In the early 1970s I was tromping throughout Asia with my family. Dad always had 2-3 Nikons and shot great photos of people and places. Being a clever guy, he usually had me shoulder one or more of those heavy old Nikons, so one day I asked him to show me how the cameras worked. He did so with patience. Thus began my love of photography. I took college classes in photojournalism. By the time I entered the film business, I already possessed a useful skill to help promote my makeup work: I could take my own photos of it. When I moved to LA, I did not know anyone so therefore had nobody to be a makeup model. My girlfriend was at art school all day and worked on assignments at night. Faced with this, I made myself up into a dozen characters and shot photos of myself. I was Quasimodo, a leper, a cat-man, a burn victim, God knows what else. In a few weeks I had a meager portfolio and it got me my first professional film jobs.
When I began corresponding with Dick Smith in 1981, I sent him sculpture and makeup photos shot on daylight film, indoors, with a blue filter to compensate for the orange of the tungsten bulbs. The colour was balanced, but never perfect. Since my household bulbs did not emit enough light, I used ISO 400 film. I could shoot in lower light but the photo grain increased. Dick recommended always shooting with Kodak Ektachrome 160 and using ECA 250 watt bulbs. Both matched the film and colour temperature used on most movie sets. I could push the film to 320 and shoot in lower light. I rushed to my local camera store and got both. I was amazed at the crispness of the photos, the truer colours and how much light the ECA bulbs blasted out. At the time I only had a Canon rangefinder so my Dad bought me my first SLR, my trusty Pentax ME-Super. With an f/1.4 lens I could finally shoot very clean closeups of my makeups, under most low light conditions. Dick later suggested I ask the clapper-loaders for "short ends," unused pieces of film from the day's shooting. Short ends were rated the same ISO as Ektachrome 160, and I was able to get quite a lot of them from friendly camera operators and loaders. When spooled, each roll would usually give me 45-50 frames, a lot more than the 36 frames in the store bought Kodak film. Since my developing costs had increased (I loved 160 and was shooting more and more photos), short ends proved to be handy indeed.
These days it seems everyone has a digital camera, and if they don't have one their cell phone has the capability. But that doesn't mean everyone is suddenly 'a photographer.' You can buy a disposable point-and-shoot in the check-out line at a supermarket. You can spend big bucks on the hottest Canon digital which shoots photos and HD video. How the photos turn out does not depend on what camera you are shooting with as much as the person handling the camera. As Ansel Adams said, “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” Furthermore, using a good lens - and knowing the correct one to use - is far more important than the actual camera itself.
Of the hundreds of makeup artists I have met over 30 years, I can only think of a handful who are dedicated photographers. Steve Johnson, Greg Funk and Robert Kurtzman immediately come to mind. They are all really talented photographers and all have a good eye. I recall that Doug Drexler and Rick Baker's former wives Donna and Elaine, were very good black-and-white photographers and covered the work of their husbands extensively. Many of the best photos of Rick's career in CINEFEX were shot by Elaine Baker. Every makeup artist should have at least a basic working knowledge of how a camera functions (film or digital), about focal lengths, depth-of-field, lenses, lighting and composition. Makeup is a visual art after all, and it seems to me that every makeup artist would want to know as much as they can about photography.
In the above two photos, you will notice one consistency: a Pentax ME-Super strapped around my neck. While those were non-union situations and I was allowed to take my camera onto the set, even on union productions I never failed to bring my Pentax along, tucked into a bag. The chances to grab shots were sometimes tight and infrequent outside a sound stage as an actor rushed to the toilet or to grab a smoke. But I found that if I had a good rapport with the actor and asked politely, I would always get the shot. On the other hand, if I had relied solely on the Still Photographer to obtain makeup photos, I would have to: a) find him/her and: b) hope that the photographer would actually get a copy of the photo to me. The point is, always rely on yourself to get photos of your makeup.
The basics of good photography are not a mystery unless you allow them to be. The core principles are quite simple to understand. Any decent book on 'how to take good photos' will contain the same information. I always found books by John Hedgecoe to be useful and well illustrated. A good knowledge of still photography can be advantegous in other ways as a makeup artist on a film set. For one thing, you will be able to talk the same language as the camera crew. You will undertand their technology, which will certainly be appreciated. Most persons of one craft know very little about the other person's art. I was on the set of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. For the shot being lined up, many characters in prosthetic makeup were fairly close to the camera. They had fire, explosions and a lot of people in the way. To rush in for an un-necessary touch-up would have been foolish. Keep in mind I am a person who always stays on top of his makeups and actors. When the AD called for 'final looks,' I leaned over and asked the camera operator what lens he was on. He said a 20 or 28mm - very wide. I sat down, knowing that no intrusive touch-up was needed - my character would be tiny in the frame. As I relaxed, my makeup colleagues rushed in, having little idea that their efforts would never be seen on film. The camera operator looked at me, smiled and said, "Overtime."
Knowing what lens is being used - and what it does to the image and to your character - is essential to know so that you do not intrude un-necessarily. The BUFFY characters were small in frame with a wide lens. However, the lens could have been changed to a 150 or 200 mm in a second and their faces would suddenly have filled the frame without the camera ever moving position. Unless you heard about the lens change from the camera crew and understood their jargon, you might not have a clue. Knowing the lens will tell you whether or not to go in, a decision which is critical when an actor is in a highly emotional scene. The last thing you want to do is intrude on an actor in the height of his/her creative preparation before a shot. Michael Westmore told me how on ROCKY and RAGING BULL, he used a monocle (a one-eyed binocular) to check out the makeups of Stallone and DeNiro during the boxing ring fight scenes. These were complex prosthetic makeups with bleeding. As Michael looked through his monocular and found out what lens was on the camera, he could determine in a second whether to go in for a touch-up or not. Crew members who did not know what he was doing simply thought he was being lazy. Actually Michael was looking out for both the actor and himself. A simple nod between Michael, Stallone and DeNiro gave the actors the confidence that all was good to film. On the other hand, if a touch up was needed, Michael was the first to go in. The actors trusted Michael's eye and respected the fact that he would not interrupt their performances without good reason. The acting and makeup results are in the films and they are masterful. In the end, that eye and that trust between actor and makeup artist - each knowing enough about the other's art - are the things which make both of them work well together.