No matter where you are or what your circumstances, pursuing Special Effects Makeup as a career is going to be an enormous challenge. It is one of the most highly competitive fields in the world, and yet the rewards are not monetary or even fame, but intrinsic to the creative process, and inherent in the actual work itself. For people who are lucky to live in a time and a place when the business is good, and work easy to come by, they may not understand or appreciate the sheer numbers of people all over the world, in the most remote corners, who desire so passionately to pursue their dream, regardless of the whether or not there is a viable film and media industry where they live. And yet, they do… WE do….. all of us, just a little bit mad, and very, very, determined.
A dear friend and mentor of mine, a highly respected SFX MUA, said it best- “We are all missing the part of our brain that tells us when to stop…”
Many people ask for information and help on how to get this, that, or the other, achieved on a shoot, “with a very tight or non-existent budget” Fair enough. We all of us, apart from a fortunate few, start out that way, doing work for free or very little and without much to work with, its part of our training and necessary, if you can pull a rabbit out of a hat and get something onscreen that will pass muster when you have nothing to work with, then JUST IMAGINE what you will be able to do once you get some REAL equipment and materials….
But what really riles me, is when I hear “there’s no time to do this”.
People, please don’t be offended by this, but if you ‘don’t have time’ to do a quick build out-of-kit with something like Sculptgel, which is the exact reason it was invented, then YOU ARE NOT DOING YOUR JOB RIGHT. It doesn’t matter if you are halfway through your second day of actually working on any kind of filmset, or have been doing this for ten years….
IF you have been hired, whether paid or not, to do a job, and you are not reporting to anyone else in your department, you have sole responsibility for the Makeup FX, then YOU ARE THE EXPERT. Not the Producer, the Director, not the DOP, not the Art Director or the Production Designer and certainly not the 1stAD, although they may try to convince you otherwise….
They have asked you to do the job, because they don’t have the skills, or know what’s involved or how its done, that’s YOUR job.
If you are asked to do something that is not achievable with the time or budget they have, don’t kill yourself attempting the impossible because you are so desperate to please them, SAY NO, and then, tell them what they can have instead.
If they expect you to do something in less time than it actually takes, SAY NO.
Let them know, and definitely let the 1st AD know, because its their job to schedule these things, EXACTLY what you need to do and EXACTLY how much time you need to do it in. If they want to argue, tell them they have to change their expectations because there are physical limitations on the speed at which anything can be done and it takes as long as it takes.
If you don’t feel you have the confidence to deal with people who may be more experienced on paper than you feel, ask yourself this- Do you think anyone argues with the Gaffer when he spends twenty-five minutes adjusting the lighting? Or the Camera team when they decide at the last minute that they need to swing a lens or swap the sticks over for a better angle on the shot? Or when the Director goes in at the last minute to have a chat to the actors? Then why should you, as Makeup FX, not be treated with an equal amount of respect?
And on this subject- always try to make friends with your 1st Assistant Director. They can make your life hell, or look after you. A good 1st AD is a godsend, a great 1st AD will have you wanting to take them home to meet the family…
Natalie Portman is quoted as saying: “Pretty much everyone’s role on a film is indispensable,” Natalie Portman said during a discussion last week, singling out the first assistant director as an example. “Without a good first AD, your movie falls to pieces. And those are people who never, ever, ever get interviewed anywhere. And they make the movie. I feel like you could probably run a set better with a good first AD and no director than a good director and no AD.”
Do your best….
If you want to be treated as a professional you have to act like one. Don’t faff about, you do need to work fast and efficiently, but you are also an artist, and creativity doesn’t come out of a box. You have to think on your feet, adjust to circumstance, and create things on the fly, every single day you do this job. But – it’s a makeup brush you hold in your hand, not a magic wand, and there are some things that you just cannot do, no matter how much they expect from you.
Don’t allow anyone to bully you into submission, you will just end up hating the job and everything about it.
So STAND UP FOR YOURSELF, and state, calmly, and politely, what you need and why, and you might just earn their respect for being helpful and honest.
Now, there are definitely cases where it is not going to be easy to do this. That is also, sadly, a fact of the business, and to be honest, if you can’t stand the heat of a filmset in the full swing of production, you have no business being there..…. It is a tough world and will challenge anyone, but those of us who do stick it out, do it for the undeniable reward of being part of a streamlined machine, much like a military operation, with a strong team that can, under the right circumstances, pull together and create something truly special. Its called synergy, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts….
