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Making Up the Directors Mind

(This article was written by Stan Edmonds.)

As a 30 year make-up artist for motion pictures, the topic of
working with Directors still intrigues me. After all these
years of “collaborating” as a dept. head in one of the
strongest visual elements on a movie, I have learned that my
approach is and should be different each time out. That is
because each time out you are working with a different artist.
I would like to share some of my conclusions here because I
believe there is much in common that both the novice
independent film-maker and the seasoned studio pro have in
common.

First of all, I should say that my roots are in the theater
where the writer is “god” and the director his “prophet” or
interpreter. So I do believe in and respect the dictatorship
that is the director. That does not mean that is a model that
still exists in most studio films… but it is the most
artistically worthwhile (with a good director). And I also
believe that most craftspeople are also storytellers. That
being the case, I would like the artistic expression of my
craft to be a part of the bigger story… and not merely a
“production value” to nudge a reaction from an audience… or
worse yet, mere wallpaper.

Make-up is one of the top five departments that answer to the
director. Every frame, 24 or 30, that has actors usually has
some kind of make-up contribution… some less obvious than
others and often those are the most impressive. When “THE
EXCORCIST” was released in 1973 the demonic make-up effects
received all of the attention… yet the truly remarkable
achievement was the fact that Max Von Sydow had been aged 35
years by a full prosthetic make-up! And most people never knew
it was a make-up! What we do, when we do it best, is often
invisible.

Very early in my career I discovered that the only thing that
would separate me from every other make-up artist was the work
displayed in my portfolio. I could tell you all day about my
work… but a picture is worth a thousand words… and jobs! And
regardless of the quality of that work, it would be a director
viewing it and making a judgment call about whether or not to
hire me.

I found that directors, like much of the audience, could not
tell what was make-up and what was not. Worse yet, they could
not distinguish good work from bad. They remain largely
uneducated about our craft with the exception of some of the
“old timers”. But there are a few hoops one must jump through
before interviewing with a director. Let me back up a bit.

There are two kinds of portfolios that make-up artists have.
The one when you are first starting out; hopefully showing a
broad range of make-up work from beauty to character work. The
other type is the one you gradually build that shows name
actors in television and film productions that people have
actually heard of. It is possible for someone who is new to
the industry to have a lot of talent, but very little
experience… and will often do just fine. Paradoxically, it is
common to have someone who has amassed years of experience
without gaining any skills. So how is a director to know who
is who?

This is where the production manager comes in. As a liaison
between the producer, director and the rest of the crew, he is
the filter for a director. He will usually only send make-up
artists whom he has previous experience with to interview with
a director. And just what makes the production managers’
knowledge about make-up superior to anyone else? It isn’t. His
criterion is very simple and not at all artistic. If you have
worked with him before, not created any problems for
production and he has had no complaints from anyone, you have
just made his ‘A’ list! Oh… and you accept the rate of pay he
offers with a minimum of haggling.

By the time you are meeting with a director on a film project
you are one of three people who have been “pre-sold” as
reliable professionals. Competent. Team players. It will now
be up to the director to make the final and “artistic” (or
aesthetic) call on whether or not you are right for his movie.
Again, a director may or may not know what he is looking at
when viewing your portfolio. Visually, he is looking for
things that look like what he has seen in other movies… or
make-ups that may be similar to what he requires in his
production. But there is a far more important dynamic at work
here. Ultimately, he is desperately trying to get a sense of
how you will be to work with. In fact, this will often hold
more weight as to why you are hired.

Look at it this way, the director figures that you have
already come with a competent recommendation. And so he now
wants to find someone who will work with him to bring his
vision to life. Someone he will not have to worry and wonder
about. And if he doesn’t get that vibe it’s on to the next
interview. After all, there is always someone else waiting in
the wings at a job interview.

Here are a few details that I have made part of my regular
practice. I want the director to know one thing… that I am THE
Make-up Artist to do his movie. And I do that by researching
the script, the director and his previous movies. I come armed
with inspiration, ideas, solutions and suggestions… but I
offer none unless I am asked. I want to get a feel for the
ideas that the director has already spent a lot of time
developing before telling him how I see it. It’s his movie and
he wants a crew who can support and serve his vision. This is
not to say that there is no room for my own contributions…
that is just not the place to start.

I want to let the director know that I am familiar with him,
his past work and that I “get” what he is trying to do. AND…
that I am excited to get behind it! If I am not technically
(or artistically) competent to do that, I have no business in
that interview. My confidence is based upon my knowledge,
skills and experience. And confidence is exactly what the
director wants to see. That is what will inspire his
confidence in return.

