Issue: Winter 2021-22

A DAY IN THE LIFE...of a Hollywood Makeup Artist

By Susan Cabral-Ebert

It’s 3:15 am and the alarm goes off. At the darkest, most peaceful time of the morning it is serenely quiet. Coffee to open the eyes, mental inventory to make sure the day is prepared and into the car with tons of equipment, including a chair to sit in during the moments when camera is rolling. Pull away, hoping the freeway has no traffic. Arrive at the studio or perhaps some remote location.

The Call Sheet lists the shots planned for the day, the actors’ call times, what day of the script is being shot, notations for each craft (special makeup effects), the number of background actors reporting, and of course any safety issues.

Even during normal, non-COVID times, equipment sanitation rules are extremely stringent with separation of products and disinfecting. In the trailer, there’s music, laughter, and discussions about what lies ahead for the day—sometimes it’s a warning, other times it’s informational and—yes—sometimes it’s hilarity at someone’s expense.

Makeup artists and hair stylists in the entertainment industry are fortunate to be following their dreams. We are the artisans who create the characters that writers dream of. It begins with the script, the written word, then collaboration with producers, directors, actors, costume designers and any number of others whose input is necessary.

To accomplish this magic, pre-production preparation is everything, often taking extensive research for accuracy. Creating “period” pieces often requires using vintage books and files. Many of us have our own morgue files as even the internet isn’t a reliable source. We decide color schemes, techniques for aging, wounds and injuries, tattoo creation or cover-up; the list goes on and on. This is when prosthetics are created, a painstaking process of sculpting, mold-making, casting, and manufacturing pieces that alter appearance. Next, camera tests are done followed by production meetings so everyone is on the same page. Actors are consulted for their likes and dislikes. Prep is everything, it impacts every scene and makes things run smoother.

Friends outside the industry always ask “who was the nastiest actor you ever worked with?” The good news is that you could not do this job for 30 or more years with nasty people. We work hard but we laugh constantly. There’s a lot to laugh about, but once in a great while you get someone in your chair who is just a pain in the butt. However, it is rarely the “A” listers; they are usually confident knowing what to communicate to make your job easier. Their intelligence, professionalism and courtesy are what makes the day a joy. Often the ones labeled “difficult” aren’t, they just know what they need and it’s your job to make it happen.

Still, in general, we have a lot of fun and experience adventures others only dream of. I have worked all over the world, from deserts to jungles, from the Taj Mahal to Skid Row DTLA. I’ve worked in two hurricanes, Death Valley at 126 degrees and Canada at minus 55 degrees. I’ve made up an elephant, dogs and their photo doubles and had an alligator sneak up behind us on a golf course.

In our industry, glamour is a business and many of us also do the red carpet makeup for the awards shows, publicity, magazine editorials, etc. Most artisans who work in film, televisions, commercials, music videos, etc., are behind the scenes. These artists are often the confidants of the actors, guarding secrets of everything from pregnancy to drug usage, family squabbles to disputes with producers, directors, or other cast members. Discretion and confidentiality are major parts of the job. Trust is everything. The actors must trust their crew to be so skilled they can achieve whatever is needed for the character.

Often the script calls for aging, wounds and injuries, facial hair, dirt, or a complete transformation. It also means that the makeup artists and hair stylists must be able to work with every skin type and color, every ethnicity. The hair stylists must be experienced not only with all textures from Caucasian to African to Asian and Indigenous, but also be familiar with application of wigs which cost thousands of dollars and must be treated with the utmost delicacy. Normally, both the facial hair and human hair wigs are hand-woven into a special “lace” that is invisible to the camera. On occasion, the makeup artist must apply facial hair (beards, moustaches, sideburns) without the use of pre-made pieces. It requires painstaking work applying hair-by-hair, hour-after-hour wearing magnifying glasses. The skill is extremely important to master, requires an extremely high level of dexterity, very steady hands, and an ability to remain calm. After everything is applied to the face, a hot curling iron bends the hair into the right direction within centimeters to the skin. No talking allowed as the smell of burning skin and a screaming actor will upset the morning.

We work eight hours and then we go to lunch. The normal day for the makeup and hair departments is 14-16 hours. Your body is twisted around a chair and repetitive motion injuries are common. In their senior years it is not unusual to have hip and knee replacements, carpal tunnel, and rotator cuff injuries. High blood pressure is common.

It takes a great deal of stamina, fortitude, talent, and perseverance to become a makeup artist or hair stylist in film, television, commercials and theater. You must be willing and able to work in the toughest conditions and have talent in your fingertips. The entertainment world is changing rapidly and if you do not keep up you will be left behind or replaced by the next in a long line just waiting for an opportunity.

On the flip side, take it from me, there is no better job in the world. You get paid to create dreams. On the days when the creative juices are all flowing, and everything works there is nothing better. Seeing your work close-up on television or the big screen in a movie theater, there is no bigger rush. Your eyes dart from one place to the next, constantly self-critiquing to see what you could have done better. When you are happy with the way everything looks, your chest swells with pride.

The world’s most famous film and television makeup artists are from Hollywood. Four of the most famous have Stars on the Walk of Fame:  Rick Baker (How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Men in Black, Nutty Professor, Coming to America, etc.), Stan Winston, (Terminator,  The Island of of Dr. Moreau, Edward Scissorhands, The Wiz) John Chambers (Planet of the Apes, Planet of the Apes (6) Schlock, Jaws, Phantom of the Paradise)  and the Westmore Family whose dynasty ran the makeup and hair departments of all the major studios until the 1960s. These honorees are known mostly for their special makeup effect.

However, much of the work is purely paint and powder—even the simplest of  “no makeup looks” that fools the camera. I think it’s interesting that the IATSE Local 706, the makeup Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, was founded at the headquarters of Max Factor Cosmetics, now home of The Hollywood Museum, a fitting tribute to Max Factor who invented the term “makeup.” You see, Hollywood and makeup go together.

Arrive at work at 5:30 am, work all day and go home around 8:00 pm. Work with people you enjoy, and have wonderful stories to tell, and perhaps a coffee table book at the end of it all. Behind the scenes and the face of it all. What a life.  DH

Sue Cabral-Ebert, is a feature film and television Journeyman Make-up Artist and former President and Asst. Business Rep of IATSE Local 706. She is the Make-up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild Awards Chair and winner of three awards including Lifetime Achievement.  Emmy nominee and member of both the Academy of Motion Picture of Arts and Sciences and Television Academy and recent recipient of the IATSE International President’s Award.