Sadly, there are people in this business, whether early career or established filmmakers, who treat our highly specialised area as an afterthought, or the poor cousin of Art Dept, when in reality it is as important as good lighting. And just like lighting, when done well, you should hardly notice the FX in the finished product, but they lift the standard of the whole production, and contribute seamlessly to the overall look and feel. Poorly done, they will drag your precious project and all its months or years of hard work from concept to completion, down to the amateur level!
So you have done everything you could, you have spoken up for yourself and your craft and you have stated what you need, and STILL they refuse to listen or give you the time and resources you need. What do you do then?
You have a choice. You can continue to attempt to work with people who do not respect you or your craft, and continue to sell yourself short, or you can find a different team, on a different project.
What I would like to ask, is- who amongst us consider the OPPORTUNITY COST of doing such jobs? Opportunity cost, for anyone who isn’t familiar with the term, is used in economics to describe the value of the next-highest-valued alternative use of that resource. In general – what else could you possibly be doing with your time and effort and skills, instead of what you are currently doing, especially if it is not giving you the fulfillment you are seeking? Remember for the sake of this argument, that what you consider to be your reality, your current experience, is based on history- what happened yesterday. What might happen tomorrow is all merely possibility… Of course you can hypothesise that it will continue to be the same as it has been, and that may be true, but really, it’s merely your best educated guess. So, what else might you imagine you could do, would do if you weren’t doing this? What do you dream of doing? What would you like to be working on? And then you ask, if I was given the choice, right now, with no consequence, between those two possibilities, which would I choose?
It should be said, don’t be afraid to say NO! So many people, think that if they do, they wont get offered work in the future.. It is not the case. Yes, you may not be offered work by the kind of people you walked away from- but do you REALLY want to work with people like that anyway? I sure don’t. Your reputation is crucial in this business, but so is everyone else’s: If you accept a job, based on providing a particular product or effect in a certain timeframe, with a detailed agreement on remuneration, conditions and expectations, and then the reality turns out to be totality different, in that the working conditions are totally unacceptable, or the people unethical, or misleading, or they try and cheat you out of your due, or insist on changes you have not agreed to, then you are totally within your rights to walk away. It is important, for this reason, to get a contract before you start, which outlines expected timeframes, budgets, conditions, shooting conditions and the like. Obviously this is more likely to happen with low and no budget projects, but it certainly can happen with people who purport to be professional, as well. Build into it clauses that allow you to step back and retain your professionalism, and your dignity, if it turns into something you don’t want to be involved with… because the Opportunity Cost of sticking with it just because you started could be enormous…
Remember – professionalism is an attitude, not a price tag. Having said that, people need to understand that you don’t expect to get Oscar-winning work for free. The level of experience and expertise of a crew is commensurate with the level of remuneration they will need to provide, and then to trust their appointed crew to let them know what FX etc they can realistically afford, and give them the best ‘bang for their buck’.
And speaking of budgets – you need to communicate, before the project begins, that the production team must allow an appropriate amount for FX. In quoting for a job, you initially do a script breakdown and base your assessment on what is in that. However, if as often happens, they come back to you and say.. oh, we don’t have that much money, then YOUR job is to go through the script with the Director and let them know how much they can afford to see, and what they are going to have to shoot around. You need to know how to give them ‘the money shot’ while insinuating anything they cant actually afford to have you build. Certainly, some producers will threaten to find someone cheaper, but ndoes that mean you lower your standards, and your price, for the sake of a job you arent going to enjoy anyway? Most of the time, if they really care about what is going to end up onscreen, they will try and get someone with at least some reasonable experience. Yes, they may be able to get a student or beginner desperate for a credit to work for free, but lets face it, most of them dont have any money of their own, and makeup for FX, even ordinary straight makeup, is not cheap! Anything with special effects will cost extra no matter what.
The Power of Change….
‘They think they want good government and justice for all, Vimes, yet what is it they really crave, deep in their hearts? Only that things go on as normal and tomorrow is pretty much like today.” Terry Pratchett
Are you unhappy with the way your career is currently going? Think you are never going to get anywhere? Then examine the choices you have made, the projects you have chosen, the people you hang out with. If you really, really want something, you will find a way to make it work. If you can’t, well, the harsh truth is that maybe you don’t really want it as much as you think you do….
