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How do I become a special effects makeup artist or sculptor in the UK?

Steve at The Prosthetics Event 2022 with David Marti and Montse Ribe from DDT Efectos Especiales (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy)
Steve with David Marti and Montse Ribe from DDT Efectos Especiales (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy)

One of the questions I'm most often asked when I'm sculpting live at events is 'how do I get into the special effects prosthetics and makeup profession?'

It's great that so many of you are so inspired to learn these skills. Maybe you want to work in the film and tv industry or perhaps you want to set up a props and masks shop as your full-time job. Or, like me, maybe you want to do both.

It's my passion and my dream job and I TOTALLY get why you want to do this! So, in the hope that this helps some of you with researching the possibilities to transform your dreams into reality, I've written this blog post where I'll answer some of your commonly asked makeup career questions and throw some extra resources your way for you to get your teeth into:

I will talk about resources that you can access from anywhere in the world, but as I am based in the UK I can only talk about British universities and face to face industry courses.

What universities offer special effects makeup degrees?

New and updated courses become available all the time but, to get you started, here are some great lists of undergraduate degrees on these sites where I've searched 'special effects makeup' and given you a link to the search results page:

I recently interviewed course leaders from the University of Bolton and University Centre South Essex on a trip to the Prosthetics Event. Here's what they had to say:

What face to face industry courses are there in sfx makeup?

Pinewood Studios - The Iver Make-up Academy

The Iver Make-up Academy is one of the leading industry independent training schools, based at none other than the legendary Pinewood Studios. You'll see from their course list that they offer everything from courses lasting a few days in specific techniques, such as wig dressing, through to longer courses lasting 14, 21 and 30 weeks which provide comprehensive training in makeup, hair and prosthetics for film, theatre and fashion. There's even a summer school for teenagers who are thinking about getting into the industry. Here's a tour of their studio with more videos about their courses on their YouTube channel:

Brushstroke Makeup and Hair Academy at Elstree Studios

Brushstroke Makeup and Hair Academy in London works in collaboration with the BBC and is based within two famous tv and film studios, Elstree and Longcross. They offer both national and international qualifications as well as short make up courses and lovely 3-day taster course for teenagers aged 14 to 15. Take a look at their YouTube channel for some great videos about their courses. Here's a tour of their facility and some insights from a previous student:

There's plenty of other courses out there, including lots of short courses, many of which are offered by hugely experienced and talented people working in the industry. These are often shorter and more specialist in their focus, so it depends on what your interest is. A few notable mentions include:

  • Creative Media Skills Institute based at Pinewood Studios have a fantastic faculty with a huge amount of on set experience and a superbly high quality range of courses.

  • Davy Jones School of Makeup & SFX in Merseyside, led by Davy Jones himself who has a stellar career including working on productions such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Blade and Dr Who.

  • Delamar Academy of Make-up & Hair in Ealing, whose teaching staff include Oscar, BAFTA and Emmy award winners.

  • For sculpting, check out Andrew Sinclair who has sculpted many iconic pieces that you can see around the UK, including the David Bowie 'Earthly Messenger' piece in Aylesbury and also Amelia Rowcroft fine artist.

What online or distance learning sfx makeup courses are there?

The two main industry online / distance learning providers I'd like to mention are The Stan Winston School and Gorton Studios. Both offer subscriptions to streamed video lessons.

Gorton Studios has a fantastic array of courses on subjects such as:

  • Processes: casting appliances and skins, life casting, makeup application and colouring, making eyes, teeth and horns, materials and equipment, mould making, sculpture

  • Pathways: flat moulds, half masks and silicone display busts, basic prosthetics, old age makeup techniques and prosthetics boot camp.

The Stan Winston School has a huge list of courses on just about every makeup effect you can think of, from the basics right through to more specialist areas such as flocking (adding fur). Currently there are over 230 individual courses that cover pathways that include:

  • Eyes and teeth

  • Fabrication

  • Hair and makeup

  • Mechanical and animatronic FX

  • Model making

  • Moulding and casting

  • Painting

  • Puppet making

  • Sculpture

What books can I read about special effects makeup?

