reality TV: Trading Ages

Trading Ages

This programme is part of the BBC’s summer 2004 The Time of Your Life season devoted to challenging perspectives and attitudes to growing older. Prosthetic makeup was used to give two individuals ‘a unique insight into life as an elderly person in twenty-first century Britain’ in a follow-up to Trading Races which took four people across ethnic boundaries.

Twenty-nine year-old Karoline Bell agreed to be transformed into an elderly woman for four weeks. Amongst other things the ‘aged’ Karoline found herself at Butlins on a short-break pensioners’ holiday, helped out in a charity shop, tried to survive on an old-age pension budget, and got to see how her younger boyfriend reacted to how she might look one day for-real.

The makeup

Karoline’s makeup, by Stevie Bettles, consisted of a bald-cap, five interlocking foam gelatine
pieces, old-age stipple, contact lenses (which simulated not just the the appearance but the effects of cataracts), wig, and false teeth.

I am incredibly grateful to Stevie who was kind enough not only to allow me to use his images but also to write the following short article on the unique challenges presented by this sort of Reality Television: the makeups both have to convince up-close in natural lighting and simultaneously work on camera with a different colour balance. Add to that already set of requirements that: this very extensive makeup had to be durable (eg lasting while Karoline went shopping or to a dance at Butlins); that the opportunities for touch-ups were limited (and then in less than ideal conditions including in a toilet at Butlins); that Karoline was unfamiliar with prosthetic makeup and was clearly finding Trading Ages to be a very emotional experience…

When I started talking to Jeff at themakeupgallery and he asked for some quotes to go along with my work, I said ‘Sure!’ Two e-mails later, and I realised I had more to say than just a few lines for each image. There was a whole process I’d gone through while working on these shows that was unique to the type of programs they were – so I saw this as an opportunity to talk in-depth about the work and the shows themselves.

When I first got the job on Trading Ages, one of the main points they kept telling me was that they didn’t want the people being ‘aged up’ to look like they were wearing makeup. It’s typical – you spend all your life training to be makeup artist, you finally get a job to prove how good you are, and the first thing they say is ‘Ok – Great work! But we don’t want it to look like makeup…’

It was a big hurdle, creating hyper-real makeups that could survive close examination in natural lighting. Because these makeups had to work in real life scenarios, I tried to design the makeups with the same level of reality – meaning that it would not only make the performers look like old people, but would also help them to act old. For example, we had cataracts put in the contact lenses, so they would not only look like the eyes of 73 year old, but would also mean the performers would be seeing with eyes of a 73 year old: thus helping them truly experience what it is like. The audience doesn’t necessarily gain anything from this, but it helps add realism to the over-all effect.

One of the other changes I made was to the prosthetics themselves. All the prosthetics were made out of foamed gelatine, and traditionally with gelatine you would seal the back of the piece, to ensure that sweat and heat don’t damage the piece while the performer is wearing it. Instead, I found that if I sealed the performer, instead of the prosthetics in the areas with the most movement (i.e. around the mouth and eyes) you get very fine, natural looking wrinkles following the natural lines of the performers face which you could never sculpt in a million years. Once again, these lines are hardly visible at all on screen, but added to the hyper-reality of the makeups I was looking for.

Besides designing subtle little features into the makeups, the biggest challenge was still how to do a makeup without it looking like makeup. After extensive tests, I came up with the following combination that gave me the results in the end, and which I would later call ‘colouring in triplicate’. Stage One would start with my performer sealed and in his or her bald cap, and I would then do quite a heavy paint job on the skin and the bald cap using Skin Illustrator plates, creating layer one of my colouring while using primarily reds, oranges and browns. This would look a little severe, but with the coloured gelatine applied over the top, you reduce the intensity and end up with a natural, multi-layered colour effect. Stage Two is the prosthetics themselves tinted to match the performers own skin tones – these are then applied over the top of Stage One.

For the final surface of the makeup, I used a combination of Pros-Aid, no-tack Pros-Aid and thinned down cap plastic to seal my makeups, giving you the final layer in cap plastic. On to this, I would then paint Stage Three – the final highlights, skin marks and various other imperfections. I found that having my top layer in cap plastic meant that when I got the right consistency of isoproply and pigment on my brush, you got a very slight bleeding of the colour when applying it to the prosthetics, creating a very natural and highly realistic skin tone finish.

One of the hardest problems, however, was striking a balance with the colour when creating the makeups. Not only did these makeups have to look good in real life, but they also had to look good on camera, and here is the problem; if you look at most old people in this country, you’ll see that, for the most part, they are very pale. We started out colouring the makeups to look like this, but soon found that it didn’t work for the camera, so we had to warm it all up without it looking odd to the eye. Warming up make-ups for TV involves using more oranges, but we couldn’t use orange in our makeups because this would look odd in real life. Once we had found the perfect balance of colour for real life and camera, I felt that we had finally cracked it.

Stevie had previously done a similarly challenging and, if anything even more extensive, makeup transforming TV personality Carol Smillie into a man for another less serious reality TV programme Gender Swap.