Imagine this: You go to work at 4 a.m., and your day starts with your butt in an upright chair, for an hour and a half to two hours — and the whole time, someone is gluing stuff to your face.
This is what life is like for Doug Jones, Mary Chieffo, and the other actors playing aliens on “Star Trek: Discovery.” The stars begin their workday by spending hours sitting in makeup, getting transformed into Klingons and Vulcans and Kelpians. It’s a process that viewers tend to take for granted, but is a physically and mentally grueling process for both the actors as well as the artists, who work equally hard on making the unreal possible.
“Star Trek: Discovery,” which is now in production on Season 2, shoots in Toronto. But the detailed special effects makeup and specialty armor that transforms the cast into the diverse denizens of the future are created at Alchemy Studios in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley.
A few weeks before production began on Season 2, IndieWire visited Alchemy for a tour and an in-depth look at how these effects come alive on screen. The space, filled with models ranging from character busts to full-sized models, was almost entirely devoted to “Trek”-related elements, including the Klingon Torchbearer exo-suit in the reception area, and at least one vintage “Next Generation” bat’leth hanging on an office wall.
Alchemy CEO and “Discovery” makeup effects department head Glenn Hetrick was the one conducting the tour and revealing the amazing advances in how 3-D printing has changed the process of designing and executing special effects makeup. But the most interesting insight he offered had nothing to do with the technology involved.
The Power of Positivity
In Hetrick’s experience, “one of the cancers of the makeup trailer is that it becomes a rumor mill and a very negative environment. When you’re in the makeup trailer and you have all these people talking about the people who were on the movie they just did and how horrible they were, and how horrible that producer is, and how horrible that actor is — that really starts to degenerate the spirit of the makeup trailer.”
So for Hetrick’s projects, the most important part of the production process comes down to who he hires, especially on a new series like “Discovery,” because it can’t just be about who’s available. “Months before, you gotta do the work, you gotta call the best people and say ‘I really like you on this — are you interested?'”
Hetrick’s pick to lead the team in Toronto was James MacKinnon, a seven-time Emmy nominee (and four-time winner) for his makeup work on shows like “Nip-Tuck,” “CSI: New York,” and “American Horror Story.” However, his career really began with the alien worlds of “Space: Above and Beyond” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” in the mid-1990s. (His first Emmy nomination was for the “DS9” episode “Apocalypse Rising,” where he helped make up 15-20 Klingons for one scene.)
Hiring someone like MacKinnon, according to Hetrick, was imperative in order to make sure that the mood in the makeup trailer would be an upbeat one. “Keeping [the actors] happy and positive is as important as the edges blending well,” Hetrick said.
And on a new project, “we don’t know what the actors’ personalities are — you haven’t seen these people yet. So you need people you’ve been on set with, who you’ve been to war with,” he said. “I’ve worked with these guys before, I know they can get four hours of sleep and come in and it’s positivity, it’s playing music, it’s having fun. That doesn’t mean it’s relaxed or slower, but you’re very conscious about what the performers are going through and you’re there to lift their spirits because they’re tired, and the beginning of the day is the most important part.”
The actors did pick up on that. “I tried to come in with a positive attitude and a sense of humor, even if it’s 4 a.m.,” said Chieffo, who plays Klingon leader L’Rell.
Music plays a big role in the process: While in the Alchemy studios, they’ll play an eclectic selection of heavy metal, punk, and comedy albums. Glenn said he’ll frequently begin the day in the makeup trailer by playing classical music. “It’s really nice and it chills you out and it gets your brain firing,” he said. “It’s a good morning thing.”
But usually the people in the chair get to pick the soundtrack. Jones is a big Whitney Houston fan, and ’80s pop was in heavy rotation as well during Season 1. Chieffo recalled one morning where she, Jones, and co-star Anthony Rapp were all in makeup together, and because they were all “musical theater people,” they weren’t shy when it came to singing along with that morning’s playlist, even the pop tunes. “Pretty much any song, we were just willing to go in guns blazing,” she said.
“I Lean on This Man So, So Much”
But not every morning included a sing-a-long, especially when actors knew they had an intense day ahead of them. “What’s a tribute to James is that he’s so respectful of the actor’s process,” Chieffo said. “So on days where I was like, ‘You know what, I just need quiet,’ or, ‘I just need to run my lines,’ he would let Rea Nolan, our dialect coach come in, even just for her to say the lines to me — because a lot of times when I’m getting the makeup applied, I can’t use my mouth. He was just very respectful of what I needed on a day-to-day basis.”
IndieWire saw this respect in person after Hetrick’s tour, during an interview at the studio with MacKinnon and Jones (who had come in for a costume fitting as well). While this was their first project together, there was a clear camaraderie between them.
“As an actor going through this process, my day starts earlier than a human character would. And my day ends later than a human character because of the teardown and clean up time,” Jones (who plays Kelpian Starfleet officer Saru) said. “So, that means that I lean on this man, so, so much. I mean I really do. You have to be friends with your makeup artist when you’re in this situation, because you spend more time with him than anybody else.”
MacKinnon added: “We’re a little bit of a psychologist as well as a makeup artist. We listen to their problems and help them out, because we want them to go to set happy. And the hours are so bad — we’re working 100 hours a week — so we want it to be as fun as possible for ourselves.”
MacKinnon and his team, including key special effects makeup artists Hugo Villasenor and Rocky Faulkner, put a premium on the comfort of their actors, making sure they were aware of what they were going through. “During makeup school and even now sometimes, I will test something on myself, so I know how it feels and I know what he’s going through, what that glue feels like, what that material feels like,” James said.
When it came to comfort, there were plenty of systems in place for helping the actors, especially when it came to cooling off. “I have a pretty high tolerance for — I hate to say pain, because I was never in pain, but they knew that about me and so if I did ask for something, they were always really respectful of it,” Chieffo said. “I always felt in such good hands. It such a team effort. It’s all about the listening and communication. I feel so grateful that my first experience with prosthetics was with such an amazing team, that across the board, I feel like could talk to any of them, both on the creative side and the technical side.”