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Archive for September 7th, 2016


How to get into Special Effects

We are asked a question so often I thought it best to commit my thoughts to virtual paper. The question is “How do you get into makeup special effects?”

I totally understand the question. This is such a specific and exciting career even the most casual observer has got to wonder this, let alone
someone with the desire to have a go themselves.

Where I started

Let me explain my journey into this amazing art. To begin with, I’m (at the time of writing) 52 years old,

The early days...
The early days…

and I started out in the dark ages…before the internet. I used to have to ride my dinosaur into town to use the public library. That’s a lie, I never had my own dinosaur, I had to take a public transport dinosaur.


I was always interested in illusion. I first wanted to be a magician, but I was awful at it. The next thing I knew The Planet of the Apes TV show was on the air along with Star Trek and then eventually Star Wars came out. Special effects started being discussed and documented as something more than the generic term “camera tricks”. That was enough for me, I knew, in some manner, this was what I was all about.


As a teenager magazines like Starlog, Cinefantastique, Cinemagic, Fangoria and eventually Cinefx started coming out. In dribs and drabs, they divulged little hints as to how TV and film illusions were crafted. I found myself unable to decide what area of fx work I wanted to get into so I dabbled in everything. I started making my own sci-fi and horror short films on Super 8 cine film. My Dad used to collect antique cameras so trips to photography conventions with him and the occasional job lot of kit he purchased would yield a usable camera or bit of lighting kit so I was very fortunate. My films were, of course, packed with every type of effect I could think of.

Start with what you’ve got

The mask is good but the costume sells it...
The mask is good but the costume sells it…

I remember wanting some proper bright and glowing, back lit slasher film style titles for my film “The Planting”. What I needed were some lithographic negatives made from my marker pen and paper artwork. There was a local printer who did the work for me in exchange for a few afternoons of my stuffing envelopes for them. Fair deal, the barter system, I love it!

My Dad worked as a manager of a local lumber yard and hardware store. I was a regular fixture here. I used scraps of wood off cuts from the saw room, boxes of plaster of Paris, pots of enamel paint and other such “off the shelf” treasures to fuel my creative experiments. “Whatcha makin’ now Tom?” was a common question at LeFevre’s Lumber Yard. You can make props and models from an array of materials from so many sources.

It’s never too early to start your portfolio

I made sure that I filmed and photographed everything I made. I knew photographic evidence of my skills, of my unstoppable passion to “make” no matter what my knowledge or budget was critical to proving to whoever would look that I was “the man for the job”.

This remains true today. If you are as passionate as you would have someone think surely, you have a huge portfolio of things wild horses could not stop you from making?

You must have a portfolio of up to date projects. Prove your passion, creativity and determination. Don’t have 82 photos of the same thing, have at least 2 pictures each of 82 things!

Build Up Your Core Knowledge

Zombie makeups were different back in the day...
Zombie makeup was different back in the day…

I permanently had two books signed out of my school’s library. Richard Corson’s Stage Make Up and Al Taylor and Sue Roy’s, Making a Monster. Those books were mine! I just let other looks at the covers of them occasionally.

I learned everything from Stage Makeup. I made sure I not only looked at the latex and effects section, but I also made myself practice the fantastic illusions created in the book by using basic painting techniques and hair work. I knew that the flashy stuff was all well and good but when combined with a rock solid knowledge of the core principles of paint, colour, highlight and shadow one could become a powerhouse. The basics are just that, basic principles…basic, not easy. Man, there is some skill in doing stage makeup well. Learn how and why to use highlight, shadow and colour and most of all learn why it works.

Don’t be overly tempted to go for the latest and trendiest techniques and materials. They are usually ingenious but are no replacement for core skills like sculpting, painting and observation. There is no magic wand, no one material or technique that makes instant, perfect results. The quality of work is like luck, “I find the harder I work, the luckier I get”…it’s a trite saying, but it is true. Anyone can be taught a process or how to use a material in a matter of days. You can’t teach the result of endless hours of practice and discipline.

Don’t stop learning

One of the key things I see in every successful makeup special effects (Makeup FX) artists is an almost compulsive need to know how and why things work and how those things interact with other things to make another thing. You can’t fake this curiosity, and you can’t do without it. Learn to learn. Practice seeing how and why things are done and apply the principles you observe to the core processes of your craft.

I can’t think of the number of times I have thought and heard, “Ahhhhh, that’s how those are made. I wonder if that type of thing would work for making a …”

Get your work out there

I would show my work to anyone who would look at it and often to those whom I had cornered and left them no choice. Alcone Theatrical Supplies used to have an office in Midtown Manhattan. Makeup artists would put together a photo collage of their work, and Alcone would allow them to post it on their office wall. A lot of people got work this way back in the dark ages, me included.

We have the internet now. There are many forums out there for aficionados to showcase their work. I suggest you use them. They can be a great place to learn from. Like with everything online they can also be a place where a small number of people jockey for position, strive for selfish ego boosts, arguments and try to hold court but luckily these people are in the minority, just keep in mind the core reason you are there, to learn and share knowledge.

Taking Action breeds Results

Not TOO bad for my first old age makeup...
Not TOO bad for my first old age makeup…

Before (and many times after) becoming a professional makeup artist I offered my work to other peoples ambitious efforts. I did make up for local theatre groups, university filmmakers, stills photographers, shops who wanted attractive window displays and other makeup artists who had little or no money but would offer credit and experience on their project. I can’t think of the number of low budget projects I did for free or for train fare and lunch money. This is a part of the craft…slave labour…within reason.

I know some don’t think this is good, but I believe that if you are fair to yourself, you can build valuable experience, knowledge and contacts while working for little or no money. In my day it was called “paying your dues”. Don’t let people take disrespectful advantage of you but remember, you are getting something from it too, it’s a deal, an arrangement, an agreement.

It’s your portfolio that gets you work

There are a LOT of courses available to the aspiring makeup artist out there. Many are very, very good. Many are not. What they can do is introduce you to processes, materials and techniques. Some give you tutelage under the observation of a more experienced artist, and that can be very helpful indeed. What they won’t give you is a certificate that will GET you a job or guaranteed wage. They give you an opportunity to learn what is on offer, to build your experience and contacts and to fill your portfolio even more. THAT is what will get you work.

The Most Important Thing

Finally, your state of mind is essential to your success. Your portfolio and where your head is at will make your career. Humble confidence, honesty regarding your skill level (and in general) and respect for the fact you don’t know everything combined with a calm enthusiasm for learning and willingness to work hard will fling doors open. Go in ready to work, get yourself there and home again. People who are running projects need warriors who are paying attention and don’t need any babysitting or nose wiping. Be a warrior with your head on straight, self-motivate and get on with the task at hand with solid core skills and a mind keen and sharp and you will be back again and again and again.

Me as an albino hit man for a futuristic western.
Me as an albino hit man for a futuristic western

Got a makeup FX question or comment?

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