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Women in Makeup/FX series: Aimee Macabeo weaves wonders in the film world

Filmmaking is a collaborative art and it literally takes hundreds of people (and sometimes thousands) to bring a finished film from script to screen. Vivid characters are at the heart of every story whether it’s a small indie film or a gigantic blockbuster production. The characters drive the story and therefore play a crucial part in pulling an audience into the story world.

Aimee Macabeo working on Avatar
Photo by Jim Charmatz Stan Winston Studio Used with Permission
Aimee Macabeo is a special FX artist that specializes in doing hair for film.
Photo Courtesy of Aimee Macabeo Used with Permission

When actors and actresses take on a role they must be transformed into the character to transport the audience. This is where talented makeup/FX teams step in and work on specialized parts of an overall magical process. There are sculptors, painters, prosthetic designers, mold makers, contact lens painters, fur technicians, makeup artists, fabricators and hair specialists, to name a few.

Exact body duplicates of an actor or actress (sometimes known as puppets) are sometimes created for various uses in a film. In terms of hair, technicians are often tasked with replicating an actor or actress’s hair on all sorts of body parts including their arms, legs, chest and hairline for practical reference in the production process. This can be an involved and very intricate process and requires a considerable amount of time, patience and skill on the FX artist’s part.

Hair specialist Aimee Macabeo has always been artistic, though it took her a while to figure out exactly which professional path to pursue. The California native and self-declared L.A. Kings addict started out as a fashion major and transitioned to makeup at Joe Blasco’s well-known school in Hollywood. She worked full time at a hospital while juggling makeup school and later dabbled in toy design and fine art.

She ultimately ended up building a career in makeup/FX and went to cosmetology school to hone her hair specialty, which she now describes as an “obsession.”

“As more films are being made, it’s interesting to me to watch how practical and digital mediums can work together. It seems like the relationship is always improving. I see it becoming more detail-oriented and specific,” said Aimee. “I obsess about hair and finding more ways to control it and get it to do what I want. I think about color and manipulation and qualities of hair. As I move forward, I want to broaden my horizons as I continue to be more accurate.”

Aimee’s amazing work can be seen in huge box office hits like Oscar winning Best Picture “Avatar,” “The Avengers,” “Iron Man,” “The Amazing Spiderman” and “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 as well as TV shows like "American Horror Story."

I had the pleasure of speaking with Aimee recently to discuss the magical world of hair FX for film in the following Examiner Exclusive Q & A as part of my Women in Makeup/FX series.

E: What was your first job in the industry?

AM: I happened to get a makeup job right when I was finishing school. One of my friends from high school, they needed an assistant makeup artist on this project before Stir. A low budget film called “Heaven or Vegas,” which was released after “Stir,” which I worked on next.

E: Did you have a mentor coming up in the field?

AM: I’ve had a few. When I started doing makeup, I started specializing in hair to gain another skill and get more work. I had a classmate and a really good friend of mine named Justin Ditter and he showed me how to do hair work and introduced me to the specialty.

E: How do you know what techniques to apply?

AM: Depending on the project and timeframe, say there needs to be a specific lace piece for an actor or character and the design is very specific, that’s something that has to be built by hand. First you have to learn how to ventilate – it’s called ventilating or knotting where each hair is held and knotted with a little hook, kind of like in a latch hooking process. You have a little tiny hook and you knot the hair and you tie the hair onto the lace, one hair at a time. It can be more than one hair, depending on the density of what you’re trying to match.

E: Can you give me an example of where you’ve applied one of those techniques?

AM: For instance, in “Avatar,” we built everything from scratch, based on the character design. We used all kinds of techniques just to build the lace. We used braiding techniques and attached the braids onto the lace. So, there’s a slow build up to the finished edge of the piece where you don’t see any knots. It’s like shading; it’s like the deepest part. You don’t really see much detail until you get into the front. So, the darkest part and the area that’s furthest back from the front of the head is going be the deepest and we use knotting to hide what’s behind it and then we go into punching, each hair one by one, on the edge so it looks like a natural hair line and that hides the knots.

It also depends on the quality of the project. Because, I’ve also had projects where they want to be able to part the head anywhere and it looks exactly like the human skull. It has to be extremely detailed. You can’t tie big knots. It also depends on production and budget, because it can be very time consuming.

E: Which part of the crew do you interact with? Do you interact with the directors and producers?

AM: On commercials producers and directors are very much involved. With productions, it’s usually makeup artists. And, at the tests and all of the players are involved they will want me there to make sure we’re all on the same page.

E: How do you get involved on a project?

AM: When I started working with Christien (Tinsley) I was actually brought in for a commercial with another makeup artist, Dominie Till. At that time there was another makeup artist working with him also named Bryan Sipe and they needed someone to do hair. Then I was able to meet Christien and he saw my work and that’s when he started “American Horror Story.”

E: So you worked on “American Horror Story?”

AM: I worked on a couple wigs. For the first season, there was the Burn Man character, I built that piece. There were some bodies and hair pieces for that first season. And then Pepper for the second season. I did the hair work on her eyebrows.

E: Did you interact with Robert Downey, Jr. at all for “Avengers” and “Iron Man?” And, what did you do for the films?

AM: I did in pre-production. He came in and for the first “Iron Man.” There was a chest piece that was done for him. So, they had to take a life cast of him and I interacted with him at the studio. When the actors come in, they want us to make sure everything matches. So, I’ll go in and study his hair and make sure the hair color is right, his hair direction, the texture; I make sure everything matches to a “t.”

E: Where was the piece used in the film?

