Adding the Final Touches: Makeup Artists in Film

Whether makeup artists are orchestrating dramatic transformations or simply preparing actors’ skin for high-definition cameras, they remain a vital part of any production.
By  · Published on December 30th, 2019

Since film and televisions’ earliest days, professional makeup artists have received acclaim for using their practical skills to turn actors into monsters or fantastical beings or to give them noticeably high-fashion makeup treatments. But even when radical transformations aren’t necessary, these professionals are a key part of preparing actors to hold up under high-definition cameras and lighting.

In the two-volume BAFTA Guru video series “In Focus, Hair and Makeup,” several high-profile makeup artists share advice on how best to create makeup designs and effects that elevate the characters and atmosphere of a project.

Even if a character doesn’t need more than a particularly noticeable makeup look, actors still need to be made “Camera Ready” — in which their skin is prepared to reflect on-set lighting and ultra-perceptive HD cameras.

“We’re going into a new renaissance of digital filmmaking that’s changing everything. But even in the more traditional crafts, such as costume, makeup, and hair…the fact that we’re now shooting on 48 frames, 3-D, high-def means that the technology within the cameras can see everything,” says Richard Taylor, who served as the creative supervisor of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films.

There are four main job titles within the makeup department, which dictate what responsibilities makeup artists will have on-set: key makeup artists, makeup artists, makeup assistants, and special effects makeup artists.

As their name suggests, key (or head) makeup artists run the show. They’re in charge of designing and applying each actor’s makeup as well as carrying out any particularly complex designs. It’s up to them to maintain continuity throughout the shoot, overseeing other makeup artists and assistants.

Makeup artists are second in command, designing and applying makeup to non-lead actors and a film or TV show’s general supporting cast. Makeup assistants help makeup artists to carry out their duties, completing smaller tasks such as organizing makeup kits and photographing cast makeup to help key artists ensure consistency.

When it comes to designing characters’ makeup looks, considering the time period and setting of the film or TV show that the artist is working on is crucial.

“If you do a period film, then you need to do research, so you have to know the look of the period,” says Lois Burwell, who won a Best Makeup Oscar for her work on Braveheart. “I always find it useful to actually go 10 years either side of the year you’re actually filming. As in life now, not everyone follows that fashion or that look for that moment. So, you create a world that’s believable.”

Makeup artists’ designs can also play a huge role in shaping how contemporary characters are visually perceived and characterized by audiences. Perhaps some of the best examples are the much-buzzed-about makeup looks in Sam Levinson’s new HBO drama Euphoria. The show’s central group of high schoolers are often covered in rhinestones, glitter, and neon eyeshadow in everyday scenes, adding to its hyperrealism and illustrating each character’s arc through the bright makeup on their faces.

“There’s subliminal emotional messages always in all the makeup,” head makeup artist Doniella Davy told Allure. “Usually, so-and-so has their everyday look, and that’s just their look. This was completely different because [Levinson] wanted the makeup to be its own full expression of what was going on with the characters. If they’re experiencing different emotions and circumstances in all these scenes, then the makeup had to be different.”

When it comes to executing more fantastical, unnatural looks, such as creating monsters and aliens, making an actor look older, or making fake injuries, special effects (or SFX) makeup artists provide their much-needed expertise. Apart from being well-versed in the same cosmetology skills that their more conventional colleagues use, SFX makeup artists need to have a strong knowledge of fake blood, latex, rubber, and other materials that create realistic-looking prosthetics. 

Other crucial elements of an SFX makeup artist’s kit include a bruise and abrasions wheel (a makeup wheel containing colors suited for creating believable bruises), liquid latex and silicon (which create the three-dimensional texture of modern prosthetics), and spirit gum (an adhesive that allows artists to attach prosthetics and wigs to actors’ faces and heads).

Because of high-definition cameras, SFX makeup artists have had to create new, more believable prosthetic materials. “The old prosthetics used to be foam rubber,” says Neil Gorton, a special effects makeup artist known for his work on Doctor Who and the films Children of Men and Saving Private Ryan. “They were opaque, so they reflected light very strangely. Nowadays, with high definition, you just can’t do that kind of makeup and pass it for absolutely real.”

Regardless of where aspiring makeup artists are trained or what kind of makeup they prefer to specialize in, Rick Findlater, a makeup artist on The Hobbit and Avatar, recommends that these creatives find the truth in whatever makeup job they’re approaching each day. “Don’t do [makeup] like you think it looks; do it like it is,” he says. “So, if you keep that in mind, you simply can’t go wrong.”

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