British hair & makeup artist and designer Sian Miller has been a staple among British TV drama for over 20 years. Sian has worked on so many of Britain's most popular and long running shows; The Bill, Peak Practice, Holby City, Ashes to Ashes, Agatha Christie's Poirot and Miranda. She was also Makeup Designer for two of my favourite shows; the excellent Merlin and one of Britain's greatest shows, the ridiculously popular and at the time everyone's favourite show 'This Life'. Having recently finished working with Francis Hannon on three huge hollywood blockbuster films, the new Jason Bourne, Inferno and Now You See Me 2, Sian kindly took some time to tell me about her career and share some of her pro tips.

Snapshot of Sian's career

MANW: How did you start your career and what was the progression it took?
SM: I think I was always destined to do something artistic and after my A-Levels I completed a Foundation Course in Art and Design at Kingston Polytechnic, it was there that I developed my interest in sculpture and 3D design. I had a great tutor, a sculptor named Jim Dunkley, and he said to me "you draw like a sculptor and think like a sculptor" and I guess in a round about way that was the start of me becoming a make-up artist and hairdresser. I went on to take a BA Hons in Interior Architecture and Design at Trent Polytechnic but I found building regulation and construction lectures stifling and it was then that I had my Eureka moment! I thought about all that interested me: 3D Design, Film, TV, Fashion, Art and Photography and my mother suggested "what about being one of those make-up ladies at the BBC?" I contacted the BBC who said forget it unless you've been to the London College of Fashion, who in turn said forget it unless you've got hairdressing skills. I took their words literally and despite being told at every turn that it was a very competitive industry to break into I was firmly decided and forged my path ahead. I'd always imagined I could cut and dress hair as a form of sculpture and discovered that the Vidal Sassoon Academy offered a 9 month long intensive hairdressing course for beginners which took you to full qualification. I enrolled there and whilst training I applied to the London College of Fashion to take their BTEC HND in Specialist Make-up. I was so determined to get a place I took a GCSE in Human Biology at evening classes to satisfy all the suggested entrance criteria. My art and hair background paid off and I was offered a place.

The two year LCF course was amazing and from day one I applied myself with total dedication. Having been at Sassoon's gave me the opportunity to hone these skills and marry them up with all I was to learn about make-up, wigs and character. During my studies I had a job at the English National Opera in the evenings and a Saturday job at Toni & Guy. I was selected in the penultimate term of my last year, by the head of my course Marcia Patterson (formerly of the BBC and one time head of their training school) who had been approached about providing a graduate to become the first trainee on Thames Television's The Bill. I was absolutely thrilled to know that I had a full time job to go to the day after I graduated! 
That was 1992 and since then I worked primarily in Television Drama for most of the next fifteen years, gathering contacts along the way from job to job. I had a brief foray into Feature Films doing crowd work in the early days when the disciplines were still fairly split and I got hired as a Makeup Artist on some films and a Hairdresser on others. But I knew I wanted to work with actors and Television Drama offered me the opportunity to work with all my skills from the outset and to follow the story arc of the characters I was helping to create. In the early days I helped directors I'd met along the way on their short films and on one of these, Sam Miller (who'd been an actor on The Bill) found great success. He requested me as Hair and Make-up Designer on a series he was setting up called This Life and that turned out to be a pivotal point for me in my career. Over the years I have enjoyed going to and from assisting and designing without a preference, for me it's about the project and who I'm working with and chiefly who I can learn from along the way.

Since having my children I ventured back into dailies on feature films and for the last few years I have taken on main team opportunities in film, still occasionally working in television, although the money has stood still in TV for 15 years and that has to change. I still can't quite believe that it's been 24 years since leaving LCF and I've been very fortunate to have worked almost without interruption on some fantastic projects and with some brilliant hair and makeup artists and actors. Although the business has changed dramatically with budget constraints it's still a job I love and a business I love being part of.

MANW: You mainly work in TV and movies, including some special effects makeup. Did you ever want to work in fashion or beauty?
SM: No, I always wanted to work in TV and Film and that hasn't changed. Having said that, I was trained to be an all rounder and over the years I've created many beauty and fashion looks as demanded by the particular brief. But being part of the creative process that turns a story into a film is where I want to be.

MANW: Do you have a preference for the type of jobs and makeups you like to do, and do you prefer straight or effects makeup?
SM: No I don't really have a preference. Creating the look of a character and working with the actor is for me what it's all about and ideally with a really good script! Each new job presents a new challenge and that's what's so great about my business - the constant change. SFX is fun but likewise and I teach my students this at the Delamar Academy: contriving the simply uncontrived using makeup and hair is a great challenge but it often goes unnoticed, therefore without praise but we as make-up artists shouldn't dismiss its importance. SFX always results in a bit of the WOW factor with people but the less obvious makeup and hair required to create any character in any genre can offer just as much of a challenge in terms of design and makeup application. Just because the look isn't as noticeable doesn't mean it's not there! I do get a great sense of satisfaction creating any transformation whatever the brief.

