Getting More of the Work You *Want*
So, you want to be a makeup artist, hairdresser, or freelancer. Here I am sharing my story (so far.) This is partly a blog post, but also a sneak peek into my private journaling...
In this industry there are so many paths you can take: Working at a brick and mortar store or salon, working for a manufacturer or cosmetics line, an FX makeup lab, beauty blogging, editorial styling, or styling hair and faces for film. How do you pick? And once you've picked how do you start? What should you charge? Then what?! Here I impart my story, and some things I have learned so far...
Figure out where you want to be:
In 2008 I had moved out to Los Angeles with the sole purpose of becoming a Makeup Special Effects artist and to get work on very, very big and important films. When I started to look for work however, I found that the job climate was not exactly what I had envisioned. With digital-everything taking over (HD cameras, MCN's and streaming services, and CGI), projects were often outsourced to other countries with better incentives, unionized (which I was not) or produced locally on ever-shrinking budgets with quick turn arounds.
Like every artist starting out, I grasped at every opportunity that came my way with few exceptions. I worked for free and cheap, while also dedicating time to an unpaid internship program I found on Craigslist at a Special FX lab. The lab was clean and inviting, and housed some spectacular movie props and prosthetic masks and appliances. It was a playground for me to experiment, learn and try new things. My mentor, Brian Penikas, who's a wealth of knowledge and a living, breathing piece of history from the "golden days" of special effects makeup-- told the incoming interns wild industry stories of a time when an artist worth their salt could afford to buy a house in Los Angeles. Artists who worked constantly! Their work immortalized in blockbusters and cult films! It was magic. About a year an a half into my time at his shop, Brian gifted me tickets to the Oscar Symposium, where Joel Harlow spoke (and later won Best Makeup for Star Trek alongside Barney Burman and Mindy Hall in 2009) . I listened eagerly to every word, as if I could absorb some of his genius through osmosis. Something he said profoundly stuck with me until this day: He said (and I'm paraphrasing:) "I get letters every day from people everywhere asking if they can come work at my shop. That they'd do ANYTHING to get their foot in the door...they'd offer to come and just sweep my floors, for free! Well, you can certainly come do that if you want, but it wont make you a better artist." He continued to say "If you want to work on set, work on set, don't go working for FX shops, if you want to be a sculptor, sculpt-- and show people your work....decide where you want to be in this industry and be there!"
It shook me. Was I where I wanted to be? Was I doing what I wanted to do?? Funnily, I had heard this advice before, six years before to be exact. Kelly Gorsuch, my mentor from my previous life as a hairdresser at a proper salon, told me something quite similar. He said "decide what kind of hairdresser you want to be, and BE THAT. Don't go to a cheap haircuttery expecting to grow into an editorial stylist. If you want to be an upscale stylist- go learn at an upscale salon! If you want to be a session stylist, go connect with people who are doing that..."
Almost as if by fate, I was given an opportunity to department head a film through my work at the FX lab. It was partly luck of the draw, and partly Brian pushing me to do it. I mean, there were 4 other interns that could have done it, right? Why me? But hey, I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to try. Within a few months of finishing the film, I quit the FX lab internship and started department heading often, and also working alone. I had figured out my first step. This is where I wanted to be, by the camera, with the "talent" (models/actors), putting together looks and stories.
Lesson learned: While you still might have to work your way "up the ladder", you should probably make sure it's the right ladder to begin with! So, if you tell people you're going to sweep floors for free, you won't be any closer to your goal except for maybe physical proximity. If you are working for peanuts or undervaluing your work, it's rare that people will view you as anything more than the cheap option. Decide who you want to be, and then figure out the most direct route.
Which leads me to the next thing:
What Am I Worth?
How Do I Find Out?
When you're starting out, I still believe that anything goes. "Paying your dues" will never go out of style, but I DO believe you should be very picky about where you spend your energy. Work is an exchange of energy and time for money or something of equal value. If you are working for free or "kit fee", make sure you are actually gaining experience and learning from a dedicated and compassionate professional. Every one I work with has done it, and their mentors before them, etc etc... but some of us (ahem, * Me, 9 years ago* ) get caught up in the grind. We will take client after client or project after project just trying to keep ourselves afloat. The panic of financial instability is a tool that companies (knowingly or unknowingly) use to their advantage to get better deals from workers. It's the idea that "If I don't take this job, I'll never work again", or "I should be THANKFUL that this company is giving me the OPPORTUNITY to work", instead of realizing that less than 30 years ago the same job came with not only living wages, but additional benefits like healthcare and pensions. We, as a society, have been trained into a poverty mentality, and this is a hard thing to break free from. It wasn't until a very quirky gaffer on set once asked me "How much are you getting to do this gig? I'm basically doing a favor" to which I replied "$175" (for a 14 hour day.) To me, I was doing GREAT! I was WORKING! In HOLLYWOOD! This man just laughed at my petty rate. He said to me: "You're good. You should fire all your clients, including this one, and raise your prices. I guarantee you, you will still work-- even if it takes 6 months."
