This Is Plastics: Plastics Bring the Silver Screen to Life


Plastics Bring the Silver Screen to Life

Plastics allow producers to push the envelope of possibility in movie prosthetics, animatronics, costume and set design.


At its peak in 2018, Hollywood was releasing over 800 movies annually. Each film requiring a dedicated set of artists, actors and technicians with one thing in common: plastics. Ironically, this was also the time when celebrities became outspoken about the use of plastic, supporting outright bans as well as diminished and regulated use. Considering Hollywood and the entertainment industry depend heavily on plastic for movie sets, costume design, camera equipment and even hair and makeup, celebrities’ calls for banning plastic on film sets is directly at odds with their careers. Directors depend on plastics to bring their visions to life and without plastic artistic freedom would be curtailed—the entertainment industry as we know it today, would be hard-pressed to find a more suitable substitute.

Plastic prosthetics create iconic movie moments

Plastic polymer silicone is the most used material in movie prosthetics. Given its functional and flexible properties, silicone-based prosthetics can depict changes in body anatomy, like a cut or wound, as was done with Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. According to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, DiCaprio’s wounds from a bear attack were the first time encapsulated silicone was used in a movie set, leading to a boom in fascinating costumes thereafter. In The Green Knight, a mythical King Arthur movie, actor Ralph Ineson portrayed the knight as a human-like tree. Lightweight foam and silicone rubber were used to turn his face into a tree, with the designer noting that he specifically chose the plastic materials because of their lighter weight and flexibility, allowing the tall structure to maintain its realistic shape and body.  

Jaw-dropping prosthetics are not the only use of silicone in this space; because silicone is so durable, yet still flexible and functional, its perfect for enhancing delicate facial features. In Hulu’s Pam and Tommy series, actress Lily James plays 90’s Hollywood icon, Pamela Anderson, and getting into character required her to undergo a daily makeup and prosthetic transformation. The makeup and costume designers dedicated their skills in the series to molding James into Anderson by using a variety of plastic-based materials. Using plastic prosthetics, special effects artists adjusted James’ hairline to match Anderson’s. James was also fitted with capped dentures put in and blue contact lenses to match Anderson’s iconic look—both of which are made from plastics.

Plastics bring new worlds to life with innovative costume design

Jaqueline West is an award-winning costume designer nominated for her work in Dune, a fantasy movie about a young man exploring his destiny on another planet. West was tasked with making hundreds of costumes to represent not only the young man and his family, but the warring factions on each side. The bodysuits sported by many of these characters were made from nylon and acrylic, plastic polymer-based fabrics. West notes she used these fabrics because of their moisture-wicking properties, which kept the actors—on set in the Jordanian desert—cooler and more comfortable.  

In the film Rocketman, a biopic about singing legend Elton John, costume designer Julian Day created a variety of energetic and colorful costume designs reminiscent of Elton John’s actual wardrobe for concerts and events. One notable outfit, the sequin Dodgers costume used for John’s concert at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles was recreated with 240,000 Swarovski crystals. While Swarovski’s manufacturing process remains confidential, the crystals are actually a plastic-glass composite, made by melting lead crystal and silicone oxide powders.

Building a cinematic and lifelike world is simpler with plastics

“Plastics can recreate anything,” according to Piedmont Plastics, a construction company dedicated to designing and creating movie sets for Hollywood. Using tools and technologies like thermoforming, direct print technology and other methods of construction, Piedmont can create intricate, realistic-looking sets, cityscapes, home interiors and even fake food. The company also uses recyclable plastics, giving once discarded objects a secondary function. Materials like acrylics, polycarbonate, foam PVC and the PSG family of products are all frequently used on movie sets.

In 1996, plastics were put to the test during the filming of box office hit, Titanic. Twentieth Century Fox built Baja Studios, a facility in Rosarito, Mexico specifically designed to fit a one-sided full-scale model of the ship. Since its construction, the set has been used in films like Master and Commander, Pearl Harbor and Tomorrow Never Dies. The use of plastic in the studios is prevalent with water tanks and floating all depending on the material to operate.

The indoor and outdoor water tanks, which vary in size and have a total volume of 20 million gallons, are made of fiberglass and concrete. According to experts, fiberglass is commonly used for storage tanks, piping and residential construction because of its powerful synthetic properties which include being durable, strong and fire-resistant. Each tank also has floating platforms, used by film crews to film and manage the scene. According to a floating platform supplier, AccuDock, plastic is the preferred material for floating docks because of its durability, easy installation and inexpensive cost. Unlike wood, plastic is not easily damaged by water, sun or insects, extending the platform’s longevity.

Like The Revenant and Rocketman, Titanic went on to win many Academy Awards in 1998, among them best production design, cinematography, and best picture. These three movies benefitted greatly from the use of plastic, not only in bringing their story to life, but also profiting from the box office popularity. Yet, celebrities in the industry continue to disregard and undervalue the essential material that makes their films possible. Plastics play an essential role in Hollywood. From the first movies recorded onto plastic film, to today’s widespread use of the material, plastics continue to power the silver screen.

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