MANW: You have worked on many huge movies as a daily, how do dailies differ and do you enjoy them?
SM: Dailies for me offer a hugely different experience. With crowd it's often more about the outlines than the details, with "bums on seats" becoming more of a priority and getting the crowd through the system, but it can offer a great opportunity to try things out with make-up and hair. As a daily I still want to achieve as much as is possible using the limited time and materials often available. You have to be quick thinking and resourceful and turn quality work out in a fraction of the time you may have in main team. Having said that it can be disappointing to find all the hard work of the crowd room often remains unseen in the final cut. As much as crowd work can be a lot of fun and without so much of the responsibility as experienced in main team, I ultimately prefer working with actors. But crowd offers flexibility in our working week that you can't get on main team. It's horses for courses at the end of the day.

MANW: What is the process of creating character looks and how much say do you have in the process?
SM: When I get a script I give it a thorough read at least twice before attending meetings with directors. According to the story and brief given by the director, and more and more these days by the producers (often lots of them!), I set to work on researching the looks for my characters. Prior to the internet I sourced information in various libraries and art galleries from the V&A, Wallace Collection, National Portrait Gallery, LCF to the British Museum and so on. I've collected a lot of valuable source material over the years including fine art portraiture books, photographic source books, cultural source books, magazines and so on. I will take visual ideas, including my own drawings, to meetings and once casting of the actors is in place the process enters a new phase. I firmly believe that it is very important to work with an actor when creating their character and as appropriate I incorporate their ideas into the mix. These days creating characters can become a kind of makeup design by committee, on some projects one will experience a fear of facial hair and wigs and even ban them! It is frustrating trying to counter these ideas and patience is key. Ultimately we are hired to provide a service to the client and we have to respect that process without getting upset about what things 'should' look like ideally. Having said that I've had plenty of opportunity to bring my ideas to the table over the years and properly collaborate with the director and that's so rewarding. As an assistant I've been fortunate to work with some great makeup and hair designers who like to work in collaborative ways where I've contributed to the creative process.

MANW: You have worked on and designed some legendary shows like Agatha Christie: Poirot, Ashes to Ashes, Holby City, This Life, The Bill.. can you tell us about some of the stand out moments of your career?
SM: Designing This Life for me was a wholly co-operative affair with the crew working together in harmony and one I'll never forget. From creating all the haircuts and makeup on the cast to appearing in the closing party scene of the last episode of series one it was a career high! When we filmed the first series we knew it was special but only when we started filming series two did it really take off as they repeated series one. It was the talk of the town and named by The Observer as the stand out TV series of the 90s. The number of careers both behind and in front of the camera that it launched are incredible. The Tony Garnett and World Productions school of film and television making is the one for me and I've been lucky to design two of his productions over the years, the other being No Angels. They mounted a retrospective of Tony Garnett's work at the BFI in 2013 and I went on the night they showed the first episode of This Life- the sense of nostalgia and pride 18 years after we'd made it was incredible. Tony was there and it was lovely to talk to him after all these years, a thoroughly inspiring man.

Ashes to Ashes was great fun. Creating the look for Alex, Keeley Hawes' character, was great fun. Two sets of small bendies every morning and full 80's glam makeup in 45 minutes! Working with David Suchet as Poirot has also offered me immense satisfaction. It's a great example of a makeup that doesn't look like there's much to it but believe me it's under the microscope. David won't mind me saying that he has eyes like a hawk and everything around him on set is under such scrutinisation in order to reflect Poirot's sense of perfection! Being Personal Hair and MUA to him offered me the opportunity to make his look as Poirot everything it could possibly be. Filming the last Poirot "Curtain" afforded me the opportunity to age him and create arthritic hands using Prosthetics. Ageing him with a different haircut and hair colour was integral to this look and a thoroughly satisfying process. He is the consummate professional and so respectful of our craft that it was a pleasure to be part of his team.

Recently working with Frances Hannon has been a highlight for me and I've just finished a run of three feature films back to back with her. She is thoroughly inspiring and really gets you to pull out your very best for whatever the brief is, I've been very fortunate to have played a part in her team. I've also had the opportunity to shoot in some amazing locations and see some wonderful sights through the course of filming, from category A prisons to flying over Victoria Falls in a helicopter to Las Vegas. The variety is incredible!

