Have you ever wondered how aliens and certain characters in TV and films get their unique looks? Of course, it’s a team effort on the part of the writers and directors, but the artist that makes that vision reality is a Special effects makeup artist.
Most productions have a makeup person in charge of keeping everyone looking sharp on camera. But when special effects like bruises, cuts, fake blood, or lacerations are required, the SFX makeup artist is called. For shows with aliens or unique makeup, these artists get the pleasure of creating some of the most memorable parts of the series.
What is Special Effects Makeup?
Special effects makeup, or SFX makeup, is the use of cosmetics and prosthetics to create special effects for camera, film, or live-action theater. The effects can be simple, like bruises or fake blood from a fistfight. Or they can be complex and elaborate, like brain-eating zombies or aliens from other planets. The only limit is your creativity.
As a career, SFX makeup artists range from part-time hobbyists who work with local theater troupes or film schools to full-time salaried professionals working on major film projects.
Special FX Makeup Schools
There are many special effects makeup schools that have certificate programs and courses. If you want to dive into a career, these are a great place to start researching, even if you don’t go to them.
YouTube is another excellent resource. Since it is a creative field, SFX makeup artists are always online sharing their latest creations and techniques. There are countless video tutorials and numerous blogs with a wealth of information. They range in experience level from novices to salaried professionals. Many use drug-store cosmetics while others use a professional special effects makeup kit. The great thing about using online tutorials and practicing at home on friends is that you can get a feel for what it takes to get into SFX makeup without committing. If you have a knack and passion for it, then you can pursue going to one of the special effects makeup schools while you continue to experiment with your new hobby.
As with other creative professions, going to one of the major special effects makeup schools has benefits beyond book learning. All will include hand-on experience too. But more importantly, these curriculums are taught by people with industry experience. They are networking opportunities and places where you can meet people in the know. Many offer mentorship programs that extend beyond the classroom and even continue after you leave school.
Online SFX makeup schools also exist. Courses like these allow you to get one-on-one training from anywhere. You are sent a professional grade makeup kit, and your homework is to send in before and after shots of the subjects of your projects. This opens up professional-level training to nearly anyone. And of course, there are numerous video courses and workbooks available if you search online.
When looking for training schools, look beyond the obvious how-tos. You also want a school that can help you in the business. Can they help you land gigs and get your portfolio up to snuff? Do not underestimate the importance of the business side of SFX makeup as a career path. Success will mean knowing how to market yourself, land gigs, and create a profitable business.
The Best Special FX Makeup Courses
Cinema Makeup School
Cinema Makeup offers an on-ground four-week SFX makeup class that teaches you everything you want to know about professional SFX makeup. No experience is necessary to take the course, but they do recommend that students have some experiences in sculpting or molding. You can either take those courses first or submit your portfolio to prove you have that experience.Topics included in the course range from sculpting and dental appliances to blood and finishing.
The school is located in Los Angeles and has been in business since 1993. The school’s goals are to pair students with established talent and to teach the latest methods.
This online course enables you to learn SFX makeup at home, without traveling to schools in New York or Los Angeles. Instructors are based in New York and provide students with one-on-one guidance and mentorship. The goal of the course is to help you build a professional quality portfolio and to help you land a professional gig.
The course includes a makeup kit enabling you to apply what you learn. Throughout the course, you will complete projects and submit them to the instructor for review. Being a student enables you to take advantage of a Pro Card discount program on makeup and supplies.
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Complete Guide to Special Effects Makeup Workbook
If studying at home is more your style, check out this wonderful book from the Tokyo SFX Makeup Workshop. The book includes many truly unique effects and looks and provides how-tos and step-by-step details of how the look is accomplished.
The book is thorough, but some reviewers note that it is not for beginners. This book is intended for intermediate or advanced makeup artists who have some experience with the basics and are looking to take their work to the next level. Do not expect beginner-level tutorials here.
Special Effects Makeup Kit
Makeup kits come in every shape and size. You can start on the drug store cosmetics aisle, where you can get a lot of the basic skin tone colors. With a blue palette, you can easily create bruises and other effects. Of course, a good selection of applicators and brushes is a must-have. But if you want to dig in even deeper, you’ll want to consider one of the professional-level kits available online.
Professional kits come with several things, but generally, they can be divided into some groups. For one thing, you’ll want to have a good selection of bruises and blood options. You should be able to make anyone’s skin tone look beaten and raw.
You will also need the ability to create prosthetic effects. For this, 3D modeling clay is often used. Bald caps and other latex accessories can be added to complete the look. Liquid latex is a product that can be used to create very real looking lacerations or burns. Castor seal allows makeup to be applied atop latex accessories. Finally, some form of glue, like spirit gum, is used to get accessories to stick to the performer's skin.
