When Oscar winner Joel Harlow received a call in early 2016 from executive producer Jeffrey Chernov, with whom he’d worked on Star Trek, the makeup designer was merely told to keep the end of his year open. “Jeffrey was going to be producing Black Panther,” Harlow recalled of the highly-anticipated Marvel Studios project. “Anything Jeffrey asked me to do, I’m all aboard. It was doubly exciting—I knew it would pose a lot of challenges.”
As Marvel has a substantial talent pool of artists doing their pre-production artwork, Harlow had much to work with when he eventually came on board. “When you translate that project to three dimensions, it goes through another design process,” Harlow stated. “There was a lot for us to conceptualize.”
From Harlow’s studio in Van Nuys, he started the creative process, doing the first round of makeup tests before moving to a scaled-back shop in Atlanta. First on Harlow’s list of characters was Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, whose makeup was going to feature intensive scarification. Simultaneously, he designed iridescent tattoos and a mud makeup for T’Challa, portrayed by Chadwick Boseman—to be implemented for shots in which he fights Killmonger at the waterfalls – the set that sees the most action.
Additionally, Richie Alonzo started sculpting stretched lip appliances for the River Tribe.
In the fight at the water falls set, Jordan was completely shirtless, revealing plentiful scarification. “Each one of those represent someone he’s killed,” Harlow explained. “We had done a version of Killmonger’s scarification that looked much more ornate; it didn’t sync with what it was supposed to do—Killmonger is doing it to himself.”
After producing a full body cast of Jordan, Harlow and his team drew hash marks on the positive of Jordan. “We traced the body in sections, and then transferred those hash marks onto a flat board,” detailed Harlow. “We sculpted and molded the scars in a clear silicone. Initially, we were going to do silicone prosthetics, but we did a Bondo Pros-Aide Transfer—being a thickened glue already, they stuck pretty well.”
Though Killmonger’s scars were carefully applied, the fight in the water would prove profoundly challenging. “Water is the natural enemy of prosthetics,” Harlow conveyed. “It was constant maintenance over the course of the shoot. All of that contact in humid Atlanta, they started coming off.”
Harlow and his crew “chased” their actors on the elaborate waterfall set and made sure that the scars were fixed 100% for each shot throughout the full week required to get the scene in the can. As always, there was more work to be done. “At the end of the day, they don’t want to come off,” Harlow quipped of the scars. “We were always there for another several hours. Michael never complained once—that is something I would expect anyone to rightfully complain about.”
Atlanta makeup artist Addison Foreman, plus California-based Lennie MacDonald, and Harlow each applied the scars, while makeup artist Sian Richards handled Boseman’s looks after the initial round of tests. Alonzo handled makeup applications during the film’s additional photography.
Another major challenge for Black Panther’s makeup department was Okoye’s head tattoo—the character was portrayed by Danai Gurira. “It was very complicated,” Harlow stated. “Ken Diaz and Kentaro Yano designed that tattoo,” explained Harlow. “We had to shave Danai’s head every day—the head contains many compound curves. It took about three-and-a-half hours; that tattoo was a combination of transfer, stencil, and line pen work to get that look more than 30 times. Shutchai Tym Buacharern was her beauty artist.”
Black Panther consisted of numerous additional elements to be realized by the team in the makeup department, including exotic tribal masks, sculpted by Joey Orosco, a prosthetic arm cannon for the character of Ulysses Klaue, played by Andy Serkis, and a neck piece for Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, which Orosco sculpted and was then realized in foam by Roland Blancafor. Harlow humbly noted that his department’s achievements were only triumphant insofar as they served the overall film. “Anytime a makeup pulls you out of the story, as well done as it could be, it’s not successful,” he said. “Everything had to mesh together in this: props, costumes, hair, makeup.”
With Black Panther having rolled out in winter of this year, the film is an unqualified smash. “You end up doing movies that are very dear to you,” reflected Harlow. “The reason I got into this is to create interesting characters. This one is very special; it’s touched a lot of people—it’s become a cultural phenomenon. It’s humbling to be a part of that.”