“Everything changed when I got into the Film and TV class at Blanche Macdonald,” smiles superstar TV & film Makeup Artist Zabrina Matiru. “It was a revelation. You mean, I can actually do this for a living?”
Even though she was a big movie fan and had developed into a polished visual artist while growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, Zabrina arrived at Makeup School never dreaming that she’d soon be working behind the scenes on major Hollywood productions. The expectations she brought with her to Blanche Macdonald have been wildly exceeded. Since graduating she’s been the Head of Department for Supernatural, Story of a Girl, Lost In Space and Colony, designed makeup for the leads on Once Upon A Time Season One, and assisted on too many titles to list here. The understanding that a career as a film and TV makeup artist was a realistic ambition planted a seed that continues to bear fruit nearly two decades later.
“Growing up in Kenya was like a whole other world,” she explains. “You don’t think, one day I’m going to work on Hollywood productions. It’s not even a thought the passes your mind.
“I never had the aspiration to work in film as a child but I always enjoyed watching movies. In Kenya we’d rent videos from mom-and-pop stores that were pirated from British TV. You’d often see extra shows at the end of the movie like little Hollywood behind-the-scenes documentaries. I found it fascinating but still never dreamt I could work in that world. When I found out that there was a big film industry in Vancouver, that Makeup was an attainable job and that I wasn’t bad at it, I knew I would go for it.”
Zabrina had come to Canada to attend university. Uninspired by the Fashion Design program she’d chosen, a friend suggested trying the Makeup Program at Blanche Macdonald.
I loved watching the machine that is a film unit. It wasn’t about the overtime. It was about the opportunity to be on set doing something I loved.
“When I started I was probably more interested in fashion than film. But I surprised myself when I took a liking to blood work and building up 3D effects on the body and face. Back then we weren’t using prosthetics. We were building our effects from wax, cotton, tissue and latex.
“By the time I graduated I had a very good base in terms of professionalism and the necessary skill levels. The first job I had after graduating was working on the counter for Bobbi Brown at Holt Renfrew. I was there for a year and a half. That was the best possible training for dealing with different faces and personalities. Every different type of face and skin tone sat in my chair. They all just wanted to look good. I would recommend all aspiring movie Makeup Artists put in a stint on a counter one million percent!”
Zabrina understood that honing her skills was only half the battle. To earn her place on set she knew she needed to make connections.
“As luck would have it I shared a doctor with a Senior member of the IATSE union. My doctor introduced us and she bluntly told me that she would not look at a résumé from anyone unless they had a minimum of two years experience post-graduation.
“Two years to the day later I had my interview for IATSE permittee status. Over those two years I did some student and independent films with my friend from school. We’d make huge batches of fake blood together. One of the editors of an independent film began producing commercials and I ended up doing a lot of them with her. I still work with her. I did a lot of commercials, including Budweiser and global co-productions aimed at selling vacations in Canada. One commercial was Malaysian/Canadian and involved a lot of stunts including heli-skiing, where one of the stuntmen was a six-foot tall white man with curly red hair. When the skier took off his helmet at the bottom of the run the reveal would be that he’s Asian. So I would have to give the stuntman darker skin and hair so when he was flying through the air he would look passable as Asian. I didn’t use waterproof makeup though, so by the time he made it down the mountain through all the snow, his makeup and hair colour was running down his face! I was mortified, but looking back I can really laugh about it now. That was a lot of fun!”
There’s always someone better than you so why not keep learning?
Once Zabrina joined the union there was no stopping her. A day call on Andromeda soon led to a full-time position on the show. Her secret to success, then and today? It’s all about attitude.
“You put your head down and you work. You make sure your work is exactly what the Head of Department wants. People notice when things look bad. So make sure your work looks good!
“I loved watching the machine that is a film unit. I enjoyed the 18 hour days and seeing it all come together. It wasn’t about the overtime. It was about the opportunity to be on set doing something I loved.”
Zabrina’s artistry and enthusiasm were evident, which is why when the opportunity arose to step up to the position of Department Head, she was ready to make the leap.
“Ashanti was the lead actress on The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz. She wanted the Head of Department to be a person of colour. I had a presentable print portfolio at that point. Coming from a music background I think Ashanti was impressed by my glossy prints. Based on that and recommendations from previous Heads of Department I’d worked with I got the job. I was totally ready. Unfortunately I didn’t get to do the makeup on the Muppets. Too bad, I could have handled Miss Piggy.”
She didn’t get her hands on the porcine superstar, but it wasn’t long before she was working intimately with another pair of global TV icons, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, the Winchester Brothers of Supernatural.
“I’d just finished the first season of Once Upon a Time. I thought I wanted to take some time off when I received a call saying Supernatural was looking for a Head of Department, which was about to go into season eight. Jeannie Chow, who was the Head of the Hair Department, had put my name forward. We’d worked together several years prior to that but at that point we became a team. The show had already transitioned from film to HD but the makeup hadn’t changed much in seven seasons. I asked Jensen and Jared what they wanted to keep. They told me to get rid of all of it and start fresh.
“Luckily they’re both very handsome dudes. They both have a great bone structure to work with. They actually look better when they’re beaten up. It’s harder making them look bad than good. Jensen has that almost perfect face, so making him look sick, tired and haggard is hard. He’s quite accident-prone and would sometimes turn up with his own facial injuries that I had to cover up. Sometimes we would incorporate his real injuries into a fight makeup.
“No one had seen makeup effects coming for me at that point so people were looking at me to see if I could do it. I’m happy to say I think I did.”
After four happy and successful seasons of Supernatural, Zabrina felt that she needed a new challenge. She’s been busy ever since, heading departments on Colony, Story of a Girl and Lost In Space, and giving incredible opportunities to the next generation of movie makeup magicians.
“I will go wherever I feel is the best fit. If that means working with another Department Head who is great, excellent! There’s always someone better than you so why not keep learning?”
“Blanche Macdonald produces great grads. I like to hire people who are skilled artists with personalities that I enjoy. You can always train people in terms of makeup but you can’t teach people attitude. I want to see a willingness to learn. Artists can get used to hearing that their work is amazing in the ‘real’ world. They think they are superstars but when they come on set perhaps their style of work isn’t what’s needed. I’m looking for someone who can take direction without feeling insulted, who can try different things and break out of the box. Someone who is helpful and who can think and assess the situation on their own.
“Do what it takes to make the team great!”