“Their children were terrified. It was incredible.”
How 'The Green Knight' brought its most iconic character to life
For actor Ralph Ineson and makeup effects artist Barrie Gower, creating the titular character in 'The Green Knight' was a rare and exciting experience.
A24’s The Green Knight is awash in stunning imagery.
From naked giants wandering across foggy English plains to skulls buried at the bottom of scarlet ponds, writer-director David Lowery’s fantasy epic is overflowing with moments of striking visual artistry. But none of the film’s fantastic creations are more awe-inspiring than the Green Knight himself.
Played by actor Ralph Ineson (The Witch, Game of Thrones), the character appears carved from a tree, with skin made of wood and branches snapping with each step he takes. The effect is striking — even more so because the character’s physical features were created practically.
“David explained to me, right from the start, that the character’s design was done in a way to enable performance,” Ineson tells Inverse. “Rather than going full CGI or using prosthetics that would make it impossible to actually read my performance, David wanted me to be able to perform the part — instead of just voicing it.”
Hired to deliver a stately, imposing performance beneath all that makeup, Ineson had faith that the efforts of makeup effects company BGFX would make such a task possible.
Makeup effect artist Barrie Gower founded BGFX in 2010, alongside his wife and co-designer Sarah. He led his colleagues in crafting the heavy-duty prosthetics needed for The Green Knight. A six-year veteran of HBO’s Game of Thrones — for which he’d designed the Night King, his Army of the Dead, and the Children of the Forest — Gower already knew his way around the medieval fantasy genre. But tonally, The Green Knight was set in a different realm.
“It felt very artistic and had a much slower pace,” recalls the designer. That extended to Lowery’s vision for the titular figure, a warrior with deep roots in the surrounding Arthurian landscape and whose mystical aura felt correspondingly organic.
“David wanted the character to have regal qualities,” Gower tells Inverse. “But he wanted an almost otherworldly, spiritual feel to him as well.” Lowery’s visual references were often natural materials, including the kinds of ingredients you’d find in a forest. For Gower and his team, that meant examining driftwood and studying images of trees so ancient, gnarled, and twisted they appeared to have human faces hidden within their trunks. “We needed to keep him very grounded and very realistic,” says Gower.
One major influence hailed from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. “We did speak about the Ents in The Lord of the Rings, the fact that they have a very gentle quality to them,” notes Gower. Like that ancient race of talking trees, the Green Knight was meant to be imposing but not fierce, and more majestic than monstrous. “Because [the character] was going to be built from natural forms and shapes, David wanted there to be a sadness and sorrow to him,” adds the designer.
Gower and his team worked closely with Lowery to nail down a final design. The writer-director occasionally sent over hand-drawn approximations of his concepts, as those at BGFX pored over references from other films and TV series. But getting a green light for their Green Knight was just the beginning.
The first step in building prosthetics for the character involved making a cast of Ineson’s head, so that effects artists could start sculpting his makeup, creating silicone molds, and painting prosthetics — a process that took somewhere between four and six weeks. From there, Gower and his team spent around two weeks creating duplicate sets of the original prosthetics — which Gower playfully calls “the one-hit wonders” — accounting for the fact that any given set would be destroyed when the actor removed them at the end of a shooting day.
But to ensure Ineson’s performance would shine through, Gower and his team had to develop prosthetics that could be layered over his face and chest without obscuring his facial expressions or movements. To accomplish this, certain areas of the prosthetics were made thinner than others.
“Even though it was quite a large-scale piece of makeup on [Ineson’s] face, we made the center of the face — around the cheeks, the eyes, and the mouth — all fairly thin, so it allowed for a lot of facial movement,” explains Gower. “It's so important for an actor to be able to convey their emotions through their facial movement, so we were quite aware that we would obviously need to see smiles, and we would need to see if he was grimacing.”
Despite Gower’s efforts, at least where Ineson was concerned, it wasn’t easy being green. His makeup was extensive and cumbersome — especially a balaclava-like headpiece made from silicone rubber. Gower acknowledges this piece was “huge and thick,” though it was hollowed out in the middle and filled with foam to make it more lightweight. Ineson was also outfitted with a large facepiece and a chin piece. Once glued, Gower notes that the makeup came together “like a jigsaw puzzle.”
For Ineson, wearing all that makeup for long stretches made maintaining a sense of spatial awareness quite difficult. “It was a very strange state to exist in for a whole day,” Ineson says. “Since it covers your ears, the sensation of wearing it is like being underwater. You can hear, but you can’t hear clearly. I also had contact lenses in, which I can’t see very well through, so my vision was gone. And my hearing was gone.”
Dealing with the bulk and weight of these prosthetics, Ineson also filmed his scenes inside what he describes as a “huge and unwieldy” costume.
“I did have to move at a certain pace and in a certain way, which did very much inform the way I played the character,” explains the actor. “I could move fluidly, but I couldn’t do anything too fast. That aspect is very present in the final film as well, especially in the sound design. Every time he moves, vines are cracking.”
Fortunately, the prosthetics, contact lenses, and heavy armor combined to make the Green Knight look uniquely memorable — and it wasn’t long before Ineson got to see the cumulative effect for himself.
“Nobody else in the cast had really seen the design of the character,” Ineson says, discussing his work on the Green Knight’s introductory scene. The sequence in question, shot over a number of days, sees the film’s titular figure riding into the center of King Arthur’s round table while on horseback. It’s a beautifully designed moment, epic and intimate in equal measure. In addition to being the first scene Ineson shot on The Green Knight, it was the first time the rest of the cast had seen the character.
“It was like manna from heaven to just see the genuine reactions on everyone’s faces,” recalls Ineson, describing the reaction from cast and crew members when he rode in during the first rehearsal. “They were intimidated and their children were terrified — it was incredible.”
Having inspired that reaction without uttering a word, Ineson knew he looked the part. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna have no trouble playing this character,’ because I knew that so much of the work had already been done for me,” he says. “I got to concentrate on finding the fun within the character; the big-scary-dude aspect of him was already sorted out.”
Of all the images that will stick with viewers for weeks after watching The Green Knight, none are quite as impressive as a low-angle shot from that scene, of Ineson’s mythical warrior stepping into the light for the first time — and revealing the stunning end result of all that hard work.
The Green Knight is playing in theaters and is now available on VOD.