Sense of Beauty

Dr Irena Eris World

Make-up effects artist & designer

He dreamed of a career as a painter – his becoming a make-up artist was decided by chance. Today, he is one of the best professionals in his field, having worked with the greatest directors: from Spielberg, to Haneke to Polański and Wajda. In an interview by film producer Klaudia Śmieja-Rostworowska, special make-up effects artist Waldemar Pokromski talks about the fact that there must be chemistry on the set, and that the best make-up is the one you can’t see.
I have been familiar with your work for decades before meeting you. I remember watching Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” at the time when I was taking on one of my first serious jobs in the industry. And what was your first job?
My first job was in the theater in East Germany. The town of Lutherstadt Wittenberg hosted a drama theater, ballet and opera, so basically everything you could wish for at the time. And that’s where I started. I made my first film at DEFA, today’s Babelsberg Studios. That, on the other hand, was a factory for mass-producing films, which is where my first film “Time of the Storks” was made.

So from the dream of becoming a painter and sculptor, you ended up in a factory...
Yes, it’s true... I wanted to paint and sculpt, but that path did not work out for me. I applied to an art high school, where I passed all the painting and sculpting courses, but flunked math and chemistry. Then came the first breakdown, but I did not give up. As it happens in life, the choice of my life path was ultimately decided by chance. A friend of mine, a dancer, told me that they were looking for a make-up artist at that very theater at DEFA. So I went to learn this profession and found out that it has some connection to art – while doing make-up I also paint the face, sometimes I also sculpt – when I do special effects and prosthetics for the face. I have found myself in this. As a child I spent my vacations with my aunt, who was a costume designer at a theater in Poznań, perhaps this was when I got hooked on this and from then on I was always drawn to theater and cinema.

In the arts you mentioned, the creator and the material collide quite intimately. Whether it is a stretcher frame or clay, the very act of creation is the realization of the author's vision. A film, on the other hand, inherently contains a compromise with the group of creators influencing the work. Then there are the actors themselves, with their characters, insecurities, visions and ideas for their characters, their good bad days...
This is true, nevertheless, if you want, you also create yourself here. Of course, there are more people interfering with my work, so you need to be able to make your way, to stand out. I have to be creative and prove that my vision of make-up or hairstyle can become an important inspiration for the final form of the film. This vision is synchronized between the director, the cinematographer and the actor, who must also be satisfied with my work. Otherwise, I won’t achieve the success that makes me the one they choose to collaborate on a film. It’s like choosing the paintings of a particular painter. A film set, looking from aside, seems to be only glitter and red carpet and it is, after all, hard work. I am the first and the last on the set, the one who opens and closes it.

Your job is to give personality to the characters. In addition to the text, it is the make-up that makes them feel comfortable in their new role. Do you remember a challenge, or a role or character that you found the most difficult to create?
Actually, any role or character is difficult. You have to convey your idea of the look in such a way that the actor is satisfied, that he or she feels comfortable and gets inside the character. Also, the director must “grasp” the idea, there must be chemistry. That's why before each film, after reading the script, I meet with the director and the team. It’s not that I immediately get an assignment in Poland or elsewhere. It’s not that someone hires you just because they know you. They need to check if we are a good match and if our expectations will meet. It’s the same with actors – when I did a film with Max von Sydow, I flew to Stockholm for
a test make-up. I knew at the same time that it was not just a just a test but an interview and seeing how we would work together. This happened several times. The same is true with directors – Olivier Stone invited me to dinner once to talk about a possible collaboration. This did not yet mean that we would make a film together. I found out later from my agent that nine other make-up artists had been scheduled for a similar meeting before me. Stone met with them and discussed the film to get a feel for whether there would be chemistry and agreement. Of course, this is very true! An actor has to go out on the set happy, not thinking about what make-up he or she is wearing.

Is it a matter of satisfaction, or is it more a matter of giving them confidence by being able to step into the role better in this new skin?
Certainly yes – it’s about self-confidence. However, there are actors who do not want to undergo certain treatments, for example, aging. And these are more often men than women. This happens more with non-professional actors, the great ones put themselves completely in the hands of professionals if they trust that we can convey the character of a particular role. That’s why, for example, Polanski, wrote to me after finishing a film, “Thank you, you created a role for me”.
1. On the set of a commercial in Acapulco
2. With Anna Dymna on the set of "Memoirs of a Good-for-Nothing", directed by Celino Bleiweiss, 1973.
When working on make-up and hair and styling designs, I feel that in a way this is the fulfillment of my dream of becoming a painter and sculptor.
Andrzej Wajda and Waldemar Pokromski on the set of "The Revenge", an adaptation of a stage farce by Alexander Fredro, 2002.
I feel that often the role of make-up artists is underestimated in the process of creating a film, or is overshadowed by the enormous amount of effort that also goes into creating the set design, visual arts or costumes. And it is often in the make-up room that characters are created  a small made-up scar, a wrinkle, or a mustache can add dignity or take it away, they can make a character more mature, softer, aggressive or frivolous. Not to mention full-bodied creations, as in “Dracula” or “Pirates of the Caribbean”.
This is precisely who I am – a soldier, sailor, bandit and priest – and each of them has a different role.

