Emmy and Oscar-winning makeup artist Joel Harlow has been in the business for three decades, taking part in creating the worlds of films from the Pirates of the Caribbean series, to X-Men and Logan, to Marvel’s Black Panther.
Star Trek fans first got to know his handiwork through 2009’s reboot film, where he won the Academy Award for his contribution to J.J. Abrams’ first Kelvin Timeline film. Most recently, however, his work sprang to life as the driving alien makeup artist for 2016’s Star Trek Beyond, where he led a team that created more than 50 brand-new alien designs for the 23rd Century world of the film.
This week, Titan Books is debuting Star Trek Beyond: The Makeup Artistry of Joel Harlow, shining a spotlight on the artist’s creative work in the most recent Trek film, a 256-page hardcover release filled with behind-the-scenes images, insight, and never-before-seen photography of the making of the film.
We had the opportunity to sit down exclusively with Joel Harlow at the 2017 Star Trek Las Vegas convention this past August to discuss this new release.
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TREKCORE: This is the second book focused on the creative side of the Kelvin Timeline Star Trek films – the first being 2009’s The Art of Star Trek, in which you had a small part. But this one is all about your design work for Beyond. How did it come about?
JOEL HARLOW: Well, I was working with Joe Nazzaro, who was writing an interview with me for Prosthetics Magazine. After the interview was over, and we were talking about photos to release and whatever was documented, I was like, “Look, I documented this film more than any film I’ve ever documented.”
I’ve got over 5,000 photos and videos… I was flying my drone around the shop! This was documented start to finish and each one of the characters that we were making I documented start to finish – from design, concept, sculpture, life cast and molding, casting pieces, pre-painting, application tests, retests… there’s just a wealth of information on each one of these 50-plus characters.
That 2009 book had some of our work in it, but this new one is really a reward to the crew. They spent all these months and all this time, pouring blood, sweat, and tears into characters that you may never even see on film, or if you do, they cross in the background for a few seconds.
TREKCORE: So how did you take this mass of information and break it down for the book?
HARLOW: That was mostly Joe Nazarro. He structured how we would lay it out. It was by location — Altamid, Yorktown, and the Enterprise — and even though some of those characters cross over between the different locations, the different worlds, we kept them kind of divided that way.
Then, each chapter is on a character, and within each character section you’ve got the design work, the sculptures, text makeups, test sculptures, just things that you’d never see.
You know, that’s always my favorite part of like, say, you’re doing a DVD, all that behind the scenes stuff. That’s instantly what I go to – the outtakes, let me see the design process… and this book is loaded with that stuff.
TREKCORE: The dozens of new designs you brought to life in Star Trek Beyond — how do you even begin to take on such a massive challenge?
HARLOW: To enter into a film — any film — saying that you have to design 50 specialty characters… it’s overwhelming. We really pushed the envelope. Let’s do another one. Let’s keep making them. By the time we got up to Vancouver which is where we shot the bulk of the film, we had 46.
My wife came to me, and said, “You know, you’ve got 46, and it’s the 50th anniversary of Star Trek,” so then, certainly, we needed to make four more!
TREKCORE: So the “50 aliens” thing wasn’t a specific plan from the beginning?
HARLOW: No, she pointed it out! So then you think you’ve got 50, and that’s probably enough…. but then production comes up with another scene, and they ask for another alien… so we just kept going.
But you have to focus on your hero characters — your Jaylahs, your Kralls — and then you just, fortunately, work with your crew. I had a crew of 60 people and every one of them was a die-hard Star Trek fan. So by the time we finished one character, it was time to do another one.
TREKCORE: And then you and your wife both managed to put on the ears yourself as Vulcans in Beyond too — was that the first time you’d appeared in a film you worked on?
HARLOW: I was in makeup for The Lone Ranger, and a couple other things like a commercial I did, you know, but something of this magnitude, yes, it was the first time. Vulcans are a race of characters that are just so beloved; it’s definitely something I had to do.
TREKCORE: What was your Star Trek background before joining the team for the 2009 film? How familiar were you with the universe before that production began?
HARLOW: I grew up watching it at my grandparents’ house, and just remember being captivated by Spock — and as a kid, you were transported to different worlds. A different experience than any television I’d seen before.
TREKCORE: Growing up with that, what does it mean to you now being part of the process – and now seeing fans dressing up in your creations?
HARLOW: It’s so unusual! Watching the Original Series, never in a million years dreaming that I would one day be doing Leonard Nimoy’s ears [in the 2009 film].
Leonard was such a gentleman, he sat down in the chair and I first glued the ears on him, put the wig on and did the eyebrows — even if you don’t know Star Trek, you know Spock. Spock is iconic. And seeing him there, in full Spock makeup, was chilling. I still have goosebumps now thinking about it.
It’s great to see all the fans here [in Las Vegas], coming out to support Star Trek.
TREKCORE: How much did your work on the 2009 film influence you on Beyond?
