Hair and make-up designer Nic Collins tells DQ about her work on series such as Queen Charlotte, Joan and Boat Story, and reveals how she wants to help recruit and train artists to meet the demands of the TV business.
Now considered one of Britain’s best ever medical dramas, BBC series Bodies broke the mould when it first aired in 2004 for its unapologetically graphic and bloody depiction of injuries and medical procedures.
The first major series from Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio, it also marked the first make-up and hair design role for Nic Collins, who had started her career with Yorkshire Television on shows such as The Royal and has gone on to work on Years & Years, Disney+ romantic thriller Wedding Season, historical fantasy drama Britannia and the upcoming BBC action-drama Boat Story.
Notably, she has also developed expertise in period drama, from South Riding and The Paradise to Downton Abbey, Jamaica Inn and Bridgerton prequel Queen Charlotte. But as she explains, no two jobs, even if they share the same genre, are ever alike.
“I love the variation of the job; that’s what always appealed to me in the first place,” she tells DQ. “The fact is that each job has its own brief, so you could do 25 period jobs but none of them will ever be similar because it depends on who’s making it and what their requirements are.
“I’d done The Royal, which again was period drama, but with loads of wounds and injuries. I did season four and they said, ‘Oh, we only just got away with that,’ because being a massive Tarantino fan, I think if you’re going to do an operation, give it some authenticity, make it feel real, and then they’ll cut out bits that are too much on screen that they can’t show.”
But whatever project she’s working on, Collins’s preparation always starts with the script and those initial meetings with the other design departments, namely costume and production design.
“They’ll have pitched a concept for the show with production and the director so they really know what they’re aiming for,” she explains, “and then it’s a case of coming in and being a part of that. I’ll look at the mood boards and see what’s in their heads – what are they thinking and where do we fit into that?
“If those three elements are disjointed, it doesn’t make sense. You can easily get lost in there, so it’s mainly about those conversations with the other departments and with the director and then the actors.”
Working with actors is particularly important, she says, as they have to feel comfortable in whatever look they are given. “Some actors will have a really strong sense of how they want to portray their character, and they love to use the illusion of change. But some actors don’t,” she notes. “You really have to work together closely because the most important thing is that when you’re sending actors on to set they’re really comfortable in the hair, the make-up and the costume, because the last thing they need to be feeling is self-conscious.”
On set, Collins is a “hands-on” designer and will always do the first fitting of each actor to achieve the right look. Then, once it’s approved by the production, the director and the actor, she will hand over to members of her team to recreate that look on each filming day.
In fact, a key aspect of her role is also ensuring that whatever hair stylists and make-up artists create inside the make-up truck in the morning is still in place after 12 hours of filming, and anyone who’s ever visited a set will be familiar with the regular checks that take place after every shot is recorded.
“For the set to really run at its best, everybody needs to be a step ahead of the game,” Collins says. “Throughout the whole day the hair and make-up teams will be adjusting people, they’ll be making alterations. The teams are really efficient; they’re really stealthy at times.”
Most recently, Collins has completed work on Joan, the forthcoming ITV biopic of jewel thief Joan Hannington, which stars Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones) in the lead role. While most of it was shot in the UK, in the Birmingham area, the final week saw the cast and crew head to Majorca, where a wet British summer was replaced by glorious sunshine and 30-degree heat.
“That’s quite intense,” she says. “One day we were up on a cliff with no shade, so we had to think, ‘How are all these make-up looks going to transfer over there? What do we need to be thinking about?’ The whole shoot was thinking about logistics and challenges, and trying to maintain the continuity for all the different looks that you’ve given to these characters. Sophie’s got something like 10 different disguises across the series.”
Finding the right make-up look for an artist demands a certain level of skill and attention to detail. Hair, Collins says, can come in such a wide variety now that a number of stylists with different specialisms might be needed on set to handle everything from contemporary to period and barbering. Fitting wigs is also a skill that is increasingly sought after as continuity demands hair styles look the same on every day of a six-month shoot.
“Take Sophie Turner, for instance,” Collins says. “Her real hair is down to her butt, and all that hair has to be hidden. We’ve put her into a Blondie-inspired platinum bob, but that means you’ve got to hide all her real hair under that wig and make that wig look real. The minute that the audience realises it’s a wig, you’ve lost them, because it’s about character and believing that the person on screen is the person they’re portraying themselves to be.”
For Boat Story, Daisy Haggard’s character, Janet, has faded blue highlights in her long blonde hair. “That’s when you will put additional hair into the actor’s hair, just for the blue highlights,” Collins notes. “But obviously they have to look like part of that head of hair, so you have them made, you dye them. You use the same texture as the real hair. There’s all these elements that you look at and decide the best way to achieve it. With Queen Charlotte, I think 95% of the actors had wigs. There was only maybe three or four characters that use their own hair.”
As somebody who says she has always felt privileged to do the work she does, there’s never a day when Collins doesn’t arrive on set without a positive outlook, though some jobs are more challenging than others. The designer admits a lot of those difficulties can simply be down to budget constraints, with some smaller British series affording her £12,000 to spend across six or eight episodes. Work for a streamer, however, and that expenditure could rise to seven figures.
“But you still want to deliver the same product. You still want every show you work on to be as clever as the last one you did, putting aside the fact that it’s the budget that determines how much crew you can have and how many dailies [daily artists] you can have,” Collins explains. “But part of your job is thinking outside the box when you have very little money to use, thinking, ‘OK, I want this high-end look. How can we achieve it with very little money to fund it?’ That’s one of the main challenges for programmes now – and it’s not just within the hair and make-up department. It’s within all departments.”
Collins credits her career in television to a tutor who recognised her talent and encouraged her to join the London College of Fashion, which led her to work at Yorkshire Television. It was a route into screen work she “didn’t even know existed,” she says, and is now determined to help find the next generation of hair and make-up artists.
On every job she does, she will employ trainees, while experienced staff can join Step Up programmes or mentoring schemes to gain additional skills and experience that will take them to the next stages of their careers.
“The more content that is made, the more crew you need. That’s a fact, and there was a good 10 years where nobody was recruited and that was why we have had such a gap in the industry,” she says.
“I came to this industry from outside of the box; I didn’t know anybody in the industry. I came as a mature person because I had children when I was very young and needed to find some kind of career. Now we’re looking for the everyday person to come into the industry and bring their experiences, their skills and talent with them.”