19/02/2013

MEET THE ARTISTS - SANDRA EXELBY

During the 60s, 70s and 80s Sandra Exelby was one of the UK's leading make-up artists who designed and worked on some of the most iconic (and some of my favourite) TV shows and films. Sandra spent 10 years at the BBC working on shows that become legendary worldwide. She helped create the characters for Dads Army (huge show that ran for 9 years in the 70s) as well as working on the first 3 Doctors on Doctor Who, Comedy Playhouse and Morecambe & Wise, which I can't even imagine how much fun they must of been. After Sandra left the BBC she had a long career working on film hair and makeup, including the historic Bugsy Malone in 1976. Now semi-retired Sandra set up and runs NASMAH, the National Association for Makeup Artists and Hairdressers working in the UK Media industry, which welcomes all members of the industry to join. Sandra has worked on not one, but 4, of my all time favourite shows and films so I am more than thrilled she chose to tell me some stories from her fascinating career, and of course share her invaluable makeup tips that have stood the test of time.

Snapshot of a legendary career

MANW: I know you are semi-retired but how did you start your career and what was the progression it took?
SE: 
I started out training as a beauty therapist but soon realised that it was not for me. I applied to join the BBC makeup department and after several attemps I managed to persuade them that I would be of some use. I got my first promotion after 18 months to Senior Makeup Assistant and after a further 6 months got to be what is now called a Makeup Designer. After 10 years at BBC I left and became freelance in the film industry. I am now semi-retired but I run NASMAH so that I can keep in touch with what members tell me is happening out there. I am also a committee member of Cine Guild UK which is a select committee from all craft divisions in the film industry and I'm also helping Skillset set up the Academy of Craft training.


MANW: You went on to have a very successful TV and film career. Now it's extremely difficult to move from TV into film, and vice versa. Was it difficult back then and how did you manage it?
SE: When I left the BBC my name was quite well known within TV so I got lots of work doing dailies on the really big TV productions like Edward and Mrs Simpson, Shakespeare, Lily Langtry and many more. I then started to get offers to do small independent films and commercials, some of which were with directors who would later move to large films and remember me. My first major film was Bugsy Malone and there was a lot of controversy as all the make-up and hair department were from TV and the Film Branch objected strongly. After Bugsy I applied to transfer to Film Branch and, after a very hard interview with a panel of very famous film make-up men, I was accepted.

MANW: You mainly worked doing hair & make-up for TV dramas and feature films, where you ever tempted to go down the fashion or editorial route?
SE: No I never fancied staying in photographic, I used to get really annoyed when
, after doing my best work, a photographer would go in with an airbrush and change what I had done. Fashion was an area I never even tried, after I started doing features and TV films I was always too busy.

MANW: Back then the BBC trained their artists in every aspect of makeup. Did you have a preference for the type of jobs and make-ups you liked to do: blood and effects, straight makeup or period dramas?
SE: Back then 
there were no independent schools and the BBC training was known to be some of the best training around. I always wanted to be good at everything, rather than brilliant at one thing. Within the BBC hierarchy you worked under a Senior Designer and jobs were allocated accordingly. I always enjoyed something with a bit of FX and/or blood and gore although many of my friends tell me I do fabulous glamour makeup.

MANW: Working on Doctor Who back in the 70's how much of a challenge was it to make the special effects without CGI, green screen or the ability to "do it in post"?* Nowadays you can buy nearly every kind of special effects stuff imaginable without having to mix or make anything from chemists or kitchen cupboards, did you have to know how to do practically everything?
SE: 
Yes it was difficult. I worked on the first Cybermen- then they wore a stretch lycra suit with two eye holes cut out and a solid metal chest piece that was so stiff they couldn't sit down, they had to lean against the wall during breaks. On my last Doctor Who (the first with Jon Pertwee as the third Doctor) there was a new villain, Lynx, who had a huge prosthetic head. The effects department made the head which didn't fit the actor any where so all I could do was colour round his eyes to match the head. The Lynx character came back later with a properly fitted head piece but that was long after I had left. We did have to improvise a lot, I made scars from latex, rice crispies cereal or anything else that looked good! It is so much easier now to get really effective looking prosthetic materials.

