The story appears on

Page B6 - B7

March 14, 2010

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

Makeup maestro revels in the pressure

CELEBRATED as among the most magnificent opening and closing ceremonies of major international events, the Beijing Olympics will long live in people's memories for its ambition, beauty and precision.

And while there were tens of thousands of organizers and performers involved on the arena and behind the scenes, Shanghai's Xu Jiahua had an important off-stage role that was extremely crucial in how the ceremony spectacles were viewed, particularly by television audiences.

The graceful Xu was chief makeup art designer for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics and has since returned to her day job as a professor at Shanghai Theater Academy.

But the reputation she earned from the Games follows her as she prepares to emulate her Beijing role for the opening ceremony of Shanghai's World Expo on May 1.

It is impossible to underestimate the achievement on August 8, 2008, when Xu and her team managed to finish all 15,000 performers' makeup and hairstlyes in only four hours before the opening of the great event. The results of her work greatly contributed to the impact of the performances, enabling the brilliant ceremony to amaze the world.

"I didn't expect that I would be in the Olympics team," she recalled.

Xu began her career as a teacher specializing in makeup art at Shanghai Theater Academy after she graduated from this highly regarded institute. After decades of work and research, she is among one of the top makeup art designers and professors in China, and has helped the school and the country win many international awards.

Already famed for her great accomplishments in makeup art, she received a phone call in 2007 from Beijing, inviting her to an interview with the chief director of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, Zhang Yimou.

She flew to Beijing and after no more than 15 minutes with Zhang, and much to her surprise, he immediately made his decision to appoint her as the chief makeup designer.

"It was totally unexpected," she said. "Before the interview I didn't know him in person. I know he must have interviewed lots of designers," said Xu. "I thought he might say something like 'thank you for your time, we will get back to you as soon as possible' ... but he just said, 'ok, you are the one'."

In the interview, Xu expressed her own makeup design ideas for the opening ceremony: "Perfect to the extreme, to pursue the beauty of forms and groups with Oriental characteristics."

It seems that great minds thought alike. "I felt that he chose me because my concept was close to what he wanted to achieve," she said.

And she ultimately delivered on the promise in the interview. Looking back at the full year's lead-up work and pressure, Xu felt both tired and lucky to take part in the great event.

Accepting the huge responsibility bestowed by Zhang, Xu was more stressed than surprised or excited and suffered nervous stomach pains on the night she was appointed. That was August 14, 2007, less than one year before the Olympics' opening ceremony. The pressure and nervousness dogged her the whole time through the preparation process.

She was at first startled by the poor condition of the working area she was provided. There was no proper "room" for her team, only a dark basement "square" 10 meters under the National Stadium, or the Bird's Nest, where the opening ceremony would be held. It was dimly lit with only a few lights and no mirrors. Outside was a garage.

"It was a working area that least met the requirements for makeup work," said Xu. "It was the worst working environment I have ever seen."

But she was told it was the best available. There was really no other place in the Bird's Nest to hold the 15,000 performers needing makeup.

Xu eventually paid for more lights out of her own pocket. Without mirrors, she could only train the team of artists to work by instinct and experience. "I asked them to recreate their normal working environment in their minds and get used to working in a dark place."

But this was only the first headache. In the early days of joining the Olympic team, a designer from another area "warned" her to be "prepared" for rejections from the director. "He showed me a model and, totally frustrated, added it was the 33rd rejection he had received," she said.

This added to Xu's stress but she proved to be fully prepared for the job ahead. She made at least five or six alternatives for every design and honed them to a standard she was happy with.

The first time she submitted her designs to Zhang and other directors, they were all both shocked and amazed at the beauty of the concepts.

"That's good! That's good, too! Hey, what do you like most?" Xu said, imitating their reactions when she unveiled them and still feeling excited and proud of her first-step success.

After that Xu felt she had won their complete trust. Surprisingly, during the time they were working together, her ideas were never rejected by the directors. "People said I'm lucky that I never got rejections. But I know how much our team and I were devoted to the designs we submitted."

Time management was another pressure she felt. In a work schedule of less than a year, from the development of a concept, through to the budget, planning and the final completion of a makeup image, countless departments had to examine and approve each stage of the development.

"The work was mental torture," said Xu, "I was extremely worried every day that we couldn't meet the deadlines because of the time taken in the work flow process. Physically we were not very tired, but we were mentally exhausted."

More important was the time control that was critically important during makeup work. As the opening ceremony would begin at 8pm, the makeup work needed to start at 2pm and had to be finished no later than 6pm. In no more than four hours, the makeup team of more than 700 artists, most of them volunteers, had to do makeup and hairstyles for some 15,000 performers.

Problems emerged at once. For one thing, it was impossible for one artist to finish one performer's complete, sophisticated makeup in several minutes. For another, when performers appeared in huge groups, the makeup they wore had to be completely the same to reflect uniformity. However one artist's work was slightly different from another's, so the overall impression was a lack of uniformity.

The job seemed like a "mission impossible" but Xu streamlined the process, dividing it into several components - eyebrows, eye-shadows, lips ... - and each artist was allocated only one. After much practice, the artists became better at their work and the new procedure not only saved time but also led to a neater look among the group.

Encountering and overcoming countless difficulties and obstacles, Xu and her team triumphed with a great success.

The flamboyant, delicately applied makeup on the performers' faces and their sparkling hairstyles contributed to breathtakingly beautiful troupes that kept the audience spellbound.

In hindsight and with the distance of time from the Olympics, Xu retains respect and admiration for the director she worked with for a year.

"I really enjoyed working with Zhang," said Xu. "He was careful and hard-working, paying attention to every small detail."

In the leadup to the opening ceremony, Xu had a phone call from Zhang at midnight in which he said that the eye shadow of some performers was too thick.

"I was a little surprised. He was so busy everyday with so many things to worry about, but he was still so careful about such a small detail as eye shadow," she said.

She was impressed by Zhang's boundless energy. "I have never seen him yawning. With so much pressure, everyone was understandably exhausted, but not him. His energy was contagious and inspired all of his colleagues."

Xu's talented design and diligent work also won Zhang's total trust. When he directed his masterpiece "Turandot" last year in the Bird's Nest, he again invited her to help him with the makeup art design.

Despite the overwelming recognition and compliments, Xu remains modest about her achievements. She says she gets a lot of enjoyment from teaching at university.

"I am satisfied when I see students eager for knowledge," Xu said, "especially when I think they will use it to make their own life and career."

Many leading teachers and researchers in the makeup art field are former students of Xu.

Although most of her effort goes into teaching, she is active off campus keeping up to date with her profession.

"There is always new information, techniques and products coming out and I have to keep myself current," Xu said. "The job of teaching requires me to understand new developments so that I can be confident when I am standing at the lecturn."

Although she has enjoyed great career success, Xu considers her husband and son to be more important and they're the people she most wants to spend her time with.

"I was a very traditional woman," she said with a tender smile. "A woman's life can't be perfect without family life."

In 2010, Xu has won another big job which is no smaller than the one she took on for the Olympics. Around Chinese New Year, she started work on preparing for the opening ceremony of World Expo 2010 Shanghai. She promises the style will be totally different from that used in the Olympics.

"I won't attach so much importance to Oriental characteristics," she said. "The work I do for Expo must be amazing and fashionable. It must be modern and reflect the future, and be in perfect harmony with the performances."


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend