Last Update: Wednesday, 9 October, 2013 5:21 PM




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Behind-the-scenes on The Trail, directed by Phillip Berg

Virgina Popova
Make-up & Special Effects Artist



Interviewee: Virginia Popova
Job Title: Make Up & Special FX Artist
Credits Include: Death (aka After Death), Third Contact, Betsy & Leonard, Gracie, Secret Cinema (One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest), London Fashion Week 2013, Out of Hours
Interview Date: October 2013

Q. Hi Virginia, give us a little background on yourself before you became a make-up & special FX artist? (Degree, relevant work experience, interests, etc.)
A. I graduated textile design at textile technical high school in Sofia, Bulgaria. It is something like your [UK] colleges I suppose, as it gives you a professional diploma. After I graduated I was drawing on silk for a while making hand painted silk ties, lady's scarfs and jackets and male waist coats. I did manage to sell some stuff, but not a great deal to make a living out of it. Then I met a friend of my parents who was a jewellery maker and I found the job very interesting, so I enrolled on a short course and after that began work as a trainee in a big jewellery making company. Sadly I had to stop working there after 4 months due to some kind of allergy to some of the chemicals used. After that I taught hand painting on textile materials for a while. It was good at first, but later on the economy in the country went from bad to worst and all the craft courses in the company I was working for died down. After that I worked in a video rental shop for a while and was taking private lessons in English. Then I came to the UK as an au pair and also did a bit of assisting dance teaching and some beaded jewellery and hand painted ties with my partner at the time who was a ballroom / latin dance teacher. When we separated I moved to London and enrolled on media make up and SFX course in a small college in Central London.

Q. And how did you get into make-up and special FX?
A. I fell in love with films when I was a kid, but the idea about doing make-up and SFX was born in my head when I was about 12 years old. That was around the time I begin to go to art classes and applied in art high school. Unfortunately make-up courses were not available in my country at the time and the internet wasn't what it is today, so the information on make-up, SFX make-up and materials and techniques was nonexistent. But I couldn't give up my dream of becoming make-up and SFX make-up artist that easy, so I decided I should up the level of my English and go study abroad. USA or Canada were my chosen destinations at the time, but things arranged themself in such a way that I ended up coming to the UK instead. This worked out quite well for me in the end, as there are many great schools with great make-up and SFX programs and a lot of people passionate about making films over here. I got my first ever make-up job while I was still half way through my course. It was on a small short film with director Simon Horrocks. It all rolled up from there.

Third Contact Poster

Q. Is it usual to do both make-up and special FX or do most people usually specialize in only one?
A. Most people do hair, make-up and SFX make up, but they rarely go further than that and into prop making, model making and technical effects. I personally do a little bit of everything and acquire new skills in the area every day.

Q. What courses did you study, how long did they last and what did they cover?
A. The first course I did was a course on Media make-up and SFX make-up at Cavendish College in Central London. It was a one year course involving training in a wide range of skills and areas form hair styling, through beauty and fashion make-up, theatre and TV make-up to prosthetics, blood effects and casualty make-up and some character design and creation. It also included brief introductions in face and body painting, airbrush techniques for make-up and manicure and pedicure. I started working as a make-up artist while on the course and by the time I graduated I worked on 5 short films. After I graduated I continued working on films doing make-up and SFX make-up, but I wanted to acquire more skills in the area of prop making, model making, physical effects and character creation so I decided to enroll on a another course – BA in Model and SFX at University of Hertfordshire (UH). I am currently on the course and will be doing my third and final year starting in October 2013. This course is a very different than my previous course and it is all about physical effects, prop making,
mechanisms and animatronics and how to make things move (manually or remote controlled), a quick introduction to atmospherical effects like fake snow, fake wind, fake rain, fake fog and a quick introduction to pyrotechnics (explosions, fire and bullet hits). UH has a great base and well equipped workshops. The course also covers training on different machines like band saws, senders, pillar drills, lathes, milling machines etc. and some software training in graphic and CAD based programs like Corew DRAW, Photoshop and Rhinoceros. UH is well linked with the industry and does its best to arrange some experience work for the students during their second year of study.

