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Unmasking the Death’s Head Reveal of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’

Phantom Reveal

Welcome to How’d They Do That? — a bi-monthly column that unpacks moments of movie magic and celebrates the technical wizards who pulled them off.

This entire column is based around the celebration of cinematic techniques that read as magic tricks. In this context: Lon Chaney Sr. is a veritable magician.

An Old Hollywood powerhouse known for his characterizations of unnerving individuals and mangled souls, Leonidas Chaney was born on April Fool’s Day in 1883 to two deaf parents. As Chaney himself explains in a rare interview in Movie Weekly , the unique circumstances of his upbringing meant that, for the actor, “gesture was always a thing of great significance.” A Silent Era performer, Chaney’s physical deftness resulted in emotionally rich, peerless performances that still resonate and shock almost a century later .

In addition to being one of the most evocative performers to ever grace the screen, Chaney was a pioneer of early cinematic special effects makeup. With few exceptions, his best-known characters experience some sort of disfigurement, and the actor took the execution of these mutilations into his own hands, often at the expense of his own comfort and safety (more on that later). From murderous madmen to misunderstood monsters, Chaney consistently elicits bi-tones of repulsion and empathy, curiosity and fear, horror and pity. Gnashing teeth, curling lips, flaring nostrils, his characters are always as upsetting as they are mesmerizing.

A big part of why Chaney’s creature designs are so affecting is because, as horror director Jennifer Kent articulates in an interview with Mountain Xpress : “You can see that it’s a person’s face. It’s just a face that’s been distorted — without CGI obviously — but manipulated so that it looks human, but almost not.” Nowhere else is Chaney’s unique quality of “human, but almost not” more evident than in the disfigured ghoul of 1925’s Phantom of the Opera , one of Chaney’s most impressive make-up jobs, if not certainly his most famous one.

The unmasking of the titular Phantom is one of the most well-known moments in silent film. Arguably, it’s one of the most horrifying images ever put on screen. As the mysterious Eric sits at his organ, our captured heroine Christine loosens his mask. As contemporary reviewer Carl Sandburg puts it: “Her fingers give one final twitch — and there you are!”

The reveal: a defacement more horrifying than any other cinematic iteration of the infamous Opera Ghost to date. His nose is an upturned chip, his mouth a mangled mess, his eyes threatening to pop. It’s hard to wrap your head around: how can that thing be human? This furious, menacing, despair-filled creature? Part command, part challenge, the Phantom shrieks:  “Feast your eyes, glut your soul, on my accursed ugliness!”

With pleasure.

How’d they do that?

Long story short:.

By mangling Lon Chaney’s face with wires. Plus some good old fashioned contouring.

Long story long:

In a rare statement on his craft, Chaney explained, as cited by film historian Scott MacQueen in the October 1989 edition of American Cinematographer : “I’m supposed to have evolved some magic process of malforming my features and limbs. It’s an art, not magic…I achieved the Death’s head of that role without wearing a mask.”

Indeed, to pull off the ghoulish look of the Phantom, Chaney undertook a variety of creative if woefully self-harming illusory techniques.

To become a living skull, Chaney raised the contours of his cheekbones with cotton and collodion, a very flammable and syrupy solution of pyroxylin mixed in alcohol that creates the appearance of scarred skin when dried. He flattened (possibly glued) his ears to his head, adding to the skull look. An exaggerated skullcap was used to elevate Chaney’s forehead by several inches, accentuating the bald dome of the Phantom’s skull, draped by flat-pressed wisps of stringy black hair. Pencil lines were used not only to exaggerate the natural creases of Chaney’s brow but also to hide the lip of his bald cap.

Phantom Of The Opera

Phantom Of The Opera (1925)

In the same quote cited in the American Cinematographer article, Chaney continues: “it was the use of paints in the right shades and the right places — not the obvious parts of the face — which gave the complete illusion of horror. My experiments as a stage manager, which were wide and varied before I jumped into films, taught me much about lighting effects on the actor’s face and the minor tricks of deception. It’s all a matter of combining paints and lights to form the right illusion.”

