The Truth About Creating Fake Teeth For Movies

Fake teeth are the cornerstone of some of the most memorable transformations in film and television. When you think about iconic portrayals like Mike Meyers in "Austin Powers" and Robin Williams in "Mrs. Doubtfire," their exaggerated teeth are probably the first thing to come to mind. Gary Archer, the dental technician and prosthetic mastermind behind both of these films, is known as "the Godfather of FX teeth."

"When I first started doing specialized teeth for film and television back in the early 90s, there was nobody that was doing this," Archer tells POPSUGAR. "But over the years, I've seen many, many more makeup effects people start to do it."

Today, dental prosthetics in film include everything from subtle enhancements to cartoonish character teeth to gory designs for monster movies. Recent TV series like 2022's "Pam & Tommy," based on Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, have drawn attention to the impact that dental prosthetics can have on a production, especially when depicting a real-life person. The same can be said for Rami Malek's transformation into Freddy Mercury for "Bohemian Rhapsody," which included multiple pairs of artificial teeth to re-create the Queen frontman's pronounced overbite.

There are also a lot of dental prosthetics that go completely unnoticed by audiences. When creating the aged looks for the flash-forward interview sequences on "Daisy Jones & The Six," Archer gave the actors "plumpers," which are placed along the gums in order to give the face a fuller appearance. (A similar technique was used to create Marlon Brando's distinct way of speaking in "The Godfather.") "It bulks the mouth out a bit, so it makes them look a little bit older, without having to put a lot of prosthetics on the outside," Archer says.

Undetectable or not, dental prosthetics undoubtedly play a huge role in visual storytelling. "Dental prosthetics are one of the important elements in creating a character," says Art Sakamoto, a dental prosthetics designer whose credits include "Monster" (2003), "Joker" (2019), and "The Batman" (2022). "They help reveal personalities, personal history, and all kinds of information." He also notes that because fake teeth instantly transform an actor's appearance, it allows them to be able to get into character quickly.

Considerations Before Designing Prosthetic Teeth For TV and Film

Before the design process begins, a production company will typically contact an individual dental prosthetic designer, like Archer or Sakamoto, or a special effects company such as Autonomous FX, the LA-based shop that created the prosthetics for "Pam & Tommy." The dental technician will first take a mold of the actor's teeth before diving into research and discussing the character with the director, producer, and makeup artists.

"I sketch several designs considering the character's concept makeup design, age, gender, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, religion, where they're from, the time period of the story, and also their relationship with the other characters," Sakamoto says.

Aaron Globerman, the mold shop supervisor and dental technician at Autonomous FX, says his process differs slightly since his company works on every aspect of the makeup design. "Anything that I make is within the design of the makeup, so I get to work with the [makeup] team on every step of the process," he says. For example, because Lily James wore teeth, forehead, and chest prosthetics on "Pam & Tommy," Globerman and the team worked together to cast all of her molds at once.

Lily James's fake teeth as Pamela Anderson in Pam and Tommy
Erin Simkin | ©Hulu / Courtesy Everett Collection

The Process of Creating Prosthetic Teeth For TV and Film

Once the design has been determined, the technician gets to work creating the prosthetic. Using the appropriate materials and techniques is crucial in ensuring the safety of the actor, but as Archer points out, there is a stunning lack of regulation in this area.

Dental prosthetics are one of the important elements in creating a character. They help reveal personalities, personal history, and all kinds of information.

Because dental prosthetics are not permanent, he explains, Hollywood productions can skirt American Dental Association guidelines, such as requiring a licensed dental technician to create and apply prosthetics. "If you don't do it right, you're likely to chip, damage, potentially break a tooth, and I've seen that happen," Archer says.

After the prosthetic is created, screen tests are done to fine-tune the design. "It is very important to participate in the makeup and camera tests to check the fittings, shades, size, light reflection, contrast between the skin tone, and correct any imperfections," says Sakamoto.

The screen test also gives the actor a chance to get accustomed to the prosthetic. In some cases, like with Lily James on "Pam & Tommy" and Rami Malek in "Bohemian Rhapsody," the effects team will provide an extra set of prosthetics so that the actor can practice with it off-set as well.

How the Hollywood Veneers Craze Has Impacted Prosthetic Teeth Design

Because veneers have become ubiquitous in Hollywood, it's made it increasingly difficult for special effects artists to create certain kinds of looks.

"[With veneers], the length of the teeth increases, the width of the teeth increases, their smile has become broader," Archer explains. "So anytime you make something over the top of it, you have to be able to hide what's underneath. And that's not always easy, because if you've got someone with a big wide smile, you can't make it look smaller." Globerman likens it to "pulling off a magic trick," saying that the process involves a lot of trial and error.

Invisalign has also become prominent, which can pose its own set of issues for prosthetic designers. With Invisalign, nub-like attachments are placed on the teeth to help the trays guide the teeth into the correct place. "The problem that causes is since that's sticking out, you only have so much that you could build up," Globerman says. "That hinders the process to make the teeth look smaller."

"We've done a lot of kids shows and the kids need fake braces or vampire teeth," adds Mike McCarty, a supervisor at Autonomous FX. "All these kids have Invisalign, and that's totally changing the structure of the mouth over the course of a month or six weeks, which means at some point the teeth we make them aren't gonna fit anymore. So now we have to recast them and do the whole process over again."

However, with new challenges comes new innovation in the field of dental prosthetics in film and television. "Things have been changing and developing faster; trends and consumer demands change fast too," says Sakamoto. "The only I can control is to try to improve my skills and learn new things. Things I couldn't do 10 years ago, I can do now. So am pretty sure someday I'll be able to accomplish things I cannot do at this moment."