de-aging. Since that would only get him to his mid-50s, visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman had to step in for the rest.
Charlize Theron in Bombshell (2019)
For the Bombshell hair and makeup team, the considerable task of transforming some of the most famous acting faces in the world began with the delicate, intricately crafted prosthetic work of Kazu Hiro. His subtle applications helped turn Charlize Theron into a doppelganger of Megyn Kelly, who inhabits the core of the story of sexual harassment among the Fox News ranks. From there, hair and makeup artisans completed the metamorphosis, including an extra degree of difficulty that involved replicating the broadcaster’s thick on-air cosmetics.
What is your favorite movie makeup transformation?