If you’ve been freaked out by makeup in a blockbuster movie over the last 15 or so years, there’s a pretty good chance it was made by Joel Harlow. The Academy Award-winning makeup designer has created facial transformations for such films as the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Alice in Wonderland, Mad Men, and the upcoming Marvel movie Black Panther. Harlow snagged Oscar gold for the 2009 Star Trek reboot but skipped out on the sequel to create the makeup designs for The Lone Ranger and Dark Shadows. He returned with a bang for 2016’s Star Trek Beyond, earning another Oscar nomination.
Harlow created over 50 creature designs for the film, including lead villain Krall (Idris Elba) and the warrior Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). Inverse spoke to Harlow about his workload, and what it took to turn Idris Elba into a threatening alien monster.
Were you eager to get back to Trek after skipping Into Darkness?
I’ve been a Trek fan since I was a kid, so to be involved in this way is overwhelming. I have a long working relationship with Johnny Depp, and I was working with him on Dark Shadows and The Lone Ranger at the time, so I couldn’t do Into Darkness. He told me if there’s ever any film I really wanted to do just let him know and go do it. Star Trek Beyond was one of them.
You created over 50 unique prosthetic characters for Beyond. Is that a lot for a huge blockbuster like this?
The workload on this was staggering. It’s more than the first two new Star Trek films combined and doubled.
Was the mandate to create that many unique practical makeup effects?
[Director] Justin Lin came into our studio early to approve designs when we started our builds, and we had 30 characters at that point. Then script pages kept getting reworked, but there were very obvious points where we knew they would need aliens in the background on top of the hero alien characters. We built to 46 alien designs, but realized we had to make it 50 because it was the best way to honor the fact that 2016 was the 50th anniversary of Star Trek.
All 60 members of my crew and I wanted to give back to this legacy in the way we knew how. We hit the mark and just kept going. We ended up with 59 unique designs in total.
Was it more difficult creating Krall because he was the lead villain?
We spent most of our efforts on the Krall design. We started with the most extreme version of his corrupt humanoid alien state. He had to read strong and villainous but also had to compliment Idris Elba’s performance without inhibiting him. We went for the silhouette first. If something doesn’t read that way then it’s not memorable. If you see an alien walking by out of focus in the background or in close-up, that silhouette needs to pop.
In the context of the story, he starts as a human being but he’s trying to extend his life by draining genetic material from his prisoners, and the primary prisoners he has access to are different aliens. He had to be an amalgam of a human and any numbers of species. By extension, a lot of the alien characters we designed for Beyond were aquatic in nature. Deep sea life is fascinating from a design perspective; lots of fins. There were also lizard elements in Krall too — gila monsters, specifically.
We also didn’t want to directly replicate other Star Trek aliens, but there are preexisting Trek alien designs incorporated into Krall too. We made sure to give him a little bit of Klingon.
How did you capture that balance of facial articulation without burying the actor too much?
You don’t have a character until their performance is coming through the makeup. If you don’t have a performance than the best you have is some interesting photos to get out of it. Actors need to work with you just like you need to work with them, and the key is multiple testing sessions.
When you do tests you get a sense of how dense your silicon prosthetics should be, if you can make things softer to allow their brow movements to read more, and how to get them to emote better.
There are aspects of the makeup you just can’t diminish, so he had to amplify his performance based on what stages of Krall he was. As he gets more human, he doesn’t have to push too far. Idris worked out how far he needed to push the performance in order for it to translate.
How long did that take to apply to Idris Elba each day?
That one was relatively quick at two hours. In contrast, the Jaylah makeup was three and a half hours every day.
Why did the Jaylah makeup take longer?
It’s deceptively elaborate with lots of intricate dissections. The challenge was to strike a balance and blend it to where you don’t know where the prosthetics are. [Actress] Sofia Boutella wore a forehead that came down her cheeks and black design markings that went all the way down to her chin. The mouth, nose, and chin are Sofia; otherwise, everything else is all a prosthetic.
That’s opposed to Krall who has a lot of makeup going on on purpose. He has a lot of overt design lines. With Jaylah, it had to be an illusion of smooth, glass-like surfaces where there’s no margin for error. It’s a fine line to push that envelope because you don’t want the designs to start looking like they’re leftovers from another sci-fi franchise.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.