In my personal experience, I have seen people struggle on for years in a situation that they could barely tolerate, that was making them desperately unhappy, and loudly proclaim to all and sundry how much better things would be if they went and did what they always really wanted to do. Yet almost none of them actually summon the courage to do it…. In fact, many people seem to continue to make the same choices, and work with the same kind of people, over and over, even though they know they are settling for less than they desire. While others push onwards and upwards and seem to get all the breaks…
Why? Why do we keep on doing something when our dream and our reality is so far apart?
Because most people will not change until the pain of not doing so outweighs the effort required.
People forced into change often struggle to adapt, but even when that change, whether small or large, is of our own making, we too can struggle against it. Perhaps we would do well to remember that it is perfectly usual to feel disoriented and out of sorts when we are in a new or altered situation, because most of our daily behaviours and interactions rely far more on habit and routine than we realise, and having those routines removed forces us to SEE our environments in a new way for the first time in ages. Not always with pleasant consequences…. all you can do is remember your ‘child-mind’, and let go of needing to know or control what is going to happen next. Be open, and allow, don’t fight it, you need your energy for other things, and within a few months you will create a totally new set of habits and routines to get you through. They say it takes three months of dedicated effort and reminders to break an old routine, and establish a new habit that becomes our new default setting.
Ok, so what about change we perceive as positive?
What about when you get offered a dream opportunity- yet your knees are shaking and suddenly you are nowhere near confident that you can pull it off? When you feel sick in the stomach for the whole three or four days before the shoot, just desperately hoping that your hard work and creative effort is going to be up to scratch on a forty foot screen?
Why do we still find it so hard to deal with? Surely we should leap at the chance to improve our lives, to make a difference to the world and the people around us? It should be easy to find the energy to work towards the things we really want, to achieve our best. But we don’t- for the same reasons listed above. Its ‘too hard’. It requires us to work, to think, differently… ‘old habits die hard’… ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’,’ you can lead a horse to water….’ etc etc. And even when we are forced into ‘good’ change, by a stroke of fortune, most people revert to their old habits, and their old circumstances, within a very short time. Because basically change of any kind requires work and growth and that can be painful.
Real change means learning new things, new ways of being. Progressing in this business means constantly improving your skills, keeping up with new techniques, materials, technology, and people. But it’s more than that…
Learning means personal growth, realising that truth is subjective- what you believe is true is only true because you believe it is! Are you a battler, someone for whom life will always be tough? Or one of those charmed souls who seem to breeze through an easy life with ne’er a worry?
Well guess what? If you really look closely, the only difference between the two lives is one of attitude.
What would really make you happy?
Money? No. Ok, its nice to have, sure, but it is just as possible to be miserable with lots of it, in fact the risk of losing it, and the constant pressure to have more, can cause people more angst than not having it in the first place. And despite what you might think, most of the best SFX MUA in the world are not wealthy. Comfortable, maybe, but not rich.
Fame? Some MUA are certainly well-known. Is it going to make you happy? That’s going to depend on your personal insecurities and your ingrained need for validation. I think the best description here is “Be careful what you wish for”
Family? Well, perhaps. It is certainly crucial to have strong and healthy relationships with some people you respect and trust, but they aren’t always the ones you are related to by birth…. and in any case, many people live fulfilled and productive lives without ever marrying or having children.
So what then? To feel happy, you need to decide to be. Its that simple.. and that difficult. Take responsibility for your own life and your decisions, decide who you want to be and how you want to feel, believe that it is possible, and then make choices based on that.
So, you want to be the best Special Effects Makeup Artist you can be?
To truly believe it, to make it REAL, you have to stop believing it isn’t possible.. which means addressing all the deep core beliefs, whether culturally or socially acquired, that have gotten you to this point in life, which can be very challenging. You CAN do this. You may not be famous, or win awards, or work with the top directors or Hollywood stars, but that doesn’t mean you cant do your absolute best, and have a fulfilling and rewarding career working with people who value and respect you and your work. Whether you decide to pursue it fulltime, or as a rewarding second career on top of the regular job you maintain to give you the lifestyle you want, it is possible to be happy doing this.
Just believing that it is possible that you can be fulfilled and have a rewarding life and career is all you need to start doing it. You will get there… So you live a million miles away from any real film industry and have limited access to information and materials? That just breeds invention and ingenuity!
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
After all, you wont regret the things you attempted and failed, but you will regret never having tried…..