MANW: You have worked on some legendary TV shows and films like Morecambe & Wise and Bugsy Malone. What was your most exciting or rewarding experience as a make-up artist and can you tell us about any stand out moments of your career?
SE: Bugsy Malone was a joy to do. There were no children over the age of 15 and we worked hard on them to make them look authentic. Sarah Monzani was Chief Hairdresser and I assisted her. We had fun doing the final 'custard pie' sequence and the kids got all of us back for covering them in confectioners cream everyday..we all got caught round the back of some corner with several little devils waiting to cover us in the same stuff! The music was great and we were all given cassettes on the first day of filming so we knew the songs by the time we got to shoot the scenes. And of course working with a 13 year old Jodie Foster was quite something. 
I worked with Morecombe and Wise for 12 months, from the first big Christmas show with Glenda Jackson doing Ginger Rogers and Shirley Bassey getting her feet put into boots. We then did 11 monthly shows and I left them just after the second Christmas show. It's not always fun working with comedians, they can get a bit tetchy if the laughs don't come. Our rehearsals for M&W where always open for any staff to come in and watch, that way they knew if a sketch needed more laughs or not. Eric could be quite a difficult man if he didn't get his laughs.
I have had so many magical moments on set, when you see a really fabulous acting performance from an artist and you realise how privileged you are to have been there to see it and there have been so many times when something funny happened on set and everyone laughed till they cried...too many to mention. I made some great friends and unfortunately some enemies, personality clashes mostly. Working in such an artistic environment you are bound to get tantrums and tiffs but I hope that all the tiffs were minor and I didn't upset too many folks.

MANW: You've been in the industry a long time, how do you think it has differed and what advice would you give to new artists starting out?
SE: The difference with the industry now is that there doesn't seem to be time to laugh anymore...too many people fighting for the same position and far too many people saying they can do something when they cannot. I wish that all new make-up artists and hairdressers coming in to the film industry would try and be honest, if you cannot do hair and have not been properly trained say so because the standard of hair work on screen at present is dreadful. That is why we do courses at NASMAH, so we can give new people coming into the industry the old 'tips and tricks' that have stood the test of time in the film industry and enabled you to get out of all sorts of problems.These bits of 
information will soon be lost.

MANW: All artists have 'the wish list'; a face, show or film they would have loved to have worked on? One of mine is Bugsy Malone, 
from such a young age I was obsessed with those 20s finger waves, Tallulah's iconic pin curls and pencil thin brows, but my all time dream job has always been to work on my favourite show Doctor Who. Who or what are yours?
SE: The brilliant visions that make-up artists can put onto peoples faces are just fantastic now, but I would have loved to have worked on any of the Star Treks as I am a real 'Trekky'. There are lots of actors I would have loved to have worked with but time didn't allow. I had to give up full time work when my husband got ill and I spent 6 years nursing him before he lost his battle with cancer, by then it was too late for me to try and get back into full time work. Too many 'young and lovely's' out there now, but I would still love to do the odd 'dailie' now and then just to see who is there and who I know.

MANW: On to the good stuff, what are your tricks for flawless looking skin?
SE: I don't believe airbrushing is the only way to good foundation, if you know how to apply make-up you can get the same result and so many actors dont like the feel of it on their face. 
All good artists start with a good canvas so prep the skin, moisturise, prime and then get your foundation as fine as you can. 
MANW: What were your top 5 holy grail kit products?
SE: My kit always had in it a good under eye line remover -there are several on the market now, the finest milled powder you can get, a good palette of concealers for all skin colours, Elizabeth Arden 8 Hour Cream -which solves all dry lips or skin areas and a small bottle of brandy to help in stessful moments.

MANW: What's your best make-up artist tip to give women?
SE: Less is more, don't keep piling it on it only makes things worse. Also know when to step away and stop fiddling.
MANW: Finally, false eyelashes - the longer the better or enough already they look ridiculous?
SE: If the character calls for long and large that's fine but to enhance eyes individual lashes have always been my favourite.


*very common TV term to fix things later in post production

To learn more about Sandra visit her IMDB and to find out more about NASMAH visit their website.

If you liked this interview and would like to read other leading industry makeup artists stories have a look at the rest of the 'Meet The Artist' series here.

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