In its fourth week of release, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 still managed to pull in more than $20 million at the domestic office — a testament to the strong word-of-mouth surrounding the sequel, which looks incredible from top to bottom.
The sequel brings back all of your favorite characters and introduces some new ones as well, such as Will Poulter‘s golden-hued Adam Warlock. Most of these characters — with Rocket and Groot among the key exceptions — were brought to life practically, with human performers sporting makeup, prosthetics, wigs, and the like. That forced Director James Gunn to give a lot of responsibility to Hair Department Head Cassie Russek and Makeup Department Head Alexei Dmitriew, who convincingly pulled off the gargantuan task before them.
Both have worked on large-scale projects before, as Russek counts Westworld, Birds of Prey, and Black Adam among her credits, while Dmitriew worked on X-Men: Apocalypse, The Mandalorian, and The Book of Boba Fett. His Marvel efforts include Captain Marvel, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, while she joined the party with Infinity War, Captain Marvel, and the Holiday Special.
Below the Line recently caught up with Cassie Russek and Alexei Dmitriew via Zoom for an in-depth 30-minute conversation, during which they discussed the preparation involved in maneuvering through something as massive as Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3, addressed how their departments seamlessly worked together, and shared what it’s like to see fans cosplay their character creations on Halloween.
Below the Line: How pleased are you with the reaction to the film?
Cassie Russek: It’s been amazing. It’s been so cool to have people calling and texting, saying how much they love it. You want to make sure that people do love it, but it’s been so positive. People have been so overwhelmingly happy and joyous about it, so it’s been nice.
Alexei Dmitriew: I agree. You put so much work and effort into a film and making sure all this stuff is right [and] it looks good. It’s cool when people think the same thing [and] they all like what you did and everybody’s excited. You work on a lot of stuff through the years and not everything is a huge success. Not everything is as emotional as Guardians 3 is, and so it’s also very special to be a part of something so cool.
BTL: At the end of the day, what do you like to think is your contribution to Guardians 3?
Dmitriew: Our contribution was the makeup, then practical makeup effects, and working alongside Legacy Effects, who designed all of the prosthetics. I manage the on-set team, and we do everything together to make sure the day-to-day looks good. We’re responsible for that, and that’s what we did. We did a pretty good job of it.
Russek: What’s so cool is getting to take elements — hair and makeup-wise — from the first films and Infinity War, even aliens from other planets and films… [and] get to [work on] something that someone else has done. So, you’re paying tribute to those people. But when we enter into new planets, we get to design things ourselves. We get to contribute to all-new characters and it’s so exciting. Let’s say another character, a one-off character, goes to do another movie. Then somebody will be paying homage to us [and our work]. It was great because Alexei — sorry, I’m telling your story — but Alexei spent so much time with Legacy Effects creating character bibles and making sure that everything was going to be right [and] that James Gunn loved it all. We got to pay tribute to past films and create new things for this one, which was exciting.
BTL: Between the two of you and your teams, 22,500-plus prosthetic appliances were used on 100 principal actors and more than 1,000 background performers, as well as 500 wigs and 130 facial hair pieces. How do you prepare for a project this big, and how far in advance do you have to start planning? I’m also curious how COVID factored into the equation.
Dmitriew: I started prepping [at] the beginning of Summer 2021, and then I believe we started shooting somewhere around the end of October 2021. So, five months of prepping. We had about six weeks leading up to the film where we were at the stage of doing makeup tests. A lot of tests and prep, tests for Adam Warlock, tests for all different goals, and making sure that looked good. The Humanimals were coming in. We were starting to organize and look at some of that, but we knew we were going to be possibly losing artists due to COVID. We still had contact tracing. All that was still in effect.
During those six weeks of prep, we held classes within our core groups so that we taught everybody how to do every makeup. We had the Gamora team teach a Gamora class. It wasn’t on Zoe [Saldaña], but it was on doubles or on each other. It was the little tips to look for and how to paint it. Everybody had a bible and a folder that we wrote our notes in so that, if somebody was sick and they popped out — which happened — then somebody else was able to step in and confidently do that makeup. It was making sure that we were prepped. You just try to be as organized as possible. You try to break everything down to have the shooting schedule. Lars Winther — our first AD and producer — he’s amazing at doing schedules. They set us up to try to succeed as well. We had to bob and weave through the mess of COVID, but the creation paid off.
Russek: We jokingly always said, “Charts!” [because] we had a lot of charts. Everything was broken down into some type of chart because, with the sheer volume of it all, we had to be organized. There was no other way to do it. Alexei and I got to do the charts together. We made sure, “Oh, this person’s face would fit this prosthetic, but their hair is great. Can we switch that person out?” We were working in a team during all those fittings. We had a lot of show and tell. Like Alexei was saying, we tried to go in as prepared as we could. The classes were so essential because if somebody got sick with COVID, and then contact traced five people, everyone had to know how to do everything.
