April 7th, 2016
From indie art projects to BAFTA-winning make-up designs, Morag Ross has the flexibility of a true artist. The long-time MUA for Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, Morag uses her art background to bring an extra dimension to each look she creates. We caught up with her to talk about Carol, training and teamwork.
WP: When did you start to think of make-up as more than just a passion, and something you wanted to do as a career?
MR: I didn’t realise at the time that it would turn out to be a career, but as a job I started out doing make-up just as a hobby at art college – and because I loved it so much, someone just suggested ‘why don’t you try applying to the BBC and do it as a job?’, which is what I did. I was very lucky, I passed the test and got a place, and I’d never have imagined that 30 years later it would have turned into this! It really was some of the best training that was available at the time; it’s a great shame that it doesn’t exist anymore, it was such a great springboard really.
WP: I read that you attended the Glasgow School of Art. Do you think this more classical training has helped to set you apart from your peers?
MR: I don’t think I can judge that part, about setting me apart, but I can certainly say that it informed how I approach my own work. I definitely think that what I do is to paint a face. I know that everyone now likes to use a palette and a palette knife, you know, but I really do love that part of working – of putting on colours from a palette, not to necessarily use things straight from a bottle or a jar. I approach everything as a painter, and I think that a classical training in drawing and painting does really help how you define things… how you look at things in terms of light and shade, in terms of tone and colour, which is everything that make-up is really.
WP: Did you do any formal make-up training before arriving at the BBC?
MR: Until then it had just been a hobby, just dabbling and being self-taught, no training as such. To go to the BBC was the first time I had ever looked at make-up in terms of ‘character’ really – things like continuity even! We had to do hair, we had to do special effects, and a little bit of sculpting, all the very basics. None of them were necessarily what we specialised in, but that way we had an understanding of how a false moustache was knotted, or how to make a false nose or a bald cap from scratch. I think that also hugely colours how you approach things; I now don’t do hair very much, very rarely, but it made me really appreciate what a hairdresser has to do. It made me appreciate how to work alongside a hairdresser, and all the problems and need for collaboration to get the whole head together. You’re able to sympathise and to work together if you have to do something like help to hide the wig lace, it’s something that you definitely collaborate on together.
WP: What was your next step after working on the BBC?
MR: Well I left the BBC in the mid-‘80s, and it was a really great time. I lived in London, and there was a lot going on there. I did a lot of pop videos, they were just all starting up at the time, and my first feature film was Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio. I was really, really fortunate because I was there at the right time, and I happened to know the right people through my pop video experience – it was Sarah Radcliffe who was the producer for Caravaggio, and that’s how I got involved. I think I had done another small film with them as well, a little half hour film. And that was how I got that job – it was a very young, great crew, and to be so young and hired as the make-up designer was incredible. It wasn’t a union film, which was still a big thing at the time, and it was actually quite a relaxed atmosphere with a great cast. There was a lot to do on it, there were some really strong looks. Everyone was very encouraging, it was a fantastic first film to design for. It was absolutely nurturing, and looking back on it I can really appreciate it now of course – it was a very lovely entry into doing feature films.
I still love doing art projects, which I don’t get asked to do so much now; I think once you start to do bigger films, producers and directors think ‘Oh well she won’t be interested in our little project.’ But actually I love doing smaller projects, because the atmosphere is different, the pressure is different, and I tend to think one job pays for the other so it all balances out in the end. I’m still quite happy to do jobs where the budget isn’t as big.
WP: You’ve worked on a lot of historical projects – is this a personal passion of yours, or something that you just fell into?
MR: I think it has partly worked out that way. When you do something that’s well received, I think perhaps producers and directors look at your work and want to know who did that, because it’s similar to something they want. It’s a kind of security, they know that I’ll be able to bring a certain look to their project. I really love it, I do love period work, but I also love fashion make-up. It’s not my world as such, I don’t do editorial, but I really love it. There’s just so many facets to make-up, so many different types. Unless you’re actually asked to do something, you don’t always get to realise your full potential – and that’s where good fortune steps in. Because you could spend your whole career doing a certain type of look; you could be the most brilliant artist in the world, but if you don’t get that chance to showcase what you can do then it’s difficult to take another step. I think a lot of it is being in the right place at the right time perhaps. You never know what might have been – perhaps if you weren’t offered a job where people can see what you’re capable of, which leads to something else.
