Oh, Those Eyes!

Columbia TriStar Marketing

Even if a film misses out on critical raves, its mastery of maquillage can still muster nominations.

In early January, select members of the Academy's Makeup Artist and Hairstylist Branch will compile a short list of films in competition. Two weeks later, nominations will be chosen at what's called the "bake-off," where contenders present photos and 10-minute clips of their work and even prosthetics. Last year, seven films made the cut and only three were nominated.

Historically, nods go to major transformations, period looks and fantasy/sci-fi/horror. But a film need not be critically hailed or have big box office to get a shot. Awards season publicist Tony Angellotti has worked on widely panned films that still snagged noms. "The Affair of the Necklace was shredded critically, but we still got a nomination," he says. He also masterminded Universal's 2011 campaign for The Wolfman. "Worst movie of the entire year and it wins," laughs Angellotti. "We had a great backstory with Rick Baker. He was the recipient of the very first Oscar for Best Makeup for American Werewolf in Paris in 1982. He'd had 11 nominations and six wins since then. He went in and explained that there was no CGI, they did it all the old-fashioned way. That's what did it." (Baker's Oscar was shared with Dave Elsey.)

Here are some of the top contenders for 2012:

The Artist: "Because everything was in grayscale, I utilized a black-and-white monitor to assess the gradations in every scene and adjusted accordingly," says makeup head Julie Hewett. "I wanted the makeup to look like a George Hurrell photo come to life."

Anonymous: Makeup department heads Bjorn Rehbein and Heike Merker say the big challenge was re-creating the otherworldly beauty of Elizabethan times. "Women wanted their faces to look like the moon; pale, shimmery and round," says Rehbein. "We used thick layers of theatrical makeup with powder applied with the classic puff to create that Kabuki mask."

J. Edgar: The biopic required its Hollywood-handsome star Leonardo DiCaprio to look like the pug-faced FBI director and age 50 years. No mean feat. Makeup head Sian Grigg kept the actor in the makeup chair for six to seven hours a day and relied on multiple prosthetics including fake teeth, a bald cap and colored milky contacts.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2: Sure, we've seen Voldemort's noseless mug for a few films, but how about the final film's goblin bankers? According to makeup head Nick Dudman, every prosthetic was hand-painted, and over 170 artists applied the makeup, which took four hours per goblin.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: Disney's franchise won noms in 2003 and 2008. This year, voters will be looking for what's fresh, and they'll find it, says Joel Harlow, an Oscar winner for 2009's Star Trek, pointing to the addition of mermaids. "We created 14-foot silicone mermaid bodies with the iridescent scale shimmer that real fish possess."