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Tom Cruise, playing Ethan Hunt, stands next to one of his masks from the Mission: Impossible series Image: Paramount Pictures

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The Mission: Impossible masks are almost a reality

As Tom Cruise’s action franchise has evolved, so has the real-life inspiration

The first time Jonna Mendez wore a lifelike human mask, she grew increasingly paranoid. In the midst of a training exercise to test going undercover, the CIA’s former chief of disguise had chosen to stroll around Georgetown and impersonate a Black woman, wearing red stilettos and intricately-laced gloves to cover her extremities. But as she walked into a store, she couldn’t help but feel as though the woman behind the checkout counter was watching her. After quickly exiting, she was greeted by pouring rain and intense humidity, which began to fog up her glasses, trapping her as she waited for a surveillance team to pick her up. “It was a nightmare,” she says. “I had a worst-case scenario wearing that mask the very first time.”

The second time wearing one went much smoother. To show president George H.W. Bush the advances in the CIA’s mask technology, Mendez waited outside the Oval Office and nervously chewed her pencil in total disguise, this time masked as a female colleague. Upon entering with a group of men, including NSA advisor Brent Scowcroft and CIA director William H. Webster, Bush asked Mendez what she’d brought to show him. “I’m wearing it and I’ll take it off,” she said. After a brief inspection, the president gave up guessing what she was hiding, prompting Mendez to peel off her mask to the room’s delight. “It was definitely cool,” she says. “If you kept it on long enough, you’d forget you had it on.”

Polygon is diving into the world of espionage throughout fiction and pop culture history with Deep Cover, a two-week special issue covering all sorts of spy stories and gadgets.

By the early 1990s, the CIA’s mask technology had far superseded Hollywood’s, allowing for spy work to occur within feet of unsuspecting targets and marks. Several years later, Tom Cruise pulled off the same deceptive maneuver, only this time with the help of a visual effects team and months of carefully calibrated prosthetic work. Like the Mission: Impossible television series, albeit without the need for obvious editing tricks, the three-decade-spanning spy movie franchise has made mask-wearing and revealing a staple part of its movies, using them at shocking moments and highlighting their technologically superior handiwork as the series has progressed. As a result, the practical nature and seamless application of this spycraft has continued to invite questions about its regular and real-world use. Could someone unmistakably inhabit another person’s skin?

The answer is complicated. In an age of digital surveillance and cyber subterfuge (which has now rendered much of Mendez’s disguise work obsolete), tangible disguises are even more dependent on the context of a mask’s use, someone’s facial structure, and the resources at one’s disposal. “In order for things to look plausible,” says Kevin Yagher Productions makeup artist Mitchell Coughlin, “it all comes down to studying the subtle movements.” In some ways, nobody will ever mimic the movie magic of using two actors, a mask, and VFX tricks to suggest a flawless silicone mug. But over the last decade, as prosthetic material and technology has advanced along with the rise of deepfake AI, mask quality has never been better, and transforming into someone undetected has become much more accessible.

How spy masks have evolved

Ving Rhames, playing Luther Stickell, works on one of the masks from the Mission: Impossible series Image: Paramount Pictures

Before the CIA began making its own masks, it consulted with prosthetic makeup expert John Chambers. The craftsman responsible for the design of Spock’s ears and the mask work on Planet of the Apes, Chambers agreed to give the agency aluminum molds and teach its members how to make stunt double masks. In the 1970s, the CIA didn’t rely on anything too specific — as long as a field agent looked right from a distance and didn’t move too much, the generic-looking masks could be helpful in specific operations. “He wasn’t trying to sell us ape masks; he was trying to be a good American citizen,” Mendez says.

Over the next decade, the agency’s disguise lab began working on its own enhancements, creating “semi-animated masks,” which fit over half of someone’s face to blend into the eyes or mouth. Eventually, contracted artists developed fuller, more detailed masks, keeping them breathable and easily removable. “The requirement for our mask was you had to be able to put it on in a parked car, in the dark, and because it was made just for you, it would register,” Mendez says. “You had to have the confidence to know that this thing would work. It was a tall order.” When Mendez took the masks to Chambers to show him their advances, Mendez says he was stunned at the craftsmanship. “[Hollywood’s] version of reality and our version of reality were quite separate,” she says. “We needed something that was going to protect people.”

The details of the masks are still classified, but the makeup minds behind the Mission: Impossible movies eventually sharpened their craft with similar results. Despite their masks being supplemented with visual effects trickery, the franchise’s prosthetic artists have taken painstaking effort to get them as real as the actors they were meant to portray. As Mission: Impossible 2 makeup supervisor Coughlin describes, the process (which altogether can take up to a few months) begins with head casts of each actor to build a plaster positive. Later, silicone — the preferred material today — is poured through a tube that fills up the mask’s negative to create the skin. “There’s times when masks are great with foam rubber — it’s just opaque and you can’t really control the translucency,” Coughlin says. “It’s always great to have an intrinsically colored [silicone] that matches the actor.”

Then the digital trickery begins. In MI:2’s first-act plane sequence, for example, Dougray Scott’s villainous character wears Cruise’s face on a flight to secure a virus remedy, pulling off his mask once the passengers on board have passed out. On the actual set, the filmmakers used motion-controlled cameras (capable of repeating the same movements on multiple takes), and made sure both Cruise and Scott hit the same marks in the seat aisle so the VFX team could overlay both faces onto the mask and sync them together. “The reveal was really the thing that our mask was the function for,” Coughlin says. “We made the masks with the eyes open, so it looked like a shell of Tom Cruise when it wasn’t on.”

Throughout the next few movies, the mask-making and application process became more prominent and considered part of the plot. In Mission: Impossible 3, a high-tech robotic scanner automatically spray-colors a silicone mask of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s mug for Cruise to wear, while in Rogue Nation, sidekick Benji walks the IMF team through a mask-wearing plan that involves digital scans of his face before a 3D printer molds a mask out of a gooey substance in the span of several seconds. Though these speedy gadgets are fictional, a lot of the technology shown in the franchise extrapolates techniques that prosthetic artists use every day.

“Traditional sculpting and mold-making techniques are still very much in demand, but new digital solutions are becoming more affordable and effective,” says Christopher Goodman, a concept artist and 3D sculptor at Millennium FX. In the real world, he says, a 3D printer takes much longer than several seconds to print something, and can’t produce silicone or foam latex. But the process still has merit for effects teams searching for pinpoint accuracy. “3D scanning is extremely quick and reliable, digital modeling allows for great flexibility, and 3D printing can provide breathtaking detail,” he says. “Only recently I designed and created my first makeup entirely 3D-modeled and 3D-printed. Not a gram of sculpting clay was used.”

Becoming indistinguishable

A photo shows Mitchell Coughlin painting the mouth of a mask propped up on a desk.
Mission: Impossible 2 makeup supervisor Mitchell Coughlin works on one of his masks.
Photo: Kevin Yagher Productions

In 2019, researchers at the University of York and Kyoto University discovered that today’s silicone masks can fool the average person into believing that they’re real faces. The study involved British and Japanese participants looking at pairs of photographs and deciphering which face was actually a mask, and they got it wrong 20% of the time, even after psychologist Rob Jenkins admitted that researchers “showed them example masks before the test began.” Indeed, without side-by-side comparisons or recognizable faces, disguising yourself in public has become a somewhat easier game. In fact, today’s top silicone shops sell lifelike masks for $500–$700 on average. It’s no wonder why silicone masks have become a new tool for criminals.

As artificial intelligence continues to saturate every industry, facial deception has also advanced rapidly into digital spaces. That was most evident a couple years ago when Miles Fisher went viral with his deepfake Tom Cruise videos, which showed Fisher impersonating the A-lister’s mannerisms with Cruise’s actual visage rendered over his face. The videos — simple addresses to the camera — looked so real that many TikTok and Instagram users assumed Cruise was creating them himself. In reality, they had been made by Chris Ume, a visual effects whiz and the co-founder of Metaphysic, whom Fisher had initially asked to help with a parody video of Cruise running for president. “It was a fun collaboration,” Ume says. “He called me up and said, ‘This was fun, let’s do more.’”

Like a sculptor taking molds, Ume started pulling as much footage of Cruise from movies and interviews as he could, dropping his data sets into a neural network that puzzled together his face onto someone else’s. Much of the work still needed Ume’s artistic touch, but it helped that Fisher has a voice, hair, and facial features that match those of Cruise. “Whenever you’re working with a body double, you should at least have some similarities. Because if I put Tom Cruise on my face it wouldn’t work in 100 years,” Ume says. “Miles’ eyebrows are very big compared to Cruise and that’s not ideal, but it’s just the way he has his hair and his attitude that helps a lot.” Of course, as Mendez says, the best disguises incorporate more than just appearance — especially with more surveillance and security measures in place. Everything — gait, posture, countenance — goes into deception.

There are nefarious use cases for this kind of innovation (see: pornography), an occupational hazard in Ume’s profession. But it’s easy to see deepfake technology impacting spycraft today and helping makeup artists build even more realistic synthetic masks — or replace them entirely.

“We could make a perfect replica of your face based on data when you were 10 years younger and we can use that as a reference for people working on prosthetic masks,” Ume says. At the moment, Metaphysic is in the midst of de-aging Tom Hanks for an upcoming Robert Zemeckis movie, using the company’s same deepfake technology to build real-time software that can scan and rewind Hanks’ face 30 years to make an imperceptible digital mask. “The goal we have is that when you watch the movie,” Ume says, “you won’t see a difference.”