WP: Do you have any advice on how to establish good working relationships with directors and other crew members, in order to collaborate and fully realize a character? How do you tackle disagreements in vision etc?
MR: The best advice is that a film is the work of a team, it’s not the work of one person. It’s not the work of the make-up designer, or the hairdresser, or the costume designer, it really is a team trying to realise the director’s vision. Sometimes if I don’t always agree I have to remember that it’s not about my decision. I can suggest something and be shot down, but we’re always working to realise what the director has imagined. Some directors are much more visual than others, so it can be a much easier dialogue in the testing stage, if you want to suggest something. Sometimes you have to try and articulate in words what you’d like to do, and unless the director is very visual himself he might have to wait until you’ve done the complete test to fully get it, or to go ‘Oh no, that’s not what I intended at all’, even though I had described what I was going to do. So it’s about being patient and not seeing things as disagreements, but instead as explorations. It’s difficult sometimes but I think you just need to remain open and patient, and just keep trying until everyone comes together. Being able to compromise is hugely important. The whole process is very dependent on other people’s work as well, that’s the thing; when you see the costumes I really think it helps the character come together, and it can really affect the colours – the hair colours, or the make-up colours if it’s a very strong look. You’re absolutely reliant on the contributions from other people, you can’t really do anything on your own.
WP: What are your long-standing kit essentials?
MR: They change all the time, but for long-standing products I think it would really be just my palettes. My long-standing best friends are definitely my Dermacolor palette and my MaqPro palette with a mixer, and my [Skin] lllustrator palettes. And without being too product-y, I would say that they’re the most important things, because you can have five million products and still not be a very good make-up artist. I think it’s really about what you can do in a pinch, you know? If you forget something, how are you going to create that when you’re in a field, or an hour away from base? I’ve forgotten things myself – maybe I didn’t have blood, or I’d forgotten to put a little scar on – and I’ve had to recreate them with what I can find in my set bag. I think it’s that thing about being painterly again, the ability to really work with your palettes. Good fall-backs are always basic skincare; things like Dr Hauschka, who I love, and Embryolisse, so that you’re treating the skin like a canvas. You need to prime it, and really good exfoliation and moisturisation is just going to make your job so much easier every day. The better the skin, the less make-up you have to put on.
WP: What are your latest product discoveries which you’re enjoying?
MR: Not so much for film, but Embryolisse just brought out a sort of artist line, a make-up artist line which is slightly more make-up-y. And they’re doing something really nice, I think it’s called Elixir Eclat, and it gives a really nice sort of glow to go under your foundation. I don’t know how it would work on film, but as an everyday product it’s absolutely gorgeous – it’s my new favourite thing! It makes your foundation look much more dewy and much lighter in texture.
I like looking at all of the fashion things too – brands like Charlotte Tilbury – but a lot of them aren’t that compatible with film. I love her blushers, and the thinking behind the blushers. There are some really pretty colours and I think it just works, the swish and pop. And Troy Surratt, his products – I think for a long time he was an assistant to Kevyn Aucoin, the great MUA, and he has a wonderful line of make-up. The quality is absolutely exceptional, it’s really beautiful. The packaging is great too, very sleek, very chic, but he’s invented such new things. His eyelash curlers are a very slightly different shape, so they don’t pinch so much because they’re not quite as curved – they’re easier to use as a MUA on someone else, and they have a much bigger window when you open them to get the lashes through. They’re definitely becoming a hot favourite! And he’s done a very clever thing, where it’s like an eyebrow pomade but in a mascara wand, and that’s really good for keeping brows in place. I love the Hourglass powders which aren’t sparkly, I think there are three colours that aren’t sparkly, and I actually find them really useful on set because they’re very good at diffusing.
WP: Other make-up artists we have interviewed often stress the importance of people skills – some describe the job as being almost like a therapist for actors. What are your thoughts?