Taking the color palette of André Castaigne’s illustrations as his reference, Chaney painted his outer eye black, adding stark white highlights around the periphery to emphasize the skeletal effect and suggest the transition from bone to sockets.  The Phantom’s toothy grin was accomplished by attaching prongs (yes prongs) to a serrated, rotting pair of false teeth; creating a gnarled grin with a mouth held wide by design. Chaney further distorted his lips and shaded his face with greasepaint.

The nose is the worst part. Chaney applied putty to sharpen the angle and inserted two loops of wire into his nostrils (which were themselves darkened with black eyeliner) to make a skeletal shape. Extra wires concealed under putty and the skullcap were attached to Chaney’s nose, yanking the actor’s nostrils upward.

There are some who have stated that in certain shots Chaney manipulated his nose with spirit gum and fish skin . But given that the reports have been contested and imitations have not been successful, we must take these claims with a grain of salt.

There is also a dangerous myth floating about that Chaney put egg membranes in his eyes to give them a cloudy look. This rumor appears to be a combination of two facts: Chaney messing his sight up with the false eye cover from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and the white-out cosmetic contact lens he had personally created for 1926’s Road to Mandalay ( one of the first full-eye scleral white glass contact lenses made for theatrical use ). In any case, the egg membrane tidbit is likely an exaggeration if not an outright falsehood .

And really, who needs to exaggerate when it comes to Chaney? “He suffered, you know,” recalls Phantom’ s director of photography, Charles Van Enger , as cited by the ever-giving American Cinematography . “Sometimes [Chaney’s nose] would bleed like hell. We never stopped shooting. He would suffer with it.”

What’s the precedent?

This was still early days in cinema history, so when we’re talking about the innovative shenanigans on display in Phantom of the Opera , the only real precedent in Hollywood was Chaney himself.

In the aforementioned interview in Movie Weekly , Chaney explains: “Most of my roles have carried the theme of self-sacrifice or renunciation. These are the stories I wish to do.” Self-sacrifice was certainly the name of the game when it came to Chaney’s approach to make-up.

Two years before Phantom of the Opera , Chaney designed an affecting but physically-demanding guise for Quasimodo in Hunchback : fitting himself with an external glass eye, a 20-pound plaster hump, and a painful harness that fixed his shoulder to his hip to achieve the desired effect. With humble innovations and the spirit of Occam’s Razor, you can’t discount the impact of Chaney’s make up kit (a fisherman’s tackle box, today a part of the collection at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles ).

Hunchback Chaney

‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1923)

That said, without fail, the best creature performances are the ones where the actor wears the makeup rather than the makeup wearing the actor. Doug Jones ( Pan’s Labyrinth, Hell Boy, Star Trek: Discovery ) is the highest-profile example of a modern performer who can play creature effects like an instrument. Like Chaney, Jones’ embodiment and the makeup he wears consistently come together for performances that are more than the sum of their parts. Andy Serkis is another great example of this, though the added twist of digital space and all the post-production collaboration that entails, is a wrinkle best smoothed out some other time.

It would be easy (and delightful) to sit here all day listing evocative makeup performances (Jeff Goldblum in The Fly …Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde …Warwick Davis in everything…). But, ultimately, Chaney brings something unparalleled to the table: the man did his own goddamn makeup.

The impact of this bespoke quality is elusive but you can’t help but feel it when you watch Chaney perform. He had an intimate knowledge of his own body, both as an actor and as a makeup artist. He knew its abilities, its limitations, and how to weaponize both through the use of self-designed, tailor-made practical effects. The result is up there on the screen, in creatures like the Phantom who to this day remain unparalleled in both their spectacle and their sympathy.

