How Movie Make-up Artists Work

Movie make-up artists spent hours transforming Elijah Wood, left, and Sean Astin, right, into Hobbits for "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
© Evan Agostini/Getty Images

From Spock's ears in the "Star Trek" movies to Nicole Kidman's glowing beauty, and Harry Potter's scar to Hellboy's red facial prosthetic, all sorts of cinematic magic have relied on the skill and imagination of movie make-up artists.

Depending on the demands of the movie director and the script, a film make-up artist may need to be adept in creating sophisticated, high-fashion looks or need to rely on design, sculpting and creativity to alter an actor's looks by showing age, injury or characteristics of an alien or cartoon creature.


From the earliest days of the movies, make-up artists have had to combine their art with film-making technology. Actors in silent films, for example, had heavy yellow make-up to compensate for orthochromatic film that was insensitive to the red end of the light spectrum [source: Patrick Robertson].

Today, makeup techniques and computer-generated images come together to create visions like Lord Voldemort's snake-like face in "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" (2005). For that look, make-up was applied to actor Ralph Fiennes' face in the usual way, but computer wizardry flattened his face and altered his nose [source: Internet Movie Database].

Behind the magic on the screen, the world of a make-up artist is a demanding one. But what exactly are make-up artists' responsibilities? What's it like to work as a movie make-up artist? And what does it take to become one? Read on to find out.


Responsibilities of a Movie Make-up Artist

incredible hulk
Movie make-up artists can only work on certain areas. They were responsible for turning Edward Norton into the incredible hulk. Norton, left, is shown at the premiere with co-star Liv Tyler.
© Lester Cohn/WireImage/Getty Images

The responsibilities of a movie make-up artist vary depending on the type of work and level of responsibility that the make-up artist has. Hollywood union regulations, for example, classify movie make-up artists based on the area of the actor's body being made up:

  • A make-up artist is allowed to apply cosmetics only from the top of the head to the top of the breastbone, from fingertips to wrists and from toes to ankles.
  • A body make-up artist applies cosmetics as required to any other areas of the actor's body. While the regular make-up artist generally works throughout filming, the body make-up artist is hired per day when needed.

[sources: Richard Yokley and Rozanne Sutherland and Robert Koster]


Film make-up artists also have varying levels of responsibility related to their job titles:

The key make-up artist, or make-up designer, is in charge of the make-up department for a movie. During pre-production, the designer reads the script and meets with the director and screenwriter to discuss their needs and ideas for the film. The key make-up artist also will work with the key hair designer, costume designer, set designer and director of lighting throughout the film.

After that, the key make-up artist researches and determines how to design the make-up and special make-up effects for the film. Often complex effects are handled by a different departments and farmed out to companies that specialize in special effects.

The key make-up artist also hires additional make-up artists for the film, sets their work schedule and supervises them during production. He is charged with making sure the make-up applied matches the agreed-upon style, and that continuity is maintained every day during shooting.

In addition, the key make-up artist develops and stays within a budget for salaries, supplies, materials and special effects. He also makes appointments with optometrists and dentists for actors who need special contacts or dental effects. Once prosthetics, hairpieces and other make-up elements are finalized, they all must be inventoried and stored when they are not in use.

The senior make-up artist oversees the work of the other make-up artists and usually become primarily responsible for continuity. This means making sure that actors' make-up remains the same or changes as filming requires, such as the addition of scars after an accident or evidence of aging as the film progresses.

Make-up artists do the actual work in making actors' looks match the designs set for the movie. They apply and touch up the make-up.

Assistant make-up artists handle lower-level make-up chores and assist the make-up artists.

[sources: Penny Delamar and Greg Goodell]

Where do hair designers fit in? They usually are considered a separate department, also with a key designer and senior artist. Stars often bring their own hairdresser to filming locations, rather than using the services of the film's hair department. Of course, the hair, make-up and costume departments work closely together to give the look the director, screenwriter and movie producers want [source: Frederick Levy].

You may be wondering what a movie make-up artist actually does in the course of a workday. Go to the next page to find out.


Working as a Movie Make-up Artist

Turning Ron Perlman into Hellboy took between two and four hours every day.
© Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage/Getty Images

Working as a movie make-up artist means starting work early in the day. During production, the make-up artists need to be at the location before dawn each day to lay out supplies and any special prostheses or other equipment for each actor.

The movie make-up artists work off a schedule of make-up, hair and wardrobe calls for each actor. The assistant director sets the schedule, based on the scenes to be shot that day and passes it out late the day before.


Each film make-up artist is assigned specific actors to look after. The make-up artist will have detailed notes, sketches and photos as reference to help achieve the right look. And for continuity, the make-up artist probably will make his own notes and maybe even shoot photos of the actor in make-up. During the day, the make-up artist or an assistant will touch up the actor's make-up and change it as required by the scenes being filmed [source: Penny Delamar].

Achieving the right look can be a time-consuming process, particularly if the make-up includes special effects. Turning Ron Perlman into Hellboy for the movie of the same name (2004) took two-and-a-half hours every day that stretched into four with breaks for the actor. Foam prosthetic pieces covered the actor's back, chest and head. A full-front facial prosthetic covered all but the actor's lower lip, which had its own piece. Once everything was on, the suit had to be painted and hair added [sources: IMDB].

