To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.
Joel Harlow is a makeup and special effects makeup artist and designer with a career spanning decades. He created 56 unique alien species for Star Trek Beyond and has been Johnny Depp’s makeup artist for many years. Recent screen credits include the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ films, Hellboy (2019), The Lone Ranger, Logan, Black Mass and Black Panther.
JOEL HARLOW: I always knew I wanted to create characters. After graduating from high school, I went to New York’s School of Visual Arts and enrolled in the animation program, since there were no makeup classes I could find – a far, far cry from today. I figured that I could create characters using two-dimensional techniques, stop-motion and clay animation, while still working on makeup techniques outside of school. It was here that I met some very talented artists working in the makeup effects world, and helped out on some of the projects they were working on at the time. After a couple of years in New York, I wound up on the makeup crew of Toxic Avenger 2 and 3. It was a rough project every step of the way! It was 24/7 work, for no money, with incredibly long commutes. But we did it because we loved it.
Those early projects really thinned the herd, leaving only the truly passionate. It’s different today. It’s so easy to enrol in a school and learn the techniques – we had to learn through experimentation and word of mouth. It’s almost too easy because, in my opinion, the struggle adds to the appreciation of the opportunity.
Anyway, after my time in New York, I relocated to Los Angeles where I shopped my portfolio around. I landed a job at Steve Johnson’s XFX, where I stayed for about eight years, learning from some of the industry’s most innovative artists and technicians. It was at the height of makeup effects – digital had not yet found its place, so effects that could be easily done digitally today had to be done practically. It was a great time for the industry.
CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?
JOEL HARLOW: When it comes to the actual nuts and bolts of what I do, I love that moment right when I finish a makeup – especially if it is a makeup that I have designed and sculpted. The moment when all the months of work and thought come together on an actor, and you see your character come to life for the first time. That ‘creation’ moment is priceless.
When it comes to this career, I love the people I work with. My crew. They are some of the very best I have ever worked – and played – with.
CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?
JOEL HARLOW: Well, I’m not sure about this one. We work in a world of fantasy, and I think its important we remember that. Artists are a sensitive breed, but all of the inevitable pressure and scrutiny that comes with a career in this industry is temporary. I’m not saying it should ever be treated lightly. I’m saying that you shouldn’t make it more than it is – both the failures and the successes. Family and friends – true friends – are far more important.
CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?
JOEL HARLOW: Every project poses its own challenges – that’s why it is so difficult to compare one film to another in an awards arena. No two films offer the same opportunities or obstacles. I would say that budget and time oppose quality at every turn. The biggest challenge I’ve ever faced is trying to maintain that quality in the face of those obstacles. Fortunately, my team has the same goal. It isn’t worth doing if it isn’t worth doing right.
CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?
JOEL HARLOW: One of the weirder challenges was on one of my very first films. I was shooting down in Florida on a low-budget horror film. Maybe it was my lack of experience at the time, but we hadn’t coordinated with the wardrobe department when we started building our prosthetic makeups. This particular makeup was a melting, bubbling skin victim of demonic possession – go figure. Well, I built the prosthetics up to the mid-forearm, thinking the wardrobe would be a long sleeve shirt. He came out of his changing room in a tank top. Fortunately, the colour of the makeup was a purple and brown mix, so I filled the bare skin on his arms with peanut butter and jelly from the craft service table! It worked.
CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?
JOEL HARLOW: When I started out, the movie magic in character creation really focused on practical makeup effects. As the digital art form gradually advanced, there was absolutely a swing away from makeup effects. Recently, however, I’ve noticed a slight swing back towards practical makeup. The recent films I’ve worked on have been very much a collaboration between the two art forms. There are obstacles in building that I absolutely count on the visual effects departments to help with, just as there are practical elements that we have created for those departments. With an open dialogue and mutual respect, we have all created some pretty amazing cinematic moments.
CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?
JOEL HARLOW: Advancements in materials and techniques have continued ever since I started out. We have materials now that allow for more realistic skin prosthetics, stronger and lighter moulds and parts. I think I would like to see an advancement in the field of digital printing. There is very immediate crossover potential in this arena that hasn’t been completely explored yet. Easier, faster, more and more user-friendly, rigid and flexible printouts. It’s coming.
CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?
JOEL HARLOW: You need to love it. When I started out, I would work on films for free, just to get the experience. Information and materials were much harder to come across than now – today, there are dozens of really well-designed makeup schools. I think, overall, that’s a great thing. The one critique I’d voice is that, if anything, it has become too easy to follow this path. Don’t get into this business because you want to work on movies or meet movie stars. Do it because you love the art form. Do it because you want to create characters. Whether you are being paid or not, always create! It’s a great thing to have ambition as long as its supported by passion.
CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?
JOEL HARLOW: An American Werewolf in London has everything. An amazing transformation presented in bright light, an outside-the-box werewolf design, a gradual decomposition progression of a main character from makeup to puppet over the course of the film, and a showcase of imaginative dream-demon characters. It still inspires me as much as it did the first time I viewed it.
Then there’s The Thing. It’s one of the first films that really inspired me. Every transformation effect in The Thing is mind-blowing, and continues to inspire me.
Finally Jaws, by far my number one cinematic experience. It is about as close to a perfect film as I’ve seen, in spite of – or because of – the technical issues that the crew faced making it. I could watch it on a loop and never get tired of it.
CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?
JOEL HARLOW: Popcorn! Movies and popcorn – it just fits.
CINEFEX: Joel, thanks for your time!