Over the course of 10 seasons on Face Off, the faces that change the most are those of the models, many of whom have been recurring cast members for many seasons, even if they’re rarely mentioned by name on screen. They’re the human canvases on which the contestants do their work, and they’re often rendered unrecognizable, becoming creatures or distorted human characters.
What’s it like to be under the makeup, covered in layers of prosthetics and paint? To find out, I talked to two people who’ve been in the artists’ makeup chairs frequently: Matt Chris Wood, a model and actor, and Isabelle Du, a model and actor who was also on The Amazing Race 25 with her boyfriend, Dennis.
Both Isabelle and Matt were cast via typical modeling casting calls. While they were asked if they were claustrophobic or had sensitive skin, the casting wasn’t about the application of prosthetics, but instead focused on their acting and movement. “They had us improv a scenario playing a predator eating a body,” Matt said about his audition.
A 2014 casting call said “we want to see a lot of big movement in your improv, so an animal or creature impression would be good.” It also noted the rate of pay: “$200/14 shoot day,” and $150 for a prep day.
The start of a model’s day
Models arrive on set early in the morning, “before the sun rises,” Matt said. They first apply protection—previously Derma Shield and now Kryolan Pro Shield—over their whole bodies.
Then they change into what Isabelle called their “model blacks,” the simple clothing they wear to meet their artists. She said “we kind of wait back there” until the designers are ready, and she said that typically, the artists “seem like they’re in the middle of rushing.”
During that time, the models also eat breakfast, and Isabelle said producers “don’t tell us what’s going on, but they might tell us what the theme is.”
The application stage
Artists have four hours to apply their makeup to their models, the part of the process we see the most of on television. The artists first apply wig caps to their models, though if the artists are busy finishing their work, it can be a while before they get to their models to do that.
As Face Off has sometimes included in its episodes, models can assist their artists, especially those who are scrambling at the last minute. Isabelle said that most “of the time we help in some way, shape, or form,” though she was careful to note that they’re just doing minor tasks.
And it’s not just each team for themselves. “Sometimes I’ve even offered to help other teams of artists,” she said. “Everyone’s really supportive.”
A break for lunch for mirrors
After application and before last looks, there’s lunch, and that’s challenging for people wearing creature makeup.
To help them, the models are given small mirrors so they can watch themselves eat. “Because of the way the prosthetics lay on our faces, we might not be able to pinpoint where our mouth is,” Isabelle explained. “I’ll be honest: I hate using the mirrors. It’s so gross to watch myself eat in the prosthetics. It’s really gross. It’s cool to be in the makeup but when you watch yourself chew, and the food the sauces get all over the place… I once had chocolate cake—they gave us cake, how can I say no to cake?—and chunks of chocolate got in between my real lips and my facial prosthetic. I had to pick it up.”
A party bus to the reveal stage
After four hours in the lab for initial application, they head to a different soundstage for one hour last looks. To get to the reveal stage, “we actually get into a party bus,” Matt said, because “We need a big vehicle with a lot of space to be able to accommodate” the makeups.
“It’s super fun,” he said of the travel together in their makeup. Isabelle said “the driver always looks at us in pure amusement.”
However, if the makeup is challenging or bulky, it can be less enjoyable, because, as Matt said, “you can’t sit down because you don’t want to comprimise part of the costume or the prosthetics.”
Last looks and photos
The hour of last looks—this, too, is included in each episode, though it passes by in just a few on-screen minutes, if that—is followed by photos. The models line up and take photos by themselves and with their artists. These are used by Syfy publicity and in the on-screen morphs that we see.
Both models said that this process goes relatively quickly, and they go directly to the reveal stage afterwards.
The creature feature: posing for the judges and cameras
To get onto the reveal stage, the models may have assistance, especially if their vision or mobility is impaired. The models then have a few minutes by themselves on the reveal stage to pose for the cameras and move, which Isabelle called the “creature feature.”
While there are “quite a few cameras,” as Isabelle said, “we do it several times, that way everybody can see us—the artists and the judges.”
Prior to this, the models usually talk to the artists about how they’ll perform the character, according to Matt. “In most cases, yes, the artist has an idea of what they want and they communicate what they want—how the character moves, or sometimes there are specific gags the character has, like a bladder the character has that when you press it, blood will come out,” he said. “There’s also room for us to play and bring our life to the character.”
Then, they stand still. Matt said that he once “had a character that basically had to hold an air squat,” and “my legs were shaking. It can be uncomfortable” because “it can take a while.”
