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Interview: Makeup Artist Joel Harlow on Creating the Intricate Looks of Wakanda

As we type this, Black Panther has become the second biggest Marvel film ever. Since its February 16 release, the film has made over  $637 million at the box office. Whether it’s the fierce warrior women of Wakanda or its visually stunning sets and the futuristic technologically advanced world, it’s a revolution.

Among the team and creatives putting the look together is makeup artist, Joel Harlow.  Read our chat below about how Harlow and his team developed the makeup for the film.

How did you get involved with Black Panther?

Jeffrey Chernov was a producer on Star Trek and he’s a good friend of mine. We’ve worked on a few projects together. At the beginning of 2016 he told me to keep the end of my year free and the beginning of the following year free. I asked what the project was and he told me and I was committed 100% at that point. It’s because of my relationship with Jeffery that I get involved.

Talk about meeting Ryan Coogler for the first time and what he said to you.

The first time I met him was via Skype and I was on Logan. The reception was horrible but I had an introductory get to know you meeting. Once I was on the project, I went in and met with him. He had a wealth of research. Not just from the comic books, but from African tribal research that was our base for everything in this film. It was back and forth with Ryan and Ruth Carter who worked on the wardrobe.

From Ryan’s research and the subsequent research that we did and Ruth’s designs we started building the five tribes of Wakanda basing them on actual African tribes. It was important in this film that we respected the heritage and the traditions of the people that inspired it.

Walk us through conceiving ideas and how they came to fruition. Was there any idea that looked good on paper but when it came to putting it together, was it a lot harder than you imagined?

A lot of them were extremely difficult. Even though you’re not dealing with an overabundance of prosthetic makeup in this, say compared to Star Trek and your prosthetic characters are very obviously alien characters. What you’re doing here is you’re imitating, like I said, traditional makeup designs. It’s just as challenging, in some cases, even more so, the bar is set so high and we don’t want to disrespect anyone’s traditions or heritage. It’s paramount that you execute those traditional tribal designs completely rather than taking the artistic license because you think something looks interesting or cool, you can’t do that, you have to ground it in tradition.

How did you marry the two, tradition and modern?

You are basing all of the looks of the five tribes on actual tribes, but the nature of the story is that they are tribes of Wakanda, but as you know, it’s the center of vibranium technology and everything is advanced and we were extrapolating that to every day. What would a traditional tribal design look like if it’s being applied not by fingers or sticks, but more advanced application techniques? Why wouldn’t they? Everything is advanced. It’s still again grounded in tradition.

We took traditional face painting designs from the various tribes that we were referencing, we sharpened up lines, we made things a little bit crisper and a little more uniformed so it didn’t look like it was applied by finger. Trying to find that balance was interesting. Again, rather than creating full alien characters, it’s something that was just as challenging but in a different arena.

The prosthetics we were doing were meant to replicate the tribes in Africa, there was a subtlety to it that we had to maintain so that it looked believable.

We had the river tribe with the lip plate ornament. When the Mercy tribe does that, they remove the bottom four teeth so the plate could fit in there and then there’s a piercing and it’s stretched out over time to make room for a larger plate. We had to replicate that. We would get a cast of the actor’s lower dental palette and create a magnet on a wire that came off of the dental palette. We had a lightweight plastic plate that would sit on top of that and over the top of that we sculpted a stretched lip appearance, ran it in silicon, glued in on and then blended it in so it looked seamless.

Our performers are wearing that every day and they can’t really eat because it would damage the appliance. You can take the plate out if you have to, but ideally, you don’t because it has to work like it’s under tension and the more you disrupt it, the more chance you run of compromising the look.

That was a difficult one.

I’m so thrilled you talked about that. Chadwick had his outfit, but let’s talk about what Michael B. Jordan went through.

Absolutely. There is makeup in this movie and that is certainly near or at the top of the list. It required four artists getting him together. We created a blueprint on a body cast of these hash marks and scar lines. From that, we took cellophane and laid it over the top of the body cast and re-traced all those marks, we cut them up into sections, and put that tracing on a board and sculpted our prosthetics on the board.

Once it was sculpted, we ran a clear silicone mold and removed the clay. We put in a thicken component that made up the scarification marks. At the end of the day, you had 80 different clear silicone transfer molds with about 100 scarification marks on them. Michael at 3am is standing there and can’t sit with four guys pushing these molds into his body in almost a jigsaw type pattern. Once you step back from it, it links together.

That’s just the final version. We had actually gone through several other versions that were more ornamental that looked interesting but didn’t work for his character.

The reason he’s doing it is because it’s very personal and each of those scars represents a life he’s taken. The back had to be more haphazard because he’s doing it himself so he’s not going to keep it as organized as the front.

What about Okoye’s head tattoo?

That was extremely complicated. Ken Diaz led that. Don’t forget, the human head has so many compound curves in it that traditional tattoo application techniques don’t work. Tattoo transfer technology is a piece of water slide paper with the artwork on the back of it. You press it on, apply water and pull it off. You can’t do that on the head because a piece of paper doesn’t take those shapes.

We went back to a stencil, airbrushed the outline of that stencil and then we could do smaller transfers and fill in the smaller areas that the transfers didn’t pick up and then we finished the line work.

Ken did a makeup pass over the top of it to blend it into Denai’s head and she went to Kimberly Felix who did her beauty makeup.

Was that a lot of trial and error?

There was. We did a lot of research and development because we tried a silicone stencil that would hug her head better, we tried everything.

There’s a lot of body painting and a lot of other tattoos. M’Baku and his tribe had piercings through their nose and ears. There was a lot of research to create this world and it was in the film.

We also created the masks, the wooden versions of those masks so we did all of that.

Our primary directive as a makeup department was to make sure that everything was accurate to what we were representing. It had to follow tradition and heritage. It had to maintain that. That’s why I think the look of the film is so powerful because any number of tribes in Africa had already designed the look of the film.


Photos courtesy of Joel Harlow/Marvel Studios