Wounds and Monsters: How to Become a Special Effects Makeup Artist

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Did you ever look at “Dawn of the Dead” or Jason Voreehees and thought “I want to do that.” Did you have posters of special effects makeup artist luminaries Rick Baker and Tom Savini up in your bedroom?

If so, perhaps you should consider a career in special effects makeup, the men and women behind Hollywood’s wounds, aliens, and monsters.

What is a Special Effects Makeup Artist?

Special effects makeup (sometimes shortened to “Special FX makeup” or “SFX makeup”) was pioneered in the earliest days of Hollywood on Universal’s classic horror movies.

You know: “Frankenstein,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” and “The Wolf-man”.

Regular makeup artists can be found on every shoot, covering blemishes and ensuring that the cast looks as good under the lights as possible. The special FX makeup artists are called in when something a little more unusual is needed.

Something like this, say.

Wounds and Monsters - How to Become a Special Effects Makeup Artist - Pans Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth

It’s not all monsters and Klingons, however. Producers also need SFX makeup artists for simpler jobs like wounds and scars. Take this shot of the Punisher from the second season of “Daredevil.”

Wounds and Monsters - How to Become a Special Effects Makeup Artist - The Punisher

It's the job of the special effects makeup artist to carefully place and monitor those cuts and bruises.

Whether it’s the complex designs of Guillermo del Toro or a black eye from a nasty street fight, there’s always two parts to the special FX makeup artist job. Design and application.

1. DESIGN

If you’ve ever seen an episode of “Face Off” or a documentary on Rick Baker, you’ll know this is the creative aspect of special effects makeup.

During preproduction, the special effects makeup artist will sit down with the director and the production designer.

Other relevant creative department heads, such as the costume designer may also sit in as well.

Working together, they will produce a design for the director’s approval. It starts with sketches and eventually works through full mock-ups. Artistic flair must be balanced with practical consideration:

Will the actor need to move, or move quickly?

Does the actor need to speak clearly?

How long will the actor be wearing the effect, and in what kind of conditions?

The greatest SFX makeup artists, like Rick Baker and Tom Savini, must be one part creative genius, one part engineer. They also need to be able to take notes well -- at the end of the day, they are serving the director’s creative vision.

The actors may be called in to have a life cast taken of the appropriate body part. This is is because the artists's need some kind of base to work off of. And the actor likely has business elsewhere.

If there’s enough money in the budget for it, several copies of any necessary prostheses will be manufactured. 

2. Application

The special effects makeup artist is often one of the first people to arrive on set. Depending on the complexity of the look, the makeup may require several hours to apply.

For “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a five person team spent five hours transforming Dave Bautista into Drax the Destroyer every day. 

Even worse, Rick Baker’s iconic “American Werewolf in London” transformation makeup took ten hours to apply and three hours to remove.

Wounds and Monsters - How to Become a Special Effects Makeup Artist - Drax Guardians of the Galaxy

While less exciting than the design phase, this step is a crucial part of the special effects makeup job.  Even simple wounds require a great deal of care and attention to detail. Patience and focus are essential.

After the makeup is applied, the artist will often stay on set to apply touch-ups and fixes.  They'll also help remove it from the actor without harm to the makeup or the actor.

How to Become a Special Effects Makeup Artist?

Education

Special effects makeup artists don’t require any special certification. However, their skills are unique enough that most have had some schooling.

A basic cosmetology education is fairly common. For dedicated future Rick Bakers or makeup artists looking to increase their range, there are special effects makeup schools.

Hollywood legend Tom Savini, for example, has his own special effects makeup school outside of Pittsburgh. A great many makeup schools with connections to film schools or the film industry will feature special effects makeup classes.

In addition, there are a number of fantastic special effects tutorials available on the web.  If you’re of a self-educational bent, you can start by trying these designs on patient friends. You’ll be making your own looks in no time.

The Kit

Original designs must often be created from scratch However, producers expect special effects makeup artists to obtain or provide their own special effects makeup kits for basic jobs.

A good line producer will account for special effects makeup kit fee in their budgets.

It’s not just wounds. A special effects artist might make a name for themselves specializing in stock creatures like vampires or zombies.

The stores

FX stores can be found all over the internet, and depending on where you live, you may have one in your neighborhood. These stores stock special effects makeup supplies as well as pre-made kits.

For example, a vampire kit or a special effects makeup kit for beginners.  

Special Effects Makeup Artist - Vampire - ProductionBeast

And to think, you used to need to be drained of blood to get this special effects makeup look.


