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Are hyper-realistic silicone masks believable?

Hyper-realistic silicone masks are now not just the province of Hollywood movie directors with big production special effects budgets. For less than £350 plus delivery you can order a silicone mask and transform yourself in seconds, exactly as they do on film sets.

From scary realistic old man masks to incredible other-worldly creature masks to gory and gruesome zombie masks, there’s a silicone mask out there for every taste. Aside from the freaky creature silicone mask wonderfulness you can buy from Mind Magic Studios, when it comes to human faces, are silicone masks really that believable? Would you be able to easily spot someone wearing a silicone mask in real life?

Join me to find out:

Why are silicone masks so realistic?

“ “ (that’s the sound an idea makes)

Every silicone mask begins in a sculptor’s head as an idea. The creative process works differently for everyone. For me, sometimes I dream of a face and just have to sculpt it. This is about the only time I can get away with gazing into Mrs Mind Magic Studios’ eyes in the morning and telling her that I had an amazing dream about a face that is not hers. Otherwise its divorce papers.

This is Bruce, the Mind Magic Studios cat.

He's dreaming up a new silicone mask. He works for cat biscuits.

Other times the world goes mad for a particular horror trope, and before you know it your sculpting itch starts and you have to create your own take on it. Zombies have always been popular but the fandom of The Walking Dead and Sean of the Dead have definitely seen zombies bite their way into the mainstream, followed by a huge slew of zombie silicone masks and zombie related events.

Facial deviancy

Once you hit the clay, your sculpting skills will dictate whether you can achieve a hyper-realistic silicone mask by the end of the process. The best sculptors will have studied and will have a full working knowledge of anatomy which they will accurately translate to the clay.

When sculpting hyper-realistic human faces, the smallest deviations from a regular anatomy won’t notice. Hey we’re all different. You know your face isn’t regular, right? You know you probably have one eye slightly differently placed than the other? Go and study your face for a bit and see what you notice.

Sculpting for human hyper-realism also means being really careful with the features that run vertically down the middle of the face. Science shows us that we will notice things about noses and eyes far more than say the ears which are further away from that middle point.

Our faces are of course unique so you expect to see deviations unless you are sculpting a likeness of a real person, in which case the measurements have to be perfectly accurate. Even a few millimetres off and the sculpt will be wrong.

Deviations from what is anatomically normal will whisk you into ‘uncanny valley’ where the face looks really ‘off’ but you can’t necessarily place why. Go and distort your face just a little bit in an app like Photo Booth and see what happens.

Really large deviations from the norm will move you away from sculpting a hyper-realistic human silicone mask and into creature mask territory. That’s no bad thing provided that’s what you’re after and sometimes the most interesting masks can be found inhabiting that half-way between human and non-human space.

Pimples, dimples and crinkly wrinkles

Once the anatomy is correct, it’s onto the detailing.

I really love this part of the process as it’s all about sculpting pores, skin texture, pimples, dimples, wrinkles and all that fun stuff. These might seem like small details in the sculpt but they are critical. They are just as important as being anatomically correct when it comes to knocking a hyper-realistic human silicone mask out of the park.

A good sculptor will also have a thorough knowledge of how the body and skin look at different ages and use this in their work. For a hyper-realistic old person there should be signs of skin ageing such as uneven pigmentation, spots, wrinkles, sagging skin folds.

The time and care required to achieve the detailing needed for a hyper-realistic silicone mask is is one of the reasons why they can be at the pricier end of the market.

Close up detailing of a silicone mask.

Spray you love me

Platinum silicone is the industry standard when it comes to casting high-end silicone masks. It picks out all that lovely skin texture just beautifully. Just as every artist needs a good canvas, so every mask maker needs to have cast out a beautifully textured mask to paint.

Achieving a hyper-realistic effect also comes down to how and how well you paint the silicone mask. This is a skill in its own right. Your mission at this point is to really enhance all the gorgeous detailing that you have painstakingly sculpted to achieve maximum believability.

