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10 Tips for success on set

Posted: 24 September 2016

10 Tips for success on set

When you’re starting out you will probably find yourself working on small, low-budget productions to gain experience. These can include student films, promos, Internet-based projects and short films. Or you may be lucky enough to get onto a bigger production as a junior artist or assistant straight away.

Accepting you’ll need to start at the bottom is a key first step on your career path. There really is no quick way to the top in this business, despite the media-driven world we live in where stars can be made overnight online and on TV. Makeup FX is a craft and the film industry is a culture like no other; you have to master both by gaining experience over time and because you really want it as a career, warts and all – low pay in the early days, erratic work, financial insecurity, long hours, late nights, early mornings, fierce competition…the list goes on!

If you’re not in it for the right reasons you won’t last, so go into small or junior-level jobs enthusiastically and absorb every bit of experience they give you as an investment in your future – no time spent on set or professional contact made is wasted while you’re learning the ropes.

Despite how it may appear, the FX industry is a relatively small place and people do know each other and talk to each other, so how you conduct yourself on set from day one can have a big effect on your career – get it right and your reputation will go before you and hopefully get you hired again! 

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Here are some pointers for how to make those initial work opportunities a success and help you get onto the next rung of the ladder.

1. Make sure you know exactly what is expected of you

If you’re the only makeup FX artist on a small production, ask the director to email you with a detailed description or visual references of what they are hoping you will deliver. If you’re part of a makeup crew, ask your supervisor for clear guidance and in both cases stick closely to their brief.

2. DO A TEST IN ADVANCE

If your role involves gore gags, test what you'll be doing in advance and film the tests on your phone so you can look at them and see if and how they work. This could also be helpful to show the director so they know what to expect and can plan their shots. If it's possible also test makeups in advance, but this could be more difficult to achieve.

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3. TAKE SPARES WITH YOU

Remember you may need to do multiple takes, so be prepared for this by taking extra materials with you.

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4. Be early and reliable

Give yourself plenty of time to find the studio or location and to get ready for the shoot. You’ll be given a call time but make sure you arrive beforehand so you can be well prepared.

5. THINK ABOUT HOW YOUR WORK AFFECTS OTHERS

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Be mindful of how your role interacts with other departments, for example if you're doing something that involves a lot of blood, make sure the costume designer understands that the costume will get covered in blood so they can make a plan for possible retakes. Make sure to inform them well in advance and not a couple of minutes before a take.

6. Be realistic about timing your work

If you are asked by other crew members how long it will take you to apply a prosthetic or set up a gore gag for example, give them a sensible, informed guess and don’t under-estimate, as that will not be helpful to the running of the shoot. By the same measure, don’t ask for an extremely long and over indulgent timeframe to complete your work either. Time is precious in filmmaking and if the prosthetic makeup you have designed takes seven hours to apply, you really need to rethink it.

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7. Communicate

Communicate clearly, listen and follow instructions; filmmaking is a collaborative process and teamwork relies on good communication.

8. know your place

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Filmmaking is a hierarchy with the producer at the top followed closely by the director. If they hired you directly to do a prosthetic makeup or gag then you will deal directly with them. If however you are part of a crew working under a head of department (HOD), then always respect that it’s their job to deal with the producer and director and to agree to changes, suggest ideas or address issues.

Don’t go over your HOD’s head or behind their back and start complaining to the producer or pitching your ideas for how things should be shot to the director. Respect your HOD, discuss any concerns with them and don’t make changes without their approval.

9. Be patient and flexible

Film shoots often involve a lot of waiting around so your time on set will be punctuated by long periods of inactivity. They are also ever-changing environments so you need to adapt easily to fluctuating circumstances, from last-minute alterations on a makeup to unpredictable weather conditions and schedules veering off course.

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10. Remember attitude is key

It almost goes without saying that all the above should be done in a positive, pleasant manner but if you’re stressed that can be a challenge. Here’s some great advice on the subject from Damian Martin, Oscar and BAFTA winning co-director of Australia’s Odd Studio from his ‘Words of Wisdom’ in the summer issue of Prosthetics Magazine:

“A good attitude and willingness to learn and grow your craft are great strengths to have. When there are two people with similar folios and skills going for the same job, the decision comes down to who do we want to spend 12+ hours a day with? Who do we want to be in a cramped makeup bus with? We all have our off days but be aware that we are all working together and it’s not about us it’s about the production. We spend a lot of hours working so the more enjoyable it can be the better, there’s always enough drama without crew adding to it.”

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Let's have a bonus tip too...

11. Prioritise the work

Film shoots can be sociable affairs and there could be opportunity for partying. Join in and have fun, but never compromise your ability to do your job the next day.

Want to learn more?

Our 7-week Creative & Character Makeup course offers specially designed on set experience. Students work as the makeup FX crew on two short films shot with a professional crew; the first involves stopping throughout the process to explain exactly what’s going on in all aspects of the filming and the second puts that learning into practice, as the shoot operates just as a professional one would. See behind the scenes on a Creative & Character Makeup course shoot below.

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