Film Make-up Masterclass with Morag Ross (Hugo, Source Code)

Hi Film folk!

This week the Film Doctor Team caught up with Morag Ross, who gave a BAFTA Masterclass at this year’s Underwire Festival. A sought after hair and makeup artist, who has worked with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Tilda Swinton and Cate Blanchett, on lower budget independents like ‘Caravaggio’ to big studio productions like ‘Hugo’.

She has won two BAFTA awards for her work on ‘Orlando’ and ‘The Aviator’.

Film Doctor - Morag Ross
Here’s what she had to say about Makeup and all things film:


Morag started at the Glasgow School of Art, studying mural painting, when she was lured away into makeup design by the New Romantic looks of the 80s, which she based her graduation show around. “Once my work is projected, it becomes mural sized again”, she jokes. From there, she moved to the BBC, where she received a fantastic grounding in her craft by working on “everything from the weather to Cleopatra” before she joined Channel Four, in its early days, enticed by a new makeup-heavy TV show. After working on her first short film, she was offered work on ‘Caravaggio’, directed by Derek Jarman, which launched her into film work. Morag never looked back.



“Sometimes films are more satisfying than others, but it’s not about one person or their aim…In any designer job there’s going to be compromise.”According to Morag, it’s all about “creating the vision that the director has in mind”, and creating together. As an artist, she has her own ideas, and her own vision, backed up by years of experience but she never forgets the importance of being flexible and working with, rather than against, people. She talks of her first work on a feature, ‘Caravaggio’, as “a bit like a gift rather than a job” because the atmosphere on set was so nurturing and creative, and Jarman was not phased by problems, which led to a very happy set. It was also where she first worked with Sandy Powell, the costume designer that she has gone on to work with many times since. As a makeup artist, having a good relationship with the head of costume, a “relaxed freedom of exchange” is “crucial”. After all, film making, no matter what your role, is about working together to create a cohesive whole, so the ability to play well with others, and build solid relationships means opportunities in the future. Morag keeps coming back to the the importance of openness, flexibility and working well with others but that things can not be forced. After all “you either click or you don’t”. She recommends working with people whom you can develop “a short hand, trust, where we’ll both look and say ‘that’s it!’ That’s what we both wanted.”


Film Doctor - Orlando



Hair and make up design is so important to evoke a real sense of time and place in films, Morag points out, but also feels that it’s a very important aid to actors creating a character. She put grit under the nails of actors on the set of ‘Caravaggio’, because they were playing models who were picked up off the street, which gave a real sense of where they came from, and what their lives were like. In fact, as she points out, the first thing we see in this film is a close up of hands. Morag feels that one of the reasons that Cate Blanchett asks to work with her again and again is because she works with the creation of character through outer details. When Blanchett played Katherine Hepburn in ‘The Aviator”, she felt that it was very important that her freckles show because Hepburn was a sporty, outdoors type. She felt that the glamour should be dialled up when Katherine was working the film star look, which was an attitude that she picked up from reading biographies of Hepburn. This important detail about Katherine’s lifestyle was shown through the makeup looks that Morag Ross created with Blanchett. As Morag says, actors “ have to be able to inhabit the characters, and bring their own ideas”.



Working as a personal make up artist means that she is able to immerse herself in one character, and focus on the continuity of one person. She cites Blanchett again as someone she loves to work for in this capacity, because they both have a passion for the details of a look and evoking character.  “She thinks I get it, we’re very in tune visually”. Working with her on “Charlotte Gray”, Cate felt that Charlotte would have been less glamorous than the director and producers were aiming for, and they argued for her character to look real, citing the studious look of Lee Miller in photographs, rather than of a Hollywood starlet. Morag also points out that having a person purely focused on the main actor, if they will have a lot of screen time, can be a huge relief for the head makeup artist, as so much time must be devoted to them, and to getting a “homogenised look at the end of the day”.



Starting young on independent films meant that Morag was used to doing a lot by herself, and only learned the art of delegating later. “Employ people that understand your vision and your process” she recommends. As a head make up artist,  she may have up to 30 people working under her, creating looks that she has carefully researched and designed. “There’s a huge amount of trust, we’re all creative people working together” she says, adding that she gets controlling about the initial reference for the work, and the colour, which must remain true to her order. In charge of a big team, or with a large number of extras under her jurisdiction, Morag still likes to check on the work on her extras personally and remains “hands on”. She’s passionate about her work, about getting it right, and sticking with continuity, pointing out that she was “secretly relieved” that Di Caprio had his own makeup person on ‘The Aviator”, as this left her much more free to micromanage the rest of the production.


Film Doctor - The Aviator



Even though Morag does embrace change, she doesn’t like digital films. “I know it’s getting better all the time” she says, “but it has a very different feel.” When working with newer mediums, she has to use a much lighter hand, because the camera shows everything. However it has fostered her having a more collaborative relationship with the cinematographer. She has never been fond of airbrushing, but sighs “HD sees more than the eye does” meaning she is constantly adjusting, as something that looks good to the eye, may not look good on the monitor, and sometimes small edges such as a wig lace (or, God forbid, an actor has a pimple), simply have to be edited out in post using CGI.



Having worked on period films like ‘Orlando’, ‘Charlotte Gray’, ‘Elizabeth: The Golden Age’ and ‘The Aviator’, all in very different times and genres, Morag stresses the importance of research. She has a house full of books on a variety of subjects, especially those with pictures and photographs, and she has stacks of vintage magazines.  Since the advent of the internet, she laughs, the whole process “takes a lot less time”, but she maintains the importance of the tactile connection with hard copies. However, before a first meeting with a director, she comes with an almost clean slate, her prep is light, with just a small folio of images, a visual reference as a “springboard to start the process” as she wants to work with the directors vision, and not have her own preconceived plans. She rarely has sketches at this early stage, heading into a meeting with little more than ideas. However, Morag emphasises the importance of make up tests, saying that the older she gets, the more she does make up tests, even on small budget films working on her own time at home.



As an emerging makeup artist, you may be looking at all this and wondering how you can make your big break. Morag is quick to point out that the industry is not as easy to break into as it was, because so many more people are desperate to get in, but she doesn’t see this as discouraging. Her first piece of advice, decide whose work you respect and like, and be determined to work with them for little money. Once you are working with people, you develop a trust and a working relationship, which means that those people will want to work with you again and again. She also points out that you “learn as much by looking as by doing”. Be observant, ask questions and be open to new experiences and techniques. Most importantly, however, be patient. “I wasn’t,” says Morag, “ I was very fortunate and just went with it”, but with more and more people now pushing to get in, “you need to prove yourself slowly, be willing to learn at that position”, wherever that may currently be.

This Film Doctor report was written by Hermione Flavia.

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