Costume Musings

An Insider look into Star Trek: Discovery‘s Alien Prosthetics

It was the last hour of the last day of IMATS Toronto and while things were winding down on the exhibit hall side, seats of the Open Forum stage were filling up for Star Trek: Discovery; one of the most anticipated panels of the weekend. Make-Up Artist magazine’s publisher, Michael Key, sat down with  prosthetic and special effects make-up department head, James MacKinnon; key make-up artist, Hugo Villasenor; and actor, Doug Jones.

  

Discovery is the newest installment in the Star Trek universe set to premiere September 24, 2017. The narrative takes place ten years before Star Trek (TOS) so it was of particular interest to us to see how the special effects make-up would bring something new to the table while staying true to the continuity of the universe established by Kirk and his crew. Early preview images show the Klingons in particular looking drastically different from their TOS counterpart. When asked if this was a stylistic decision or plot-driven change, MacKinnon claimed it was purely an artistic choice. We’ll have to wait to watch the series to see if his words hold any weight since the entire panel had to be very careful to not spoil any narrative elements.

To keep things focused on the technical aspects of make-up, the panel brought on actor Doug Jones and centred around the development of his character, Lt. Saru the Kelpien. Kelpiens are a new alien species to the franchise. As seen in the teaser pilot, Kelpiens were biologically determined to sense the coming of death as they are characterized as the “prey” species on their planet. Lt. Saru subverts the cowardly stereotype of his species, and becomes the first Kelpien to join Starfleet. Saru’s look had to convey a character that was distinctly memorable and lovable. It seems like he is positioned to be the Data or Spock of the series, so his ability to connect with audiences was important.

That need for connection between Jones’s performance and audiences was the basis for finalizing a design that could be executed using prosthetics instead of relying on CG. Everything from the actor’s natural height to the way he had to move on hoofed platform shoes (putting him at a towering 6’8”) contributes to the physicality of the character. Everything you see on screen is 100% the actor’s performance through the prosthetics. There was one exception for digital enhancement regarding the Kelpien ears, but since that was a narrative-based detail the panel couldn’t reveal too much other than to say “something cool happens”.

Before Jones can saunter around on set like a graceful gazelle, he has to sit in the make-up chair for around 2 hours while MacKinnon meticulously works on painting his prosthetics. Lt. Saru is comprised of 5 pieces: cowl, face, chin, bottom lip, and sclera contact lenses. Most of the prosthetics on the show are prepainted during production to provide the base coloring but the rest is done by make-up artists on set. Using a combination of 6 colors, MacKinnon creates the textures and realism of Kelpien skin (for those curious, the brand of paint he uses is Skin Illustrator).

Fresh prosthetics are used every day as they found it more efficient to cut the actor out at the end of shooting and repaint another set. The prosthetics for Saru are created from a 2 part silicon called Smooth-On Skin Tite, so once all the pieces are attached in the morning it becomes one continuous skin around the actor. In the above picture, you can see what Jones looks like after the back of his prosthetics are sliced down the center back and peeled forward. To date, Mackinnon has done the Kelpien make-up about 70 times.

While the panel was quite hush hush on what other jaw-dropping looks they created (as to not spoil any upcoming alien encounters), they did touch on a few other characters who were revealed in the pilot. Sarek (Spock’s dad) played by James Frain is not as heavy on the prosthetics but he sits in the make-up chair just as long as Jones does while the make-up and hair department painstakingly apply facial hair, lace, and skin blockers to create the iconic Vulcan look. You wouldn’t know it just by looking at Frain’s normal photos, but his real hair is actually used and styled into the Vulcan fringe.

Mackinnon and Villasenor both stressed the importance of creating depth and texture when doing body painting work as one solid color never looks good. That’s a tip cosplayers should certainly keep in mind when doing characters with full body paint. Be sure to accentuate your features with shading and don’t be afraid to texturize a bit to make it more realistic.

For any Star Trek fans in the Greater Toronto Area, the panel did reveal that the bulk of filming is done inside Pinewood Studios, but they have shot on location in a forest and quarry near Mississauga. Should any of you aspiring Discovery cosplayers be looking for screen accurate shoot locations, there’s a neat tidbit for you!

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