Usually when I’m talking to people about superhero movies like Logan and Black Panther, we don't wind up discussing alien eyeballs and pirate eyeliner. But that’s just natural conversation drift for Oscar-winning makeup designer Joel Harlow. He considers Logan his first superhero movie, but it’s just the latest addition to a resume stacked with genre films, including J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot (which won him a Best Achievement in Makeup Oscar) and all five Pirates of the Caribbean films. “I’ve spent most of my career on pirate ships,” Harlow says, “and it’s been an amazing adventure, every single one of them.”
Harlow was on the Pirates franchise from the start, when Johnny Depp first suggested Captain Jack Sparrow’s distinctive kohl-eyeliner look. His work as Depp’s personal makeup artist took him to many other projects — Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows and Alice in Wonderland (where Harlow created Depp’s Mad Hatter makeup), Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, the Whitey Bulger story Black Mass, the evil-AI movie Transcendence, even Kevin Smith’s weird walrus-transformation story Tusk.
But while that partnership has given Harlow some of his most recognizable jobs, it’s been a small part of a long career. He’s been in the industry since the 1980s, with credits logged on two of the Toxic Avenger sequels, a long string of cheapie horror movies (Sometimes They Come Back, Happy Hell Night, Night of the Demons 2), and some better-known films, like the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.
In 2016, Harlow started his own company, Morphology FX, to give a name to the business model he’s been using for the last seven years in the industry. Unlike effects houses that deliver custom prosthetic builds or send makeup artists to a set, Morphology is an on-site, “full-service” company. “We go to locations, we set up a studio there with the help of the production, we build all the makeup effects and specialty props or wardrobe pieces on site, and then it’s a matter of walking them across a parking lot and applying them. It’s basically like you’re getting two departments for the price of one.”
Most recently, Morphology handled Logan’s makeup effects, including building severed heads, applying gory wounds, aging actors Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman for their late-in-life story, and designing mutants for a low-key Western movie palette instead of the bright teal-and-orange style of previous X-Men films. Harlow is currently shooting Marvel’s Black Panther, but he took a break from the set to talk about his work behind the scenes on Logan, how technology is changing his job, and the one useful product money can’t buy.
You’ve said Logan and Black Panther are your first real superhero films. Do those differ strongly from other things you’ve done in science fiction and fantasy?
No, not really. Logan is certainly much different than any film I’ve done in my entire career. Just the level of physical trauma in this film is something I haven’t had to contend with since the early years when I was smearing blood around. Since those times, I’ve grown a lot as an artist and a technician, and what we deliver now is unlike anything we’ve delivered so far. So in that sense, it’s pretty new ground.
Logan has been a movie character for 17 years. Were you asked to go back to other films in the X-Men series and consider his looks from those films, to maintain some kind of continuity?
I was not asked to look at those looks. We were asked to go in direct opposition to those looks. Having seen all the X-Men films, I went into this with a perception of what I thought it was going to be — that we were going to have to fall in line with the aesthetics of these other films — but Jim [Logan director James Mangold] made it very clear right off the bat that this was not one of those films, this was its own entity. We embraced it in that way, and grounded everything 100 percent in reality. That includes the mutant characters. You’re not going to see any blue or red characters running around. Everything’s very earthy and real. So we didn’t reference any other X-Men or Wolverine films here.
What kinds of conversations did you have during pre-production about what Mangold wanted from the look of the film?
Just that the film is a Western. Jim appreciates makeup in the sense that it can add to characters, but he never wants it to interfere with a performance. He doesn’t want to see the makeup. And that was something that was relayed to me and that I ingrained in my crew — we don’t ever want to look at a character and think, “Oh, that’s cool makeup,” or “That’s interesting. How did they do that?” They have to live in this world and be a part of this world without interfering with the audience’s experience watching the film. There are films where you can go overboard, and create visually stimulating characters that do give you pause and make you take a second look, and appreciate the art in them. This film, the art is appreciated if you don’t consciously know that’s makeup. Then we’ve done our job.
I joked to friends that Patrick Stewart is meant to be playing a nonagenarian, and he doesn’t look like he’s wearing makeup, which must be demoralizing for him. Did you do an extensive makeup job on him that I’m just not seeing?
Exactly! There is a lot of makeup on him that you can’t pick out, because hopefully, it’s very real. But it’s those subtleties that happen to us as we get older: a thinning of the skin, and more subdermal spots and discoloration, and hair takes over your ears and eyebrows. So I was adding one hair at a time to Patrick’s eyebrows and ears, but you might miss it if you didn’t know it was there.
