How to become a SFX makeup artist

By Salon Gold on August 10th, 2023

The world of TV and film brings together talented professionals from every discipline — from actors and animal wranglers to producers and pyrotechnicians. And while the stars of the silver screen are the ones that take home all the glory, there’s a space for everybody when the credits roll — including those that work in hair, makeup and beauty.

If you’re looking to take your cosmetic passion to the next level, you could consider becoming a special effects  (SFX) makeup artist. But what is SFX makeup exactly?

In short, it’s a type of makeup used to create dramatic visual and practical effects for film, TV, and other media. SFX makeup artists use prosthetics and technical application methods to transform actors into creatures straight out of your imagination — we’re talking orcs, dementors, and humanoid monsters lurking in the Upside Down. If you’ve ever binge-watched a fantasy franchise, you’ll have undoubtedly seen the impressive work of world-class SFX makeup artists.

However, like every passion-project-turned-exciting career, becoming an SFX makeup artist takes hard work and dedication. Here are the steps to consider if you’re aspiring to enter the fantastical world of SFX makeup — and why you’ll need to be insured if you do.

1. Develop your SFX skills

You’ll most likely be starting your career with a foundation — ahem — of makeup skills. However, the kinds of materials, techniques, and even working days that you can expect from working on set as an SFX artist will differ significantly from your work in a salon or as a freelance makeup artist.

When taking your first steps, you might have done some research or even some at-home practice using the staples in an SFX artist’s kit. Silicone moulds, foam latex, body paint and custom adhesives are all commonplace — but these aren’t the kinds of materials or techniques that you can reasonably expect to learn everything about from a YouTube video. So, how do you get started?

SFX makeup courses

You should look to build your SFX skills by enrolling in dedicated SFX makeup courses, where industry professionals can teach you the skills that you need to work. Given the rather specific niche that you’re interested in, however, you probably won’t find the specialist programme that you’re looking for just around the corner. The most reputable courses in the UK can be found in arts schools, many of which are based in London.

Renowned institutions such as The University of Arts London offer beginners courses that will “introduce you to many aspects of film and TV makeup designs, ranging from natural beauty and HD ready techniques through to period make-up, ageing, skin disorders and more”.

SFX makeup apprenticeships

Alternatively, if you’re looking to learn in a more hands-on capacity, some studios and theatre companies offer SFX makeup apprenticeships. Here, you will take on real film, TV and theatre jobs and assist a lead SFX artist in prosthetics, sculpting, painting and more — all the while gaining client-facing experience and developing your skill set,

SFX apprenticeships are often marketed as job roles for SFX or makeup ‘trainees’. When searching for the right position that will nurture your talent and give you the tools you need to learn about the craft, keep an eye on arts placement sites such as ScreenSkills and TheCallSheet.

2. Gain industry experience

Now that you’ve gained the crucial skills to practise as an SFX artist, the real work starts. Yes, you’ve got your proverbial licence — but the real learning happens once you’re out in the world and dealing with the challenges of the showbiz industry.

If you’ve studied or worked as a trainee, you should have some connections already that could point you towards job opportunities in the SFX space. As a new SFX artist, you should build your experience first within smaller productions — for example, in local theatre or independent productions. Over time, you’ll build your confidence and your credentials to prepare you for work on larger ad campaigns or film sets.

Build a portfolio

With every new project you work on, you should be documenting your progress. Practical experience can only accelerate your career if you have something to show for it — so if you’re learning new skills and improving, it’s best to photograph your work and share it with the world, even if it isn’t a paid job.

Social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok are especially helpful tools that can be leveraged as public-facing portfolios. SFX makeup provides the kind of dynamic visual content that online audiences love, both in the final product and the behind-the-scenes work involved. So, get snapping, and upload your proudest work online — you never know who’s watching or what opportunities might come your way off the back of it.

Expand your network

On that note, you’ll also want to work on growing your network as you establish yourself in the industry. If you are using social platforms, you can increase the engagement on your posts by regularly uploading, reaching out to fellow artists, and cross-posting to channels dedicated to promoting up-and-coming artists. This way, you’ll quickly build a network of peers that can provide industry advice and help to extend your reach.

Attending and displaying your work at workshops, trade shows and conventions is another effective way to make new connections that could turn into working relationships. Events such as Monsterpalooza and The Prosthetics Event happen each year and provide space for industry professionals to meet and showcase their talents.

3. Pursue ongoing professional development

This one might go without saying, but the final step to establishing yourself in this exciting trade is to work consistently and never stop learning. SFX makeup has developed tremendously over the past couple of decades, as new technologies and education opportunities have improved — so to stay ahead of the curve, you’ll need to continuously develop your skills and keep a steady finger on the pulse of upcoming trends.

Find your niche

As you progress between different projects and get a feel for what kind of work fulfils your creative ambitions, you might decide to pursue one particular niche within the SFX field.

These are some of the top routes to consider:

  • Age transformations
  • Creature prosthetics
  • Injury realism
  • Drag and theatre
  • Body painting and airbrushing

By catering for a specific niche, you can position yourself as the go-to in the industry when one of your connections requires a specific type of SFX makeup. This makes specialising both creatively fulfilling and a strategic career move.

Get insured

For the most part, working as an SFX makeup artist is a gig economy. This means that the final step in your journey is to get properly insured. As with any freelance profession, you’ll have to protect yourself against theft, loss and damage — plus any incidents that could leave you responsible for compensating your clients, such as a reaction to one of your products. And because SFX makeup involves a wide range of weird and wonderful chemicals, you’ll absolutely need to be covered when using them on your clients.

Here at Salon Gold, we provide comprehensive makeup artist insurance to cover all of your projects. Our policies are designed specifically for the needs of cosmetic freelancers, including public liability cover, treatment risk liability, product liability insurance and any extras like employer’s liability, should you need it. This way, you can keep the total peace of mind required to produce your best work. 

Get a quote today and find out more about how Salon Gold can safeguard your business.

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