How We Created a Convincing Mirror-Faced Man Using Only Practical Effects
We made the crazy decision to shoot 95% of our film into a mirror. Here's how we pulled it off.
In my short film The Faceless Man, the main character wakes up to discover his face has transformed into a mirror and he must venture out into the world to reclaim his identity.
As he encounters other people, they don’t see a man with a mirror for his face, but instead see their true selves – revealing their inner narratives and deepest, darkest secrets. Since these interactions were a crucial element to the story and theme of the film, I decided to create it all practically with real mirrors and real reflections, captured on set as they were happening.
Using practical effects was the best and only way we could have pulled this off as indie filmmakers.
Now, I know what you’re thinking... what filmmaker in their right mind would purposely choose to shoot into a mirror for 95% of their film? Believe me, during production I often asked myself this same question. However, I remain convinced that using practical effects was the best and only way we could have pulled this off as indie filmmakers.
Through months of testing and development–and finding an actor who was willing to go on this crazy journey with us–here are the steps of how we created a “faceless man:”
- Creating the Prosthetic Mask
- Developing the Mirror
- Camera Testing
1. Creating the Prosthetic Mask
To our knowledge, nothing like this had ever been made before so creating the mask for this was going to be a custom build that would take a little inventiveness. Luckily, we partnered with a fantastic boutique special effects studio, Rogue Planet Laboratories. After hearing our bizarre idea, they were willing to work with us to figure out how to make it happen.
The first step in creating the prosthetic appliance involved doing a full life-cast of our actor, Billy O’Leary. For those unfamiliar with special effects makeup, that’s where they pour the goop on his head and cast it in plaster to create an exact mold of his face. This meant the makeup would be customized precisely for him and him only. It would fit perfectly and feel like an actual extension of his face, with the detail and texture to make it photo-real. And as a bonus, I now have a perfect bust of Billy sitting in my apartment! See the lifecasting progression below:
Using that mold, the artist then began crafting the shape of the mask. The final mask would be made of silicone, a delicate material that looks and feels like skin. But silicone is expensive. We were producing this film on a razor-thin indie budget, so before an actual silicone appliance was created, the makeup artist first made a prototype with clay. This allowed us to review the shape and make any necessary adjustments.
The tone of the film was meant to be whimsical and surreal, and the design of the mask needed to reflect that. Once you start manipulating the human face, it’s very easy to skew toward a horror feel, so we were very conscious in the design to not let it become too grotesque. It needed to strike the right balance of playfully odd.
Once we approved the clay sculpt, the makeup artist then replicated it with silicone. We were scheduled for four days of filming, so five masks were created–one for a camera test day and one for each shoot day. With the prosthetic appliance portion of the mask complete, that left the biggest piece of the puzzle: the mirror itself.
How could we practically execute a man with a mirror for a face, but still have our actor be able to give a performance?
2. Developing the Mirror
Long before we had hired Rogue Planet Laboratories to create this mask, my team and I had been brainstorming about the mirror. How could we practically execute a man with a mirror for a face, but still have our actor be able to give a performance? The script had our character out in the world–walking, driving a car, and interacting with other people. He would need to be able to see, so we knew two-way mirror would be the way to go.
For some of our earliest tests, I bought a piece of two-way mirror from a glass shop in the valley and asked them to cut a face-shaped oval–an odd request based on the glass cutter’s reaction, but he did it! Then my DP, Will, and my wife and producing partner, Sara, shot tests with the mirror to see if this could even work. Those tests would become invaluable for us to understand angles and camera distance, giving us the confidence that this could work practically.
With our makeup designer, we settled on a piece of lightweight two-way acrylic that would be lighter and safer than glass mirror but still give us the reflective quality we were looking for. Now the challenge became how to affix the mirror to the prosthetic mask and still keep Billy relatively comfortable. He would obviously need to breathe, eat, drink water…All of those simple things we do on set were now huge potential obstacles.
Luckily, our makeup designer came up with an ingenious solution: he inlaid small magnets into the mask and into the frame of the mirror so it could be popped on and off in between takes. He also created two small air holes at the top and bottom of the mask that would be obscured by the mirror, giving Billy the airflow he needed when it was magnetized on. After cutting the acrylic and assembling it with the frame, the pieces were ready to be applied and tested.
3. Camera testing
It was crucial for everyone that we do a dry run with the makeup before jumping into filming. Our makeup artists and production team needed to understand the time and logistics for application and removal, so we could factor that time into our 12-hour shooting day. But more importantly, Billy needed to go through the process and get a feel for the mask to understand his limitations and comfort level.
We got Billy in the chair and started the clock as they began to affix (read: glue) the mask to his face. The silicone appliance has no color, so the makeup team then matched the pigment and texture of Billy’s skin with airbrush makeup and hand stippling, blending it perfectly and giving us the seamless result we were hoping for. All told, the process took about three hours.
We popped on the magnetized two-way mirror and Billy was able to move freely with the mask. He had no peripheral vision (the mask created a tunnel vision effect), so that took a little getting used to and he reported that the inside of the mirror was fogging up from his breath, but that was fixed with an old scuba diving trick (rubbing toothpaste on the inside). As he became more and more comfortable with the mask, we did some light blocking and shot some tests so he could get a sense of how the camera and his mirrored-face would need to work in careful unison. The actual shoot was now only days away.
We were shooting into a mirror for most of the film and the margin of error was tiny.
Filming was a challenge to say the least. We were shooting into a mirror for most of the film and the margin of error was tiny: if Billy moved his face an inch to the left or right, he would reveal the camera or a C-stand or…me. It became a tedious but carefully orchestrated ballet between Billy and the camera.
There are two digital shots that we had always planned as VFX, where Billy is looking directly into the camera. Otherwise, the rest of the reflections in the film are all real and done in-camera. And as we captured more and more on set practically–and the mirror was revealing exactly what we wanted it to–we knew we had made the right choice.The film has lots of movement, both from Billy’s acting and the camera work, and every small action that Billy made revealed details of the room he was in or the street he was driving on within his mirrored face. Those nuances gave it a level of realism that we would never have been able to accomplish digitally with CG, unless we had a massive budget or years of time. And even with those resources, it still probably would have come off fake. the audience’s eye is becoming more and more adept at sniffing out VFX. You can see this in big films like the new Star Wars, where filmmakers are trying to bring it back to practical effects or a blend of the two because nothing can beat that authenticity.
Viewers are often surprised to hear that we did the makeup and reflections practically. At festival Q&As, you could see people’s jaws drop as they began replaying the film in their heads. Though it made the filming process a huge challenge, I can honestly say I am glad that we pushed ourselves to do it that way.
Once we decided to use a more old-school technique, we really embraced that idea across the board. It informed our art direction, our key art, our music, our color correction, all of which have a very throwback ‘60s vibe, which felt right for this surreal, offbeat adventure.
See how it all came together in the full film here:
And if you want to learn even more about the behind-the-scenes, check out this featurette that covers the entire process (including the 100-degree heat wave while shooting, the practical infinity effect we achieved in the film, and more):