What’s it like contending with the vanity of actors when you’re out to make them look older or wrinklier or saggier, all these things that are supposed to be anathema in Hollywood?
I had none of that in this. Everybody knew what movie we were making, and everybody embraced it. But certainly on other films it’s been an issue. Everybody wants to present their best face, and usually it’s my job to make them look great. This wasn’t that film. It’s a swan song for some of these characters. So everyone was on board with the vision Jim had, and there was never any vanity in the trailer. You couldn’t have this story with vanity. It flies in the face of what these characters are going through.
How did you approach designing Caliban, since he’s the most visibly made-up character?
He’s desaturated. That’s the theme we went with for all our mutant characters. The character appeared in X-Men: Apocalypse, very vibrant and alive and jester-y. We wanted to desaturate all the characters so they wouldn’t look made-up. Since he’s one of the most visible mutant characters, we didn’t want him to stand out in the film, didn’t want him to draw your eyes. There’s a lizard-boy character we treated the same way. From about 10 feet away, you wouldn’t know there was anything different about him, except he’s missing his eyebrows. But you get up close, you can see the subtle scale pattern and the reptilian skin we gave him via prosthetics.
There’s a lot of physical trauma in the film. Some of the wounds are practical effects, and some are CGI. How do you normally integrate with the CG department? What’s the process?
Typically, we do the aftermath. If there’s a slice that cuts someone across the chest, we would put the prosthetics in for the post-slice. If it’s Logan swinging his claws, Chas [Jarrett, visual-effects supervisor] in the effects department would take the shot of our makeup job and clean it up digitally, then reveal it in the computer as the digital claws made contact with the body. It’s erased visually in the moment right before it happens, then revealed seamlessly in the context of the film.
Everything poses its own challenge. There were a couple of decapitations in the film, and the desire when you do one of those is, clearly the head has to look real. One thing we did in this film that I’d never done before is, we weighted the jaws, so no matter which way the heads fell, the jaws would have a little movement, and would go slack with gravity, to add to the realism. That was a revelation — “Let’s thoroughly think this stuff through, so it’s not just smearing blood on somebody, it’s not just slapping wounds on somebody, or making a fake head that we drop into camera.” Everything was done so we could get as close to a real event as possible.
Is there a professional divide in the makeup industry between people who focus on beauty effects, and people who create fantasy characters or gore effects?
There can be. But you know, we’re all artists. If you know your craft, you can do all of it. Now certainly there are people who are better at one thing than another. But the crew I work with, they all come from art backgrounds. It’s just a question of channeling that artistic ability into whatever the work requires.
You’ve been doing this for more than 30 years. How much have digital effects changed your industry?
About eight years ago, there was a real fear that CG was going to take over the world of practical makeup effects. But I think we’ve found a happy marriage at this point. The digital end of things needs practical, on-set effects just as much as we need post-production cleanup. Now, we’re at a good place. Logan is a great example, with digitally hiding and then revealing the claw wounds. Otherwise we’d be into hours and hours of “How are we going to open up these cuts on camera?” We could do it, with insert body parts, but it would be very limiting as far as what Jim could shoot, and certainly much more time-consuming. I’ve always had a great relationship with whatever visual effects producer I’m working with, because there’s a mutual respect there. Go back eight to 10 years, and there was almost a rivalry there. I don’t think that exists anymore.
What about the technology of makeup itself? Have digital previsualization and new materials significantly changed how you work?
They allow us to create more believable characters. There are new materials coming out all the time. Unfortunately, there are also materials being taken off the market all the time, so alternatives have to be found. But new materials that are more translucent, more flexible, softer, more lightweight, incredibly durable — they allow us to design almost anything, knowing there’s probably a product out there that will help us achieve it. We don’t have to design with limitations in mind as much as we used to. And some of that crosses over to our friends in the digital department. Now if we, for instance, spread the eyes on a character design out much further, we know we can rely on the digital department to make those eyes blink, and live. As the industry evolves, with a little experimentation, we can find applications for everything.
When something new comes out, we test it and try it and figure out an application for it, and if we can use it down the road… We have a couple of things right now in our back pocket that when the right film comes along, we’ll pull them out. And they’re pretty amazing techniques. Obviously I don’t want to give them away, but something will come along where we can use them. You’ve always got to be upping your game.
What’s left the market that’s hurt you?
There was a glue that went off the market a while ago, a silicone adhesive called 355, and it was the prosthetic glue. It stuck like gangbusters, it held all day through sweat and water and what-have-you, but it’s been discontinued. So now the scramble is to find some that’s still around, that somebody had stored in their basement, or to find a suitable replacement. There’ve been a few, but as various unsafe chemicals are pulled off the market, so are adhesives that contain minute amounts of those chemicals.