MR: It’s definitely a personality job, I think that’s a huge part of the job in fact. Obviously you have to be very empathetic, and sensitive to the actors – not to mention your make-up team and the rest of the film crew. Some films go on for months, and that is a long time to be with the same people. At the end of the day make-up is a serving job. I definitely think make-up is about caring for people and helping to make them feel confident, secure and looked after. I think it’s quite important that we don’t bring our own personal lives to work as well, that’s the only way it does work. You need to be as neutral as you can, so that you can be as available, as strong and unaffected as you need to be. Being of a really pleasant disposition, to help the day go smoothly, as well.
WP: Tell us about working on Carol – where did you start, and what aspects of the make-up did you define as being the most important for the look?
MR: It’s interesting because of the big 1940s influence on my last job with Cate, on Cinderella, so it wasn’t that far away from Carol period-wise. Carol was set in 1952, so it wasn’t hugely far away, but a very, very different look. As a sort of reference point, we looked at all of the cool blondes from the 1950s – Grace Kelly is the obvious reference. [Director] Todd Haynes is an amazingly visual person, and he had a reference book which he gave to each of the heads of the departments, so he had a lot of visual references himself. Cate is also fantastic as a springboard because she always has a lot of ideas, aspects or clues for the character which help her to formulate them, little details. It was very much a group effort. I think one of the great successes of Carol was the use of coral; I remember someone saying to me ‘Oh I really loved this, great choice of lip and nail colour, a lot of people would have gone for red’ – which is true! It’s kind of the obvious choice, and it would have been lovely, but I just thought it made it look just that little bit different. A bit lighter, a bit softer, and because of the love story that it was it seemed to have that softer, almost dreamy quality. It just set it apart really.
The nice thing about Carol was that, in a film world which is predominantly HD now, Carol was done on film. It gave it such a different look – I think a lot of people assume we used some sort of filter, because we’re so used to HD now which is much harsher. And I think that’s why it really had that retro feel, because it’s how films used to be. It didn’t change how we worked that much, but it was a big relief! Film is just so much more forgiving as a make-up artist, more forgiving and it just feels lovelier. When you’re so used to HD, and to the challenges of filming in HD which just sees so much more than the eye sees – sometimes you do a lovely make-up, but on the monitor you just see something which was imperceptible to the naked eye – it’s a relief with film. It just has that grain which takes the edge off everything, which is so beautiful.
WP: What about Manifesto – how did the twelve characters and their looks come about?
MR: It’s a good example of taking on a project which is very low budget. It’s not a cinema film, it was a project made by an artist, a video artist from Berlin called Julian Rosefeldt. He and Cate had met and wanted to do a project together, which is how I got involved. Of course, unlike a film, there was very little money, very little time, no prep – I think we arrived in Berlin and had two days to play around with tests. I knew the characters they wanted, that they had in mind, but we had very little time. We shot the 12 characters in 11 days, it was extremely hard work and some very long days. It was very much last-minute inspiration and putting things together – which can be fantastic, sometimes that works better rather than getting bogged down and thinking too much. You do need to have a bit of experience behind you, but you can over-think things if you have the luxury of lots of time – and it was really refreshing to look at it and go ‘Right, how am I going to do this?’
It’s easy to look back and wish you’d maybe done this or that instead, but it was really exciting at the time, and an exciting atmosphere. It was a tiny crew, and the final result was for a gallery rather than a cinema so it was very stimulating to see. And because of my art background I was really excited to be part of it! It was very challenging, but it certainly helped that I knew Cate’s face from working with her for almost 15 years. It’s a lot of characters, and I did say to her, ‘We’re doing 12 characters, some people wouldn’t do 12 characters together in a whole career and we’re doing it within two weeks!’ It was an amazing feat really, but there was a lot of trust and a lot of fun.
WP: Do you have any advice for prospective MUAs?
I would say, especially to assistants, my advice would be to use your time as an assistant or as a trainee really wisely. Just drink it all in, accept it, and don’t rush too quickly because the wonderful thing about being a trainee is that you’re protected by your head of department. Someone else has the responsibility, and will hopefully nurture, teach and support you, to help to get the best out of you – and if you’re lucky, let you go home early! The thing is to accept it all because when it comes to your turn, you won’t be able to do that anymore. It’s a really, really important learning time where you shouldn’t try to rush too much; appreciate the experience as it is and drink it all in. Learn as much as you can while you’re under that umbrella of security.