Fashion Make-up Fashion Make-up

Q. Your role requires a very broad range of skills; can you give us a quick rundown of what is necessary for this role?
A. To be make-up and SFX make-up artist requires a lot of skills in different areas. You have to be well trained in basic, beauty and fashion make-up. Some hairstyling skills are required too, although we are not hairdressers and we are not expected to cut hair usually, sometimes we have to do some basic trim, tidy up or restyle hair on male actors. We also have to have a good knowledge on period hair and make-up. We have to be able to work with wigs, premade moustaches and beards or to hand lay beards and moustaches if necessary. We also have to have some basic sculpting skills for casualty effects like cuts, burns, gunshot wounds, scars etc. We also need to have good knowledge and understanding about colours and textures. For more complicated effects and prosthetic appliances we need also skills in life casting, sculpting, mould making, casting, painting, hair punching. We also have to have a wide knowledge and understanding about materials available on the market. It is a fast moving industry and new products and techniques get developed all the time.

Q. Typically at what point do you become involved with a shoot?
A. I usually get a call or an e-mail from either a director or a producer sometime during the preproduction period. If I am interested of the project I do ask for the script (in some cases I do get the script sent with the first e-mail). I read through the script and mark up all the make-up points. Then I usually have a meeting with the director and we discuss his ideas about the overall look of the film and what is his or her budget for make-up and SFX. If some more complicated effects are required we discuss camera angles and type of shots that need to be done and also what time will be necessary to prepare the effects and what time will be necessary on the day of the shoot for them.

Q. Which movie make-up or special effect do you wish you’d done?
A. Hum that is a very difficult question. There are many fun and complicated make-ups around these days. I would like to work on something like Apocalypto for example, as it has a massive prosthetic work and it seems so much fun to do. Every single person in it including all the extras had prosthetic noses, because of the Mayans specific profiles and if you add to that all the scaring and wounds... What a cool job to do!

Q. Which is your favourite piece of work you’ve created so far and how long did it take?
A. Oh another complicated question. I have done quite a few interesting and challenging jobs. It is hard to pick only one, but probably it was for the feature film Third Contact which we shot on a very low budget over a very long period of time (one year) and which had quite a lot of FX and various different locations. My favourite piece of work from it was a piece I had to build for the opening scene of the film which was a top of a human head on which we had to perform surgical operation. The shot was extreme close up of a hand cutting a semi-circle on top of a human head, flipping the skin open, drilling a whole in the skull and inserting an object, then flipping the skin back and stitching up the wound (no pressure there :D). It was great fun to create but sadly it didn't make the final cut of the film. It probably took me about a week to prepare.

Q. What is the most fun make-up or effect to create?
A. It was probably on a short film called "Out of hours" which was a great fun to do from start to finish with a lot of blood effects, but the highlight for me was a gunshot wound in the eye of one of the characters and to make things more complicated the character was wearing glasses. I was given two identical pairs of cheap glasses and I had to drill a whole and make it look like a bullet has gone through one of the pairs. I think it took me about three days to prepare the glasses and prosthetics and a few hours to apply the make-up on the day.

Q. What is the most challenging make-up or effect to create?
A. I would say probably ageing make-up. It is very difficult to make look natural. There are a lot of things that can go wrong with it. A challenge to sculpt well, difficult to mould, cast and paint and you can't get away with pretty much anything.

Virginia Popova does Billie Vee's make-up on set of The Trail, directed by Phillip Berg

The Still, photo by Xav Rodriguez

Q. You work on a lot of horror films and as such recreate a lot of wounds, injuries and diseases – what kind of research do you do and where do you source your reference material?
A. The research I would usually do will be an image research. Images of real wounds, injuries and so on, but also images of other make-up artists work on the subject. I would also look into techniques used by other people to recreate what I am trying to recreate. If I come across technique I haven't used before I will usually do some experiments with it to see how it is working and use it if I think the result is better than with the techniques I already know. I use internet, magazines, medical books, documentaries, feature films and behind the scenes. You can find pretty much everything on the Internet these days :)

Q. Can any of what you do be dangerous for the actor or crew?
A. In most cases no. Most effects are well made, well placed, well lit and well shot illusions. Of course if you are using squibs to recreate bullet hits or any other kind of pyrotechnics there is always a bit of risk and you need people with special qualification and training. When it comes to make-up and SFX make-up you have to make sure that your actors or models don't have any allergies before you apply any products or prosthetics on their skin.