This careful hand-painting stage typically involves various layers and effects and is another reason why premium silicone masks are more expensive than latex masks. What this does give you though is breath-taking realism and is it one of the main reasons why I love creating silicone masks so much.

Facial movement

This brings us onto the last aspect of what makes a really convincing silicone mask, and this point applies to creature masks as well as hyper-realistic silicone masks.

When you’re silicone mask shopping, maybe you have a particular trope in mind, like say a zombie. You fancy a good dose of gore like our gruesome twosome Percy and Klawdeen.

Perhaps you aren’t sure and want to just have a browse until the particular character of a mask grabs you. Maybe it’s interesting cheek bones or weird and wonderful skin texture. Or a hair punched masterpiece if you fancy the ‘windswept and interesting’ look.

Whatever your fancy, you want to be able to emote. You want to speak convincingly in your mask. You want your mask fit snugly to your face so that it reflects your facial movements too. This is what sets silicone masks apart from latex masks. Take a look at our Big Red silicone mask for an idea of the type of movement you can achieve:

How silicone masks really can fool you in real life

Researchers from the University of York have performed several studies that show how we humans actually find it really difficult to spot someone wearing a hyper-realistic mask in photos. Here’s one of the researchers talking to Wired Magazine about the study:

So the cynic in you is possibly saying “well that’s all well and good if you aren’t moving your face but what about in real life?”

Cue the next bit of research published in February 2020:

“Fifty-four visitors at the London Science Museum viewed a mask wearer at close range (2 m) as part of a mock passport check. They then answered a series of questions designed to assess mask detection, while the masked traveller was still in view. In the identity matching task, 8% of viewers accepted the mask as matching a real photo of someone else, and 82% accepted the match between masked person and masked photo. When asked if there was any reason to detain the traveller, only 13% of viewers mentioned a mask. A further 11% picked disguise from a list of suggested reasons. Even after reading about mask-related fraud, 10% of viewers judged that the traveller was not wearing a mask. Overall, mask detection was poor and was not predicted by unfamiliar face matching performance. We conclude that hyper-realistic face masks could go undetected during live identity checks.”

How criminals are using hyper-realistic silicone masks to commit crimes?

This is the bit that makes silicone mask makers really, really unhappy. On behalf of the global silicone mask-making community, I ask you not to use any of our silicone masks to commit crimes.

Lecture over.

Now let’s see a few examples of the types of crimes these masked rotters have been committing:

  • In 2019 the BBC reported that “an individual or individuals impersonating France’s defence minister” scammed an estimated £70m / $90m from wealthy victims. During video calls the imposter wore a custom-made mask of the defence minister whilst sat in a replica of the minister’s office.

  • In 2010 CNN reported that a passenger boarded an Air Canada flight to Vancouver disguised as an old man. The imposter turned out to be an ‘Asian looking male that appeared to be in his early 20s’ who was subsequently escorted off the plan.

  • In 2011, the FBI offered a $20,000 reward to help them find the ‘Geezer Bandit’, responsible for various bank robberies in Southern California whilst wearing an old man mask. The mask convinced six of the seven bank tellers that the robber was an African-American man. Turns out it was a 30 year old Polish immigrant.

Use it, don't abuse it

When you buy a premium, high-quality movie-grade silicone mask, you're buying the culmination of a skilled sculptor's knowledge and skill in:

  • mask design

  • anatomy

  • skin texturing

  • moulding

  • casting

  • painting

If any of these ingredients are missing then you won't end up with a finished mask that is a believable to a hyper-realistic level.

The scientific research is catching up now and proving just how far hyper-realistic silicone masks really can fool us in real life. This has big implications for identity fraud as well as other types of criminal activity as we've seen from the examples I shared above.

It will be fascinating to see what approaches and technologies develop to counter this new threat. Recruiting and training the right individuals to be able to quickly and accurately identify when someone is wearing a mask is one option. However with the advent of e-gates electronic passport gates it may well be that it is the technology that provides the most reliable solution.


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