One of the biggest online suppliers of Mehron Makeup, which is a good place to get started. Readers who live in the Los Angeles might try Burman Industries.

A good special FX makeup artist is always learning and has good contacts with his suppliers.  

Those suppliers are the first to hear about a new product or can get a rush job shipped to them overnight when an actor breaks the mold. The owner of your local costume or FX store is your new best friend.

You’re only as good as your tools, after all.

What is the Business side of Special Effects Makeup?

Special Effects Makeup Jobs

While many enter into the field of special effects makeup in order to make strange new creatures, most of the work that pays the bills is in wounds, scars, and stock creatures like vampires or zombies.

Job boards like ProductionBeast will notify you of any open jobs for SFX makeup artists on set. If you’ve cleverly cultivated contacts at your local fx store, you’ll be ahead of the game. They often have an ear to the ground and might catch jobs early.

Medical schools will even sometimes hire special effects makeup artists to come in to apply fake wounds to patients, because nurses and doctors need to be prepared for the sight of wounds on live patients.

This practice is called “moulage.”

Either way, it’s important to have your special effects makeup kit built and well stocked, so you can take any jobs that might suddenly come your way.

special effects makeup assistants

Alternatively, you might seek employment as an assistant to an established special FX makeup artist.  

High-level talents like Rick Baker or Tom Savini will often employ teams of assistants to help them with the scut work.

They'll often do the bulk of the actual application on set, especially for crowd scenes.

Working as an assistant is a great learning experience and provides great networking opportunities.

More importantly, though, there may come a day when your mentor gets a job offer he’s too busy to take, or for a project too small on that scale. On that beautiful day, he might suggest you as his replacement.

Alternatively, you might seek employment as an assistant to an established special FX makeup artist.  

High-level talents like Rick Baker or Tom Savini will often employ teams of assistants to help them with the scut work.

They'll often do the bulk of the actual application on set, especially for crowd scenes.

Working as an assistant is a great learning experience and provides great networking opportunities.

More importantly, though, there may come a day when your mentor gets a job offer he’s too busy to take, or for a project too small on that scale. On that beautiful day, he might suggest you as his replacement.

Special Effects Makeup Artist - Ascension - ProductionBeast

Pictured: What that day will feel like.


Just be ready for when that day comes. He’s putting himself on the line for you.

Whether you learn at the feet of a master or make your own way in the world, it’s important to have a strong portfolio of work you can show-off. Always be updating it, so you can showcase your strongest, freshest designs.

It also helps to have some incredibly patient friends who don’t mind you testing out a new look on them. Treat them well and make sure to buy them a drink after.

They’ve earned it.

SALARIES

Special effects makeup artist salaries cover a wide range. A small independent short that only needs a few bullet wounds pays substantially less than a gigantic studio production that needs hundreds of alien designs or a full werewolf transformation sequence.

Beginner special effects makeup artists can still expect to earn around $70,000 a year based on their specialized knowledge, while SFX makeup artists with a little more experience under their belts might earn as much $100,000 annually, according to salaryexpert.com.

Sought after SFX makeup stars like Rick Baker or Tom Savini might earn even more depending on how badly the producers want them.  Some have their own legions of fans they can attract, giving them more negotiating power.

As with everything in the entertainment industry, though, the amount you make depends on the amount that you hustle, so always be on the look-out for your next job.

Wrapping Up

The special effects makeup artist is one of the rock star positions on set. You come on to make something spectacular, that stays with audiences long after the film has faded out. But it’s not all fun and games -- it requires creativity, good teamwork skills, an engineer’s mindset, patience, and a painstaking attention to detail.

If visions of aliens, elves, and terrifying monsters still haunt your dreams at night, you can start by searching for special effects makeup artist jobs on Production Beast.

Need someone to help you make those visions come true? You can find a special effects makeup artist on Production Beast as well.

If you want to improve your skills or start learning, you can start by applying to a special effects makeup school like Tom Savini’s program, Cinemakeup in Hollywood, or any of these fine institutions.

Alternatively, if you’re ready to get your hands dirty, you can watch a few special effects makeup tutorials on YouTube, check out your local FX store, and dive right in.

Any other questions about special effects makeup? Is anything missing? Do you have a favorite example of special effects makeup? Talk about it in the comments below.

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About the author

Pat Regan

Pat Regan grew up in New Orleans and somehow found himself in Los Angeles. He likes a good story in all its forms and in his spare time, cooks and runs up walls. He writes about tabletop roleplaying games and storytelling at rememberyourdice.wordpress.com

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