HARLOW: Well, in the first film we were dealing with alien races that had already existed; redefining Romulans, and others. Certainly there were some background characters, but primarily I was dealing with Romulans and Vulcans.
It was trying to deliver something with 2009 techniques and materials that would elevate the makeup craft. So it was silicone, punched eyebrows so you don’t see lace; it’s taking everything that I had learned and pouring it into redefining characters and races that Trek fans had grown to love.
Those are huge shoes to fill.
TREKCORE: That’s a big part of what’s happening in the new television series; Neville Page and Glenn Hetrick’s work reimagining the look of the Klingons.
HARLOW: I’ve seen some of their imagery, but we actually had Neville’s design for a Klingon in Star Trek Beyond; we sculpted it out and ready to go.
Initially one of those scavengers on Altamid was going to be a Klingon when Jaylah first meets Scotty. But ultimately it never made it past the sculptural state — although, that sculpture is in the book. It’s all this stuff that this brilliant sculptor who worked with me, Joey Rosco.
As you know, we lost Leonard Nimoy during the production time of the film, and he did a tribute bust of him and that imagery is in the book too. It’s an amazing piece.
TREKCORE: Had you worked with Justin Lin before Beyond at all?
HARLOW: No, but on this film we just clicked. From the first couple of meetings where I would bring in designs and show him what we were thinking, he embraced it and just let us run with things – and by the end, I would just go to him and say “Hey, we’re gonna do this…” and he’d just tell us to go with it.
That kind of freedom as an artist really lets you feel unconstrained, and you can just create.
TREKCORE: Where do you find inspiration for your designs? Longtime Trek makeup lead Michael Westmore talks a lot about the things he sees in animals – what about your process?
HARLOW: Well, yeah, a lot of it is from nature. I have always been a big fan of the ocean — so deep sea life, you know, whether it’s plant or animal life, fish, whatever.
I draw a lot of inspiration from the creatures of the sea. The coloring, bioluminescence… there’s just so much down there, that is an alien world, right? There’s stuff down there that we haven’t discovered yet. The weird sea life that we’re discovering deep down? That lends itself so easily to this.
Natalia and Syl are very much inspired by that world. Now a lot of these aliens people may not know when I mention them by name, but when the book comes out they’re all named there. And those names, we came up with them because we needed an easy way to refer to the different designs.
There’s like fifty-some characters all with separate elements — this one’s got teeth, this one’s got horns, this one’s got eyes, hands, fins, whatever it is — we needed a way to reference them in the shop. So we started giving them names just so that our team knew who was who – and those names translated now into this book.
So in hindsight, maybe we should have spent more time on those names — like ‘Slug’? Like, come on! [Laughs]
TREKCORE: The design for Idris Elba’s character, Krall, changed very late in the Beyond pre-production stage, is that correct?
HARLOW: It was a very late change, yeah. We had spent so much time wavering over the look of Krall, and getting that right, and we thought we had it right. At one point it was going to have tracking lights in the sides of his head, but you can get into a dangerous situation when you overthink something so much you start scrutinizing each wrinkle, each shape; you can just work the magic right out of it.
There needs to be that artistic freedom and those happy accidents you may find as you’re creating a character as you’re sculpting and designing a character; you can homogenize the look and you end up losing the impact.
TREKCORE: Will the original Krall concept designs be included in the book?
HARLOW: Yes, all that’s in there. You’ll see, it could have been an interesting — but different — character, but it’s nothing like what he was in the final film.
TREKCORE: You’ve been part of a great number of productions over your career – how does Beyond rate in the films you’ve been involved with?
HARLOW: Beyond is absolutely my favorite project. I haven’t worked on anything before or since that offered me the creative opportunity like this. You know, 50+ characters that are all prosthetic-driven, that’s unheard of in this digital age.
But you know, that’s the Star Trek aesthetic, isn’t it? Primarily humanoid, it’s makeup-driven, maybe slight CG augmentation, but that’s what I think speaks to the Star Trek fan, that those aliens are relatable.
TREKCORE: There’s still a bit of a question if and when a fourth Star Trek film may come to fruition. If you were invited back, do you feel like you’ve used up your Star Trek creativity after the scale of your work for Beyond – 50+ new designs, and all that — or do you still have more to share?
HARLOW: No, no, no — those fifty designs were just the start! There’s easily quadruple that number still waiting.
While it all depends on the story, truthfully, if it’s bringing back characters that we know or re-imagining characters that we’ve seen on television, but if it’s similar to Beyond and we’re exploring more of the universe and finding new characters that we haven’t seen? There’s still a wealth of design – and I’m always coming up with more!
Seeing what worked in Beyond, I’d like to push that even further. I’m ready to jump back in if the call comes. I had such a great time and I can’t imagine there wouldn’t be anything I’d be involved in that I wouldn’t drop instantly to take on another Trek film.
Star Trek Beyond: The Makeup Artistry of Joel Harlow arrives in stores tomorrow – order your own copy below and watch for the our review of the new behind-the-scenes book here at TrekCore soon!