There are loads but here's a few that are in my collection that are real favourites:

  • Masters of Make-Up Effects - with a foreword by Guillermo Del Toro and afterword by Seth Macfarlane, this great book by Howard Berger and Marshall Julis covers cult classics and massive franchises.

  • Rick Baker: Metamorphosis is a beautiful, glossy history of this legend's make-ups, with over 1000 images covering his career from Michael Jackson's Thriller to An American Werewolf in London.

  • Special Makeup Effects for Stage and Screen by Todd Debreceni is a really comprehensive manual covering the industry, anatomy and design, life casting, sculpting, casting and applying makeup appliances, hair and wigs, animatronics and more specialist techniques such as burns and blisters.

Can you recommend any good documentaries about special effects makeup?

Here's a few to whet your makeup brush:

What industry events do you recommend?

There are many but I'm just going to focus on two here, The Prosthetics Event and IMATS. Also keep an eye on the websites for film studios such as Pinewood and Elstree who often have open days such as the Pinewood Futures Festival.

The Prosthetics Event

The Prosthetics Event is an annual makeup FX educational event which I hugely recommend. It pulls in big hitters from the film industry to deliver talks and demos across two stages. I've seen incredible talks by legends such as DDT Efectos Especiales (Pan's Labyrinth, Terminator, Hellboy and many, many more).

There's also a great retail and exhibition area full of specialists such as Tilt Makeup, PAM Makeup, Mouldlife, Cantor+Nissel lenses, Gorton Studio, opportunities to talk to university course leaders about their offerings and the brilliant 'Monster Mash' which you can apply to be part of to show your work. You can also apply for a place in the Portfolio Surgery and get one-to-one advice with an industry pro. There are discounts for large groups so why not round up your like-minded friends and make a day of it.

A brilliant devil make-up by Neil Gorton
A brilliant devil make-up by Neil Gorton at The Prosthetics Event 2022

The International Make-Up Artist Trade Show

IMATS (The International Make-Up Artist Trade Show) takes place in the UK and US and is a really big event that provides education, tutorials and live demonstrations as well as plenty of beauty retailers to buy from. There's also their legendary 'Battle of the Brushes' competition to enjoy. Here's a little taster video and you can also head over to their YouTube channel for lots more from recent years:

How did you get into the industry?

I have always been a huge film fan and also absolutely fascinated by masks and special effects make up since a young age. Don't believe me? Man, I invented cosplay back in the 70s before it was a thing. I present you Exhibit A, me rockin' a Spock:

Despite this, the truth is that I didn't have the confidence to try to get a job in the industry. Also, when I was a kid, the opportunities to learn these skills through formal education were practically non-existent. Cue 20 years of boredom and frustration working in IT!

After my wife and I made the decision that I would give up work to look after our young daughter, we discussed whether it might be time to revisit my childhood dream. I did some research and then decided to use the time to retrain and become a sculptor.

As I was doing the school run, going away to university wasn't an option for me so I had to figure out my own way to learn the skills I'd need. I started out with some DVDs by Gorton Studios on sculpting prosthetics. This was back before Neil set up his online courses. I practised, practised, and practised. I used the documentaries and books in this blog post (and many more!), rewatched lots of films with famous makeups, studied anatomy from books and invested in some face to face short courses at Gorton Studios courses. I learnt sculpting a likeness with Richard Martin and creature sculpting with Hollywood legend Don Lanning.

Mind Magic Studios Steve with Hollywood's Don Lanning at Gorton Studios
Mind Magic Studios Steve with Hollywood's Don Lanning at Gorton Studios

I'm not going to say this has been an easy journey. A full-time industry or university course where you can immerse yourself, make friends, learn together, use their professional facilities and get introduced to industry and build your network is always in my opinion the preferable option if you can do so. It's been a long, hard and often lonely slog for me, but I absolutely have no regrets. This work and the creativity I enjoy is my dream come true.

I can't begin to tell you how excited I was to see my work featured in my first ever feature film ManFish. So, if this is your thing, then in the words of the iconic Ian McDiarmid when wearing The Emperor prosthetic in Star Wars...




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