High Definition and the Re-education of the Vanity Arts

Update: December 7th, 2009

High Definition and the Re-education of the Vanity Arts

by Cynthia L. McCourt

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High Definition projects create a wonderful world of challenges and new opportunities for growth in the fields of make-up, hair and especially wigs. Because the core of all vanity work has been based on correction, this new medium shakes the very foundation of our craft. Our focus must shift to flattering features while incorporating facial flaws to retain the humanness vital to the intense sharpness of the image.

When distressing, injury, or environmental damage was required, it was easy to turn to “the old bag of tricks”. The bad news is “the bag of old tricks” reads like vaudeville on HD, the good news is we have the opportunity to paint with light. Revisiting the nature of shape, shadow and light will be the future of hair and make-up work for HD. The secret to successful make-up and hair work in HDTV is the concept that light is the new cosmetic. We need to re-education ourselves as to how light, with enhancement, will paint with us.

Early in pre-production a new, direct relationship with the DP, the Gaffer and the Vanity teams is vital. Without clear communication and new attention to trailer light, color adjustments with make-up mediums, however translucent, will not work. Working in correct light color and levels will be essential.

Traditional make-up appears painterly and obvious on HD. Brush strokes and sponges edge marks read far worse in HD than they do on film. In the past we had grown comfortable with a heavy reliance on products to problem-solve our way thought project. Now even the lightest traditional film make-up has a masking quality. Correction serves only to create a falseness of character which is distracting and unbelievable.

Skin is essentially clear and the melanin pigment is deep in the skin. Traditional make-up is opaque. New cosmetics must be translucent and ever-so-slightly reflective. The eye can still be fooled on HD, but not with paint. Basically, we need to pitch the oils and switch to watercolor washes. Airbrush might be a good answer, since tool marks are also a huge problem. However products that are translucent with a sponge can quickly go opaque through an airbrush. Airbrush is a fabulous tool but as a fix-all solution, it is a crutch we need to drop. Essentially, what I am suggesting is allowing skin to “glow” – backing away from powder.

Hair departments have confused “freezing and duplicating” with “design and continuity”. Making hair work in HD will require a reversal of thought. It is time to stop of fighting hair movement, separation and displacement. Now the new design challenge will be how to enhance environmental and physical impact on hair. Adapting instead of sheltering our continuity from it. This means opening up our designs to be flexible, mutable creations from first conception. Hair moves- previously we could tame most of that movement in the name of continuity. Control was the rule in analog TV and film, but not in HD. The only way to keep a sense of aliveness to character hair is to give in to the inevitable motion of hair.

Hair is also somewhat clear coated with interior pigment. It also reflects light. This can result in a healthy head of hair looking synthetic because the refraction [index] quality is so high. Having a better understanding of the refraction index of hair types, and charting gloss levels will be essential. A better understanding of the way hair will reflect under different light will help the vanity departments create the appropriate hair luminesce for the character. This means stepping away from shine products and looking into how hair can be slightly dulled without impairing movement.

Shiny skin and dull hair? Our biggest stumbling block in this process will be the re-education of actors. Trust and faith are the basis of any vanity/actor relationship. How does one explain that in HD, this is not just better film/TV, but a new medium? What actors once were comfortable with, will not work on HD. The first response to the hair and make-up process will be rejection. Smooth communication and support between director, DP and producer is crucial. Otherwise, actors will believe the vanity departments to be inadequate and their characters unsupported. They will not recognize themselves as camera ready, fixed or corrected. Having a DP supervised gradation of trailer make-up lights will help immensely. We will be establishing a working comfort level with many new and veteran actors who will be working in HD for the first time. It is their face on the camera. They have to know they are safe.

The first step in achieving the new HD comfort zone for all concerned is the process of hair and make-up TESTING. Funding must be found for testing. Directors and producers are very excited about the cost savings of HD. However, corners can’t be cut in pre-produciton if you really want hair, make-up and wigs to fly on HD. This up-front expense will save you a fortune in anxiety, if not re-shooting.

Good vanity departments want to problem-solve and will request testing. Testing means failing before you succeed. Rarely, if ever, do the really challenging looks satisfy the Director or the DP the first time out. But thorough testing in pre-production will speed up daily prep time for shooting. This will save you in turn-around time.

Because shooting in HD can offer real-time tests, choices can be presented very quickly. This is vital. The contrast is so extreme in HD, that your hair people will need to adjust on a hair by hair basis. To successfully reproduce test results, a print of the approved test is essential. I find it wise to keep a digital log of my work. Also, it is imperative to work with an HD monitor. (Yes, sometimes the obvious is overlooked!) You also might want to consider having your Key Hair/Make-up and Wig Master sit in on your dailies.

Perfection is not visually comfortable and sloppiness is distracting. When wig, hair and make-up work is done right, in HD as in any medium, it should not draw attention to itself. There is no time to resist the demands of High Definition work. It is futile to deny the industry’s evolution. High Definition work is the most exciting opportunity for creative forces since black and white evolved into color. The key is to think outside the box and embrace this challenge.

Cynthia L. McCourt is a twenty-year veteran of the film and video production industry. Her concepts have been quoted in The London Telegraph, The First Post and the Broadcast Education Association’s publications. Her most recent HD project was Nanna’s Cottage, a children’s TV show now airing Saturday mornings on Trinity Broadcast Network. Currently she is traveling and teaching classes in high definition make-up and hair treatments, along with the care and feeding of wigs. Right now she is working for individual PBS affiliates. She is available for consultations and teaching engagements and can be reached at: permasmudge@yahoo.com . Cynthia also plans to publish a guide and textbook focused specifically on high definition techniques early 2008. When she is not on the road Cynthia lives with her son, Franklin and her cats in Eugene, Oregon.

Also see, Part II, Wigs and High Definition

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