Once on board, the relationship with the director develops as
you begin your preproduction. It seems we get less and less
time with the director at this stage because he is busy with
what are considered to be larger concerns than that of
make-up. Knowing this means you have to be extremely efficient
with your time management skills. I usually prepare a lot of
questions that I absolutely need answered. Often, I will
provide those to the director in writing (through his
assistant) in advance of the one private meeting that I will
get during prep (if I am lucky).

Make-up is a visual medium and Directors are highly visual
creatures. Since 2000, I have developed my photoshop skill so
I can do photo-realistic renderings of actors in various
make-ups. This is a very valuable tool that saves enormous
amounts of time and money. I can show a director several
choices; what the actor would look like in a beard, or aged,
or tanned… and do it all virtually without any expense or time
consuming practical tests. Or even before they cast a
particular actor. Occasionally, I have even been asked to do
photoshop designs on a number of actors in order to assist the
director in his casting choices. Actors do not like to hear
it, but I have on many occasions been asked to assist the
director in a casting choice due to who will be most suitable
to the demands of the make-up required for the role.

It is important to give directors choices. You may have an
idea of which approach or design is best… but most directors
will want to see a variety and make that call for themselves.
If you are trying to sell what you think is the best idea, you
had better have some very solid reasoning… and you had also
best be prepared to turn 180 degrees and go another way… and
still do your best work.

Once you actually start to work with the cast it is important
to remember that you are now balancing three opinions; yours,
the directors’ and the actors’… but the directors’ carries the
vote. If an actor is unhappy with a certain look and you are
unable to please him with small concessions, it is then a
matter that he must take up with the director. I have found
that most directors are happy to go with the actor’s instincts
most of the time as far as the look of their character. So
ultimately, you are combining your best version of the
director’s ideas along with the actors’. He needs to know that
you have his back and are not a sycophant trying to befriend
an actor. Within this triangle there is a lot of room for your
own creativity. But don’t get hurt if many of your ideas are
rejected. After all, at the end of the day it is the director
who will live and die by the decisions he makes. All you can
do is give him your best ammunition and support.

Throughout the shooting period, I strive to do the best work I
can. And because, as we have learned, that often our best work
is “invisible”, do not expect glowing accolades everyday. If
there are problems, they either come up on set or in dailies.
On set, it is important to have a solid and swift solution. In
dailies, it is important to do the same. You may find issues
to raise for the director to make a judgment on… but don’t go
looking for a myriad of details to burden him with.
Truthfully, a good department head merely solves the problem
without a big show. That is what all of the best people do.
That is what you are expected to do. The director would prefer
to not even know about it.

Being a filmmaker often means being a problem solver.
Hopefully, you have done a great job in pre-production
preparing to minimize problems… but as they arise (and they
always do) you will be counted on by the director to solve
them. Seamlessly. Without creating more problems. In my own
career I have had name actors show up on a shooting day with
black eyes, broken noses, sunburns, acne breakouts, tattoos,
herpes, chemical tans or despondent after a relationship
breakup. There is no other person on the crew who can solve
those problems in addition to doing their job. That’s what a
good make-up artist can do… and you won’t see that on his
resume!

Now let’s flip the coin, change perspective and examine how a
director should best establish his relationship with a make-up
artist. Too often, both novice and professionals see make-up
as a minor detail that they can leave to the last minute
because “How hard can it be? My sister does make-up. It’s not
like hiring a director of photography.” Everyone has a unique
and equally important job to a movie.

Although I do not believe that bad make-up ever hurt a good
movie, it is something that can take an audience “out” of a
movie. Consider the demands of make-up in your film with some
thought to the style of looks. Is it natural or stylized? Are
there difficult things like age make-ups? Facial hair?
Bald-caps? Prosthetics? Be sure the make-up artist you hire
can handle the spectrum of duties that will be needed.

Do not expect that all make-up artists are equal or the same.

There was a time back in old Hollywood where make-up artists
all apprenticed for three years at major studios and knew
every aspect of their craft. Now the profession functions much
like the medical industry where everyone is a specialist… and
there are only a few general practitioners. When you interview
make-up artists be sure they have a photographic portfolio.
Ask questions about the range of skills they have experience
in. For example, many can apply a prosthetic appliance but are
not able to design or make one. In today’s industry you have a
range of artists from the well rounded production based artist
who can do a bit of everything to artists who only specialize
in beauty and fashion to some who only design and fabricate
prosthetics, dummies or creature suits.

