Key Makeup Artist

  • Key Makeup Artist

Everyone wears makeup in the movies. Seriously, everyone. The work of a makeup artist on a film or television show is not limited to glam-ing up the leading lady or turning a walk-on actor into a decaying dead body on the autopsy table, the job is also utilitarian and necessary to counteract the negative effects of intensely bright production lighting. Without makeup, all performers on screen would appear pale, washed out, and with facial expressions barely visible.


Answering to the director and production designer, the key makeup artist is a department head that is responsible for planning the makeup designs for all leading and supporting cast, to include cosmetic makeup and facial/body hair applications. When a special effects makeup artist has been hired on to the production, the key makeup artist will consult with this person on the execution of all prosthetics and SFX makeup. In production, the key artist will perform most of the daily makeup applications, while delegating additional responsibilities to subordinate crew. It is common that the department head performs makeup applications on lead cast, with assistance, and allows other crew members to work with supporting and minor roles, depending on seniority. The department head will execute especially complicated or important makeup processes that are to be featured on camera. The key makeup artist and crew remain on set or in the makeup trailer throughout the entire shooting day to perform touchups as needed and to remove makeup from performers. 

In support of the function of the makeup department, the key makeup artist is ultimately responsible for recording continuity of makeup during shooting. The task of making notes in the script and photographing the cast may be delegated to another crewmember, but the department head will closely supervise these activities. This is to ensure that if re-shoots must be done, the crew can accurately recreate the look to match the previous footage. This person is also tasked with tracking and purchasing makeup materials and equipment, scheduling crew, and fabricating special prosthetics. Again, these tasks may be assigned to subordinate crew but are ultimately the responsibility of the department head.

Skills & Education

A formal degree is not required for a career as a key makeup artist, but training and practice are essential. Education can be gained through attaining a degree in film and television production or theatrical design with an emphasis on makeup, or through attending a traditional cosmetology school. Many working makeup artists learn in part by mentoring under a veteran of the industry. Basic techniques can be taught in a classroom environment, but continuing education under a seasoned master is necessary to pick up those individual trade secrets. While it is not a requirement that a makeup artist be a chemist, a basic understanding of chemistry is beneficial in adapting and innovating how different products are used. Many professionals are known to work up their own proprietary blends for use on set. Furthermore, as production cosmetics can vary widely from consumer products, a makeup artist must be aware of how the makeup will react to specific conditions of heat, moisture, and other cosmetics. Specific training in applying makeup for film and digital video is essential; this should include an in-depth course in production lighting and cameras.

What to Expect

Like most creative and skilled trades, makeup in film and television production is a field that requires constant and continued re-education. Each time you have mastered a particular technique or found a product to swear by, someone has innovated a newer, better version. At the very least, it keeps the work interesting. On the job, makeup artists can anticipate to work irregular schedules and long hours, depending on the production schedule. While the trailers on set may look familiar, shooting locations may vary from a production lot in LA to unpredictable terrain in the middle of the desert or a rainy tropical region. The key makeup artist must plan for all eventualities that can affect the function of his or her department; that means accounting for weather, electrical needs (in coordination with the generator operator), and ensuring that there is a sufficient quantity of extra supplies. When on location in a remote setting, there is no sending an assistant out for more Q-tips or concealer. As makeup artists often find themselves in very intimate settings with the cast in the application of facial and body makeup, a good artist should be discrete, polite, and always gentle with the mascara brush. It should go without saying, but a breath mint and good dose of deodorant go a long way in a small trailer.


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