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10 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Makeup Artists

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Makeup has been around in one form or another since at least Cleopatra. In an age of Instagram, personal branding, and perpetual selfies, it’s more popular than ever, and the same could be said of makeup artists. Mental_floss spoke to a few who ply the trade about their art, their business, and the ongoing appeal of making faces.

1. THEIR WORK REQUIRES SCIENCE AS WELL AS ART.

To the uninformed, makeup artistry may seem to involve little more than applying blush and lip gloss. But there’s much more to it. “I think the misconception is that it’s just putting on makeup,” says Jenn Blum, a beauty and special effects makeup artist in New York.

Blum says that her work requires knowledge of several overlapping disciplines: color theory (for blending and matching foundation); hygiene (for keeping makeup and brushes sanitary); facial anatomy and bone structure (for contouring and special effects creature design); and chemistry (for safety in knowing which products don’t mix, and when working with special effects molding compounds, glues, and removers). It's not advanced chemistry, but it still takes time and study.

2. MAKEUP SCHOOL IS NOT FOR EVERYONE.

While there are a number of great makeup schools out there, many fantastic makeup artists have been self-taught. The late, revered Kevyn Aucoin is one. So is Robert Garcia, a gender-fluid makeup artist and personal beauty adviser at Sephora. Garcia explains that while he received no formal training, his passion, natural ability, and hours spent experimenting provided the skills to get hired at Sephora and launch a career. “Every makeup artist I know has learned more in the industry than by going to school,” he says.

Still, a good makeup school can give artists a solid foundation and help them over inevitable hurdles. Chelsea Paige, a makeup artist specializing in character design for film, says that her education at the Make-up Designory (MUD) in New York was extremely valuable. But according to her, the first four or five years of most makeup careers are typically difficult in terms of making mistakes, gaining skill, building contacts, and getting jobs, and going to MUD “eliminated about three years of that.”

3. PERSISTENCE IS KEY.

As with many creative professions, it takes a tremendous amount of tenacity for a makeup artist to get to the point where they have regular work coming in and a respectable day rate. Hours can be long—often 14 to 16 hours a day for a makeup artist on a film—and newer artists often have to work multiple side jobs while they establish themselves. Paige says that even though she’s fairly established, she still has to hustle, promote herself, and deal with uncertainty between jobs. According to her, the drawbacks are worth it. “I feel truly grateful that I’ve found something so early in my life that I love,” she says.

4. COMPENSATION VARIES FROM GIG TO GIG.

The amount of money that a makeup artist can expect to make for a job varies widely depending on both the scope and nature of the project and the artist’s experience. When first starting out, artists may do a lot of jobs for low or no pay in order to gain experience (though our interviewees advise only working free gigs that provide valuable knowledge, contacts, or exposure). Blum says she has no set rate, instead making decisions about whether to take a job, and what to charge, on a project-to-project basis: “What one of my mentors taught me is [to ask] ‘what is the job worth to you?’”

As for what type of jobs are the most lucrative, opinions vary. New York-based makeup artist Shelley Van Gage says it’s advertising work, while Garcia says that for him it has been weddings. He says his starting rate for a bride is $400, while for some brides he has made as much as $3000.

5. THEIR MATERIALS DON’T COME CHEAP.

It might not seem like a big deal to pick up a CoverGirl compact at the local drug store, but for a professional makeup artist, stocking a complete makeup kit requires considerable financial outlay. This is particularly true because they have to keep abreast of cosmetic trends: “If you want to be an up-to-date makeup artist you have to update your kit,” Garcia says. “Your client wants to see something new and luxurious. Nobody wants to see old Clinique when they know they can get a high-definition foundation from Make Up Forever.”

But there are ways to be smart about cost when starting out. Garcia says skilled new artists can do glamorous work with less expensive brands of similar quality, and build up to premium brands later on.

6. THEY GET UP-CLOSE AND PERSONAL QUICKLY.

Makeup artists spend their careers in very close proximity to other people’s faces. Unsurprisingly, it helps to be a people person. But even for the most relaxed extrovert, the leap from being a complete stranger to total intimacy can be startling. This is particularly true on film or theatrical productions, where artists may be called upon to apply body makeup to nearly nude actors or to help those encumbered with prosthetic claws or other hindrances eat and drink.

Paige says that in the course of her job she touches people “in the most intimate and invasive ways.” This, oddly enough, can lead to accelerated friendships. “You have someone touching your face for umpteen hours a day for a month and a half,” she says, “and you develop a relationship.”

7. THEY CHANGE LIVES.

Sometimes a makeup artist’s close relationship with a client comes from helping them in a time of need. Garcia says a big motivator for him is helping women feel beautiful during traumatic times. He describes teaching cancer patients to paint in eyebrows or apply eyelashes, and how to care for chemotherapy-damaged skin. Speaking of a particular client with cancer, he says that “with skin care and makeup I was able to change this woman’s skin, change this woman’s life … It’s these women who need us.”

And when it comes to makeup for film and television, Blum says she loves knowing that she is supporting her clients’ passions. By doing a performer’s head shot makeup or creating a character for a director’s film, she says that she might “open the door so that they become famous and live their dream. I get chills because I might be helping someone’s dream come true.”

8. WORKING AT A SHOP CAN BE AN ADVANTAGE.

While many makeup artists work on a freelance basis, some have steadier jobs, like working at a makeup store. Besides the stability, working in a shop provides other benefits: Garcia says Sephora provided a lot of consistent practice that helped him early in his career. The company also keeps its employees up-to-date on trends and techniques.

Blum works at Alcone, one of the oldest professional makeup stores in NYC, and says landing a job there was “like winning the makeup lottery.” She explains that her constant interaction with new products and clients in all areas of makeup means that her knowledge base far exceeds her number of years in the industry.

9. IT’S NOT ALWAYS GLAMOROUS.

Some people dream of becoming a makeup artist as a means of rubbing shoulders with beautiful people. While that may be true in some cases, Paige says people often overestimate the glamor of film makeup: “It’s not an easy job. It’s not doing smoky eyes and putting on eyeliner. It’s a lot of design, it’s a lot of science, and it’s a lot of roughing it in terms of shooting.” Describing the task of maintaining an actor’s makeup throughout a long day, she says: “My day is mostly waiting around for people to sweat, and then I get to collect the sweat in tissues.”

10. WHAT THEY DO IS POWERFUL.

One thing many makeup artists agree on is that their work, whether in daily life or in the media, is often undervalued. Not only does it require a lot of skill, but it also influences how people see themselves and are seen by others. Whether it’s applying concealer to undereye circles or full werewolf makeup to an actor, makeup artistry is about metamorphosis. “Whether you want to look really scary or dead ... or if you just want to be the best version of yourself,” Blum says, “the fact that you can use makeup to do that is really exciting.”

All photos via iStock.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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