Frontline Artist Interview: Michael Key

Michael Key, by  John Calpin

Michael Key, by John Calpin

We recently sat down with Michael Key, film and television makeup artist and founder of Make-up Artist magazine and IMATS. Michael has had a very interesting career that took off in the direction many artists aspire...until he changed it completely to become a publisher and makeup industry emcee-of-sorts.

You'll recognize some of the productions he's worked on. They include but are not limited to: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Planet of the Apes, The Other Sister, Batman & Robin, Jingle All the Way, Eraser, Last Action Hero, Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Coneheads, Patriot Games, Touched by an Angel and Alien Nation.

He has also done ad campaigns for Nike and Nintendo and music videos for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Marilyn Manson. He was nominated for Emmy Awards five times, and won twice, for his work on the Star Trek television shows.

Since we're the most dope reporters in the industry, we asked Michael the hard hitting questions. Check it out!

Frontline: How’d you get your start in makeup?
Michael: I grew up loving motion picture and television. At age 24 I came across a behind-the-scenes magazine on the movie Alien. Inside were brief descriptions on how certain things in the movie were created so for fun I decided to make one.  I fumbled along with my creation until I had a crude version. When Halloween came along I wanted to take my new skills in sculpting, molds, and painting to create a fantastic Halloween makeup. Foam latex and other products were expensive and made in bulk so I began recruited my friends to invest in my materials and in turn I would create them a Halloween makeup as well. 

After Halloween it occurred to me that people did this work as a career and made a living doing it.  Make-up was far more fulfilling than my day job, so I took my feeble photos and networked around town until someone gave me a job with MEL (Makeup Effects Lab). A couple years into my career I had the opportunity to be over at NBC’s prosthetic lab in Burbank, where they taught me beauty and television makeup. This was a pivotal moment allowing me to become a full service makeup artist. 

Frontline: What were some of your more memorable projects?
Michael: I worked for 7 years on the Star Trek franchise, including Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and several of the motion pictures. I was fortunate to work with Jeff Dawn on a number of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. I also enjoyed collaborating with a number of makeup artists in Hollywood doing computer makeup design.

Frontline: What is the craziest/funniest thing that’s ever happened to you on set? 
Michael: I was working on a commercial for Allan Apone and needed to meet with the clients to present my computer makeup design which required bringing my computer to Downtown LA.  At the time I had a 17” CRT monitor that was as heavy as a boat anchor. I didn’t want to lug it down there. I called the MEL to ask if I could borrow a small 15” monitor. Their response was “Do you not know what is going on down here? Turn on your TV!”   I turned on my television and saw live footage of the now infamous North Hollywood bank robbery shootout.  Two guys in body armor with automatic weapons bank had robbed the North Hollywood branch of Bank of America and were caught in a shootout with LAPD upon exiting about a half block from MEL. Needless to say, I went to meet the client with my own monitor. 

Actually, I have a couple of stories! During the first season for Star Trek Deep Space Nine, an artist friend of mine, who we'll call "John Smith", was promoted to staff for the show but he had to prove himself. For weeks he was so Johnny-on-the-spot it was crazy. He carried not only 1 but 2 set cases and he never sat down and we worked 16 hour days. He was trying so hard to look on mission it was ridiculous. Weeks later during a lighting setup, I finally saw him sitting by himself reading a newspaper on the empty set of Quarks bar. I grabbed a cup from craft services and hide in the airlock door. I used the cup to alter my voice, emulating the sound of a radio I said “can we get John Smith on set please?”.  He exploded from his seat, papers flying in his wake, he flew to a hallway being lit.  He went by me so fast, he never saw me.  I followed behind him and took a seat with my fellow makeup artists and shared my little prank with them.  We watched as he “accidentally” walked through the set purposely bumping into AD’s and grips, etc.  He wanted to make sure every person knew he was there.  Finally, one of the AD’s asked him to clear the set until lighting was finished. He came over, sat down with us and noticed us all grinning at him. He said, “What?” Using my cup I said “can we get John Smith on the set?”  He said, “You Asshole!” We all had a good laugh.  

