John Merritt III
Costume Designer · Crafts Artisan· Wardrobe Supervisor· Stitcher

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Mask Making 

As a costume crafts Artisan, one of my favorite projects is mask making. My first endeavor with mask making started in Fall of 2016 when I was assigned Head Crafts Artisan for our production of Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play. I had to create and oversee the creation of fourteen masks that were worn during the third act of the play. My next mask project was in Fall 2017, when I costume designed and created a bird mask for our production of Anon(ymous) by Naomi Izuka. The methods I am familiar with in terms of mask making include toilet paper mache clay, varaform and thermoplastics, and plaster cloth bandage masks. 

Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play
By: Anne Washburn/Directed by: Eric Altheide 

Process: Toilet Paper Mache Clay

 The masks were made of toilet paper mache clay, a recipe found online. The director of the production had expressed he wanted the masks to look very primal as if these people made them with materials that would not require any electricity. With this said, I had to make the masks look very suggestive and primitive. I molded and constructed 6 masks, and supervised other students who molded the rest.

Step 1: Assessing the Designer's renderings of what the masks should look like. 

Design by: Shan Jensen 
Step 2: Forming the Mask on a styrofoam head with oil-based clay. 

Step 4: After sanding is complete, start applying the base coat of pant on the mask as desired. 

Molding & Sculpting the mask 

Step 3: After completely covering the oil based clay in Vaseline, I covered the clay with the paper mache mixture, paying special attention to the crevices under the eyes and not covering the underside of the mask to make it easy to pull off. Apply the nose while the mask is still wet, to adhere it to the mache. This makes it easier to pull off without risk of breaking the nose. 

Production Shot, Mr. Burns: Final Result

Step 5: After the base coat of paint, I added texture by dry bushing highlights and lowlights to the mask for depth.
After this, I used a heat gun and attached the eyeballs (cut and shaped from varaform) and attached it to the eyesockets. After this, I drimmeled holes into the front temple of the mask, to attach the headgear that cranked to the actor's headsize easily. 

Step 4: After the mask is completely bone dry, I then sanded the masks to every inch of its life. This is beneficial to remove the poking surfaces that dried from the mache. This could be sanded to be almost completely smooth, but I left it not as perfect for the look we were achieving, which is a primitive outcome. I used a drimmel, sandpaper, and other tools to achieve this. 

Production Images 

By: Naomi Iizuka/Directed by: Eric Altheide 

Process: Thermoplastics/Varaform 

After researching and deciding what my director and I thought what was appropiate for Zyclo's Pet Bird: we decided to go with the route that Mr. Zyclo,  The Butcher from Naomi Iizuka's Anon(ymous) has taken this woman captive, and essentially turned her into a bird. We believe the bird is supposed to represent mysogeny. Based that the Butcher was an Italian gangster from the 1940s, we decided to base the bird that she was originally from the 1920s. I took inspiration from Art Deco elements and the bondage/imprisoned concept I went with the costume, to tie this in with the mask as well. I had an idea that I wanted the mask to look similar of a bird's skull. Such as her being imprisoned has sucked the life from her and made her dead. I carried this idea a little further in the costume, with the bondage straps across her black dress that are somewhat skeletal. 

Bird Mask Research 

Bird Skull Research featuring 1940s bondage research, crow skull research and art deco motifs for painting of mask. 

Building Process 

Step 1: Start sculpting the mask on a styrofoam head with oil based sculpting clay. After straight applying and smoothing the clay, start to sculpt with fingers the desired shape of the mask across the head. Sculpting the skeletal hollow eyes to create the dramatic large eyes, and pointing the edge to give the mask a more sinister look. Add beak but prop up, so the beak does not overweigh the mask and cause it to deform it. 

Step 2: Cover the mask in plastic or saran wrap, to cushion the thermoplastic as a barrier between the clay and the thermoplastic so it is easier to come off. 

Layer 1

Layer 2

Step 3: Completely lather the mask in petroleum jelly so when the mask comes off, it comes off with ease and without any damage. this also slicks the saran wrap in place which serves as a barrier between the thermoplastic and the clay. 

Step 4: Using a hot plate/boiling/hot water, cut strips of the Varaform and apply them onto the mask. As soon as applied, begin smoothing down the edges of the varaform along the mask. Embracing the curvatures of the mask, begin wrapping the varaform around the eyes, the beak and across the edge of the cheek bone edge of the mask. After mask is completely covered, add more layers to cover the wholes of the Varaform (this will be reinforced along the next steps). After these steps, you're ready to remove the mask from the head!

Step 6: Begin removing the mask from the head. (Caution: This is very difficult to do) You must use a tool (whether its the sculpting tools or an edge to get down in the crevices of the clay to pry the mask/clay out of the head). After you have done this, scretch the mask over a blocked wig form so it doesnt loose its shape. Cut Varaform pieces that are poking/jabbing against the skin. 

Step 7: After cut and fit to the actors head, Start covering the holes of the Varaform with heavy artists gesso. Apply layer after layer (I applied 3 layers of gesso to my mask) 

Step 8: Begin applying acrylic paint and start detailing! (Spray paint will also work) 

Final Result 

Right Side View

Front Facing View 

Above View 

Left Side View