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?
SM: When I started 24 years ago, in television it was generally all about whether the newbies were "TV" trained. The BBC took entry into their last school in 1990, after that TV franchises were dismantled and staff jobs had disappeared by the mid 90s. Makeup Designers soon realised that they were going to have to recruit trainees from elsewhere and accountants realised that where once before a team may have consisted of three fully fledged MUA's now they would only offer a budget for two fully fledged and a trainee. At the same time the split discipline experienced in film between makeup and hair also started to disappear on UK based projects as accountants realised they could hire one person with both skills to take on both roles. Avenues of training to get into the industry blurred and altered and I'm not sure if it's harder now or different in terms of getting started. Granted there are too many course graduates for the number of jobs now but that's the same in any profession. 

My advice to anyone who wants to get started in the Film and Television industry is to get some hairdressing skills. One question that is constantly raised is " can you cut hair?" and by that we generally mean barbering. In a crowd room, on a period film with combined disciplines, a big part of what we do is period hair and wigs and the man's period haircut. Likewise to get into a team in TV as a trainee this will put you head and shoulders above your competition. Hairdressing skills and wig dressing are an invaluable string to your bow. I have run my own barbering course for beginners and refreshers and it's not surprising how much demand there is for these skills. 

Being slightly biased, because it's the route I took, I think honing your craft in TV drama is a great avenue in to the business. Yes, the allure of features is great but it may take you longer to get to main team, if that's what you want. It's entirely to do with where you see yourself in the business. I advise new MUA's to get noticed, there is undoubtedly an element of right place right time in some cases, but also how important it is to show initiative, common sense, maturity, good manners, discretion and the right level of enthusiasm, of course these things can't really be taught. And to keep in touch with new contacts, there's a difference between being pushy and being fresh in someone's mind, it's gauging it that's hard!

MANW: All artists have 'the wish list'; a face they would love to work on or a show or film they would have loved to have worked on. Mine would be Mighty Boosh and The Kenny Everett Show, I loved all the mad characters, but one of my current ones is Vinyl; the 70s glam hair and makeup and all that facial hair are fantastic. Who or what are yours?
SM: For me it's not so much a case of a face I'd like to work on, although I'm always seeing people both on and off camera that I think I'd like to make up, but more a case of actors I admire for their craft that I'd like to work with. Over the years I've been really fortunate to have worked with some mighty fine actors and that's a bonus! Films I'd liked to have worked on - WOW! Too many to do them all justice but for starters- any Coen Brother's movie, Peter Greenaway's The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover, Moulin Rouge, Goodfellas, Boogie Nights, Cloud Atlas, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Singing In The Rain, Tootsie, Taxi Driver, A Room With A View.........

MANW: On to the good stuff, what are your tricks for flawless looking skin?
SM: Definitely a good cleansing and exfoliation routine. Hot cloth cleansers are great from Eve Lom through to Boots No. 7 - you can't go wrong with a fine muslin to get the skin well prepped for makeup. And a good Primer and moisturise of course.

MANW: What are your top 5 holy grail kit products? 
I still love and use regularly my Kryolan Derma Camouflage palettes for all sorts of correction and coverage. Make-up Forever HD Powder (one colourless powder that fits all). PPI's Add A Lash eyelash adhesive, it's brilliant. PPI Skin Illustrator Palettes, Light and Dark Fleshtone, SFX, REEL Hair and Brow Fix Palette by Marvin Westmore. Chanel Vitalumiere bases, Armani bases, Dior Skin Flash, Laura Mercier or Nars Primers. I'm also a big fan of the Boots No. 7 range of skin care- for the money it's really good. Elizabeth Arden 8 Hour Creme, it sounds like a cliche but it's so versatile, although personally I hate the smell! Bumble and Bumble hair products. Sleek eyebrow
make-up is great value. I'm also loving Charlotte Tilbury's range. I'm also old fashioned and never go on set without my Kryolan Supracolour 12 colour grease palette, it can get you out of many holes at the last minute!

MANW: What's your best make-up artist tip to give women?
SM: Aside from following a good cleansing, exfoliating and moisturising routine, keep your eyebrows well groomed and opt for as sheer a look as possible. The more natural looking the more youthful looking the skin will be. Ultimately wear sunscreen and don't smoke! Preachy but true if women want to stay young looking for as long as possible.

MANW: Finally, false eyelashes - the longer the better or enough already they look ridiculous?
SM: Apart from character dictates that necessitate a full strip, I'm a big fan of individual lashes. You can enhance and build the lash-line in a far more subtle way without creating a 'false' look. I've just been teaching period makeup at Delamar Academy from 18C through to the 1980's and my students were tying out both. I think they soon realised that the more false the lashes you then have no where else to go! And as for the high street - there are some horrors out there, some of which may be improved with a little PPI 'Add A Lash' to at least help these girls stick them on properly! No, I'm not on commission! Like any fashion it's cyclical and I'm sure we will return to a less eyelashy look on our high streets before long!

You can find out more about Sian's work on her IMDB page or follow her on Twitter.

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

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