bokeh photography of person carrying soil
Makeup

The Dirt on Breakdown Makeup

One of the most often requested and needed makeups on set for film and tv shows is the notorious dirt makeup. AKA the breakdown makeup.

It’s a really common ask, particularly if you’re day checking and coming along to make up the background performers.

Whether it’s a period project or set in the current day. Breakdown makeup is in high demand all over the world.

And what’s interesting is how many of us can struggle to create a realistic, and authentic-looking breakdown makeup.

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Important Things to Know About Your Dirt Makeup Looks

The Landscape and Dirt Color and Type

Of course, you should know the location of where you are going to be filming. Where the story takes place and where your characters will be.

Sometimes these places can have a very different landscape and produce different dirt colors on the skin. And the makeup that you use should be harmonious with the environment that the characters are set in.

Products that the Makeup Department Head Would Like to Use

It’s incredibly vital that you follow your department head or designer’s lead on what colors and products to use.

You may have your favorite product that you like. But perhaps the color reads differently with the digital cameras being used to film the project.

Or perhaps the director has a particular aversion to orangey/red dirt tones. This happened to me once – I had to hand-mix all of my dirt colors for our 40 additional makeup artists (I’ll get to this later!)

Perhaps the bigger picture involves different departments. The production design, costume, and hair design also go as far as the undertones of the dirt. This may be a conversation that happens very early on in the conceptual talks at the beginning of production.

You just never know what has been discussed or set in place before you showed up.

The takeaway here? Follow your instructions.

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Location

Are your characters re-enacting a scene in 1970s Africa? Will you add sweat? A little sunburn or exposure makeup under their dirt?

Or perhaps they are in a Japanese P.O.W camp in the middle of winter in WW2? Maybe this calls for a little redness on the tips of the performer’s noses. A subtle red nose can help convey the cold temperature of where these characters are set.

A location can help give you creative clues. Clues about how to enhance your breakdown looks and give them that extra level of authenticity.

The location will affect the aesthetics of your breakdown makeups, for sure.

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low level movie dirt makeup
What we called “low-level” breakdown makeup on some background performers that had just arrived at a POW camp in the story of the film Unbroken.

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Timing

Also, how long have your characters been out in their dirty area? Perhaps you can use dirt to help tell the story of their emotional journey as well. Continuity becomes extremely important in these situations and on projects that take place over a longer period of time.

So definitely be aware of the time frame of the character’s journey.

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Hygiene

It may also be that you have a character that takes a lot of baths or showers in the story. And they actually keep themself quite clean in amongst a dirty time or location.

All these things will require conversations. Questions that you can ask your makeup designer or department head and the director prior to shooting and makeup tests.

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How to Apply Realistic Dirt

The key for me is not only to apply but to remove.

Yep, it might sound weird, but it actually works a treat for dirt makeup. Put it on and take it off.

I think what looks really lovely (as lovely as dirt can look!) is leaving the product behind; under fingernails, in the creases of your skin. Like it’s lived in and real.

What’s a particularly subtle and effective technique is to paint Kryolan Aquacolor over the hands and use a water spray to spread it quickly. I then take a Wet Ones or baby wipe. And I roll it to remove the excess of the Aquacolor product I have applied. This should leave what remains under the fingernails and settled nicely in the creases of the hands – both sides.

Using Aquacolor is a really quick way to cover a large area, too. You’d be surprised how well it stays in place when it’s settled into the crease of the skin.

Another go-to method for me is the old faithful Grunge Palette and a Ve Neill Powder Brush (they’re the kind of wide-ish ones with bone-colored bristles). Plus a bottle of 99% alcohol, or Skin Illustrator Activator, if you have a budget 😉

I basically work the alcohol into the Dark Brun (another go-to for me!) color within the palette and smoosh the brush into the skin. I like to work quickly and move about on the surface of the skin. Not hitting everywhere, so you create a very un-uniform application.

This helps it look more realistic and not even all over.

Sometimes I then wash the brush off and with some alcohol in the bristles. I come back over and stipple to re-work where I’ve been. This helps to minimalize some parts and I can come in with more depth in other parts if necessary.

Try to avoid creating any areas that are too distinct looking. When you do this it becomes more difficult to recreate on a daily basis. And you are essentially creating more work for yourself.

Make work lighter for yourself, not harder, I say.

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A test makeup for a coal-digging dirt look

Adding sunscreen spray after you have finished can also add that final level of authenticity to your makeup. Be sure to test your sunscreen spray beforehand. Certain sunscreens contain isopropyl myristate which is going to remove your beautiful work. And we don’t want to have to deal with that nightmare on set, do we?

The right sunscreen can help give a lovely sweat finish and create some interesting textures on top of the dirt. The faint of heart could use a water spray, but this will take a lot more spritzing in between takes and setups.

You can also get out your trusty airbrush and use inks for a dirt effect.

I have done this when I have to put dirt over a realistic prosthetic makeup – this way you can create a dirt look without disturbing your prosthetic application.

A spatter look can also add some degree of interest to your look as well. Whether achieved with an airbrush or a toothbrush or a hard-bristle brush, it’s entirely up to you.

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Some of My Fave Dirt Makeup Products

Skin Illustrator Dirtworks

Skin Illustrator Inks (how can you go past Dark Brun for dirt?)

Kryolan Aquacolor

Ben Nye Powders – Clean Dirt, Ash Powder, Plains Dust, Charcoal

Allied FX – Dirt Grime

Maekup – Dropper Dirt (one of my faves! It’s such a great color, too)

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Think Smart!

Years and years ago I worked on a show in New Zealand and the makeup department (I was in prosthetics) showed me their massive tubs of dirt they had hand-mixed for their soldiers and background. It was a delicate mixture of sunscreen and brown and black pigments.

It worked a treat. Not only did the product stay put in all the right places – the cracks and creases, because it was rubbed into the skin. But it also helped with sun protection. Pretty cool huh?

And you can really have a play with the density of color you like, the tone, and custom-make it to whatever look you are going for. And, it’s pretty cost-effective, too if you’re on a shoestring!

What’s your favorite dirt makeup? Comment below, or feel free to message me with your favorite products. I’m sure there are some I haven’t mentioned out in the ether!

Featured Image by Gabriel Jimenez

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