Wednesday 17 March 2010

Interview With Film Make-Up Artist STEPHANIE WISE

One of the most important elements of a good film, is good make-up. However, especially in the low-budget independent film community - the needs of the make-up department are often misunderstood and overlooked. This is usually because of a lack of interest and/or awareness from producers and directors; but a lot of it also comes down to a lack of representation; somebody to speak up and explain to the rest of us why it's so important. Luckily, there are people like STEPHANIE WISE: A New York-based Make-Up Artist of over a dozen features and numerous short films.It isn't just her knowledge and experience; but her passion for what she does that is really inspiring. I've had the privilege over the last couple of years of becoming good friends with her and learning a lot about what she does; and I hope we're able to bring some of that to this interview.

What made you want to become a make-up artist?

Makeup is something that has always intrigued me, sometimes I think that I was predisposed to becoming a makeup artist. When I was a child, probably around the age of 10 or 11, I saw behind-the-scenes footage from the set of The Exorcist. At that time, I knew nothing about makeup artistry, and I wasn't particularly fond of horror movies, but I was genuinely fascinated by the special effects work that was showcased. I know that it's not difficult to genuinely fascinate children, but of all the things that captured my attention when I was young, the imagery of that makeup team working their magic stuck fast and actually remained in the forefront of my impressionable young mind. I remember telling my grandparents that I wanted to be a special effects makeup artist back then, and I used to experiment with my mother's makeup and face paint and a menagerie of other materials that I thought looked like blood or monster skin, etc. I have pictures of my cousins with cheese-wax "bullet wounds" on their arms that I must have done when I was 12 or 13.

During my time in college, I was in pursuit of an art degree, but I didn't want to be a secluded fine artist or an art teacher or an employee in a gallery. I didn't know what I wanted exactly, and no one could really satisfy my questioning. So, I finally decided to return to something that had always been interesting to me, which was makeup. A bit of research and the counsel of a trusted professor lead me to believe that I could, and should, take makeup and special effects seriously. I'm so happy that I did, because I love that this profession. I love that the work of a makeup artist in the film industry is a blend of painting, sculpture, event coordinating, and human relations. I love the camaraderie of working with a team, as well as the entirety of the film crew. I enjoy using brushes and paints and powders, and I love applying the various mediums of makeup to faces and skin. I have a fascination with faces in general, so it's very satisfying to finish applying a makeup design and then watch my work perform as the actor speaks and gestures and expresses emotion.

So how did you get started in the industry?

I began by chasing after any opportunity that I was qualified for. I had some legit makeup experience from work I had done for theatres in my hometown, which definitely helped me obtain jobs fresh out of make-up school. Of course, I wasn't getting paid then, but I was meeting people in the industry, which was of much greater value. No job was too small, I didn't care if the script was promising or if the director was determined to get festival attention, I didn't even care if the makeup I would be doing was challenging or not. Sometimes I worked as a set PA, not doing anything related to makeup at all. I just wanted to be doing what I wanted to do, wanted to be a part of something creative and engaging, so I took advantage of every chance that I got. During that time, I was working in cosmetics shops to pay the bills and stay close to my desired field. After about two years of this, I had finally met enough of the "right" people and had gained enough experience to quit the day job and start freelancing full-time.

How do you find work?

These days I get most of my work through referral, which is wonderful because it means that I work with the same people quite often. The independent film world in NYC is like a family that way; the higher-ups find that they work well with certain people, so they continue to hire them job after job. Trusting work relationships develop, groups of professionals become units, colleagues become comrades. Often I'll get calls for jobs that another makeup artist was offered, but couldn't take, so they recommended me instead. I have likewise passed-on many jobs to other makeup artists who I know and trust.

I also still peruse Craigslist and for work when there aren't any upcoming jobs on my horizon.

I feel there are a lot of misconceptions about what you do, from the attitude "It's just make-up," to another belief that, on a low-budget, the needs of the make-up department can be overlooked - have you ever come across this in your work and how does it affect you?

Unfortunately, I come across such attitudes fairly often in the low-budget indie world. The effects can range from something as simple as not being provided with a surface to place my tools on, to not being allowed to stand by monitor.

It seems that in the film community, many professionals are familiar with the purpose and function of multiple departments, not just their own. I imagine that this stems from either studying the film-making process in school, or having been a part of so many productions that the different jobs become common knowledge. My job is an exception.

Why is that?

In general, no one besides my fellow departmental colleagues fully understands what makeup artists do. I feel that the misconceptions and improper attitudes are merely the children of inexperience. Perhaps one reason why makeup can be seen as unnecessary is because the history, advancements, and purposes of the makeup industry have not been canonized along with the more "important" aspects of the motion picture legacy.

That's interesting...

Makeup is a very specialized discipline, just like camera, lighting, and sound, but unlike those fields, few are taught about make-up in film school.

