Kelsey Berk, a MUD New York alumnus, is a Los Angeles-based laboratory technician and make-up artist. With credits including Fear the Walking Dead, Amityville: The Awakening and American Horror Story, she regularly works at Dave Anderson’s shop, AFX, and Vincent Van Dyke Effects. She is also a member of the Local 706 Make-up and Hair Artists Guild, securing her spot as an Angeleno after having gone to school on the east coast.
In fact, Kelsey Berk had never been to Los Angeles before deciding to move here. Rather, she grew up in New York, Chicago, and New Jersey, choosing MUD New York to stay closer to her roots. Her first interest in make-up, however, was when she went to Universal Studios Florida with her family as a preteen and watched the “Horror Makeup Show.” After making her father go with her for a third time in two days, she made her first move to start a career in make-up. “I went home and set up an email account for the first time, and my aunt was helping me find contacts out in LA of people who were working” she says, describing her enthusiastic younger self. Kelsey’s work ethic has played a huge role in her rising success, balancing work at a cosmetic store with multiple internships and jobs as an assistant make-up artist when she first moved to LA.
Managing your time and energy is an important skill when you’re a make-up artist, and Kelsey has become the expert. Balancing both work in the lab and on set, she has come a long way since graduating from MUD in 2012. However, coming to our Burbank school offered the chance to look back at her career thus far. We chatted with her about the most important tips she’s learned along the way:
Don’t be afraid to take initiative. “Hello, my name is Kelsey Berk. I want to work for you. How do I do that?” This is the line Kelsey used to get her job with Howard Berger, the special make-up effects artist behind The Chronicles of Narnia. Approaching him without introduction at IMATS New York, she proved her knowledge during their first conversation, and was offered a job if she moved to LA. Similarly, she snatched a one-on-one advice chat with Ve Neill at a convention just by having the confidence to jump in the photo-op line and ask. “Even sending in through the mail a cover letter, resume, and one-sheet can help turn a cold-call into future employment,” says Berk.
Work on your personal projects. When she then interviewed with Berger after moving to Los Angeles, she was prepared with a portfolio that wasn’t limited to what she did at MUD. “He would say ‘Oh, so you did all these in school?’ and I would be like ‘No, you saw the one I’ve got and that was my final project, because I did that from start to finish…these are all things my grandma allowed me to make in her house while I was saving up to move out here.’” Many MUD students show their schoolwork to possible employers, and that’s great! However, some artists recognize our curriculum and our school in photos, so it’s good to show you can work hard without an instructor prompting you.
“There’s no time to be butt-hurt!” Kelsey says, or in other words: be gracious. It’s frustrating to work around people who complain, and employers will always re-hire someone who has a good attitude over someone who doesn’t. “It’s just so fortunate and humbling to do something that is not really a necessity, but you make other people happy or you gross people out, which is also fun. We’re getting paid to express ourselves, and we’re paying our bills by it, and I’m having fun.” It’s easy to get tired of the job every once in a while, but you’ll make much better use of your time accepting criticism from your peers and learning from it than you will from taking it personally.
“Swing with people who swing harder than you” is a piece of advice that Kelsey got from MUD instructor Ray Shaffer, and she still remembers it today. “Working with people who are better than you will spark your creativity and expose you to new techniques. Though it’s comfortable to know you’re one of the better artists on a crew, it’s very easy for your career to get stagnant. Surround yourself with people that are as passionate as you and you’ll keep continuing to learn.”
Don’t shy away from doing the grunt work. Kelsey’s aunt always advises her to “do what you gotta do until you can do what you want to do,” giving her drive to put up with dirty work around the shop so that she could move up the ladder. “Like, you’re starting somewhere new, you’re at the bottom of the totem pole, you’re sweeping, you’re cleaning buckets, but you better be the fastest bucket cleaner and sweeper there.” It’s important to understand your first few jobs might not be as glamorous as you imagine, but that’s okay — people who are willing to do the work will be the most successful.
Dress for the job. When it comes to dressing for an interview, you want to find a balance between being respectful but also showing that you’re willing to do hard work. “In the shop, girls, just don’t come in makeup” Kelsey says, having shown up at her first interview at AFX in dress slacks and almost not getting the position. For set a little make-up is alright, but don’t waste your time if you’re going to be out in the hot sun working with fake blood all day. All in all, your boss just wants to know that you are there to get your job done well above all else.
Thanks for talking with our students, Kelsey!