We were doing classes on how to do Karen Gillan because Karen gets a full bald wrap hair prep, which is very complicated. Everyone learned how to do that. Every single wig, everyone learned to do because if someone was out, you couldn’t just say, “Oh, the Gamora double belongs to you.” “Nope, you’re out. So the Gamora double? Someone has to do it.” That was how we approached everything as far as all that goes.
BTL: Leads, supporting actors, day players, background… everyone goes through hair and makeup. How in sync are the two of you and your departments? Are you two halves of one whole or some kind of a two-headed monster?
Dmitriew: I’d say a two-headed monster. Yeah, I like that. We built charts with each other. We checked in. We worked with our AD department well. We worked with our Costume Department as well. We made sure that all of our times are correct. We check in with our artists, “How much time do you need to do this? How much time do you need to execute this?” We built flowcharts in the morning and during the day. We tried to time everything out — working with production and each other — making sure it all syncs up and gets done. Sometimes, it took a lot of people to do that.
Russek: Every time you ask somebody, “How long is it going to take to achieve this?” you say, “Give me your real time. Don’t give me a spruced-up, ‘I can do this in 20 minutes’ time. Give me your real time.” That way we could build in the exact time everything’s going to take so that we don’t ever undershoot time and then we’re out of time. It was important for us to make sure everyone’s timing was spot-on. Everyone gets timers. If your timer goes off, we’re looking at you going, “What happened?” For the most part, no one did that. It was organized. We made sure, especially in the Hair Department. We’re a little bit more mobile.
Our makeup artists were set with all of their paints, glues, and everything. We made sure every hairstylist was set up with a rolling tray so that they could do a hair prep and then go apply a wig, or finish off the hair with their makeup artists. It was very important to say to everyone at the beginning, “Get to know your makeup artists. If you’re paired with whoever, go get to know them. Go ask questions. Go talk to them. Make sure you guys like each other. If you don’t like each other, pretend.” Pretty much everyone loved each other, but you had to become in sync with everyone because otherwise, it was too much back and forth. You’re wasting time having an actor go from one chair to another chair. I tried to make sure that most of the hairdressers were mobile so that we could get to our makeup artists and make sure that everyone was getting what they needed.
BTL: I’m going to throw you five names and ask each of you to comment either on working with them or dealing with their characters. Let’s do this speed round-style. First up, James Gunn.
Russek: Collaborative, incredible, kind. Creative genius, great writer.
Dmitriew: He’s a guy who knows what he wants and what he’s looking for, which helps you get in the zone and focus on something to make it perfect. The clear direction definitely helps the artistry.
BTL: Karen Gillan, who didn’t shave her head this time around.
Russek: You know what? Karen not shaving her head is good for her because she was getting married, and we wanted to make sure she had good hair for that wedding.
BTL: And she did!
Russek: She did.
Dmitriew: On Karen not shaving her head, we worked with our Hair Department well to make sure that the head shape looked correct, and that James was happy with it.
BTL: Sticking with her for a moment, her eyebrows were so much more expressive in this film. The character hasn’t just emotionally evolved, she has evolved physically as well.
Dmitriew: Yeah. 100 percent. That’s the backstory. She and Rocket have spent so much time together. He’s been helping evolve her and fix her up. It’s even not pointed out that [he] was a part of that; it’s implied. During the design process, in the meetings, James was talking about that and that’s what he wanted to see. It was a little story, a backstory, [as] told through makeup, which is cool.
BTL: Chris Pratt in a wig, and we’ve got the expanding face sequence…
Dmitriew: He was a super champ. We did a two-stage prosthetic makeup and three-stage makeup when he was in space. [For] the first stage, Jane Galli — his personal makeup artist — did some frost and started to do light coloration. We did a two-stage prosthetic makeup so basically VFX could morph it back and forth. When he comes and he lands, he’s in the third stage. It had air bladders inside the makeup so we could control it and move it. It gave VFX a place to work from. It was a great marriage between practical and VFX.
Russek: I love that everyone’s loving Chris Pratt‘s hair this time around. It’s a little bit curlier. It’s a little bit messier. He’s like an alcoholic in the beginning — not an alcoholic — but he’s sad. He morphs through the film, from losing Gamora to being what he is now. The feedback has been so great. Doug Kirkpatrick did Chris Pratt’s hair, and so did the designer, Andrew [Simonin].
BTL: Zoe Saldaña also looked very different…
Russek: She did. Gamora is a Ravager, so she let her hair grow out. She’s not washing it. It’s dreaded up a little bit, but it’s still got that Gamora flare at the bottom. And it’s Zoe! She is so beautiful, funny, and good. This is my favorite Gamora has ever looked. Peter Tothpal, who designed the hair for Gamora, did a fantastic job.
Dmitriew: Legacy Effects did a great job of re-sculpting the makeup. Even though we stayed true to the look, it was a new sculpt for this because we had to update a few things — technical things — to make it work great. Her makeup artists were Vera Steinberg and Will Huff. Vera had done all of her makeup since Guardians, through Avengers and Guardians 2. Will has been on since Guardians 2, so he’s been through that process as well. They are a real well-oiled machine and they know what they’re doing. This is hands-down the best that she’s ever looked. They nailed it.
