Oscar winner and Black Panther makeup artist Joel Harlow has a long list of credits to his name. He is the man behind the makeup on films and shows such as Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Star Trek and Star Trek: Beyond (for which he won the Oscar for Best Achievement in Makeup), Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mad Men, X-Men, and Logan. Most recently Harlow brought his talents to Black Panther where he was responsible for creating the tribal makeup, scars, and tattoos.
We spoke to Harlow about the challenges of working on a film like Black Panther and the process of combining the traditional with the futuristic.
TMR: When you find out you’re working on a movie like Black Panther, where do you even start the process of preparing?
Joel Harlow: A lot of research. Even though Wakanda is fictional, we were grounding all of our designs in the tribal looks of real African tribes. It was mountains and mountains of research both internet and books. Ryan (Coogler) had extensive research and of course Ruth Carter had extensive research and we just built upon that.
TMR: What are some of the places you took inspiration from in this research?
JH: We found our 5 tribes that make up Wakanda. And each one of those tribes we wanted to look noticeably different from the other tribes that you would recognize them at a glance. In designing those 5 tribes we used the rituals and the heritage of actual African tribes because there’s a wide range of looks within those tribes that we could then sort of extrapolate to create our tribes. Like our River Tribe for example with the lip plates which was derived from an actual African tribe. And that was their look. And we had face painting designs, tattooing, scarification- all unique to one of the 5 tribes in Wakanda.
TMR: It all looked really great and it’s all so visual- especially the scene where they’re having the “Fight for the Throne” ceremony and you get to see all the tribes there for the first time.
JH: The Warrior Falls scene. That’s when you really the 5 tribes standing next to each other. It is very apparent at that point the color combinations of facepainting and wardrobe that separate the tribes from each other. But they’re all part of Wakanda so there has to be a continuity to each of these tribes. You’re walking an aesthetic line. You don’t want them to stand out too much as not being part of the Black Panther world.
TMR: What was the most challenging part of bringing all of these things together?
JH: There are several characters in here each with their own unique challenges. Killmonger- Michael B. Jordan’s- scarification was pretty challenging. In the second Warrior Falls sequence…he’s completely shirtless and fighting and in water. Water is a natural enemy of prosthetic makeup. And so it was a lot of action and a lot of contact during the fight sequences. So that was very challenging, just maintaining that makeup. First of all, applying that makeup in the morning and then maintaining it throughout the day.
And Danai’s (Gurira) head tattoo. That was also very challenging. Makeup artists have applied tattoos before, but applying a tattoo on a head with all those compound curves, you can’t use the familiar techniques that you may have used say on the arms or on the legs or the body. So that requires several techniques to complete that tattoo look.
And then we also created the jackal mask that Killmonger steals from the museum and the panther and M’Baku’s mask. The wooden masks that they first wear during the Warrior Falls first fight sequence. There were a lot of challenges in this movie.
TMR: How did it come about that you guys got to design the masks for those scenes?
JH: I think initially because they fought in those masks there was consideration to make them so that they could adhere to our actor’s faces. But ultimately we ended up making them like you would make any kind of mask with a strapping system in the back and that held brilliantly, that held just fine. I think the reason they landed on our plate in the first place is that we may have had to go down the road of gluing them to Chad (Boseman) and Winton (Duke). But ultimately we didn’t. But we already had them in our plans and continued building them.
TMR: How did you decide how to combine the traditional things you said you were looking at in your research and make it fit the futuristic Wakandian society?
JH: That’s a very good question. Because when you’re looking at traditional African tribal makeup there is an organic quality to it because a lot of facial makeup is being applied by fingers or by sticks. We found our look for let’s just say the Border Tribe by extrapolating what the inspiration was into a future scenario where you have vibranium…everything else is so advanced so why wouldn’t makeup application techniques and face painting techniques or scarification application techniques be advanced as well? And thinking that through to what the end result would look like, but still have the same feeling of the tribe we were borrowing that look from. So what we did is we ended up sharpening lines and obviously we used brushes and other tools so that our application was very precise. We had vac-u-forms so that Shuri’s warrior tribal markings at the end of the film would go on the exactly the same place every day and be perfect as far as their symmetry and opacity of that makeup. So taking out some of the organic quality and replacing it with technological quality, but still maintaining the feeling of the inspiration.
First and foremost we wanted to be respectful to the culture that we were using as inspiration. Everything went back to its origin. No matter what we did, it had to fit with its origin. So even if we were doing high tech makeup, it still has to honor the tradition we were borrowing from.
TMR: How is working on a movie like Black Panther different from Logan, which is the other big superhero film you worked on recently?
JH: Every movie is different. You have a different crew, a different cast, a different story obviously. But working on Black Panther, I knew that it was something special from the very beginning. Not that the other films I’ve worked on aren’t, but I knew there was something different about this film. And to see it embraced the way it has been and to be a part of that is really humbling. You could feel it as you were making the film. You could feel that this was going to be something special.
TMR: What is one thing you think people don’t know or you want people to know about being a makeup designer and creating these practical effects?
JH: Just that it’s not just one person. It may be my name as the department head, but there were dozens of people who contributed in the makeup department to the look of this film. I think that anybody that says they did it themselves is trying to pull one over on people because it takes a village, just like filmmaking takes a village. I try whenever I can to give credit to my crew because without your crew supporting you, you’re lost.
Black Panther is currently in theaters.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity)
Header image courtesy of Deverill Weekes.