You’ll also want to have a complete kit of makeup and adhesive removers on hand to fix mistakes and to get the performer looking normal when the show’s over!
When you’re just starting and doing small jobs, you’ll be expected to have your makeup kit with you. Bigger productions will come with facilities and large enough budgets that they can provide whatever you need to meet the director’s vision.
Special Effects Makeup Artist Eligibility
Like any other artist, eligibility to be a makeup artist is all about your experience and your portfolio. Part of becoming a creative professional is always about marketing yourself for the gigs you want to get.
Your portfolio should include a comprehensive set of before and after shots, and you should have a broad enough range that people can see what you are capable of. The most important component, however, is being able to show that you are not only good but a good fit for the production at hand. Since you may not know exactly what the desired aesthetic is when going into interviews and auditions, it’s essential that you have a broad palette to pull from. Practice and be able to adapt to special requests.
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Your makeup artist portfolio will give viewers an idea of your aesthetic and your style as a makeup artist. Add your biography and contact information, so that interested people can contact you.
One of the hardest parts of moving from a hobbyist or amateur to a professional is how you handle critique and criticism. Productions, whether theater, photography, film or television, are always team efforts. There is a specific look or aesthetic that has been imagined, and your creativity, when combined with the vision of the director, is how it gets made into reality. In short, it’s always about people skills and teamwork. No one wakes up one day and decides to become an SFX artist only to find themselves in Hollywood the next day. Years of study, hard work, and experience building lead to successful careers.
Tips to do Great Special Effect Makeup
• The best makeup jobs are two-stage affairs.
The two stages of SFX makeup are design and application. The design process is all about teamwork. This is where the other principles in the production, like the director, writer, and costume designer, sit down with the makeup artists and come up with the design to be used. Yes, creativity and originality matter here. But so too does the engineering of the design. As the SFX makeup artist, you must consider a range of questions. Does the actor need to talk or move quickly? How long will the performer wear the makeup, and in what conditions? In some cases, actors provide casts for the artists to work off of.
The second phase is the actual application of the design. The SFX makeup artist assimilates what they learned in the design phase and applies it to the performer. The application can take hours, with some examples taking ten hours to apply and many hours to remove.
• Start with the basics.
Don’t jump in and try to create a crazy other-worldly alien. Makeup artists spend years learning various skills and facets of the trade. You’ll want to master cuts and bruises first since these are the bread and butter of SFX makeup. Then you can work your way up to more elaborate designs that require molds and castings.
• Practice every chance you get.
If you really want to make a career out of SFX makeup, consider every opportunity you can to practice your trade. Volunteer for school or community theater programs. Find some patient friends to practice one. Another great place to practice is at comic cons or other cosplay events. Check with local photographers who may need makeup artists from time to time. There are lots of opportunities out there if you start looking.
Special Effects Makeup Artist Jobs and their Requirements
When you first start branching our into SFX makeup, you might believe that the only job options exist in Hollywood for TV and blockbuster movies. But that just isn’t the case. Even the smallest towns have theater companies and film schools that need makeup artists. Two other places you might not have thought to look: cruise ships and theme parks. Medical schools sometimes hire artists to create realistic-looking wounds for students to treat. Once you start looking around, you’ll realize that there are more SFX makeup artists than you realized.
Most makeup artists are freelancers. As such, there are no requirements or specific training requirements. As stated above, your skills are shown through the quality of your portfolio. Your ability to land gigs lies in your hands and your people skills. You can’t underestimate the importance of business planning and business skills when entering a field as a freelance professional.
Not all of the art jobs listed are freelancers, but the majority are. If you have a few years under your belt and you have a vast portfolio to prove it, you may stumble across some salaried positions. These may be with major production companies, theater groups, or theme parks. Such a career may provide more stability than freelancing, but you will have a more limited schedule and can specialize in one area of makeup artistry.
Another path into the industry is to get work as the assistant to an established makeup artist. This is a slightly different career path more akin to an apprenticeship. If your end goal is to work on major productions, looking for jobs like these is a great way to step into the industry.
By working with an insider, it’s easy to move up the ladder. One day there will be a job that you’re perfect for, and you’ll be promoted from assistant to lead.
SFX Makeup Artist Salary
Career paths in SFX makeup vary greatly, so it’s difficult to pin down an exact salary. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average SFX makeup salary is $69,000. But this highly dependant on your years of experience and how in-demand you are. The top artists make an average of $127,000 per year.
If you enjoy makeup and have a creative eye, SFX makeup is a dynamic career choice. Those who do this for a living do it because they are not only good at it but also possess a passion for it. It’s a creative outlet and an expression of a vision. Of all of the hundreds of people who work on major productions, it is perhaps the SFX makeup artists’ work the viewers remember the most. That distinct alien, those horrible wounds, even that cute monster are all the work of a creative and professional SFX makeup artist.
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