Feb. 8, 2013 at 11:04 PM ET
Christina Kortum works with a lot of freaks.
Kortum is an assistant makeup artist on NBC's “Grimm,” the TV show about a Portland, Ore., police detective who hunts fairy-tale monsters living among the city’s more unassuming inhabitants.
Like a lot of other makeup artists these days, Kortum keeps busy making monster masks, bloodshot eyeballs and airbrushed tattoos.
For that she can thank the public’s apparently unquenchable appetite for modern fairy tales, teenage bloodsuckers, killer zombies and other supernatural TV shows and movies. “These fantasy shows are wonderful,” says Kortum, 40, who lives and works on the “Grimm” set in Portland. “It’s giving opportunities to people, and not just in Los Angeles but outside of Los Angeles, too.”
It’s fitting that in a week when the industry lost a legend - Stuart Freeborn, the creator of Yoda, Jabba the Hut and other “Star Wars” characters, died Thursday at 98 - the onslaught of fantastical TV shows and movies is adding to makeup artists’ clout.
It’s not bringing work to just anyone, says Susan Cabral-Ebert, president of IATSE Local 706, the Los Angeles chapter of the TV, film and theatrical makeup artists and hairstylists’ guild. “It’s creating a lot of work for the people who have very strong imaginations and great technical skills. I won’t say it’s creating more jobs. It’s getting more notoriety because they’re more visible characters,” Cabral-Ebert says.
Local 706 has 1,800 members, but makeup artists don’t have to be union members to get work, at least not on non-union productions. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics lists 2,040 makeup artists working in TV, film and theater as of May 2011, but doesn’t tally self-employed workers, which is what most makeup artists are. Pay varies greatly, but average wages for makeup artists working in TV and movies are about $88,000 a year, according to the bureau.
Besides “Grimm,” TV dramas such as “Once Upon a Time,” “The Walking Dead” and the reality TV show “Face Off” are pulling makeup artists from behind the scenes into the spotlight. Now in its fourth season, the Syfy show pits special effects makeup specialists against each other to construct the week’s best aliens and demons or risk being sent packing along with their makeup brushes and foam Latex.
Making it in the business isn’t easy. A college degree isn’t required, but technical skills are. Today, that includes knowing how to apply makeup for the more detailed gaze of high-definition TV. “You can see every single detail, so you have to be better at your craft, and use new products,” says makeup artist Kristen Kiyan.
Knowing someone in the business who can show you the ropes helps, too. Kiyan, 40, switched from a finance career by doing makeup for weddings and special events. She worked her way up to doing beauty makeup for reality TV shows like “Top Chef” before a friend got her a job last year working on “Sons of Anarchy,” where Kiyan says the makeup crew airbrushes close to 100 fake tattoos on a daily basis. Now she splits her time between Los Angeles and New York. “It’s hard work, but when you love what you do, it’s worth it,” she says.
Kortum was a creative arts major in college and did makeup for haunted houses for fun, but wound up working in business and IT. Seven years ago, she was on a three-month sabbatical figuring out what to do with her life when a friend asked for help with makeup on a music video. That led to an indie film project, and then to more work. Though Kortum still occasionally works in IT, she currently spends the bulk of her time on the “Grimm” set helping head makeup effects artist Barney Burnam, who won an Oscar in 2010 for “Star Trek.”
Kortum also works on indie films, differentiating herself from some makeup artists by fabricating limbs and other body parts in her own studio. “If you need a custom create or tattoo, I can provide that,” she says. “I’ve chosen to be a generalist in a smaller market, which means I do a lot of different things. It fits the market I’m in.”