From the agents of the Mission: Impossible franchise to Arya Stark on Game of Thrones, characters in movies and TV shows have been able to pull off some serious stunts while wearing the faces of others. But while the magic that Arya was able to use thanks to her training as No One is hard to come by, the masks used in the Mission: Impossible movies are far more tangible thank you might imagine. In fact, the Central Intelligence Agency has been using them for years.
“So you know when you go to the dentist and you have a dental impression taken? That’s what we did to your whole face, being very careful to keep your nose open so that you could breathe while this was happening,” explains former CIA disguise chief Jonna Mendez. “We could change your gender, we could change your ethnicity, we could turn you into almost anything.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that the disguises are as effective, or as lifelike, as the ones you see in movies. “We couldn’t guarantee that that mask would animate,” Mendez says, pointing out that they often would’t move as naturally as a person’s real face.
Just because Mission: Impossible‘s fake faces aren’t too far removed from reality doesn’t mean every action-packed espionage drama gets it right. Watch Mendez break down the disguises in The Bourne Identity, The Americans, Alias, Homeland and many other spy-centric movies and shows in the video above.