Q. How does shooting on location compared with shooting in a studio impact your work flow?
A. It is usually more comfortable to shoot in a studio as you have a proper make-up room, mirrors and lights which you don't always have on location. Also temperature is controlled in a studio so you won't have some of the issues you can have on an outside location with materials which are temperature sensitive. But on the other hand shooting on location can be more fun and interesting then a studio shoot.

Q. You have a secret recipe for quick, cheap, realistic fake blood, can you share with us the ingredients and how to mix it up? And do you prefer it to the ready-made stuff you buy in a plastic bottle?
A. Homemade blood is usually made with corn or golden syrup. I personally prefer to use golden syrup which is a bit thick and needs to be thinned down. This is easily done with some water. When using corn syrup you have to thicken it up in most cases which is usually done with corn flour and there is always the risk of ending up with some granules which are not desired in most cases. To get the colour you have to use some food colouring (natural red food colouring which is very dark red an usually doesn't need to be mixed more or mix up some colour with red and blue mainly). I personally prefer the professional blood from a bottle, as it is less likely to stain anything, but when you are working on a low budget and you need a lot of blood it is a lot cheaper to make your own.

Bullet Wound

Bullet Wound

Q. Are new techniques or materials coming into the industry regularly or has it been the same traditional methods and materials for a long time?
A. New materials and techniques come out all the time and you have to check regularly and learn what’s new if you want to be ahead.

Q. The rise of CGI over the past 20 years has changed the way many special effects are created, is this a good thing?
A. In some cases yes, in other not really. There are effects done with CGI still don't look good. I think the best is when both methods are used together.

Q. Has CGI impacted the amount of work or type of work you do?
A. I wouldn't say the amount that much, but the type yes. There are some things that used to be done with make-up and effects and are done today with CGI or a mixture of physical and CGI effects. I think in most cases the mixture of the two had the best result.

Q. Do you ever see a time when all SFX are done with CGI?
A. I hope such time never comes, but one never knows. At this point CGI is not cheaper or quicker to do, but with the rapid grow in computer technologies that may change in near future. I hope it doesn't as it will take away the soul and craftsmanship from the films.

Make-up Artist Virginia Popova

The Trail, directed by Phillip Berg

Q. How do you think new technologies such as 3D Printing will affect the industry?
A. 3D printing is a wonderful thing and I think it will change how some props are made in the future. Things like 3D printing, laser cutting and fast prototyping have made possible faster and more accurate model making in scales it wasn't possible in the past.

Q. Does the prevalence of high definition cameras make your job harder as ever more detail is now shown on screen?
A. Yes, it does. A lot of new products were developed to cater for that, but also the application has to be immaculate and flawless, as you can't get away with much.

Q. What is the typical cost of a professional make-up kit including tools and materials?
A. A lot. If you are doing only beauty and fashion make-up you need minimum £700 - £800. If you are doing SFX make-up as well add to that another £400 - £500 and all that will be just to start you up.

The Still, photo by Xav Rodriguez

The Still, photo by Xav Rodriguez

The Still, photo by Xav Rodriguez

Q. Do most products have a long shelf life or do they need to be replenished periodically?
A. All products have to be replenished, some more often than other. Brushes can last you long if you take a proper care for them, but I also find that one can never have enough brushes at hand :D

Q. Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of getting into film or special FX make-up?
A. It is a great fun job but you have to love films and film making to do it, as it may be demanding with very long days, filming in all kind of weather conditions and work under a lot of pressure and sometimes some of your best work may not even make the final cut of the film.

Thank you Virginia, we look forward to seeing more of your work on our screens soon.


Virginia's Contact Details:
Contact: Virginia Popova
Tel: +44 (0) 7942 227 575
Twitter: @virposfx


Virginia Popova doing make-up on Emily Booth
Emily Booth
Keith Eyles with bullet wound
Keith Eyles with bullet wound
Bullet wound
Gun in bloody hand
Behind-the-scenes on The Trail, directed by Phillip Berg
Behind-the-scenes on The Trail, directed by Phillip Berg
The Trail, directed by Phillip Berg
The Trail, directed by Phillip Berg
Arm casting
Arm cast
Plaster arm
Clay mold of plaster arm
Virginia Popova with Martin Gooch on the set of Death
Virginia Popova on set of Death, directed by Martin Gooch
Scalpel incision
Insertion of metal device under skin
Sewing skin
Stitches in skin
Vampire man
Zombie couple






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