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Credit: HBO

Nerdy Jobs: She puts dirt and blood on everyone from The Rock to the Watchmen

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May 28, 2019, 1:00 PM EDT

There are two kinds of Hollywood makeup artists: There are those that ready celebrities for photo shoots and red carpets, and on the far opposite end of the spectrum, there are the makeup artists that make those celebrities dirty.

For the most part, it's the second career path that most makeup artists pursue: making mud to splatter on people's faces to add realism to a rainy scene or applying tattoos designs in a science fiction world. That's the work that makeup and fine artist Zsófia Ötvös does, and she's one of the best.

Ötvös has worked on numerous movies and TV shows, including Divergent (2014) and Insurgent (2015), as well as Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) and Rampage (2018). Most recently she was the makeup department head on alien invasion epic Captive State (2019) and the forthcoming Watchmen TV series on HBO.

To Ötvös, her job's focus must be "to engage better with that character and bring the character alive," she tells SYFY WIRE. She sees herself as a storyteller who uses fine art, makeup, and tattoo design with the "intention... to find distinctions to make a character to tell a story."

Rampage, The Rock

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Part of the challenge for makeup artists is helping to maintain the consistency for actors when production schedules often have films shooting out of sequence. Ötvös describes a typical scenario: They film a scene of a person coming out of a pool one day and then film a scene 30 minutes after that pool scene, but several days later. Makeup's job is to ensure the visual coherence from scene to scene.

Ötvös got her start majoring in art and theater in college, where she began doing theater makeup. When she was taking a makeup course at Columbia College, she picked up a flyer for a student film, which eventually became her first job in the industry. One of the producers was assembling crew for an independent film called Serious Business (1999) and she got the job. "It was really magical," she says. "A colleague asked me: 'How long have you been doing it?' So I said, 'Oh, about two weeks.'" 20 years later, Ötvös has worked on big blockbuster films, TV shows, and independent films.

She explains that movie/TV makeup can vary from minimal work to the much more intensive. If the part calls for an everyday look, it might take 15 to 30 minutes to put on. There's a greater focus on skincare in recent years, so makeup artists will also apply sunscreen for actors; if an actor has facial hair, the makeup staff will have to shave and maintain the hair for continuity sake. For more involved work — such as applying fake tattoos or creating bruises — it can take 45 minutes or more. Special effects, of course, can take up half a day.

Makeup also can mean dirt work, which Ötvös explains, is makeup for when "there was an explosion and there's some smoke on their faces or debris, or maybe they are crawling through a tunnel and there's mud." With movies like Transformers, dirt work is critical.

Divergent poster tattoo example

Credit: Summit Entertainment

For Insurgent, she was the key makeup artist applying the tattoos for the main actors. The tattoos would come out as long sheets and the team would have to cut them out before applying them to the actors. However, Ötvös notes, "They'd often peel off. The skin has to be 100 percent dry and free of anything. It almost becomes a hand painted job sometimes because you just can't keep up with putting them back on."

The lines between makeup work and special effects are often blurred in the public's imagination, but they are distinct areas. Ötvös considers herself a makeup artist even if she's created some special effects pieces for the recent film Captive State.

Every part of the process is part of the larger context of the movie. Ötvös explains that there is "a constant awareness of what happens with the project besides outside your own department, what happens everywhere." There's continuous communication with wardrobe, set design, lightning, the producers, and other stakeholders for the film. For instance, makeup works with the wardrobe department to make sure the makeup they use won't destroy the costumes.

When starting a new project, Ötvös says she reads through the script several times, making notes of "anything that describes a look that might manifest into makeup." Then she organizes it in a document for the many meetings the makeup department will have with the directors and producers "who tell you what they want" while also working to ensure continuity with the plot, managing expectations, and more.

Eventually, they'll move into a trailer with crates of makeup and supplies. Then there are camera tests where all the visual departments — makeup, props, wardrobe — walk through their roles trying to figure out the best fits for the story.

Then makeup works to take everything they learned during this process to apply for the shooting of the film. Ideally, there's a week and a half between the camera test and shooting, when makeup (along with other departments) make adjustments to looks.

Makeup, hair and wardrobe's shooting day often starts as early as 4AM, at least an hour and a half before the rest of the crew arrives. The production schedule can be incredibly long, sometimes 14 to 15 hours days. If they are just shooting the one scene and don't have any additional actors coming in, they might be on set to do any touch-ups, which happens infrequently. They usually have to work on other actors for other scenes, preparing for future shots, and much more.

Ötvös explains people may think that makeup is "a clean and dainty job. It's not. It's dirty. It's hard for the most part. Makeup artists don't wear makeup mostly because we get up at 3 or 4AM. It's not glamorous. If you see the actors are in the rain and muddy, you are standing in the rain and mud. It's like being a construction worker with a makeup brush in your hand."