A connoisseur of special makeup effects and an admitted Trekkie, makeup artist Joel Harlow signed on to return for Star Trek Beyond after working on the 2009 reboot, without any hesitation. Boasting a blockbuster resume of three decades, it’s in the Star Trek films specifically that Harlow finds “the opportunity for creativity.” Indeed, Harlow led a sprawling team in designing special makeup effects for 56 alien races represented in the film, all of which are rooted in natural inspirations.

All told, it was a lengthy process, from sculpting and design, to pre-painting and application, in a journey that took Harlow from Burbank to Vancouver. And while the Star Trek universe features a recurring cast of characters, that fact certainly didn’t save the film’s makeup artists any work going into the production. With the X-Men film Logan in the rear view mirror and Marvel’s Black Panther to come, Harlow discusses visual inspirations, new challenges and the makeup artist’s workflow.

Having worked on the last Star Trek film, what made you want to come on board for another?

Star Trek is very dear to my heart. I’ve been a fan of the TV show, the original TV show, the subsequent TV shows and the films. It was a no-brainer, really. The first one, the 2009 reboot, it was an amazing experience that I’m very fortunate to have been a part of, and the chance to be a part of that world again and work with those people again is something that I would bend over backwards to do. It was a very, very easy decision.

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Paramount Pictures

You’ve been on all kinds of blockbusters, from Inception to much of Johnny Depp’s recent oeuvre. What stands out as unique about these films?

 It’s just the opportunity for creativity. I’ve never worked on a film, this one in particular, where I’ve been afforded the opportunity to create as many and as diverse amount of special character makeups as Star Trek Beyond. That universe opens itself up to virtually any makeup challenge that we, as a makeup effects crew, wanted to tackle. Fortunately on this one, I had a great crew that were just as enthusiastic as I was. And we really wanted to push the envelope of what had been done before, and really expand the horizon of character creation, and I think with the help of everybody involved, we did that.

With a film comprised of a constant stable of characters, is any time saved in the pre-production process that would free you up to conceptualize further?

Really, the only character in the makeup effects special character world was Spock. Everything else in Star Trek Beyond was completely new. Because we were as far out in the universe as we’d ever been in the context of the films, it allowed us the freedom to introduce a lot of new alien life forms, a lot of new races. Really, not having to adhere to any pre-established designs, that’s where the creativity came in. Still, there’s an aesthetic to a Star Trek film, as opposed to any other any sort of sci-fi franchise film, that you really want to be loyal to.

That aesthetic is primarily makeup driven. The characters are makeup driven, prosthetic-driven, as opposed to puppets and animatronics. Although there is some of that, typically they’re humanoid prosthetic makeups that you’re dealing with, and that’s why we all got into this business in the first place. It was a dream come true.

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Paramount Pictures

When working on a film of this scope, is there a show bible or look book you produce as a reference point for the makeup you will create?

It’s not typically what you would imagine it to be. That sort of reference archive comes from nature. We’ve got our aquatic characters, we’ve got our reptilian characters, we’ve got our mountain mammalian characters. It’s really just some of the weirdest life forms on this planet that nobody is really aware of, never seen. With the internet now, you can find out what’s deep, deep in the ocean, or what’s deep, deep in the rain forests. A lot of those shapes and those color patterns played into what we were designing very heavily. But as far as pre-designed alien characters, there really wasn’t any for this—aside, like I said, from the Vulcans—that we drew upon.

What were the new challenges going into Star Trek Beyond?

The new challenges were specific to each of the alien races. Jaylah certainly had her laundry list of challenges that we had to conquer; Krall had a completely different list of challenges. Syl, Kalara, they all had their own specific set of challenges, both design and build-wise. The technical aspect of each of these characters, some of them were wearing craniums that were gigantic, and the weight becomes an issue at that point. So for that one character, whichever one it is…if it’s Natalia, the alien with the nautilus shell head that we see at the end of the film, certainly that five seconds, ten seconds of screen time required months and months of R&D work to make sure that that skull, that shell was light enough to be worn by the actress, and still wouldn’t shift, delivered the shape that we wanted.

Jaylah had to be elegant. She had to be able to express a lot of character. It had to be something that was visually striking right off the bat. And then Krall, he goes through a several-stage makeup transformation, and he was once a Federation officer, so we had to take him through those stages, being almost completely alien to almost entirely human. So each one of those stages was its own challenge.

