How to Become a Special Effects Makeup Artist

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Photo Source: “Pan's Labyrinth” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

A special effects makeup artist is in charge of transforming an actor’s appearance when they have to look undead, not-of-this-Earth, bloody, beaten up, or older—any transformation that requires more than what a regular makeup artist is responsible for. You can blame those nightmares you’ve gotten from monster and zombie films on these artisans. Keep reading for how you, too, can get started crafting monstrous and marvelous movie makeup magic.


What is SFX makeup?

Vecna in 'Stranger Things' season 4“Stranger Things” Courtesy Netflix

Special effects makeup uses cosmetics to make an actor look noticeably different. Unlike regular makeup that’s primarily used to enhance one’s natural appearance, SFX makeup creates—you guessed it—a special effect.

Prosthetics makeup is a type of SFX makeup that helps create an illusion. From post-battle wounds in “Westworld” to the true-to-the-books orc grotesqueness in “The Lord of the Rings,” prosthetic sculpting, molding, and casting crafts the fantastical. As a field, SFX makeup tends to focus more on applying makeup and prosthetics to actors, while prosthetics makeup focuses more on creating the prosthetics themselves. Both SFX and prosthetics are made using silicone, liquid latex, and gelatin, although SFX also uses professional makeup palettes, tissue paper, and crepe hair.

What does an SFX makeup artist do?

Makeup artist working on the set of 'Fear the Walking Dead'“Fear the Walking Dead” — Photo Credit: Richard Foreman, Jr/AMC

An SFX makeup artist uses cosmetics, prosthetics, appliances, and spirit gum to create anything that immerses the audience into the world of the production, including:

  • Realistic wounds and abrasions
  • Creature features
  • Deformities
  • Aged-up wrinkles

Despite the industry’s reliance on CGI, the special effects makeup artist’s ability to bring otherworldly visuals to life using practical techniques is an invaluable and essential role on the set of any genre film or show.

A highly skilled special effects makeup artist can even enhance performances because it turns actors “into a different person,” according to Sean Sansom, an Emmy-winning SFX makeup artist who brought terrifying vampires to life in “The Strain.” Looking like someone else “brings out something that they wouldn’t do as themselves,” he told Backstage. That notion is seconded by Rick Baker, whose work includes “An American Werewolf in London,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and “The Nutty Professor.” When an actor sees himself turn into something else, Baker said in an interview with Vice, they give “a performance that [they’re] never going to give” otherwise.

Common SFX makeup techniques

Scene from 'Everything Everywhere All at Once'“Everything Everywhere All at Once” Courtesy A24

Tools and techniques that help with SFX transformations include: 

  • Lifecasting: Lifecasting creates a 3D replica of an actor’s head or body part that is then used for sculpting customized makeup. The SFX makeup artist uses the plaster lifecast to create specialized prosthetics perfectly fit to the actor.
  • Applicators: Applicators such as brushes, puffs, sponges, and swabs allow you to create and layer different cosmetic outcomes.
  • Castor seal: Applied on top of liquid latex, this allows additional makeup application without discoloration.
  • Stencils: These help to perfectly outline pattern work such as scales, spots, and stripes.
  • Airbrush: The quick, even application of airbrush body pigment lets you take an actor from their own skin tone to Mystique-level blue in minimal time.
  • Build-up: This technique uses glue and other materials such as tissue and plaster to create texture on an actor’s skin.
  • Latex skin: Liquid latex can be applied as a second skin that has wounds, wrinkles, and different colors. The liquified rubber doesn’t solidify before use, meaning it’s easy to spread and sculpt.
  • Silicone modeling compound: Sculpt three-dimensional special effects for the skin with this easily molded product.
  • Glue and remover: Skin-safe, water-soluble glue is used to attach prosthetics, bald caps, and more to the face.
  • Crepe hair: This is used to create any type of human (or other) hair, including beards, mustaches, werewolf fur, and eyebrows.

Where does an SFX artist fit in the crew hierarchy?

Scene from 'Game of Thrones,' Courtesy HBO“Game of Thrones” Courtesy HBO

Special effects makeup artists work under the leadership of the key makeup artist as a member of the makeup department (alongside regular makeup artists and makeup assistants). They report to the key makeup artist, as well as the costume designer and the SFX coordinator to ensure that what they’re creating on the face and body of the actors lines up with what the actor will be wearing and what sort of larger effects are happening around them during the scene.

Special effects makeup artist salary

Behind the scenes of 'The Walking Dead'“The Walking Dead” behind the scenes — Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a theatrical makeup artist is $124,380, with an average hourly wage of $59.80; however, Comparably clocks the average salary for a special effects makeup artist, specifically, at $56,631. The states with the highest pay for the position are California and New York. Importantly, a special effects makeup artist's salary varies greatly depending on location, job type, and hours worked. (Most makeup artists are freelancers.)