I wish that others knew more about what makes a good makeup artist good, and what their needs are. It wouldn‘t just be a benefit to makeup artists, it would save so many productions a lot of unnecessary stress and headache. It just goes to show that ignorance is not bliss. It can put a strain on people who are relying on one another to get a job done; If one doesn’t know what the other needs, then both suffer. For example, I want to have the actors ready in a timely manner, but for that to happen, I need for them to be called at the proper time. I try to discuss and confirm certain logistics like this before a shoot starts, but that’s not always possible, (or taken seriously).

This is a shame, because a good makeup artist can be a valuable ally to the crew. Besides developing the visual qualities of the characters and affecting the overall aesthetic and mood of the on-screen imagery, there are many things that makeup artists do that others wouldn’t think of or know how to fix. We hide sunburn, cover unwanted tattoos, scars, and birth-marks, maintain continuity if an actor starts to noticeably suffer from a cold, allergies, or sleep deprivation, keep a look-out for eye and nose boogers and ear wax, correct signs of aging or too-prominent facial features, and put artificial structure and color back into a face to prevent it from looking flat or distorted. It's not always glamorous work.

The dexterity of a makeup artist and quality of his or her makeup design can add production value, or diminish it. No makeup supervision, (or poor makeup supervision) can lead to problems with photography, lighting, post-production work, disposition of the talent, and cause audiences to become distracted.

Makeup is necessary and important because it is a part of the whole. The makeup department is a member of the team, we are on the side of the greater goal of the production. With that said, I admit that I did choose this line of work for myself knowing that I would face stereotypes and misconceptions, and I still like and want to do what I do. Everyone faces discouragement, such is life, but it would be nice to receive as much respect as the better understood departments do.

Leading up to a shoot - how much preparation do you do?

I do as much work in pre-production as I do during a shoot, or perhaps even more. It is an arduous process. A well done pre-production is usually impossible for me to achieve without plenty of caffeine, eye-strain, and mental anguish, as I'm sure most professionals in the film industry can relate to.

Most of the minutiae of my job needs to be organized before principal photography begins because so much hinges upon the importance of continuity. For a feature film, my prep work begins with reading and re-reading the script. I have to identify and familiarize myself with every detail that will affect my department, and conceptualize ideas for each character before I can do anything else. Then, I compose a scene-by-scene breakdown which itemizes the individual continuity notes for each character who appears in the scene, as well as relevant information from the script.

I can be a bit over-zealous when it comes to my break-down, but it makes my job so much easier when every detail is accounted for prior to principal photography. The movie-making process is stressful enough as it is, anything that I can do in advance to help myself and my department work more efficiently is worth the extra effort.

Apart from the continuity break-down, I also have to plan the final makeup design for every character, as well as all special effects makeup and effects gags. This involves a lot of dialogue with the director, since I have to make sure that we share a common vision and come to an understanding about certain logistics and design elements. When all of the organization and designing is done, (or, sometimes, while I'm still in the midst of it) I also have to figure out a budget breakdown, obtain the products/materials needed for the shoot, and make sure that they are organized, clean, and ready for use.

That sounds like a lot of work. I think us Director's have it easy!

It is very common for me to become a recluse during the pre-production process, because I spend so much time racking my brain to develop ideas and fine-tune the accuracy of my continuity notes. But it's always a worthwhile endeavor.

What do you want from a Director? What is the ideal relationship?

What I want from a Director is a collaborative, mutually respectful relationship. I think like an artist, so when I have an idea, it is usually more of a conceptual brain child than a practical solution. In order to develop satisfactory makeup looks, I envision characters in various spaces and under lights of varying colors and intensities. I consider mood and emotion and symbolism. I also consider realism and practicality, when appropriate. So, when I sit down with a Director to talk, I want the chance to creatively engage with the person who is responsible for the creative vision of the entire film. I ask lots of questions, and I appreciate lots of carefully considered, insightful answers. I also greatly appreciate reciprocality and collaboration. I work best when both the Director and I can present solid ideas to one another, and then use what we like to formulate new ideas.

I don't particularly like it when a Director has no ideas about the makeup at all and leaves me to guess at what the desired look is, but the absolute worst case scenario is when a Director is completely unwilling to trust my expertise. I hate, hate, hate, being shown a picture and told, "This is what I want, do exactly this".

My work is a thing of pride for me, I want to create my own new and interesting work for each film, I do not want to re-do something that someone else has already done. I want to share and participate in a holistic vision, I do not want to be force-fed it or left to figure it out on my own. I like it when a Director values and encourages that.

Stephanie Wise was the Make-Up Department Head on the feature film 'Meskada' (Dir: Josh Sternfield), which is premiering at the the Tribeca Film Festival in April, 2010. .

Care to share?

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