The judges inspections and interviews
The judges inspections of each makeup can take five to 10 minutes, though it becomes just a few seconds in each episode. As we see on TV, the judges will ask the models to articulate or move, so they can view the makeup and see how it works.
Isabelle said that, during that time, she tries to protect her artist by concealing any mistakes she can. If she knows there’s a problem with a particular edge, for example, Isabelle said, “I’ll do my best to kind of maneuver myself so they don’t really see it.” But she also thinks the judges may be on to that, asking the models to move “to find if there’s anything that we as a model” are concealing.
The models have a front-row seat for the judges’ commentary, and besides those who watch the raw footage, are perhaps the only people who hear all of the comments. Of course, lots of what they say is edited out for time. Matt said, “They have some good one-liners that make it onto the show, but the stuff that doesn’t make it on to the show is even funnier.”
After that, the judges deliberate, and some artists are declared safe. Those models whose artists are in the top or bottom have a lot more time on the reveal stage.
Matt estimated that “from close-up inspections through the artist interviews,” three to five hours can elapse, sometimes including a dinner break.
What the models know, the artists don’t
Because the models are the ones being inspected by the judges, they know before the artists do what the judges think. (Isabelle did say that she typically cannot hear the judges’ comments for the makeup next to her, both because of the judges’ whispers and because of the prosthetics.)
Matt told me, “It’s hard because you develop this relationship with the artist, and all you want to do is say, ‘They love it!’ or ‘don’t get your hopes up.’ But no, we’re not allowed to communicate anything the artist.”
That extends backstage, where the production staff makes sure the models don’t accidentally reveal anything to the artists, such as during breaks. “Any time an artist is walking near the models, they’ll just call out, ‘artist walking’ or ‘artist in the area’ so we can stop any kind of communication that’s going on,” Matt said.
The makeup comes off
The models are done for the day once their artist has been declared safe—though they’re not really done. First, they travel back to the lab in the party bus. “There’s a team of people waiting for us,” Matt said, ready to take off the makeup. That process includes rolled-up, microwaved hot towels that are draped over the models’ bodies to help loosen prosthetics.
Removal varies based on what’s been applied to their bodies, and can take more than an hour. Matt said that the longest time he ever spent there was closer to four hours. That was for the Greek gods episode, during which he was made up to look like Poseidon by Stella; he said that “the paint that she was using was really tough to get off.”
The process is imperfect; Isabelle said, “I’ll go home and a week later, I’ll still have blue ears inside, and I won’t notice until my boyfriend points it out.”
Producers have changed the rules to make this part of the day easier on everyone: “they don’t let the artists use PAX on the models’ skin any more, just because it takes forever to take off,” Isabelle said, describing it as “a glue/paint concoction.”
Face Off is ‘modeling boot camp’
A full day on set of Face Off for the models is 13 to 16 hours—or even longer, such as a 20-hour day for the finale, Matt said. Isabelle estimated that it’s at least “a good 10 hours” in the makeup each day.
Isabelle said this isn’t a job for a model who’s “germaholic.” That’s because the models have to “spot clean our hands.” She explained that, because the artists “paint our hands … we’re afraid of washing our hands completely” after going to the bathroom. “I will spot clean my palms,” she said. Some unfortunate models can’t even do that, because “sometimes going to the bathroom isn’t even an option” Isabelle said. Citing two models who were in clam-like makeup, she said, “they were basically completely fused as one creature, and they didn’t go to the bathroom at all for the whole day. They were so uncomfortable, it’s definitely not an easy job.”
Yet the models I talked to really enjoy the experience. Isabelle said it’s a “rewarding” job and, when I asked if there was any similarity to The Amazing Race, she said, “With both of these shows, I have found that they are much more stressful than what the public sees.” Both shows have lots of built-in drama, but “the shows kind of edit it down. Way more intense, much more intense” than it is on TV, she said.
“There’s a real sense of camaraderie, so you’re kind of rooting for everyone, because it’s a little family at that point,” Matt told me. The same is true with the models: “We’ve been through it together. Working on Face Off is kind of like going to modeling boot camp. If you can survive a day on Face Off, you can do just about any gig out there.”
“It is a small family, and going through it with these friends is a blast,” Matt added. He described a “comical” image from a typical day at work, “during the breaks: creatures smoking cigarettes, or on their cell phones. It’s just a hilarious thing to look around with a bunch of grotesque things on iPhones.”