Are you more of a priest or a bandit?
It depends on the scenario. And sometimes you have to combine these roles – I start with a priest and end with a bandit. And the bandit can also become a priest.

So you are transforming yourself when creating films.
Of course. There are films where the plot time spans several decades, so you have to take into account the anatomy and biology to figure out how the actor will age. And this is linked to the whole role, to the script, to whether his character is an upper-class person, a count or a villager. The signs of aging will be different for everyone. A villager will age faster, because of the nature of his work. A well-cared-for doctor from the city, on the other hand, will age differently.

How do you approach the job?
First I read the script, and then I sit down with the director, costume designer and cinematographer. For me, cinematographers are very important – without them, there is no film. A film is the transfer of a story to a picture, it is like painting. For the viewer to get a good understanding of the story on the screen, everyone’s work must be harmonized. Working with a cinematographer also gives me an important tool, which is light – it can help but also ruin the image of a character, of his or her face.

Which film was a turning point that allowed you to undergo the transformation you mentioned above?
That’s a very difficult question. As far as films are concerned, certainly “Schindler’s List”, which opened new opportunities for me in the world, and brought further offers to work with actors and directors. But it was not an easy film because of the story itself and the atmosphere of the Holocaust on the set. I was still greatly influenced by Tykwer’s “Perfume” and Haneke’s “The White Ribbon”. “Perfume” was, so to speak, a complete job – it involved both usual make-up and special effects. This film also left a strong mental imprint on me. It was a big historical undertaking, the era of the late 17th century. There were many elements that drew me strongly into the film. I was certainly also strongly affected by working with prominent directors who were also very demanding. You then have to give your best. And we should remember that no one cares what happens off-screen. That’s why I always say that the truth only comes out when we sit down and watch this movie we made. The screen exposes the truth. The camera is ruthless, so the challenge I set for myself is to be vigilant, because others don’t have to see but I have to see and be constantly on guard. And that’s why I have to be on the set, next to the director, next to the camera, to control it all even better. The cinematographer thinks about the light, the director thinks about the scene, how the actors should act, and the costume designer thinks about how the dress and shoes fit. And make-up is my responsibility, although, of course, it is collective work. Before we start working on a film we determine how an actor will look in given scenes, or in given years. There are films where certain things are implemented on set. There are also those directors who can’t imagine what the actor will look like when we change his hair and age him – they have to see it with their own eyes. There are also sets where all the rehearsals of the actors’ make-up and looks must be done in advance.

How would you describe Waldemar Pokromski’s style?
Well, actually I could say it’s “no make-up” but now many people are trying to work that way. In general, the idea is to make the make-up not visible. I’ve created some innovative effect techniques, for example I came up with internal facial inserts that give a fattening effect, great especially for roles where the actor has to gain weight or undergo a visible transformation. This idea of mine, was used for the first time in America, and was considered cost-effective and giving a great effect because we didn’t have to create layers from the outside, we just “fattened” the actor on the inside.

What are the trends and styles in make-up today?
The way of emphasizing beauty hasn’t changed particularly, as for women we still emphasize lips and eyes – these are the two most essential elements of the face that dominate when we look at it. And they have always been emphasized in the history of cinema. Colors or hairstyles are subject to notorious modifications. I’ve been testing a lot of beauty products lately, and I like to work using Dr Irena Eris cosmetics – they are gentle in texture and have very subtle colors, very useful in film make-up.

Who is your make-up guru?
In the States there has long been a division between classical and special effects make-up artists. In Poland, we do both. Both in the States and in the UK there are great make-up experts, e.g. English makeup artist Morag Ross, who has worked with Cate Blanchett for years, or Christopher Tucker, with whom I apprenticed in London. I also highly value Dick Smith and Rick Backer. How did they get to this point? It is certainly a combination of great talent and a bit of luck. This was also the case for me – I  worked on “Captain America” because they happened to be looking for local artists working in Germany.

With your dislike of math, do you prefer today’s epic undertakings that require a lot of logistics or intimate, personal cinema?
At the moment I prefer smaller films that give more time to think about the character, and more time for creation. I just choose the less busy productions now.

What are your plans for the future?
With this industry, you never know. I always say that the film starts with the first clapping of the clapper sticks. I’m involved in developing my son’s [Mikołaj Pokromski] project “Too Big for Fairy Tales” and I’m also currently working on Gośka Szumowska’s “I Like to Come Back” film which is being made in collaboration with the Dr Irena Eris brand.
I think the universal rule in make-up is not to overdo it. The less make-up a woman does, the younger she looks.
With Magdalena Boczarska on the set of "Little Rose 2" directed by Jan Kidawa—Błoński.
Klaudia Śmieja-Rostworowska

Producer of such titles as “High Life” directed by Claire Denis, starring Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche, “Citizen Jones” directed by Agnieszka Holland, and award-winning international co-productions: “Rams” and “Les Innocentes” and Agnieszka Smoczynska’s “Silent Twins”. Member of EFA and of the Producers Guild Poland.

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