How to become a special effects makeup artist
Kelly Taylor is the course lead in Theatrical & Media Make-Up at Rugby College, part of the Warwickshire College Group. Kelly spoke to us about how to become a special effects makeup artist and ran through the skills, qualifications and dedication needed to succeed. She also tells us what it’s like to work in the make up industry and gives us her top tips for a career as a makeup artist.
What skills and qualifications do you need to become a makeup artist?
Most special effects makeup artists’ careers begin with a relevant course. Kelly explains what education and qualifications are needed and what a typical programme involves.
Direct Line for Business: Tell us about your journey from working in the industry to becoming a lecturer?
Kelly Taylor (KT): I started working in education five years ago, and before that I worked predominantly in films and fashion photography. A lot of my early work was voluntary, in theatre, to build my portfolio. After that I did a lot of bridal make up work to pay the bills and build my experience.
Direct Line for Business: What should prospective students expect from a special effects makeup course?
KT: Our students commonly join us at 16 years old for the BTEC Level 3 Diploma course in Theatrical & Media Make-Up. It’s a three-year, full-time course and students are also expected to complete a minimum of 30 hours’ industry experience during each academic year. This experience doesn’t have to be paid work, just anything that involves their skills and can be classed as work experience.
Should they need it, we have a number of work experience opportunities that students can sign up for. These include attending exhibitions such as Comic-Con and Creaturegeddon, as well as IMATS (the International Make-Up Artist Trade Show). Our students collect witness statements and/or before and after photos as evidence. We then critically assess this evidence and we refer to work experience as ‘time away’, not ‘time off’!
The first year of the course is all about the fundamental principles. We start with basic skincare, and progress through to prosthetic applications. The second is more specialised, enabling students to focus on a particular discipline. In the third year they can sharpen their skills and expand their portfolio. To help bridge the learning gaps, we’ll set projects or provide work packs during the summer holidays.
Direct Line for Business: How do you assess prospective students and what key skills and interests do you look for?
KT: It’s always good to have a creative background and nine times out of ten, our applicants will have a GCSE in a creative area, such as art, music or drama.
We request that applicants show us a hard copy portfolio, which just needs to be six to eight examples of their best work. It’s fine if they’re recreations of work they’ve seen elsewhere, but on our course we create original artists and not copycat artists. We teach our students the fundamental skills to ultimately produce work that reflects the best of their imaginations.
In addition to all the practical creativity, the course contains a lot of academic study, like anatomy. Therefore we’ll check previous exam results and also assess the student’s willingness to learn. Makeup artistry isn’t just about putting on foundation and pretty eyeshadow. It certainly isn’t the easy career option that some people might think it is.
Direct Line for Business: What other unexpected skills can students learn during a special effects makeup course?
KT: Something that often surprises people is how important it is to be able to do hair. It’s a major part of the industry and I don’t think I’ve ever done a job where I didn’t have to touch the hair — wig work and hair wrapping are extremely common.
We also support them to enter student competitions as it’s great practice for the busy, time-pressured environments that they’ll often have to work in. We’ve had WorldSkills winners (international competition showcasing the talents of young workers in a variety of trades), as well as students who’ve discovered a real talent for special effects makeup and have gone on to win major makeup competitions at events such as Olympia Beauty.
We also try to best prepare students for life beyond the course and tell them what sort of roles they should be applying for and how to present and store their portfolios. They’ll still be classed as assistants or ‘apprentices’ after they finish though, so unfortunately won’t go straight to being the lead makeup artist on Star Wars!
Direct Line for Business: What options are there for makeup artistry students who want to continue in education?
KT: There are now plenty of degree courses in special effects makeup. The benefit of these is that you get a lot more opportunity to learn and experiment using the latest products. Ultimately this gives you more ‘play time’, which you just don’t get when you start working. Once you leave education, you may have to fund the cost of buying and experimenting with the same products up-front, which can cost a lot of money.
That being said, a good special effects makeup college course will also expose you to contemporary products and techniques. In addition, you’ll learn loads of older techniques that are a vital and effective foundation for anything you go on to do, and that will also serve as a fallback if things go wrong.
I don’t think any makeup artist would ever say that they know it all. Even after 16 years in the industry, I know I’m still learning! New products and techniques appear all the time and it can be a matter of months for something that was cutting edge to become ‘old’.
In makeup artistry you always need a plan for a plan. No technique is foolproof, so you should always be prepared to use or create more than you need for a job.
Direct Line for Business: What tips doing you have for showcasing work? How should students go about preparing a portfolio for getting jobs in special effects makeup?
Good clean shots of their best work in hard copy is the best option, but we also advise them to have a copy on their phones, saved somewhere they can find quickly easily. You never know when you’ll have an opportunity to show your best work to someone influential, so always be prepared!
