How do make-up artists create sweat in the movies?

A glistening Sylvester Stallone. A sweating Robert De Niro. Vaseline. That's a trick to making sweat on film look, well, sweaty...

Picture Rambo III for a minute. There’s a greased up Sylvester Stallone, his bulging biceps glistening with no shortage of sweat. He’s firing off round after round, making questionable political choices as to where he aims his weapon. He is the 80s, walking around in a bag of damp muscles that make you almost thankful the IMAX boom didn’t turn up years earlier.

Sweat is, of course, natural. Let’s just say it’s more natural to some of us (ahem) than others. But that special kind of sweat we see in the movies does actually require quite a lot of make-up work. It’s not as if before every take of every action film, that your average action star can go and do a one hour workout whilst wrapped in bin liners, just to make sure their body is covered in glistening perspiration. Some do bucket out the stuff on demand. Most don’t. Obviously I’m not speaking from personal experience, but sweat generally is more likely to appear when you least want it rather than you when you actually do.

So how is it done in the movies? As you might expect, there are various approaches that work.

Take Raging Bull for starters. Martin Scorsese’s stunning biopic of boxer Jake LaMotta features classic shots of Robert De Niro’s brow soaked in sweat mid-bout.

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Michael Westmore was the make-up artist on the film, and as he told Premiere magazine back in January 1997, “I would load [the actors] down real heavy with water just as the camera started rolling”. He then had at hand two squirt bottles of water, to top things up. Squirt bottles are sweat-generating necessities for the majority of make-up artists.

Back to Raging Bull. For the film, Scorsese was keen to see sweat flying, rather than sticking, and that’s where a thin coat of vaseline was used on the actors, to make sure the water wouldn’t stay still. It had to fly off them, and it did.

Westmore reckoned that he’d gone through 20 gallons of water by the end of the shoot. He never mentioned how many towels he needed.

Stallone, really, is the Laurence Olivier of movie sweat though, particular in his 80s endeavours. Rocky Balboa’s body bilged out no shortage of the stuff across that particular boxset.

On Rocky IV, for instance, Leonard Engelman declared that they used the term ‘pump and lube’ while working on the film. That is, they’d wait for Sylvester Stallone to get his muscles pumped up (behave yourselves), “and then we’d lube them up”.

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We’ll give you a minute.

It’s part of the technique that ended up generating what nobody likes to call ‘the Stallone glisten’.

Studio lights obviously are contributory factors to natural sweat production. But what about location? What happens when you take Sly into frostier terrain? Bluntly, none of us would want to be the person spraying cold water into the face of an already-shivvering action star who could break your bones with a minimalist, cheeky fart.

Make-up artist Halie D’Amore, in the same Premiere article (that was penned by Marc Malkin), described himself as “a maniac with sweat” (it’s not a business card template many printers offer) and recalled how on the set of First Blood with Sylvester Stallone, he had to take precautions to stop his water bottles from freezing. Thus, when he was shooting the film, he’d fill them with boiling water, recognising that the water would have cooled by the time he needed to use it. He employed the same technique on the cold Chicago shoot of Keanu Reeves vehicle Chain Reaction, incidentally, and it’s a simple and logical way of solving a particular problem.

But there’s more to movie sweat than some water and lubing Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone up with Vaseline.

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Take the southern drama A Time To Kill, based on the John Grisham novel of the same name. Ben Nye was the make-up expert there, and to get his acting talent to requisite levels of outright hot sweatyness, he got through 24 decent bottles of massage oil.

This isn’t uncommon. Make-up artists blend the likes of such oils with water to get photogenic sweat for the screen. Shari Smith, over at her site Movie Makeup, delves into the secrets of making fake screen sweat:

“Create fake sweat by mixing glycerin and water in a spray bottle”, she writes. “How much you thin out your glycerin depends on how runny you want your sweat to be. One part glycerin to two parts water works well, but you should play around with small amounts to see what works for the look you want”

“I have used glycerin straight to simulate droplets of sweat, but it won’t run well due to the thickness”, she adds.

Who knew?

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She does caution never to get fake sweat in the eyes of the acting talent, and to check for allergies too. Wise words, especially if you’ve using gallons of the stuff. Put 24 bottles of massage oil near the eyes of Samuel L Jackson without selling tickets to his reaction first, and you’re doing the world a disservice.

That said, if all else fails, there are natural methods that can be used to get an actor or actress’ sweat going. For James L Brooks’ classic Broadcast News, there’s the moment where Albert Brooks’ newsreader is required to perspire. And after trying a few different approaches, the cunning plan was to just make him sweat for real.

Not that the cunning plan in question worked. The production team deliberately overheated the set at one stage, and insulated his undergarments (help yourselves) just to increase his comfort levels. But Brooks appeared to be a resistant sort, and in the end they just threaded a small tube through the actor’s hair and clothes, to gradually pump more and more water onto him.

Of course, as technology has progressed, CG characters tend to require fewer bottles of lube applied, and big action spectacles such as The Expendables movies are rarer on the big screen. But rest assured, next time you see an actor on screen sweating it out, chances are that there’s someone just out of shot with a big bottle, a suspicious looking tube, and a grin on their face…

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