The task of transforming Robert Gustafsson for his role in the Oscar-nominated film, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, was far from simple. Makeup designer Love Larson spent four hours each morning (for months on end) gluing faux-wrinkles to the 47-year-old actor, who needed to appear anywhere between 22 and 100.
"It's very long and complicated," Larson says about the process, which involved sculpting a "life-cast" of Gustaffson's face (using individual molds for the nose and cheeks). At the end of a 10-hour day of shooting, he had to dismantle the prosthetic, and prepare materials for the next scene.
Art of the Business
As laborious as it sounds, this is business as usual for Larson. With wife and co-founder, Eva von Bahr, he created Makeup Designers AB, an independent hair, makeup, and prosthetic design firm based in Stockholm, Sweden. The ability to take on all three categories at once (as opposed to just hair or makeup) gives them a competitive edge in the ever-volatile film industry.
Since launching in 2003, the company has worked on more than 60 feature films, 15 television series, and over 200 commercial projects--all across Europe, Asia, and Hollywood.
Although it was Mad Max: Fury Road that took the Oscar win for best makeup and hairstyling, being nominated in a category alongside other impressive works (Bridge of Spies, The Danish Girl, The Martian, The Revenant) was an honor for the team.
"It was completely surreal," Larson told Inc. by phone, speaking from his small workshop in Stockholm. He had just returned from the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, Calif. "It's been so weird because we're used to being behind the camera, and not in front of it."
Since the nominees were announced, he says that there's been a "carousel" of interest in the duo. This doesn't necessarily mean an increase of job offers for upcoming movies-- yet.
As Larson explains of the industry, it can be difficult to secure work more than two months ahead of time--and all told, the company typically brings in just enough revenue to break even on production costs. At its height, the Makeup Designers booked 1 million Swedish krona (about $117,000 U.S. dollars).
"It's really hard, because most productions will bring in the makeup very late," said Larson.
Why Failure Is Common in Makeup Showbiz
Designing for film is difficult on a number of fronts. Even projects where viewers have a point of reference--like creating a mask to make someone look old, and which might recall your grandfather or grandmother, as opposed to designing an alien look from scratch--are still exceptionally challenging. "There are load of films where you see the actor in a funny rubber mask," Larson says. "It's very easy to fail."
With that in mind, the Makeup Designers--which counts just two employees (the co-founders, and occasionally it takes on up to three freelancers at a time)--has a unique business strategy: Turning down dozens of projects on a regular basis.
"We turn down commercials and music videos and TV productions all the time," says Larson, specifically, whenever he feels the company doesn't have the time or resources to fully commit to it.
"It's like a makeup artist's dream," he admits, working on a project like the 100-Year-Old Man. The stakes, however, are equally high: "If you fail, no one will ever hire you again. You have that feeling on every job you're doing."
The Shrinking Market for Makeup Artists, Designers
Increasingly, many of Hollywood's hottest work for benefits as opposed to wages. The average earnings for a movie makeup designer are just $37.57 per hour, according to the most recent available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to $40.04 in 2012.
"This isn't the job your mother wants for you, O.K.? It's a roller coaster," explained Robert Constant, a makeup artist, in an interview with the New York Times. Generally speaking, the Make-Up Artists & Hair Stylists Guild (also known as "Local 706"), encourages union members to find part-time work on the side.
Larson's competitive advantage lies in his versatility -- he's done everything from prosthetic masks to eccentric hairdos to the scars on Daniel Craig's chest, as he appears in the 2012 Bond movie Skyfall. The company has also worked on makeup effects for David Fincher's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
It helps that the Makeup Designers are operating in the much smaller Swedish market, where competition doesn't abound, and labor is generally fairly expensive for production companies.
While the two welcome more international projects, they claim they never want to move stateside. "We're quite happy," says Larson. "It would be great to make more money of course, but it's not the business to go into if you want to be rich."
With more visibility from the Oscars buzz, and potentially more high-profile U.S. projects, the two hope simply to expand their local workshop, even if and when it means taking a cut in the profits.