AM: There was a scene where Gwyneth Paltrow reaches into his chest to put in a light. The chest piece needed to match in order to reach in. There were some stunt pieces done for him.

E: What was your impression of Robert Downey, Jr.?

AM: He’s so advanced. His mind is like no one I’ve ever met. I just go in, though, do what I need and make it quick and try not to distract. He’s been around for a lifetime. The things he talked about were on a completely different level of any actor I’ve ever come in contact with.

E: So, he’s really smart and articulate?

AM: Extremely.

E: What did you do on “The Avengers?”

AM: The Incredible Hulk wig for Mark Ruffalo. They needed to figure out how to approach the hair, as there was The Hulk and then Mark Ruffalo’s hair. When I worked with Mark I needed to figure out how to combine them both in terms of hair characteristics. We had to study Mark’s hair and texture to morph it into The Hulk.

E: You've worked on some Johnny Depp movies. Did you make some things for him?

AM: A beard piece for “The Tourist.” And also some dreadlocks for “Pirates.”

E: You also worked with Christien on the 2012 Brad Pitt film “Killing Them Softly” and are credited as Lead Hair. What does a Lead Hair artist do?

AM: Lead Hair is the go to person that deals directly with the Lead Artist or whomever is in charge of the project at the studio. In this case, it was Christien, to discuss different options to approach whatever is needed for the project/character. I pick out the hair and if other people are needed to complete the job, I give them direction and fill them in on the project details, based on info I got from the Lead Artist.

E: Do you ever have to sketch potential hair designs?

AM: The concept designers have the illustrations and have different versions of that. Then, if they want to see samples of the hair I’ll bring samples so they can see it. If a have to come up with a color, I use a formula to color the hair to give them an idea of what it would look like in real life.

E: How about the “The Twilight Saga?” What did you do for the film?

AM: There were some heads made for the dream sequences that needed to match the actors toward the end of the series. I did some pieces for Kristen Stewart’s makeup.

E: Do you have a favorite project?

AM: “Avatar,” hands down. It was amazing. It was one of my first big projects to really be a part of. Justin, Michael and I did all the pieces for the Na’vi. It was so hush-hush in the beginning stages when the practical was still being developed before it went to the visual department.

So we had to make these hair pieces with braids and there were so many different characters. We built the wigs for it and made the concept come to life. When I saw the movie, they said, “We’re only going to need one for practical reference for digital and they can superimpose it.” Then when I saw the movie and all the hair pieces it was so amazing. I had no idea how huge this movie was going to be. It was so hush-hush. It had to be perfect.

E: Did you work a lot of long hours on the film?

AM: We were working eight hour days for about a year and a half. It depends on the budgets and when things shoot. It depends on the processes too.

E: What would be your most challenging or complex job?

AM: It was last year, for an artist named Paul McCarthy. I had to completely copy the artist’s body, all of his hair, every single detail. His entire body, front to back and it had to be perfect. It was all single hair, the entire body. Everything had to match him perfectly. He also had another piece called That Girl and there were four bodies, which had to look exactly the same. She had baby fine hair, like peach fuzz, all across her hairline that I had to duplicate and her hair on her arms was super baby fine. I had to not only use a magnifier, but I had to tilt the body so that it was at an angle where you could actually see the hair. It was pretty intense and that definitely was the most challenging one for me. The way that the light hits it from different angles, catching all that hair, that’s what it was really about.

E: What is the most rewarding part of what you do?

AM: Seeing it finished. It can be so crazy and then when I step back and see the big picture, there are so many people involved in these projects. A lot of my work, people wouldn’t even know how much hair work was even put into it. After all the hard work and the blood, sweat and tears, in the end, when I see what I was a part of, seeing it makes me happy.

E: What is the most difficult part of doing your job?

AM: Communication can be difficult when someone thinks they want something and then they don’t, so we’ll have to go in a different direction and make changes until they figure out what they want. It’s challenging, especially when there is more than one person involved. Multiple people can have different visions.

There was one project where they were poking fun at a character and the influence was a ‘70s hairdo. For a stylist, the character had a texture to it that was kind of puffy and curly. As I was trying to match the design, the people wanted to change it saying, “This isn’t really what we want. We want something more modern.” The reference I was given was from the ‘70s. There’s a huge time span there from the ‘70s to 2014. So, what time period did they want? They may think they’re being really specific, but, when it comes to hair you have to be really specific. It can be interpreted so many different ways. There are so many different hair colors and textures.

E: Who are some other female makeup/FX artists that you look up to or draw inspiration from?

AM: Dominie Till is amazing. Her attitude and approach to makeup is just outstanding. Her makeup is just awesome. She handles things and takes things and is ready for anything. She’s very specific and makes sure all bases are covered. She very resourceful and really able to adapt. She has so much energy and always has a smile on her face.

E: Do you think there are more females coming up in the field?

AM: Compared to when I went to school, there are just so many more people into it. There are a lot more since 1996 that want to be involved in this world and finding their place in it is more challenging. I came in as makeup and took on other things to keep working and find what I was best at. With special makeup effects, there are so many different processes involved. So you need to find the avenue where you fit best as an artist.

E: Do you have any advice for ladies who are trying to break into makeup/FX or how to stay motivated?

AM: Keep learning and always be open to learning. When you meet somebody new or you’re working with a new artist, pick their brain. See what they’re doing to learn new techniques. Build up your tool arsenal of what you can bring to the table as an artist. Think about how can I approach this differently? Or, how can I help things go smoother? Or, how can I become more of a team player? How can I make this awesome? Fill your arsenal in any way – like, learning a shortcut to glue something down. Always find the fastest, best way to do something without sacrificing quality or the project, based on the time frame.

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