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Paramount Pictures

Was it overwhelming to create looks for each of the background characters appearing in the film?

Yeah. The sheer volume of alien characters in this film, it’s staggering—56 different races. And each of those spent months and months being created in the shop, and then we took that shop up to Vancouver. Every step of that process, whether it’s sculpture, design, molding, casting, pre-painting and then finally on-set application, if any one of those steps wasn’t delivered 100 percent, then it’s like building a house—your foundation is substandard, and you’re fixing mistakes the rest of the way. Each one of those characters had to be treated like a hero main character. On days when you had 20, 30 of these characters playing, you really had to have competent makeup application artists on-set to deliver them. Otherwise, all that work that had come before is for nothing, you know?

Fortunately, I had an amazing crew on this. Whether it was my crew who handled most of the sculpting and molding in Burbank, or my crew that handled most of the casting, pre-painting and application in Vancouver. It was really these two crews coming together, even though a lot of them had never met each other, that combined, created characters that hopefully resonate with the fans. Certainly for me, they delivered what I had intended, which was amazing makeup effects.

What are the materials used with these character makeups? And what’s the range of time one might spend in a chair each morning, having them applied?

Let’s just say we’re dealing with one of our background characters. It’s a multiple piece silicon appliance that has been pre-painted, because a lot of these characters, since they were alien, their skin tones are going to be vastly different than the skin tones of human beings. It’s not going to be a traditional flesh-tone paint job. It’s going to be patterning, it’s going to be iridescent colors, and a lot of that has to be added beforehand, otherwise you’re into hours and hours in the chair. Having these pre-painted appliances, a lot of them were done generically because we didn’t know who was going to be playing these characters until we got up to Vancouver.

We had our fittings and our tests, for sure, and picked the people that had the facial structures that best suited the characters, and all the pieces lined up. There were more pieces for the generic characters than there were for the main cast. Like Jaylah, who obviously had her head cast. Idris [Elba], we had his head cast; Zach [Quinto], we had his head cast, and so on. For the generic characters, there was a lot of pieces, sometimes upwards of six, seven, eight silicon, overlapping prosthetics that you have to apply in sequence, and blend off, and then tie in the paint job or the patterning or whatever it is. I would think the shortest amount of time that anybody spent in the chair was probably two hours, and the longest was the Natalia character at the end of the film, and that was about six and a half, seven hours.

That was a long one, but she’s my stepdaughter. I’ve put her through makeups before, so I knew that she could handle the whole thing. She never complained once.

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Paramount Pictures

When you see apparently functional makeup—the alien’s head folding back to reveal a piece of alien technology she was hiding—what exactly are we looking at?

The character is Syl, and she’s hiding the technology in her head—I think its the omnivoid, is what it’s called. What we had is we had a closed version of the head where the fingers are interlocked, and that’s what she wore through most of the film. And then for that sequence, we would shoot her with the fingers closed, and then we had an open version where we could position the fingers open. We would reapply the back of the head, reapply the makeup in the open version and then shoot that, and our friends in the visual effects department did a transition between the two, of the motion of it actually opening. The beginning and the end of that transition, that’s all practical.

Do the film’s running action sequences present challenges for makeup? Are constant touch-ups necessary?

Yeah. I don’t know how much the general public knows about makeup, but every time you take off a prosthetic makeup, it’s shot. You can’t reuse it. You’ve got to have a new one for the next day, and so you’re into casting multiple copies and pre-painting multiple copies, depending on how many days the character works. Certainly throughout the day, the makeup, just by nature of being worn and being moved and under various tensions from the actor’s face, is going to start to show its age, it’s going to start wearing.

So yeah, that team of makeup artists that got people ready in the morning then goes to set, and everybody has their own character or characters, and they make sure that when the camera is on those characters, they look 100 percent. The lips are blended off, the eyes are blended off, and there’s no seams or edges anywhere. Everything looks as it should. All the alien characters had teeth, and contact lenses, and all that goes in before we shoot with them.

What’s up next for you?

 I am finishing up some re-shoots on Logan, the last Wolverine movie, and then I’m prepping right now a movie for Marvel called Black Panther. They’re all exciting; nothing’s going to have the quantity of makeup that Star Trek Beyond has. [laughs] I’ve worked in this business a long time, and I’ve never worked on a show that offered that much opportunity.