Getting to Know Lois Burwell
\As makeup department head for films including Lincoln, War of the Worlds and War Horse, multiple Academy Award
nominations including a win for Braveheart and the design and execution of iconic images from cult movies including
The Fifth Element, The Princess Bride and Almost Famous, leading artist and industry expert Lois Burwell brings her knowledge and experience to our attending artists, for her first time keynote, sponsored by Premiere Products Inc, “Integrity in Artistry” at The Makeup Show LA.
In this Q&A Lois opens up, sharing insight into her fruitful career and gives a few tips & tricks for fellow artists.
You were most recently the Make-up Department head for “Lincoln.” What was it like working to bring such an iconic face and history to life? Its was truly a wonderful challenge of both artistic and technical skills. And truly satisfying. How did you approach the task of turning Daniel-Day Lewis into the 16th president of the United States? With great trepidation!
I was first drawn to makeup at a very early age it seems…When two years old, I apparently covered myself, my cot and the wall with my Mother’s Max Factor carmine red lipstick, so looked as if I was a tomato for days. An early memory of my own was making up all the “big girls” aged 13/16 at the local dance school when I was 8 for Dance of the Painted Dolls. So I suppose, it was always there within me.
What is your favorite aspect of being a makeup artist? What drives you?
I would say that in truth it’s the thrill of creating a character that’s believable, who the audience accepts within the reality of the story being told, from present day to science fiction or history, that moment where you see the dailies and can say “yes” that works, is a favorite. But, the best ever is when you see the final film and know its good work. That’s the best… What drives me? Seeking to be better at what I do I think.
What brought you to the film side of the industry?
Film has always been, and will be, my primary love, so I think it was natural to combine the two. Film more than any other medium is dreamlike. Watching images larger than life, in the dark without distractions, transported into a story for a period of time is entrancing and compelling. I think its also something to do with watching a film with strangers, that random group experience; As long as, of course, you don’t have the chatty/phone texting/popcorn muncher right next to you, that group activity of sharing the story being told and the emotions that are evoked, makes the experience unique from viewing films in our own homes.
I first started out on the makeup path by working on third year projects at film schools in the UK. Sadly the opportunity to attend makeup school was not available at that time for me. My first break came when the film students left college becoming employed as Directors or Producers. Some of whom remembered who helped out on their school projects. Slowly I began to be paid to work on music videos and low budget short films.
The break came when Bill Forsyth, who had heard of me and my work, asked me to head the makeup department on the film, Gregorys Girl. That sounds rather grand in fact, I was a department consisting of one person, me.
The film did well. I worked on BFI ( British Film Institute) projects. One of the films had six up-and-coming Directors of the time, each telling a short story revolving around a monkey puzzle tree. One of those Directors was Peter Greenaway who asked me to work on The Draughtsman’s Contract which was a great project, a real peach of restoration makeup, highly stylized. Interestingly it was Peter Swords King first film as hairdresser. The film was short listed for the newly instated BAFTA Makeup Award. From this I gained an interview with the Union, then run as a closed shop, to see if I qualified to join. Sat the entrance test, passed it, then gained membership to the UK Union at the Assistant grade. Subsequently I went onto pass the Head of Department test in the UK and then later on the practical test for Local 706 as makeup artist then Head of Department.
What piece of advice would you pass on to those looking to break into the field?
Looking back, the pattern of connecting one event to the other in my career the path may seem obvious but it was far from that when I first started. I would say to anyone starting out the most useful plan is to not to be the pushy networker, who expects as an entitlement that established Makeup Artists and Hairstylists help them on their way, those
are ten a penny. The person who is persistent and diligent in learning and improving their ability of the craft ,learning set protocol, and seeking an understanding of other departments work on a film; those people are not only few and far between but are far more likely to be helped by already established Makeup Artists and Hair Stylists.
Just ask yourself, when your established in your craft what would induce you to help someone who some day wants to stand in your shoes? As a basic tip, know the body work of the person you want advice or help from. Not simply their credits but the work itself.
You have been Make-up department head for movies that have enthralled international audiences for over 10 years. What inspires you when designing a look? How to you begin to visualize the full effect, especially knowing that the end product will be on film and projected?
I learn something new on every film. No one comes out of makeup school with all the answers nor all the ability you need for this work, not even with a qualification in your hand saying your a makeup artist makes it a fact; Its the beginning of a life long learning curve to become a makeup artist. That’s what makes the work so fascinating. Each film script is unique, every cast different, even the combination of other departments that we need to interact with changes how our
department works and experiences from film to film.
Its storytelling through the medium of makeup, that’s what we do. Makeup in isolation without supporting the narrative is what is shown at trade shows or possibly though not all photographic work where the image is all that matters. Our work is to support the narrative, give the Director his vision, if he doesn’t have one of his own ,help him find it, then make it work on the cast.
When I first read a script, lets use Lincoln as an example I see especially if I know which actor is playing each character, they appear in my minds eye complete as I read the script. Then I see how to technically bring the transformation about from a 21st century person into someone that you believe is from 1864. Obviously with Mr Lincoln it was slightly different but that needs more time and detail than in this interview, this is simply the broad canvas.
Armed with research of the period hairstyles facial hair in all realms of society of the time and in the correct geographical areas. I then set about the practical task of conversations with the Director, background casting, costume designer, cinematographer and a crucial one with the line producer/UPM. All before meeting any of the cast.
Without having information or as much as possible, of either the other departments work, what film stock or digital/film camera we’ll be using, what type of lighting, what is the costume colour palette, and most importantly the budget your working with, you could be meeting the cast with one hand tied behind your back. Or worse yet making your own version of the film not the one that will be shot.
Knowing the budget is important as there is no point having champagne tastes but beer money to work with. You could be creating looks without the financial backup to carry out that work. Losing the faith and confidence of the production and cast. What you can do is make quality happen, even with very low budget films by clever choices. Spend the money on what will be seen on the screen, not, for a random example, on the must have face cream of the day, maybe that money spent on loose hair rather than one made beard could mean three good looking beards rather than one. Providing, of course you can lay the hair on well.
What are your Top 5 Must-have items in your kit?
Products and makeup vary picture to picture, but as a rule of thumb. I would say these items never change.
1. A hands free flashlight to wear like a minor on your head.
2. Small selection of laying on hair in a variety of colours.
3.Skin illustrator basic range palettes.
5. A hand fan. Not battery, a real hand fan.
I’m really looking forward to The Makeup Show to find out about new products, learn new techniques even share old ones. It’s always good to be exploring the craft and this seems the perfect event for that to happen.