Professional Beauty
Professional Beauty

5 mins


Make-up artist Olivia McMullen took Lollie Hancock behind the scenes on the set of BBC’s Call the Midwife to show her what is involved in working as a MUA on the popular drama

Olivia McMullen has worked on Call the Midwife since its 10th season, joining as a junior before being promoted to a make-up artist (MUA). We went behind the scenes with her to find out what the working day is like for a TV and film MUA.

The day on set

On the day we visited, Megan Cusack, who plays Nancy, had multiple scenes – meaning multiple make-up looks. With a 6:50am call time, the first stop was the make-up trailer, where McMullen started with heated rollers – to give the hair maximum time to set – before turning her attention to make-up.

“As Nancy is younger, we can have more fun with her day-to-day make-up than we can with the older characters,” she says.

While Cusack’s character has a slightly more 'modern' (for the time) look compared to her character’s peers, tattoos were still years away, meaning McMullen must work to cover any visible ink. “When you’re covering tattoos, you have to start with colour correction,” she explains. This involves beginning with a red/orange airbrush, before layering a neutral shade to match Cusack’s skin tone on top.”

The Sixties saw make-up used as a form of expression for young women, which is reflected in Nancy’s make-up. “Twiggy was the heart of the Sixties,” says McMullen, explaining where Nancy’s exaggerated lower lashes and dark crease came from.

After prepping for the day, the MUAs, costume department and other crew members will watch scenes as they’re filmed on monitors, keeping an eye out for anything that could cause continuity errors, such as a piece of hair in the wrong place.

During the breaks, as the crew resets the scenes, the team runs on set to touch up any imperfections with a condensed kit. Time restraints while filming mean that quick changes for both costume, and hair and make-up, sometimes take place on set.

The transformation from Nancy’s day-to-day look into a nurse is easier than the other way round, as the make-up design when 'working' is stripped down and natural. “A lot of the midwives, nurses and nuns have been part of the cast for six or seven years, so their make-up doesn't really change, and when they’re working, the nuns don't really wear much make-up.”

The make-up style required on set may have similarities to at-home application, but there are other factors that need to be considered. “With the 4D cameras that are used on set, you have to think about making sure you’re not packing the make-up too heavily, and how lighting will affect powdering,” explains McMullen, who uses modern products to create looks reflective of the period. “I just incorporate these products to suit the characters, and use my usual tools and equipment in a different way to get the results.”

Job description

The job goes beyond working on the shoots themselves, as it begins with a week’s prep in order to get ready for filming.

“We bring all our kit in and get ready for the shooting week,” says McMullen. “This involves the cast coming in to practise, just to make sure the looks fit the character, and that they’re happy with their looks as well. Anyone who needs a haircut ahead of the shoot will get one in that week.”

Consistency is key when it comes to filming a TV show as the make-up artists ensure each hair is in perfect place, and make-up is the same, from scene-to-scene. To keep on top of this, characters usually have one or two set looks, dependent on whether its daytime, night-time, or a work scene.

“For new or younger characters, we tend to do our own research into what was popular in the Sixties, and we even incorporate some more modern aspects with a Sixties influence.”

'With the 4D cameras that are used on set, you have to think about making sure you’re not packing the make-up too heavily, and how lighting will affect powdering'

Throughout a day’s shoot, the MUAs constantly take reference images on iPads, making notes on what products were used so that if they reshoot a scene, the look can be recreated.

Career journey

McMullen did a two-year course at Brushstroke Make-up Academy, a college specialising in make-up training for the entertainment industry, where she studied make-up and hair for film, TV and theatre. Here in Ireland, there are a number of routes to this career path, with many MUAs choosing to specialise after getting their initial qualification. For example, a number of the institutes of technology around the country, along with colleges such as FX Makeup Academy in Dublin, run a QQI Level 5, iTEC-accredited course in fashion, theatre and media make-up. The Institute of Art, Design + Technology in Dun Laoghaire in Dublin offers a BA (Hons) in character make-up design.

After finishing her course, McMullen then went on to land her first regular TV role on BBC Three’s Mum, which was something she had dreamed about. “Since leaving school, I wanted to be an MUA, mainly in TV and film – I’ve always been quite creative and enjoyed make-up.”

Working in the TV and film industry, unsurprisingly, is a lot easier if you know the right people. “I worked on EastEnders with another make-up artist who had previously done Call the Midwife, and mentioned to her that I was looking for a new role when EastEnders wrapped. She said she may have a job I’d be interested in. A week later I got a phone interview.”

When a team was being put together for the new season, McMullen contacted the former designer to express her interest in staying on, who then put her in contact with the make-up and hair supervisor ahead of season 12.

Reflecting on her time in the industry, McMullen is hugely positive about her chosen career path. “In the four years I’ve been working in TV, I have broadened my skills and experience, and worked with some talented and lovely people. I love my job as a hair and make-up artist, and to be able to see the work projected on to a TV screen makes me really proud.” 

This article appears in the MAY 2023 Issue of Professional Beauty & HJ Ireland

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This article appears in the MAY 2023 Issue of Professional Beauty & HJ Ireland