Finding and working with the right materials takes creativity. While movie make-up artists often are adept at making molds for nose prostheses, they also have to solve dilemmas like making Eddie Murphy's bodysuit wiggle in "The Nutty Professor" (1996). The solution for that turned out to be nothing special -- just ordinary water balloons in strategic places [source: IMDB].

At the end of the day, the make-up artist has to remove the actors' make-up, hairpieces, prosthetic noses and other effects and store them all so they are easy to find the next morning.

While working as a make-up artist can be grueling but fun, movie jobs are not easy to find. Becoming experienced means starting at the bottom as an assistant, or perhaps even in television or theater. From there, an aspiring make-up artist has to work his way up the ladder by learning on the job, as well as building a strong portfolio of work and gaining a reputation with directors, actors and key make-up artists.

Does a career as a movie make-up artist sound interesting? Go to the next page to find out more about becoming one.


Becoming a Movie Make-up Artist

rick baker
Skilled make-up artists receive recognition like Rick Baker who won the make-up Oscar for his work on "American Werewolf in London."
© George Rose/Getty Images

Becoming a movie make-up artist often starts in childhood. At least, that's how it worked for some well-known make-up artists.

  • As a teen, John Caglione Jr., who won an Oscar for "Dick Tracy" (1990), experimented with face casts and did make-up for high school plays.
  • John Chambers, who earned an honorary Oscar for "Planet of the Apes" (1968), cut other neighborhood kids' hair.
  • Four-time Oscar winner Stan Winston drew and made puppets as a child.

That said, there's no direct path to becoming a film make-up artist. Chambers, for example, was an Army dental technician who honed his craft with prosthetics while working with disfigured veterans. Caglione went from high school to television, where he made cones for the Coneheads on "Saturday Night Live." And Winston received a college art degree before completing a makeup apprenticeship at Walt Disney Studios [sources: New York Times and IMDB].


As with any other job in the film industry, you'll need knowledge, experience, skill, luck and the right contacts. For starters, you'll want to consider education. That could be through a cosmetology school. Once completed, you'll have to pass a state licensing exam. Or you could consider an art degree from a four-year college or a degree from a two- or four-year college that offers film-related programs. These schools often include a movie make-up course in their curriculum and also can give you the chance to learn more about the film-making industry. In addition, schools with a film focus may be able to help you get internships and jobs and make contacts with classmates and alumni in the business.

Student films can give you a start on your portfolio, which will be a valuable tool in seeking work. Include photos of your work and sketches of your ideas to show how skilled and versatile you can be. Make-up artists and directors will leaf through the portfolio to see what you can do.

Independent films often don't require union membership, but major Hollywood feature films do. You'll want to consider meeting the requirements for union membership. To join Makeup Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, Local 706, in Los Angeles, for example, you'll need to have worked 60 days per year for three of the last five years on non-union film or television productions under contract with an employer within Los Angeles County. Union requirements vary, so check your local for its requirements.

Although school will give you a start, your training really will come from working in the industry. That may mean starting with television or theater, and it may mean starting as gofer for an established make-up artist. But by being on a set working with make-up challenges, you'll learn how production works and pick up tips on how to be effective as a make-up artist. You'll also be able to add to your portfolio and make contacts to help you move up.

To keep from being left behind, don't forget the inevitable link between make-up and technology -- and keep up with what's new. Learn about computer-generated images and how your work can combine with them for a better, cheaper product. And become knowledgeable about the high-definition world, with its more powerful resolution that demands carefully made-up performers.

With solid training behind you, a strong portfolio and your eyes to the future, you should be ready to create some movie make-up magic of your own.

For lots more information about movie make-up artists and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information - Movie Make-up Artists

­Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • "The Budget Book for Film and Television.” Koster, Robert. Focal Press, 2004, page 211. (
  • “The Complete Make-up Artist.” Delamar, Penny. Northwestern University Press, 2002, pages 125-126. (,M1)
  • "Emergency! Behind the Scene.” Yokley, Richard and Sutherland, Rozane. Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2007, page 291.(,M1)
  • “Film Facts.” Robertson, Patrick. Watson-Guptill, 2001, page 148.
  • "The Hair, Makeup and Styling Career Guide.” Wright, Crystal. Set the Pace Publishing Group, 2003, page 6.16. (
  • “Hollywood 101.” Levy, Frederick. Macmillan, 2000, page 152. (,M1)
  • “Independent Feature Film Production.”  Goodell, Greg. Macmillan, 2003, page 116. (
  • Internet Movie Database: Listing for Lord Voldemort. (
  • Internet Movie Database: Entry for 'Hellboy'. (
  • Internet Movie Database: Entry for 'The Nutty Professor'. (
  • Internet Movie Database, listing for 'Dick Tracy'. (
  • Internet Movie Database, listing for 'Planet of the Apes'.
  • "John Chambers: Apes’ Makeup Won an Oscar." Mclellan, Dennis. Los Angeles Times. Sept. 1, 2001. (
  • Los Angeles Times blog, Entertainment News, June 2008, copy of studio release on death of Stan Winston. (
  • “Oscar-Winning Makeup Artist Goes Retail.” Fischler, Marcelle New York Times, by Marcelle Fischler, Sept. 28, 2003.­