How to Become a Special Effects Make-Up Artist in the UK

How to Become a Special Effects Make-Up Artist in the UK iStock

Special effects make-up artists work with live models or performers to transform them into characters or creatures (usually for the purposes of an act or a play as described in film and TV scripts). Basically, their work involves applying make-up and/or prosthetics to achieve the desirable theatrical effect.   

What Do Special Effects Makeup Artists Do?

Special effects make-up artists perform the following duties:

  • Following production designer’s note and instructions.
  • Researching and designing make-up and hairstyles to suit the job.
  • Tidying and styling hair.
  • Changing a performer’s look with special effects makeup completely.
  • Taking notes and photos to keep the look throughout the film.
  • Standing by on set to redo make-up and hair.  
  • Removing make-up and keeping wigs in good condition.
  • Working closely with production and costume designers, camera and lighting crew.

Work Environment

The job involves working long and irregular hours if need be which means shifts and weekend work are common. For example, you may start work in the morning before filming begins and/or work in the evenings for live TV, theatre or concerts.

Again where you would work heavily depends on the projects you will be working on. You may work in TV or film studios, theatres or in set locations of filming purposes. Some jobs may require that you travel across the country or overseas and have to stay away from home regularly.  


The majority of special effects make-up artists work as freelancers and are paid a fee for each contract.  


Salary (per 10-hour day)


Around  £200-300

Salary source: Prospects

The pay rates for film and television work are defined by the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television (PACT) and the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU).

As a trainee you will be earning the national minimum wage, whereas as a make-up assistant and make-up designer you could charge around £200 for a 10-hour day and £300 respectively. Obviously rates are negotiable, so if you manage to work with popular individuals within the industry you can generate bigger profits.

Entry Requirements

In order to be able to work as a special effects makeup artist in the UK, you need to hold at least a LEVEL 2 NVQ qualification in media make-up or in a related subject. Here are some courses available:

  • Level 2 NVQ Diploma in Hair, Photographic and Media Makeup.
  • Level 2 or 3 NVQ Diploma in Hair and Media Makeup.
  • Level 3 NVQ Diploma in Theatrical, Special Effects, Hair and Media Makeup.
  • Level 3 NVQ Diploma in Fashion, Theatre and Media Makeup.

In order to be able to study towards a degree you may need to complete 5 GCSEs with a minimum of C grades in Maths, English, Science and three A levels, although this depends on the specific requirements of each university.  

Additionally, you can get some work experience and create a portfolio to show your work to employers. If you are interested, you can get some experience while working at amateur theatre, photography or related subject projects, charity or student fashion shows. Alternatively, you can apply for an apprenticeship.

Important Skills and Qualities

To be a successful special effects make-up artist you need the following:

  • Excellent communication and people skills.
  • Stamina, patience and concentration.
  • Good teamwork skills.
  • An interest in current and historical fashions.
  • Attention to detail.
  • Creativity and imagination.

Career Development

Since there is a strong competition in the entertainment industry you will need to show genuine interest and commitment to the job. In this regard, work experience is vital so you need to build on those skills that will make you stand out from the crowd. Currently, there are many placement opportunities available on the Creative Skillset website which can help you develop professionally.

Some other companies which offer trainee schemes are:

Finally, join the National Association of Screen Make-up Artists and Hairdressers (NASMAH) to get updates on training opportunities.   

Job Opportunities

As a special effects make-up artist you will work within the entertainment industry:

  • TV Broadcasters.
  • TV and film production companies.
  • Theatre companies.
  • Magazines and avant-garde fashion show producers.

If you think this occupation might be ideal for you, jumpstart your career by gaining the relevant qualifications for the position and then get the required knowledge and experience to excel as a qualified special effects make-up artist!