I chewed on this. Six months is no joke when you're living hand-to-mouth. It was a very arduous process (lots of ramen and peanut butter sandwich dinners) But wouldn't you know it-- He was RIGHT! Within 6 months, I turned over a new clientele. I continued to work for previous clients as needed, but slowly started looking for "bigger fish". With this, came more interesting opportunities with very talented professionals. I had the opportunity to work with amazing makeup and hair people who showed me new products, new techniques, and did not see me as competition- but as someone who could help them on their projects or could take over their clients when they were out of town. (Trust plays a big part here.) My work improved leaps and bounds and where I had been on the verge of burn out previously, I found some respite. I could breathe again.
Something I want to add here is that I constantly hear artists talk about newbies undercutting their prices, and how it's bad for the industry. While there may be some cases where someone knowingly undercut another artist - I can ASSURE YOU-- an established artist IS NOT worried about the person charging $175/day. Not only are they NOT in competition with them professionally based on knowledge and skill level, they don't want that cheap client! There is a place for newbies to cut their teeth. Their is a place for experienced professionals as well. Clients and production companies (which are, by the way, run by human beings) hire people based on three things: Quality of work, Personality, and Rate. In my experience, rate is usually negotiable, personality is not. When someone wants to work with you, they will find a way. People can smell desperation a mile away. Getting undercut by someone over a $50-100 difference is like getting rejected by the guy who only booty-calls you on Tuesday for some girl he hooked up with at the club on Saturday. It's not love, baby. It never was. That client doesn't truly care about quality work and probably wouldn't notice if you gave it to them, what they are looking for, is an easy deal. The ones that love you, stick with you (and there will be many!) So don't go getting butt-hurt over Jenny-who-took-your-client and is making less money than you were when you had them. See it as a window for you to fill it with something or someone else.
Business is funny, because it you can sell a lot for a little bit, or a little bit for a lot. In our world, that translates to more clients for less money, or less clients for more money (I have yet to see more clients + more money be a thing, but I am sure it exists.) The truth is no single makeup artist or hairdresser holds ALL the celebrity contacts or contracts. No one artist can work for every agency, or be at every shoot at once. This in itself means that there is room for many people to be successful. Likewise, not everyone can afford the top tier artists, and there is a need to serve clients with more modest pocketbooks. Opportunity exists. Either approach to business is acceptable. I have seen both work, and have seen people be very successful and happy doing it.
Look around, who's REALLY your competition? Most rates for film industry artists are a google-search away. Finding out rates for people on your current path should be as easy as calling around, or asking a (successful and honest) industry friend. You can usually identify who these people are because they are the first ones to offer you better rates when they are available, get you in with product companies when you need sponsorships, or let you do more than just clean their brushes when they ask you to assist them. With that said, there are enough faces and hair to go around, I promise.
I've Reached Some Level of Security, Now What...?
I struggle with this.
What I have found to be true so far is that once you get to the next plateau, the cycle starts over. I recently had a meeting with a life-coach who reaffirmed this for me. You have to start again: FIGURE OUT WHERE YOU WANT TO BE, and then be there. It's just that simple, and just that hard. This time however, you have the advantage of experience. You try on different things in your career the way you try on t-shirts to see what fits. So far I have learned invaluable things like:
- I prefer making beautiful and feminine things to bloody gore things.
- I love sculpting, but it doesn't need to be my full time job.
- I do not want to live on-location for months at a time.
- I want to have a family and be present for them.
These realizations are all important. Knowing what you DON'T want is just as important as knowing what you DO want. It allows you to plan and plant foundations for the life you want to have. For me, this manifested itself this way: I was asked to travel to a different country to help out on a big TV show. When I arrived, I was just flabbergasted at my surroundings. I was working with literally some of the most talented people in the industry, doing EXACTLY what I had set out to do. I was on cloud nine. I felt new again, because I was learning and simultaneously contributing to this really cool thing! I didn't want it to end... until our last night at dinner. The conversation got weird. I realized just how much some of these people had given up to be where they were. I questioned myself. "Is this REALLY the life I want forever? How about just for six months?". I struggled. No matter how I looked at it, I couldn't consolidate my dream life with my dream job (and I understand that for some people they are interchangeable, but it wasn't for me.) I had to make a choice: continue to pursue this direction, or lay foundations for that "dream life" I wanted to have.
I have not travelled more than 7 hours away for work since then, for no more than 2 weeks at a time. I still find projects that I enjoy, which are local to me and allow me to see my friends and family regularly. I sculpt again, on my free time and have craft days alone or with friends. I've since stopped doing horror films, and instead apply my knowledge of FX makeup to different personal projects and use it to effectively department head projects and hire teams of artists while understanding their needs. Nothing is wasted. It all counts. Every experience, every hiccup.
This is the part of my journey where I am now. I've realized that my priorities have changed since I first started, and though I still love my job, work is not everything. Balance is important. Work is meant to be the foundation for which the rest of your life is built, so being honest with yourself about the things you want is the first step.
I'll keep ya'll posted on how it goes...