There are three kinds of makeup artists: straight makeup, sometimes called "street," which enhances an actor's features using cosmetics and corrective makeup; character makeup, which transforms an actor through facial prosthesis and other devices; and special effects (FX) makeup, employing mechanical devices such as robotic inserts. All three work closely with the director, cinematographer, and costume designer. Incorporating these three divisions, makeup's complex work can be loosely broken into the two categories of cosmetics and special effects. The former also radicalized the cosmetics industry. Often the two merge, but the makeup industry began with the need to accentuate the face and to deal with the drastic differences between stage and cinema.

Film makeup received no formal recognition until the 1940s and no Academy Award ® recognition until 1981, although William Tuttle (b. 1911) was given an honorary Oscar ® for 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) and John Chambers (1923–2001) received one for Planet of the Apes (1968). It is now a highly regarded art with a large fan base that follows the careers of artists like Rick Baker and Tom Savini. The craft began in the nascent film industry with stage techniques but quickly adapted to cinema's peculiar problems, especially those posed by film stock, cinematic lighting, and the close-up. The introduction of color in the 1930s caused more difficulties. Technicolor distorted complexion tones and registered color reflections from costumes, even those thrown from one actor's clothing onto another's. As makeup artists addressed a continuous parade of new challenges, makeup evolved by the early 1920s into an indispensable studio department that oversaw wigmakers; hair stylists; cosmetologists; harness makers; wood carvers; and sculptors in plaster, wax, metal, and wire. By the 1960s, science-driven special effects became a major part of makeup, and specialists in all kinds of prosthetics, latexes, rubbers, plastics, solvents, structures, and devices have come under makeup's jurisdiction ever since. Despite its artificial composition, makeup's constant challenge is to seem natural. If it is prosthetic it has to move as if real flesh; if it is historical, it has to conform to the period's look, whether involving heavy makeup or no makeup at all. It also must be remarkably durable, lasting through sweating, kissing, and fighting, under water or fierce lighting. In horror films, it must be powerful enough to scare an audience yet bearable for an actor to wear.

From the beginning, makeup artists have sought to draw out a character's psychology. To do this they have adapted (or contributed) to cosmetic and technological inventions, coped with color problems, and been experts on human anatomy and the potential effects of all varieties of artificial face, skin, and hair. Although makeup covers every kind of look—from well to ill, old to young, hip to demented, gorgeous to hideous—it is the latter two, the gorgeous and the ghastly, that have been emphasized throughout the history of cinema.

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