Max and the Tube

Max Factor is widely known for, amongst other things, his contributions to the motion picture industry and many of the solutions he invented ended up in the make-up bags of the general public. After the Second World War the motion picture industry became increasingly threatened by television but Max Factor & Co. were involved in this new industry as well.

Commercial television came to America during the forties and fifties but, as in Europe, there were test transmissions in the thirties. It was soon found that there were problems associated with the use of make-up in the new medium. Make-up that looked good in real life or that worked in film, looked terrible on black-and-white television shot by Image Iconoscope camera tubes – used for broadcasting in the United States until 1946. The firm of Max Factor provided a solution.

Max Jr. then turned his attention to make-up for television. Earlier, in 1933, he had worked with his father on experimental tests, and again on his own in 1946, to introduce the first make-up for black and white commercial television.

(Basten, 2008, p. 145)

The main problem was how the camera tubes recorded colour.

Green Replaces Red in Make-up for Television

Green lipstick and rouge replace the customary red in make-up designed for actresses appearing in television broadcasts. The television camera, it is explained, does not record the red coloring in the human complexion, leaving the transmitted image flat and unnatural. When green is substituted, however, the lips and cheeks of a performer appear in accurate relation of tones with other facial features as the image is projected on the screen of the receiver.

(Modern Mechanics)

The BBC’s London Television Service (a non commercial broadcaster) had also encountered make-up difficulties. The problem must have been well known, as a discussion of it ended up in ‘The Art and Craft of Hairdressing’ (Bari-Woolls, 1936) – the same year regular television broadcasts started in London. Before you ask how the hairdressers got into the TV business, it should be remembered that both Max Factor and the Westmores started out in hair.

British television in the thirties had some problems not experienced by later broadcasters. They were transmitting in two forms, one of which was partly mechanical (the Baird system), and they were also using Image Iconoscope camera tubes – called Super-Emitron in Great Britain – which had a much lower line standard than that used after the war and a correspondingly reduced picture definition. This explains some of the discussion outlined below.


This new branch of entertainment has brought with it an entirely new technique of make-up. Here two considerations decide the kind of make-up to be used. The first is light sensitivity at the transmitter; the second is the degree of definition attainable at the receiving station. Since the received picture is in monochrome, that is black and white, or black and red, or black and green, colour does not appear on the screen. There are two methods of scanning the scene. One is to flood it with light and to scan it with a mechanical or electrical device. The other is to light it with a moving spot of light. Whatever coloured light is used, the colour used for the make-up must provide deep contrasts, but owing to the fact that the photo-sensitive cells used for transmitting are preponderantly sensitive to one range of colour the actual colour of the make-up must be the complementary colour of that which most affects the “electric eye.” Thus, if the cell is sensitive to red the make-up must be green. With such a cell, the actor would use green for shadows, wrinkles, eye shade, eyebrows, etc., while he would use red to soften out shadows and blemishes.
Again, the television screen shows a picture that is made up of lines of varying depth of shadow and light. Many factors limit the number of lines which can be used so that the picture is comparatively coarse and rather like a rough half-tone block. Definition of a very high order is therefore not yet practicable. Hence at the receiver, particularly with thirty-line television, the features are very blurred and indistinct. Soft graduations of details in the actor’s face are lost altogether. For this reason in the chief purpose of television make-up to increase the contrast. The lips, nostrils, and eye shadows are very deeply made up with green or purple according to which system is used, and any facial lines to be emphasized are lined in with the same colour. Shadows which have to be removed are covered with colour of the same hue as that to which the photo-cell is most sensitive, which, in the case mentioned above, where green was used for heavy contrast, would be red. The same considerations enter into the costumes used in television. Only when photo-cells can be made panchromatic and the definition of television systems increased to the fineness of the cinema film will ordinary cinema make-up technique be of any use.

(Foan & Bari-Woolls, 1936, p. 500)

This situation did not last for long; television imaging improved after the Second World War, particularly following the introduction of Image Orthicon cameras developed by RCA. First announced in 1939, Orthicon cameras were ten to twenty times more sensitive than Image Iconoscope (Fisher & Fisher, 1996) and the increased sensitivity meant that the pick-up tubes began reproducing gray tones as faithfully as panchromatic film – as predicted by Foan & Bari-Woolls. The arrival of colour television introduced some new problems but predicably, Max Factor developed make-up suitable for colour television production as well.

See also: Early Movie Make-up, Panchromatic Make-up and Max Factor

Updated: 17th April 2015


Basten, F. (2008). Max Factor: The man who changed the faces of the world. New York: Arcade Publishing.

Fisher, D. E. & Fisher, M. J. (1996). Tube: The invention of television. Washington: Counterpoint.

Foan, G. A., & Bari-Woolls, J. (Eds.). (1936). The art and craft of hairdressing: The standard and complete guide to the technique of modern hairdressing, manicure, massage and beauty culture (2nd ed.). London: New Era Publishing.