A typical makeup artist’s career
So once the initial training has been completed, what next? Kelly reveals what life is like for a newly-qualified special effects makeup artist.
Direct Line for Business: What are the most common career paths and opportunities to get ahead? Do you have any tips for a newly-qualified special effects makeup artists?
KT: Special effects makeup is part of the varied field of makeup artistry and also has a number of variations itself.
For example, you could be a creature makeup artist (e.g. the goblins in Harry Potter), a special effects makeup artist (e.g. a hospital drama), or a beauty makeup artist.
I’d say that nine times out of ten, makeup artists will work as freelancers — TV networks and film studios overwhelmingly employ this way. Therefore, it’s vital to have a good grasp of how to manage your taxes as well as a good understanding of your insurance needs.
You need to be aware that you won’t always be working — some makeup artists are only contracted for six months of the year. You’ll also be expected to be available every day that you commit to, so only apply for jobs for which you know you’ll be available. It’s not possible to take a day off for a wedding like you could in any other profession. ‘Pulling a sickie’ could also mean a black mark against your name, so take reasonable precautions when you’re on a job. The days can be very long so it’s not wise to go out partying after you finish for the day!
Special effects makeup artistry is not an industry that you can just fall into — you have to work extremely hard to get your start. Be prepared to collaborate in order to build a repertoire and contacts. Networking is also vital. I often find that networking is a struggle for young students, so it’s important to develop that skill early on if it doesn’t come naturally. You really have to get to know people and go to the right events to build contacts.
It’s also really important to know who’s who in the industry. I always advise my students that film credits are a quick and easy way to get information about people to contact for information and opportunities. That being said, don’t pin your hopes on the most senior/influential person. Maybe one in every thousand will get their lucky break from industry leaders, so you’re more likely to get noticed if you go through someone junior. Have a look at who works for, or used to work for, people you admire and reach out to them.
Market yourself well. Social media has made it much easier to find and contact people. It can also help you get recognised, so it’s a good idea to maintain a decent profile on Instagram or Twitter. However, you can’t simply rely on them to get you all the good jobs because that just won’t happen! Sadly, social media also makes it easier for people to copy your work to their advantage, but this can be managed by setting your accounts to private.
Direct Line for Business: What’s it like to work as a special effects makeup artist on a film or TV production?
KT: If you’re the lead then you’ll agree the costs before production starts — you’ll either be given a budget or expected to send a quote.
Once agreed, you can’t change the costs, unless of course, production overruns and additional budget is agreed. Always plan your special effects makeup to work within the budget, and not ‘to’ the budget! You’ll need to plan for contingencies so this should be factored in too. You could make the same mould three times and it won’t necessarily look or work the same!
Once the design and budget has been agreed with production, it’s essential that this doesn’t change. You’ll need to stick to what you’ve been given or what’s been agreed. If you’ve been given a brief, which includes certain products, you’ll have to stick to that - even if you think another product is better. You’re always a small cog in a big machine in these situations so there could be factors that you’re not aware of, e.g. allergies or the likelihood of stains from another product.
The hours are very unsociable. It’s unusual to work less than 13 hours a day on a film set. Therefore you’ve got to stay alert and can’t get in the way, though you’ll have to be nearby in case you’re required for a touch up. You’ll also have to have two makeup kits: a full one in the trailer and then a smaller, ‘on-set’ version. This smaller kit will include lots of quirky tools like a bottle of water, aspirin, first aid kit and a hand held fan. They may sound silly but they could become as essential to you as lipstick.
Continuity is key. Productions are rarely shot in sequence so you could find yourself working on the ending of the film and then the middle part in the same day. With that in mind, it’s essential to know how to correctly remove your special effects makeup. If not, you could end up with an actor with a red and irritated face, which could be problematic if they’re shooting a more natural look next.
Top tips for a career as a special effects makeup artist
Finally, here are Kelly’s top tips to be successful special effects makeup artist:
- Have an interest in creative subjects
- Choose a suitable college course
- Apply for the correct level of jobs and work experience
- Maintain a decent portfolio and online presence
- Network within the industry
- Keep up to date with new products and techniques
- Be conscientious and self-motivated
- Be business-savvy, both about your own financial interests and working to job budgets
- Don’t be afraid of failure — mistakes are inevitable. It’s important to understand why things go wrong, so use praise and criticism constructively as they’re equally important. You’ll never grow if you don’t take them on board
- Don’t give up!
If running your own special effects makeup company is something that you want to do, you may want to take a look at our tips for running a small business.
We’ve also created a free tool to give you the information you need to take the next step in your hair and beauty career. Click here to take a look and style your own pathway to success.