From casting to moulding and sculpting, film make-up is about a lot more than beauty, says make-up and special effects artist Chantal Busuttil. Katryna Storace meets her on the set of local film production Simshar

Everything is quiet as I arrive at the Mediterranean Film Studios in Rinella. It is a particularly wet and windy day, and there is a sense of silent industriousness in the air. Behind blue doors, the different members of the production team of the local film project Simshar are silently seeing to their business. Filming is set to begin in a week, and preparations are well underway.

I meet Chantal Busuttil, who shows me around the make-up department, where she has been busy cooking up prosthetic sunburns, blisters and cold sores. Bubbly, beautiful and bursting with colour, the 29-year-old make-up artist is in her element. She has worked on a number of high-profile film productions since she started studying make-up as a teenager. Specialising in special effects and prosthetics, she has the unconventional talent of transforming the human face or body into the stuff of dreams – or nightmares. This, she admits, is what first drew her to the idea of dabbling in makeup. “I loved the idea of tweaking someone’s appearance to make them something other than they are.”

Chantal is all set to change my preconceptions of what the job of a make-up artist really entails. It takes a lot more than an eye for beauty, she tells me, and although a large part of her work is to make people look their best, there’s a lot more to it than that. “It takes dedication and will to begin with,” she says. “As with all art forms, it’s not really appreciated for what it is. In the special effects department, there is a tonne of work to be done: from casting to moulding and sculpting. And that’s not taking into consideration the hours of prep work it involves. It also takes creativity and lots of research. You never simply walk onto a job, open your palette and that’s it. You have to know the person’s history, skin, complexion, character study…”

How did she get involved in the film industry? “As soon as I finished my course, I got a job on Helen of Troy, with the wonderful Marselle Genovese. It was through Marselle that I got the real oomph to want to work in the film industry,” she says. Historically, big foreign productions would carry their own make-up team with them when in Malta for filming. This made jobs for local artists few and hard to come by. Over the years, this scenario has gradually been changing, giving more space to local professionals to work on some very exciting productions.

Her first experience on set gave her a new perspective on the art of make-up, and gave her the urge to further her studies in the area of film make-up. “A couple of schools in the States caught my eye, but they were beyond my budget. The film industry in Malta at the time was very sporadic, so I wasn’t earning enough to support my studies abroad.”

A conversation with a friend brought up the possibility of taking on a not-so conventional summer job. “I managed to get a job as an assistant stewardess on a boat in Barcelona,” she says. After three months, Chantal was back in Malta to work on a BBC production – but was soon itching again to further her makeup studies. With money still the major obstacle, she got in touch with a friend who had a boat in the Caribbean, packed her bags, and left. A week later, she had landed herself a permanent job as second stewardess on the MY Chevy Toy.

Chantal is characteristically upbeat about her experience on “the boats”, as she refers to it. “If the job interests me then I’m a quick learner and a perfectionist. I’m either going to do it well or not at all. You need to concentrate on what you really want to do and be the best at it,” she says. That said, she found being away from her family for such long stretches of time particularly difficult, especially when her nephews and nieces were being born.

 Working on luxury boats also meant she could fulfil another of her dreams: travel. “You get to travel to places you’d never
even imagine visiting. I got to visit Cannes during the film festival a couple of times, as well as some really exotic locations, such as the Bahamas, Madeira, the British Virgin Islands, Tunisia, Croatia, Spain…” she says. 

“Although I was saving up, we’d also spend ridiculously,” she adds, giggling. “This one time, I met an old friend at Nikki Beach, Miami, and we managed to run up a bill of $1,000 in one sitting… Looking back, it was worth every second of it!”

After six years of stewarding on luxury boats, Chantal had nevertheless succeeded in accumulating the sum she needed to go to LA to fulfil her lifelong dream at the Cinema Make-up School. “Here, I covered digital effects, special effects and prosthetics, beauty and fashion, airbrushing and creature maquette.”

Since then, Chantal has worked on a number of films and productions, including Munich and Agora in 2009. “On Agora, I learnt a lot about make-up and about work-ethic,” she says. “I have some of my best memories on that film, especially with the people I worked with.” She is thrilled that she got to work within very close proximity of Matteo Silvi – son of renowned make-up artist Maurizio Silvi who has worked on some very big, artistic films, such as Moulin Rouge and Australia. “Plus, I was working with Rachel Weisz, who was awesome,” she adds. That’s another perk, I presume. “Of course – on films you get to meet and work with people you’d never have dreamt of crossing paths with.”

With work on Simshar getting underway, Chantal hopes for a busy year ahead for the local film industry. She also has plans – green card permitting – to spend a couple of months working in New York. Until then, however, she keeps active, taking on new challenges and building up a portfolio for herself. 

What keeps her going? “If it weren’t for my family, seven nieces and nephews and friends that really appreciate my work, I wouldn’t believe so much in what I do,” she says. “It can be incredibly hard if you don’t have any backup… but I really think  that you can do anything if you believe in it.”