Related Topics: How'd They Do That? , Phantom of the Opera , Special Effects

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Home > What Happened To The Phantom Of The Opera’S Face

What Happened To The Phantom Of The Opera’S Face

  • UPDATED: July 23, 2023

Table of Contents

The Phantom of the Opera is one of the most iconic characters in literature and theater. Created by French author Gaston Leroux, the Phantom is a mysterious and tragic figure who haunts the Paris Opera House. One of the most intriguing aspects of the character is his disfigured face, which is always hidden behind a mask. But what exactly happened to the Phantom’s face?

In Leroux’s novel, “The Phantom of the Opera,” the story behind the Phantom’s disfigurement is revealed. According to the book, the Phantom was born with a facial deformity that made him an outcast from society. His mother, horrified by his appearance, abandoned him at a young age. Left to fend for himself, the Phantom grew up in the catacombs beneath the opera house, hidden from the world above.

As the story goes, the Phantom’s disfigurement was caused by a rare condition known as Proteus syndrome. This genetic disorder causes abnormal growth of the bones, skin, and other tissues. In the case of the Phantom, his face was severely affected, resulting in a distorted and grotesque appearance.

The exact details of how the Phantom acquired his disfigurement are not explicitly mentioned in the novel. However, it is suggested that his condition worsened over time, possibly due to neglect and lack of proper medical care. The Phantom’s isolation and constant hiding also contributed to the deterioration of his physical appearance.

In addition to the physical deformity, the Phantom’s disfigurement also had a profound impact on his mental state. Constantly shunned by society and haunted by his own reflection, the Phantom developed a deep-seated hatred for the world above. This hatred fueled his desire for revenge and his obsession with the opera house.

The Phantom’s disfigurement plays a central role in the story of “The Phantom of the Opera.” It is the catalyst for his transformation into a vengeful and manipulative character. His mask becomes a symbol of his hidden identity and the mask he wears to hide his true self from the world.

Over the years, the character of the Phantom has been portrayed in various adaptations of the story, including stage productions and film adaptations. Each interpretation offers its own take on the Phantom’s disfigurement, often using makeup and prosthetics to create the desired effect.

In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera,” the character’s disfigurement is depicted through a half-mask that covers the right side of his face. This iconic image has become synonymous with the character and is instantly recognizable to audiences around the world.

The decision to only partially cover the Phantom’s face in the musical was a deliberate choice by Webber. By leaving a portion of the face exposed, the audience is able to see the humanity behind the mask. It humanizes the character and allows the audience to empathize with his struggles and pain.

In some adaptations, the Phantom’s disfigurement is portrayed as more severe than in others. Some versions depict him with a completely deformed face, while others show him with scars and burns. The extent of his disfigurement often depends on the artistic interpretation of the director and the capabilities of the makeup and special effects teams.

Regardless of the specific portrayal, the Phantom’s disfigurement remains a crucial element of his character. It is a constant reminder of his isolation and the pain he has endured throughout his life. It also serves as a metaphor for the masks we all wear to hide our true selves from the world.

In conclusion, the Phantom of the Opera’s disfigured face is a defining characteristic of the character. Born with a facial deformity, the Phantom’s appearance is a result of a rare genetic disorder. His disfigurement not only shapes his physical appearance but also has a profound impact on his mental state and actions. Whether depicted through a half-mask or more severe makeup, the Phantom’s disfigurement remains an integral part of his story and serves as a symbol of his hidden identity.



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phantom of the opera mans face

The story behind the Phantom's mask

You might not recognize Rodney Gordon, but there’s no doubt you are familiar with his work.

“I never boasted about it, I think a lot of people didn’t even know that I did it that for years, they would just see something in the shop from that and say, oh you do that, I’ve always done that,” Gordon said.

Gordon is the milliner, maker of hats and headdresses, that has been crafting the Phantom’s mask on Broadway for 35 years. The mask itself was developed before it came to Broadway, designed by the show’s late scenic and costume designer Maria Bjornson, the mask brought over from London by the original Phantom, Michael Crawford. 