Silicone is another example of something that’s really changed the industry. We used to do prosthetics with foam latex, and sometimes we still do, for the weight. But foam is an opaque material, so to achieve a skin-like surface, you have to paint the translucency into it. With silicone, the translucency is already in the material, and it’s just a matter of casting it in whatever skin tone, whatever density of color you like. It looks more believable, it moves more like skin, depending on how much it’s plasticized. There are new feather-cast resins that are incredibly durable and lightweight, which allow us to build under-skulls that don’t inhibit the actors’ performances, and don’t cause strain on their necks. There are new mold-making materials that are durable and damage-resistant. Across the board, there are new materials coming out all the time.
Is there anything you’re waiting for someone to invent, some ideal technique or substance?
Not really, unless someone can bottle time! That’s actually not my line, that’s a friend who works with me, Richie Alonzo, who was nominated with me [for the Makeup Academy Award] for Star Trek: Beyond. Somebody asked at a symposium a couple weeks ago, “What would be a product you’d really enjoy having?” and he said “Time. If you can bottle time, that’ll be it.” So I’ll go with that answer.
Logan’s a physical movie, and the fights mostly take place outdoors, in dusty or windy areas. Is it as difficult as it looks, managing prosthetics and makeup when the characters are constantly moving and sweating?
Oh yes. Absolutely. Yeah. Any time you’re dealing with dirt or blood — you want to maintain continuity from shot to shot, and that becomes incredibly difficult when you’re dealing with the elements. You dress blood onto somebody’s forehead and then they do a stunt, and suddenly they’ve sweated the blood down across their face, and now you have to match future shots to that. Or you have to clean it all up and start over, matching up with your original. The environments we shot Logan in were incredibly grueling. There’s a farmhouse sequence we shot in Natchez, Mississippi, in the middle of summer. It was a midnight shoot, and the mosquitoes were voracious. I don’t think I’ve ever been bitten as many times as I was over that week and a half of night shoots. That was horrible. You suffer sometimes. You deal with it — you schlep your stuff up a mountain and work all day in the blazing sun. But you look forward to the end of the process, where you’re going to be sitting in a theater, watching your work on film. At that point, you know it’s going to be worth it, you’re going to be happy you did it, because it’s all up on-screen.
What about Logan was particularly challenging besides the mosquitoes? What did you have to experiment with?
Not having done a really graphically violent film in a long time. I’ve done a lot of PG, PG-13 films recently. Coming into something as brutally violent as this, you really have to change your sensibility. These blades that come out of Logan’s knuckles are gigantic. In the real world, which is what this film is preaching, if he slashes somebody… Coming from the PG-13 world, my impulse is that the slashes he makes aren’t as deep, as long, as graphically explicit as they needed to be. It took me a while to wrap my head around that, but it happened within the first couple of days. We were on set, so we just remade everything, deeper and nastier and more real. And then we were off to the races. The restraints were off, and we were all on board with what we knew we were making.
How do you handle visual references?
Coming from an art background, I’ve taken anatomy classes, and I have a wealth of reference material. And it’s all a click away — you can find as much horrific imagery on the internet as you could possibly want. But I don’t think we use that so much. We’re all artists. We know what lies beneath the surface of the skin, beneath the fat layer, beneath the muscle layer. There’s a way to do this work where you just smear blood on something, and it’ll look okay, but it doesn’t look real. Then there’s the way we did it, the way it should be done, where you take pride in those layers, and you artfully direct them out, so that when you do add the blood, it pools and coagulates in the right places, and it looks believable.
I try to steer away from looking at the real bad stuff as much as I can. Sometimes it’s necessary, but you never want to look at someone who’s been injured. It’s very unfortunate. Sometimes you need it for reference, so you look at it and try to maintain it in your head, so you don’t have to go back to it. But every now and then you have to refamiliarize yourself with these things, and the internet makes it easy.
You’re currently shooting on the set of Marvel’s Black Panther, where again, you weren’t on the film that introduced the lead character’s look. What’s it been like integrating into a series where the house look is so well established?
There’s still a lot of creativity. Again, it’s like “What movie are we making? Let’s all gear our sensibilities toward that.” I can’t say too much about what we’re doing. Marvel’s security’s really tight. I’ve said too much already! But there’s a lot of creative possibilities on this one. I feel the urge to up my game with every new project that comes along. Because if you don’t, you’re gonna get left in the dust. If you don’t treat this art form with respect, there’s 50 others that will.