Joel Harlow was first inspired by the makeup effects when he was a young boy watching the original King Kong. Captivated by the magic of animatronics, Harlow decided that was what he wanted to do, so he embarked on a career in stop-motion. John Carpenter’s The Thing also had an impact on him and inspired him to jump into makeup. In 2010 he won the Academy Award for Best Makeup on Star Trek, and this year Harlow received his second nomination for his work on Star Trek: Beyond. He’s gone from creating two alien tribes on the first Star Trek to 56 different alien races for the latest film. “There’s a little bit of Klingon in Krall.” Harlow says on creating the franchise’s latest villain.
Read what Harlow had to say when I caught up with him to discuss his nomination and the weight of taking on this mighty challenge in honor of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary.
Congratulations on the nomination!
You never get used to it. Each time is pretty amazing.
What were you doing when you heard you’d been nominated for Star Trek: Beyond?
I was actually on set in Atlanta and I knew when they were coming in. I didn’t need to be on set but I knew I had to get my mind off the ticking clock and I made myself busy.
I’m familiar with your work, having seen your work from Pirates of the Carribean to Star Trek. But for those who aren’t, tell us how you got into makeup and then prosthetics.
My story started on this road when I was very young. My father and I watched the original King Kong and it captivated me. I knew I wanted to do something to create that kind of magic that I was seeing on screen. Naturally, that led me to animation, King Kong and a couple of props and that giant animatronic head, it was stop motion that brought that to life. That’s what I embarked upon.
Then I saw John Carpenter’s The Thing with amazing practical effects, and that made me shift gears to create characters in that fashion as opposed to animation. At the time, there were no makeup schools. It was trial and error and learn through various books that you could get hold of. I moved from stop-motion and into makeup.
This is the second installment you’ve worked on. How did working on Star Trek: Beyond differ from working on the first one?
The first one was big for me, but it pales in comparison to the work we did on Star Trek: Beyond. With the first one, I was focused on doing the makeup for the Vulcans and the Romulans, and I was very focused on those two races. It allowed me to concentrate on the characters, and our crew was smaller. Compare that to the 56 different aliens races that we created for Star Trek: Beyond.
It was that many?
Yes, it was. It seems crazy when you talk about it. It didn’t start off with 56 races, but as the script was being fleshed out we realized we needed more and more and more. Everyone was such a fan of Star Trek and we accepted that challenge with open arms.
At one point we had 46 different races, and my wife came to me and said, “You know, it’s the 50th anniversary and you have 46 aliens. Don’t you think you should have 50?” That seemed logical so we ended up pushing it, and we needed six more beyond that.
What did you have to do to get reacquainted with the universe?
I was never that far away from it. I was always a big fan of Star Trek. When I was offered the first film I was over the moon. It was very dear to me, not just because it was my first Academy Award nomination and ultimately win, but because I was now part of this legacy that was very dear to my heart. That was my first venture into being a part of it as opposed to being outside.
The difference in creating makeup for Star Trek and Star Trek: Beyond is that the makeup is very clean. What I mean by that is there is no room for error. Some makeup I’ve done in the past has weather, dirt, and aging, and that kind of aesthetic is appropriate for the films they’re in. For a film that takes place in the future where the aesthetic is clean and precise, your makeup has to match that vision of the future. That in incredibly challenging and then multiply that challenge by 56 and you see what we were up against.
It goes without saying that the performances are incredible. How do you create the look and makeup so as not to take away from the performance?
You just have to be very careful. At the beginning of the film you start with a battery of designs be they 2D, 3D, traditional or digital and as you’re creating the races you might not know the actor playing them, but once you get the performer and you do the head cast, there’s an inevitable evolution that happens when you translate a design into a practical makeup because you have to incorporate densities and thickness of silicon or foam or whatever you’re using, we used a lot of silicon in this film. You do want to make sure the actor is comfortable in the skin of this character and can do their job just like we’re doing ours. It’s a marriage between the performer and the makeup artist to create a character. If we’re just creating makeup with complete disregard for the performer then all we’re doing is creating still photographs. We’re creating artwork that is never intended to move correctly and that’s appropriate for some projects, but not this.
Obviously, the performances are what makes our characters. It was a lot of back and forth and testing different materials and different densities. The softer the silicon the more it would translate subtle expression although you can’t go too thin otherwise you just end up with the actor’s face. There’s a happy medium that you have to strike so that everybody is very happy.
Let’s talk about Jaylah and Krall who is played so wonderfully by Idris Elba. Talk about the process and creating the makeup of these characters. Krall goes through this transformer, and Jaylah is simply exquisite and looks stunning.
What we needed to convey with Jaylah was to convey beauty and strength right?
The beauty comes from the shape of her head and her eye makeup. She has beautiful eye makeup. She has beautiful false eyelashes. The strength comes from these alien markings which are pretty prominent on her face and designed at an angle that adds to the structure of her cheek and jawbones. She’s almost like an Amazonian warrior and has to convey the ability to fight as well as sympathy. There’s also a playful side to her and ultimately you want something iconic. In the midst of 56 different aliens, you know exactly which one she is and you know her importance. That makeup was successful in delivering that.
With Krall, he starts off as a human being. To prolong his natural human life he’s been draining the genetic and biological material of other lifeforms and the only lifeforms he can get his hands on are other aliens. It changed his appearance so when we first see him in his most extreme stage it’s very powerful and menacing, unlike any other alien we’ve seen before.
When we designed him we spent hours in the workshop you can back story any one of these characters and you do as you’re designing them. Since we didn’t have any direct reimaginings of traditional Star Trek aliens aside from Spock, we wanted to bring in elements of some of our favorite aliens. So there’s a little bit of Klingon in Krall so you can imagine that one of the lifeforms he drained was potentially Klingon, but that was very subtle because he is his own character and his own creation. There will never be another like him because he’s not a single race, he’s a multitude of races melded into one being.
His character, in that extreme stage needed to portray strength and menace and be visually striking.
How long does it take to do all the makeup with the actor sitting in the chair?
It’s so different. Each one of makeup poses its own hurdles and challenges and they’re applied in different ways out of necessity to make each one work. Typically when you approach a film with this many creations, there’s a tendency to break up your characters from foreground to midground to background or A, B, and C makeup. Every makeup that we had was A level makeup which means they could have easily been in their own film as the star of the show. Applying 56 different A-level makeup treatments takes time. Depending on which character it is, some took up to seven hours.
Krall took between and hour to two hours. He was one of the quicker ones.
How has technology changed between the two films?
We’re always looking for something new to give to the audience. You never want to rehash or rest on your laurels and think to yourself you’ve got it all sewn up. We wanted to give the fans something they had never seen before. We researched a lot of material that we hadn’t used yet. One of the big ones was this color-shifting powder that we use when we print out currency. Never been used for makeup, a guy on my crew tracked down this material and signed a bunch of waivers that he wouldn’t give out the info. We got a very small amount and we used it sparingly. It’s so magical when you see it, it shifts through three color spectra and it’s amazing.
How do you work with other departments say with production design and even the director?
It’s a lot of meetings and constant approval. You have to because you’re ultimately all working towards the same goal. Working to make the audience suspend disbelief for two hours, you transport them into this world of the enterprise and these characters. Everything has to work seamlessly, and when you build a character that doesn’t just stop at the neckline. It’s also about the context of where you see the character and knowing that environment around them.
What’s next for you because right now you’re on the set of Black Panther, and next month you have Logan coming out?
After Black Panther, I’m wide open and that ends at the end of April. Hopefully, something presents itself. I’ve been fortunate that when something is coming to an end something else comes up.