What You Need To Know

The symbol for "the phantom of the opera" since the beginning has been the mask not just the iconic one used in the ads and branding, but of course the one worn on stage by the actor playing the phantom roger clark has the story behind the mask, which has become synonymous with new york's famed theater district.

“They gave me one of his old ones for me to copy, and that’s how it started. We made a mold from that, and copied it, and then Maria over the years kept changing it and developing it,” he said.

Including hollowing out the cheek, refining nose, Gordon says Bjornson had asked the nose to look more like her own nose, and the eyebrow also changed.

“It originally didn’t have any kind of [a] raised eyebrow at all, it was just sort of a flat surface. But you can see the difference in the two eyebrows here. And I think the eyebrow changed five times?” he noted.

Gordon has fitted many a Phantom backstage at the Majestic Theatre to make a template for the mask, made from vacuum forming plastic, a leather lining inside, and a wire to make sure it stays on the actor during performances.

“Sometimes you just do it and it’s perfect and there’s no adjustments to it, it’s quick and easy and sometimes it’s not, it’s not working right, and sometimes it’s the person is not used to it or something is different about the mold,” he said.

Gordon says every Phantom received at least two masks when they were hired. Those sometimes need to be replaced because, like anything, they break from time-to-time.

“One got stuck, the wire got stuck in the light socket in the dressing room, you know the mirror sockets, and it blew out the lights and snapped the wire in two,” he said.

Gordon allowed Roger to try on one of the masks he has made over the years, which theatre fans have probably noticed is different from the iconic mask used in the musical’s ad campaigns and branding over the years. How did that happen?

“The poster it’s cut across here and it has both eyes. This is totally different. I don’t think the poster has eyebrows either,” he said.

Nick Pramik is co-founder of RPM, a live entertainment and arts ad agency that has worked on Phantom for about three and a half years, including during its relaunch from the pandemic shutdown.

“It was designed by a man named Anthony Pagieri who was a legendary theatrical ad guy, his agency was called Dewynters, based in London, they still work with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh on their shows, and that’s why the mask looks different than the one that the Phantom wears in the show, because it was designed even before the show was designed,” Pramik said.

Pramik says the mask is a rare gift for Broadway, one of the few images that immediately announces what the show is...

“The phantom mask as it’s used in advertising its such a rarity for a Broadway show because you don’t need anything else around it to understand exactly what it is, you don’t need the title of the show next to it, you don’t need a pithy tagline to go along with it, you just look at that mask and anyone in the world knows exactly what it is,” he added.

That mask helped launch a legendary brand like no other. This mask, Gordon says, led to a long and successful career designing on Broadway. Ironically, he mainly focused on operas.

“I certainly learned a lot on that show when I first did it. Like I said, I had worked on several broadway shows but not that large and not on my own. And it was a huge learning experience for me, but it was good,” he said.

And even though this historic run on Broadway is ending, there’s no doubt the mask will live on forever, as a symbol of this show, and the magic of theatre and Broadway.



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    Yeston and Kopit The theatrical team of Maury Yeston (Music and Lyrics) and Arthur Kopit (Book) created a musical based on the novel, Phantom, which investors backed out of after Webber's version became a huge hit. In this version, Erik has spent his entire life living beneath the Opera.

  2. Unmasking the Death’s Head Reveal of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’

    Nowhere else is Chaney’s unique quality of “human, but almost not” more evident than in the disfigured ghoul of 1925’s Phantom of the Opera, one of Chaney’s most impressive make-up jobs, if not...

  3. What Happened To The Phantom Of The Opera’S Face

    Created by French author Gaston Leroux, the Phantom is a mysterious and tragic figure who haunts the Paris Opera House. One of the most intriguing aspects of the character is his disfigured face, which is always hidden behind a mask. But what exactly happened to the Phantom’s face?

  4. The story behind the Phantom's mask

    The mask itself was developed before it came to Broadway, designed by the show’s late scenic and costume designer Maria Bjornson, the mask brought over from London by the original Phantom,...

  5. What are the three main symbols in The Phantom of the Opera

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