Special effects makeup artists are represented by IATSE Local 706—the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild—which sets guaranteed rates and benefits.

Education requirements for special effects makeup artists

Karen Fukuhara in 'The Boys'

Karen Fukuhara in “The Boys” Courtesy Amazon Studios

Most SFX makeup artist positions require certifications, credentials, or degrees that confirm a baseline knowledge of the industry. The following schools and programs offer in-person courses and certificates in theatrical and/or SFX makeup:

  • Cinema Makeup School
  • Greensboro College
  • Shenandoah University
  • Stephens College
  • Webster University
  • Make-up Designory
  • Cortiva Institute
  • Douglas Education Center

You can also earn online certificates and take tutorials at:

  • QC Makeup Academy
  • Special FX School
  • Udemy
  • The Art of Makeup School
  • The Online Makeup Academy
  • Stan Winston School

At the very least, a cosmetology license can help teach you basic makeup application techniques. You can further bolster your knowledge by watching tutorials on YouTube and TikTok. 

SFX makeup artist skills and required experience

Scene from 'Lovecraft Country'“Lovecraft Country” Courtesy HBO

SFX makeup artists need a mix of artistic, technical, and interpersonal capabilities, as well as work experience. This includes:

  • Creativity: A creative mindset helps with coming up with ideas and problem-solving any issues that arise.
  • Industry knowledge: You need to know which tools to use and when to use them to create the desired outcome, so be sure to keep up with industry knowledge about chemicals, procedures, and technology.
  • Technical skills: SFX makeup artistry requires technical skills in painting, drawing, and all things makeup. Since you’re working with a living canvas, you also need a steady hand. Before booking professional gigs or signing up for training, buy a basic SFX makeup palette, liquid latex, and tissue paper—all available for cheap at your local craft or makeup store and online—and see what kind of DIY makeup artistry you can create. Test out your technical skills on friends to see if you have the inherent talent necessary to pursue a career in the field. 
  • Experience: Hands-on experience working with cosmetics, chemicals, and prosthetics is necessary to become an SFX makeup artist. You can gain this experience by working as an SFX makeup assistant for major productions, indie and student films, theatrical productions, and even theme park shows. Many special effects makeup artists start as freelance makeup artists or production assistants who find their way into the makeup department—most commonly as trainees and apprentices to more established artists. This may lead to working as makeup assistants and assistant makeup artists.
  • Communication: You need the ability to understand what the client is asking for and to ask follow-up questions as needed.
  • Eye for detail: The tiniest swoop of color or flick of plaster can vastly change a client’s appearance, so it’s vital to notice the tiniest of details. 

To help get your foot in the door:

  • Apply to gigs on job sites: Most makeup artists generate their income by freelancing. Search for positions on casting call databases and with production companies, theaters, and theme parks. 
  • Network: Attend relevant industry events showcasing SFX makeup artists’ work such as Comic-Con, WonderCon, Monsterpalooza, the International Makeup Artist Trade Show, the Pro Makeup Artist Conference & Expo, and the Prosthetics Event. Enter competitions such as Bloody Brushes, Monster Makeup Wars, and Grave Reviews. Engaging with the community lets you hear about job opportunities and industry information. 
  • Build your body of work: Make a professional website that showcases your portfolio and emphasizes your desire to work in the field. Use hashtags on social media platforms such as #sfxmakeup, #sfx, #sfxmakeupartist, #sfxmua, #specialeffectsmakeup, #cosplay, and #makeuplooks to promote your work.

What to include in your SFX makeup portfolio

Scene from 'Mad Max: Fury Road'“Mad Max: Fury Road” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s important to enter into the business with a solid portfolio of work. The portfolio should introduce yourself and your work, highlighting your skill set and range. Most makeup artists use online portfolios since they’re easily accessible, low- to no-cost, and allow video. Sites like Squarespace, Format, Dripbook, and Vimeo make creating visually compelling portfolios easy. 

  • Contact info: Your name, phone number, email, and city of residence allows potential employers to get in touch.
  • Social proof: Show off any positive feedback or ratings from clients.
  • Training: Be sure to mention any SFX certifications, credentials, or degrees.
  • Experience: Provide a rundown of your SFX career history and any work in makeup or production generally. 
  • Photos: Present your best work with high-resolution photos set against solid backgrounds. Depict a variety of looks (blood/gore, fantasy, animals, aliens); basic techniques (wounds, blood, skin texture); and more specialized techniques (lifecasting, prosthetics, crepe hair). 
  • Videos: Embed or link out to video clips of your best SFX transformations, along with a brief description of your work for each project.

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