Know who you are dealing with and be sure they have the
abilities that you need for your production. It is all too
common an occurrence that a make-up artist is hired on a film
and only after the fact is it discovered that they are not
able to handle the particular make-up demands. This means
production has to hire additional artists to fill in. Try to
hire the most experienced person you can for your money.

Communicate your vision.

When I am in an interview, my belief is that a director should
have a vision and also be able to communicate it. Of course,
sadly, that is not always the case. If you are crewing a film,
you want to be sure you communicate your vision to both inform
and inspire the various department heads. Their responses to
your vision will go a long way in telling you whether or not
you should be hiring them.

Check references.

In my 30 year career, I only know of two occasions where a
director had me “checked out”. It seems that no one checks
references anymore. And many crew people know this… and even
count on it to avoid their bad reputations catching up with
them. Just because someone has been around a long time or is
in the union does not ensure they are who they say. I had a
producer once look at my resume and portfolio with great
suspicion. She asked me if I had actually done the work in the
photos and then said she would be contacting some of the names
I had in my actor list because she knew them. As it turned out
she contacted a major ‘A’ list actress and a director of
photography to ask about me. Fortunately, both had good things
to say.

Be inclusive of make-up during pre-production.

Many ‘A’ list studio pictures often do not include make-up
until the very last days of preproduction. Therefore, they
should not be surprised when that department under performs.
The make-up department may have less to do than other
departments on some shows, but be sure that you are satisfied
they have what they need in terms of time, budget and
communication to do the job you have envisioned. Don’t expect
to make a grand, last minute, near impossible request if you
have not allowed make-up sufficient prep time.

Maintain good communication throughout shooting.

Many times a director sets up a show and then ceases all
communication to certain departments during the shoot… unless
there is a problem. Be sure to take note of what each
department is delivering on set (and in dailies) and give
feedback or necessary adjustments. This is more about
acknowledgment than praise. We want to know that you are
satisfied with our contribution… and we are happy to make
adjustments when necessary.

There are some directors who prefer no direct contact with
certain departments during shooting and have their 1st AD,
production manager or producer relay information to make-up.
This is a bad idea… as the messages are never accurate and it
sends the message back that you want nothing to do with us.

Never publicly berate a crew member in front of others.

I have had directors raise their voices, shout, accuse and
threaten me in front of the rest of the crew… only to discover
that it was not my fault, there was another explanation for
the failure or that I was protecting an actor. Whatever the
reason, it is always best to take people aside and speak
directly. By the way, on those occasions I mentioned where I
was publicly chastised, it is interesting to note that the
apology that followed was in private. And the cost of that
poor behavior on the director’s part is often a lack of
respect from the crew. No small thing!

Share your creative joy!

Finally, I would like to say how wonderful it is for a crew
member to feel a vital part of a good director’s team. The
smart director’s know how to gather support without being a
dictator, but rather by letting everyone know they are an
important collaborator. I have worked with young first timers
as well as established directors like Clint Eastwood and the
one thing all good directors have in common is the ability to
get the most out of their crews by respecting them, their
craft and treating them like valued partners. It is in this
type of atmosphere that a crew will be more than happy to go
well above and beyond the usual standard they pursue. This is
especially important in the indie film world where there is
less or no salaries involved… but just as important on the ‘A’
list studio set. You don’t get someone’s best efforts
(technical or creative) just because you are paying them.
Professionalism is an attitude not a paycheck. And a story
told by many voices resonates louder, longer and produces the
best harmonies.

—–
Stan Edmonds has been a motion picture Makeup Artist for over
25 years. He has over 50 film and television credits and has
served as Head of Department on such films as I, Robot, The
Butterfly Effect, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Scary
Movie, and Clint Eastwood’s Academy Award-winning film
Unforgiven.

Originally from Calgary, Alberta, Stan has worked across
Canada and the United States, gaining a diversity of
experience. Working with well known actors like Sylvester
Stallone, Drew Barrymore, Angelica Huston and Ashton Kutcher
has provided him with unique insights to pass on.

Currently, Stan is the Dept. Head of Make-up Design at
Vancouver Film School – http://vfs.com/fulltime.php?id=12
Stan Edmonds – Make-up Artist
24 year IATSE member (891)
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0249521/
Email: sedmonds@vfs.com
—–

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Val Gameiro December 27, 2010, 9:08 am

    A great article. Lots of good insight. I’m an indie filmmaker in Austin, Texas and just starting to use make-up in my short films… lots of good info here for me 🙂 thanks!

  • Sunny G February 28, 2011, 12:30 am

    Absolutely brilliant! Very impressive profile and very, very helpful article. Many thanks.

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