Frontline: You’re a master of networking. What are some keys that you can give to newer artists who are trying to get out and get known?
Michael: My most important piece of advice is to always be prepared for opportunities.  You don’t know where you will meet the one person that will change your career.  It could be in the vegetable aisle at the supermarket.  You should always have your business cards and be prepared to show your work. This brings me to my next piece of advice which is, be visible.  The popularity and wide usage of social media platforms has made this much easier.  It is essential that you be on social media.  There are many artists that I know personally that can only be reached through Facebook.  Beauty artists widely use Twitter, young artists are on Snapchat and across the board most savvy artists are on Instagram. You want to be discoverable and in this day in age social media is the best way to do that.  Finally, I would encourage young artists to be seen at important industry events.  Careers are made during organic meetings.  I have seen this occur at my events; such as IMATS or our Make-up Artist magazine Pro Card events.  Be at events where you have the opportunity to meet and engage fellow makeup artists.

Michael Key & Academy Award winning special fx makeup artist Joel Harlow

Michael Key & Academy Award winning special fx makeup artist Joel Harlow

Frontline: At some point you made a pretty remarkable career shift from working artist to publisher, and producer of IMATS. How did you manage to make that happen so successfully?
Michael: I have always been wired to see opportunities.  I am an entrepreneur at heart but no career move I have ever made has been motivated by money.  I created Make-up Artist magazine for our industry because it needed to be done. At the time I was happy with my career as a motion picture makeup artist but I saw a need to bridge gaps - to recognize and support fellow makeup artists.  I created IMATS to promote Make-up Artist magazine.  If I have achieved a level of success it is because I am passionate about our industry, see opportunity and have the capacity to risk.

Frontline: You’ve been doing this for a while now.  You’ve seen how the industry has changed. What are your thoughts about where it is going? What outside factors will have a big impact on makeup for film and television (i.e. VFX)?
Michael: The largest change I have seen is that the industry has been globalized. If you only network locally then your world is too small. Department heads can come from anywhere in the world to work on a show. You need to be able to go to where the work is and know who the movers and shakers are. If Frances Hannon comes from England to LA to be a department head and you’ve only networked in LA than you are at a disadvantage. 

If you want to make an impact in film or television, be a visionary. Bounce ideas, be part of think tanks, and help tell the story.  While tools constantly change, film makers are always looking to hire people who make their film better.  They want people to bring ideas and methods that will improve, expound, and embellish their vision.  Do this well and you will always work.  It is important to remember to be versatile, positive, and always keep a crystal clear focus on why they hired you.  As an artist it is hard to stay objective about your own work as we are all emotionally tied to it. We can mistakenly make our agenda a higher priority than those who hired us.  Remember why you are there and why you were hired and you will succeed.

Frontline: Television competition shows like Face/Off and Skin Wars offer new artists a way to break into the industry and be known. Applications like Instagram and YouTube have given thousands of artists the same opportunity. If you were starting out as an artist today, what would you do to build a career like the one you’ve had?
Michael: I would play were I can win and make sure I make use of all avenues and mediums available. I know artists on some social media platforms are controversial but all new mediums are scoffed at. When TV was pioneering in the late 1940’s, most motion picture professionals did not want anything to do with TV. They said it was a gimmick and it wouldn’t last. Nevertheless, leaders emerged out of television that defined and established the medium. I believe we will see this happen with YouTube and Instagram, etc., as well. 

That being said, I wouldn’t hang my whole career on one type of popularity. I use the example of a Bond girl.  What a great role to allow you to be discovered as an actress but if you never aspire to more serious roles your career will be short lived.  You can’t be a bombshell forever.  I believe as an artist you can take advantage of competitions or social media platforms as a jumping off point but you must find ways to distinguish yourself beyond or you will be a flash in the pan. There will be some who will trivialize or diminish you for starting off your career in that way but if you find a way to leverage opportunities you will earn their respect in time.