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Celebrity Makeup Artist Ve Neill Talks 'Hunger Games' & Offers Advice For Aspiring Makeup Artists

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Elizabeth Banks (left, as Effie Trinket) and Ve Neill (right, makeup artist) on the set of The Hunger Games. Photo by Murray Close. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

What do Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen and Hollywood makeup artist Ve Neill have in common? They’re both strong women who know exactly what they want and won’t give up until they’ve got it—even when the odds aren’t in their favor. 

Back in the 1970s there wasn’t room for women in the film industry’s male dominated makeup department, but Neill wasn’t going to let that stop her. The Academy Award-winning trailblazer whose film credits include Pirates of the Caribbean, Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, as well as The Hunger Games series, forged a career for herself on her own terms. With no mentors and no schools for makeup artists she took the logical next step and headed to a sci-fi convention where she met some guys dressed up as characters from Planet of the Apes.

“They looked perfect, like they just stepped out of the movie,” she recalled. “I went up to one of them and said ‘Where’d you guys get those masks?’ and he looked at me and said these aren’t masks these are makeups, and I went ‘OK dude, where did you get the makeups?’ He said, ‘We made them,’ and I said ‘Well, can you teach me how to do that? That’s what I want to do?’ And he said ‘But you’re a girl.’ And I said ‘Yeah! Isn’t it fabulous?’”

Fast forward the film reel of Neill’s life 40 years or so, and she’s sitting on the plush upholstered bench of a luxury train car at the Innovation Hangar at the Palace of Fine Arts. A reproduction of the one Katniss and her crew rode in en route to the Capitol, the display is part of The Hunger Games: The Exhibition, and it sets an appropriate scene for an exclusive conversation about her work on the film.

Q: I’ve heard you describe The Hunger Games as a makeup artist’s dream.

A: It was sensational. Gary Ross was fantastic to work with. We discussed what we wanted the Capitol people to look like and all the district people. Each district had a specific look—they were all sort of like Grapes of Wrath, but they all had their own look. The district that did the textiles—we stained everybody’s hands with ink so you could tell they were working with dyes. When you go from district to district and you see all these crowds, everybody had to have a slightly different look to them. Of course Katniss is from the coal mining district so we had a lot of coal miner looking gentlemen.

Q: How does the process begin?

A: We all get together—the director, the actors, the costumer designer, the hair stylist and myself—and we discuss what everybody’s going to look like. It starts with the director’s vision, we’re all trying to bring his vision to life, so we work closely with the director and with each other so everything comes together as one cohesive package.

Q: What kind of research did you do to prepare for this film?

A: A lot of research was already in place—Grapes of Wrath, depression era. But what I did have to do was get a lot of inspirational art and makeups for the Capitol. We put together these fantastic boards of different kinds of makeups that we liked and I said use these as an inspiration and just go crazy with them. Enjoy yourself. Design and have fun and just make the makeup go with the wardrobe that they come and sit in your chair with. The only thing I said was don’t make it look like ’70s makeup, because we wanted it to be out of the norm, avant-garde, high fashion makeups. Some were very deconstructed, some were just bizarre looking. I just wanted them to be creative and fun and really think out of the box.

Q: Did you ever have a revelatory moment during your career?

A: Every time I did a new job I had an epiphany. I went, “Oh my god, I figured it out.” There were no schools when I started so I was basically teaching myself or asking as many questions as I could and just figuring it out as I went.

Q: What advice would you give aspiring makeup artists? 

A: You have to have an incredible education now. There are so many new techniques and new products out there. You really have to have a very good basic education as a makeup artist. You have to take a lot of art classes—take all the art classes you can. Work in the theaters at school, and just participate and practice. Education is really the key.

Q: How would someone get to work on a movie like The Hunger Games?

A: Educate yourself, get your chops up, and put a nice portfolio together and you might be able to start with non union films, which is pretty much how everybody starts, I started that way myself. You work your way in and eventually you’ll get enough days—you have to have a certain amount of days within a certain amount of time—and then you can submit yourself to the union, and when you get into the union you’ll be able to work on big movies like this.

Ve Neill is teaching a master class in select cities, get more information at http://www.veneillmasterclass.com. The Hunger Games: The Exhibition will run through Labor Day, September 5. For more information and tickets, please visit www.TheHungerGamesExhibition.com.