You can make a simple mask several ways: find large photos of faces in fashion magazines, sandwich them between two layers of clear contact paper, and cut out the eyes, add shoelaces to tie it and voila!
A Simple Papier Mache MaskAnother quick way to make a mask is to lay papier mache over a balloon. I use a punchball type of balloon and work quickly as the balloon will shrink over time. I untie and re-inflate the balloon if necessary.
I lay strips of newspaper soaked in a wood glue and water mixture. I also intersperse hemp fibers between layers of paper. Then when the papier mache is dry, I reinforce the back with Celastic®:
This is a plastic impregnated cloth that you tear (don' cut: you need frayed edges for smooth layers) into small pieces, dip in acetone (wear protective gloves, avoid the fumes, and read all warnings: acetone is nasty stuff!), and lay over the papier mache, overlapping the pieces just as you would with the paper strips. When the Celastic is dry, I liberally coat the inside and out with modelling paste (available at art supply stores). I use a small canning jar to hold the mask while it dries.
Once dry, I trace quarter-sized eye-holes and dime-sized nostrils, and cut them out with a Dremel.
Sand it smooth, put it on under a hooded sweatshirt, and you've got a Mask!
Making a Face Cast
To make more elaborate Masks from a clay sculpture, I start with a plaster life mask, using it as an armature. I have a small collection of male and female faces of various sizes and shapes that are the intitial inspiration for each mask--it also helps to get the eye and nose placement right. Below is Second City actor Susan Bugg in 1980 going through the life mask process. I had just started making masks on my back porch in the DePaul neighborhood of Chicago, and she was a brave guinea pig for the process and the workshops we ran for months afterward.
casting photos by John Neale
Here I'm applying a casting material called moulage to Susan's face--the straws allow her to breath through her nose. Moulage was a reusable casting product that you don't see much any more. I now use dental alginate, which, though more expensive and not reusable, is much pleasanter to use (the moulage has to be heated and applied while still quite warm).
Susan was obviously glad to be out from under the glop...
Plaster is poured into the flexible mold, which is held rigid by a plaster bandage shell.
An hour later and the plaster is set, and Susan sees a three dimensional copy of her face for the first time. I used this cast for the designs of "Del"
(which was made after a special request from Del Close--he wanted a mask in which he "could wear his glasses--otherwise I can't see a goddam thing!"). I also used Susan's cast as the armature for "Professor Scatterwell," which was so effective in "Street Guide to Gary Indiana."
Making a Mask from a Mold
Here's the process for making reusable molds for Masks:
First, I select a plaster face/armature (I choose one that is the right general shape and size for the actor who will wear it when designing for a specific productions. I build it up with plasticene (an oil-based clay) until I have the finished shape and texture I want.
To make a plaster negative, I simply mix up the plaster:
Mix the plaster in small batches. Take a clean margarine tub and put about an inch of water in it. Wearing rubber gloves, sprinkle the plaster from a paper cup evenly into the water, making sure to sprinkle to the edges, not piling it up in the center. When the plaster starts getting to the surface of the water, you will start to see cracks and lumps. When all of the surface looks like this, gently stir until it is the consistency of thick cream.
Spoon the plaster over the sculpture, taking care not to touch the clay model (you could put marks or dents in it) until you cover the entire surface with at least a half inch of plaster. The dykes should keep the plaster from running off the edges, and will help you to judge the thickness of the plaster.
Just to be thorough, I add a layer of plaster bandage. Available at any drug store, plaster bandages are plaster impregnated gauze that you cut into pieces (don't try to tear this stuff, you'll have a mess on your hands). After a layer or two of plaster bandage, I put on another healthy coat of plaster, mixed with hemp fibers for extra strength, and build up a kind of three-lump "foot" so the cast doesn't rock when I turn it over. Once it is removed from the model, I add to the sides to make a complete bowl shape. That way, when I pour casting liquids (neoprene, Liquiche® pourable papier mache, or other compounds) I can fill it to the brim and get a complete cast. If it's not a full bowl, the liquid will pour out the sides and not make the full mask.
Finished plaster mold with "three-lump" base.
Making a Flexible Mold
Masks with deep undercuts (nostrils, horns, large features) will require a flexible rubber mold. The photo above shows a rubber mold with the clay dyke removed. To keep the rubber from running all over the floor, a much higher clay dyke must be sculpted all the way around the finished clay mask--at least three inches high on all sides, then the mold rubber is poured over in six or seven coats, followed by another plaster cradle to help the rubber hold its shape.To start, the casting rubber is poured over the clay sculpture. This compound is different from neoprene or other rubbers that become rigid when cured. I use a two-part casting rubber that is tricky to work with but makes a durable mold. The two parts have to be measured and mixed carefully. It is fairly liquid and has to be mixed in small batches and allowed to set between batches. When the rubber has set, you remove the clay original (usually destroying it in the process) and apply the mask material to the inside.
I either brush in a two-part plastic compound or press a mixture of papier mache and reinforcing hemp fibers into the rubber mold (which takes much longer, as you have to wait for it to dry between thin layers). After the plastic or papier mache is set in the mold, it is unmolded for the final sculpting, sanding and shaping. The mask above was made by pressing Celluclay® into the rubber mold, allowing each quarter inch layer to dry, then removing the rigid mask by lifting out the mask and rubber, then peeling the rubber back to free the mask. Finally the masks are hand painted and equipped with straps and other decorations.
I usually make commedia, or half masks. They are designed to work with the actor’s face, transforming it, but leaving part of the face exposed. This type of mask allows a character to emerge from a combination of the physical appearance of the mask, the expressions of the actor's eyes and mouth, and conscious and unconsious elements of the actor's psyche, as manifested in speech and body language. The overall transformation is magical for both the actor and the audience, which is probably why masks and costumes have had a central role in religious ceremonies and rituals since the Stone Age. Imagine the Catholic Pope without the fabulous mask that is his official working wardrobe. As an acting technique, notable examples are Dustin Hoffman's powerful masks in "Little Big Man" and "Midnight Cowboy." Robert DeNiro also uses physical transformation to tremendous effect--as in "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull," where he literally transformed his entire body as part of his characterization of Jake La Motta. And do you remember his Harry Tuttle in "Brazil" with the magnifying goggles and bizarre facial expressions? You can't look away. We all use masks of a sort when we change our facial expressions (and clothes) to fit the roles our lives require us to play: as policemen, parents, doctors, teachers, lovers, etc.