BTL: Chukwudi Iwuji.
Dmitriew: Chuck for short. He is a wonderful man, truly a pleasure to work with. He was so good in the chair. He embraced all of the makeups, prosthetics — all of this — and he let it tell the story of the character James wanted because he’s such a great actor. James wanted us to make sure that the center of his face and the integrity of [the] nuances in his performance was preserved, so we tried to make sure not to cover everything.
We stretched his face in a little bit of different areas, but he was so great. I’m so glad he’s getting such a great reception from this because the movie is only as good as what the bad guy is. If the bad guy is not that bad, then the stakes aren’t that high. James did a great job [of] making him pretty evil. In the end, everybody despised him and he embraced that. He knocked it out of the park. He was amazing.
Russek: Yeah, it was the same for us. James wanted him to look different than any other villain has ever looked, so it was cool to come up with the haircut we did for his flashback scenes. We brought in this amazing barber named Tommy Dudley, and he executed that haircut. Boom! One time. That was all it needed. We wanted to make sure that the haircut could clear all of the prosthetics that Alexei was doing, and that he looked cool; that he was going to be fine with it for nine months of shooting, in his real life. He’s a trouper. He’s so collaborative and kind and a phenomenal actor.
BTL: I just threw out five names. I’m going to ask each of you to give me one person you want to talk about.
Russek: I would say somebody with hair, but one of my favorites — and I’ll say this for Alexei — is Natalia Safran, who plays the Controller. She has no hair, but I think she’s so beautiful. People are like, ‘Why do you think she’s so pretty?’ Maybe because Natalia is pretty, I don’t know. I just thought she was an amazing character.
Dmitriew: There [are] so many good people. Daniela [Melchior] was amazing. She played Ura [and] she embraced it. Cassie did a great wig on her. She was a trouper, wearing contacts and full body paint. She was amazing, and her team, too — Nicole Amos and Samantha Ward did her makeup [and] they did a great job.
Russek: I’ve never seen a Krylorian as beautiful as Daniela.
BTL: How often did you have to stop people from taking their wigs or their prosthetics home with them, and how did you try to prevent that from happening?
Dmitriew: Everybody on this was a real professional, even our background actors. In the very deep background, we had people wearing masks. Some of them were alien masks. It wasn’t all prosthetics because we have so many people. We just needed to fill up these big background scenes. Everybody was so well-behaved and wanted to take care of everything. Our main cast is amazing. Everybody takes care of their wigs. Everybody knows how important all this stuff is, and so everybody took care of everything. Sometimes, with the background people, they’re excited to show their families and friends, but everyone was respectful and I feel like everybody did a great job. No spoilers. Everybody waited until the end — until it was released — to start showing things.
Russek: Everyone was super-professional.
BTL: Fans love to cosplay as these characters that you’ve helped bring to life, so what’s it like to see Mantis at a screening, Gamora at Comic-Con, or Drax knocking on your door on Halloween?
Russek: It’s so cool. I don’t ever get tired of seeing that kind of stuff. I can’t wait to see people do Adam Warlock this year. I love it when people do one-off characters, so I’m excited to see people do Ura from the Orgoscope. I’m excited to see people do Gamora’s long hair. That’s what I’m excited for.
Dmitriew: I’m excited to see two makeups. I’ve seen people do some great makeups through the years and that’s always so exciting. I look forward to seeing some people try to pull off the High Evolutionary’s look, of course. I’m excited to see some cool Kraglin makeups as well. Hopefully, some of them can pull off the fin and maybe some of the tattoos. It’d be great if they could do Sean [Gunn‘s] teeth, some cool gold Ravager teeth. Those are the two makeups I’m looking forward to seeing this Halloween.
Russek: I’m always impressed by the detail, by the way. Some of these cosplayers are so detail-oriented, down to what Alexei was saying about the teeth. I’m always amazed [at] how people can make molds out of things. I just saw somebody do a Rocket cosplay out of clay and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing! How did you do this?’ Let’s see some Humanimals. I can’t wait. I hope people tag me [on social media].
BTL: What else are both of you working on? Are you stuck with the strike?
Russek: Stuck with the strike for me. I have a show called Lioness coming out. I do Zoe Saldaña’s hair. That’s coming out on Paramount+ sometime at the end of summer. I can’t wait for that.
Dmitriew: In August, I co-department headed Ahsoka for Disney+ and Star Wars. I do Rosario Dawson‘s makeup. I’m excited to share all of that because we did some cool stuff. Dave Filoni has written an amazing series, and I can’t wait for the world to see that. I’m pretty lucky that I have big sci-fi shows coming out this summer. It’s amazing. It’s like a “pinch-me” moment.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is now playing in theaters worldwide courtesy of Disney and Marvel Studios.