‘Black Panther’ Makeup Artist Says He’s Never Seen a Film ‘Move People’ Like This

“Seeing kids and other artists trying to replicate makeups that we created … I absolutely love that!” Oscar-winning makeup artist Joel Harlow tells TheWrap

Black Panther makeup Joel Harlow

Since it hit theaters six weeks ago, the only thing in the movie world that gets people as excited as “Black Panther” is kids re-enacting “Black Panther.”

One of those kids has even gone viral. A boynamed Jordan wrapped himself in a purple bath towel to dress up as Wakanda’s wise mentor, Zuri, even going so far as to faithfully recreate the ceremonial face paint worn by Forest Whitaker as he declared that “the power of the Black Panther will be stripped away.”

The man who designed that facepaint, makeup artist Joel Harlow, has worked on hit films such as “Logan,”  “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Star Trek,” the latter of which earned him an Oscar. But seeing kids like Jordan recreate his work as they dress up as Zuri, Okoye, and Nakia has been one of the greatest rewards in his career.

“It’s a movement, and I don’t think any film I’ve worked on before has moved people the way this film has,” Harlow told TheWrap. “It’s redefining how future movies are going to be made, so being a part of that in a visual sense was really thrilling, and seeing kids and other artists trying to replicate makeups that we created … I absolutely love that!”

All of the face paint, tattoos and piercings worn by the people of Wakanda were inspired by actual African tribes, which were researched by director Ryan Coogler and his team, including costume designer Ruth Carter and production designer Hannah Beachler. Together, they compared notes with Harlow and created the complete design for each of Wakanda’s five tribes.

For Harlow and his team, one group that was a major inspiration for their work was the Surma, the collective name given to the tribes who live in southwest Ethiopia. There, women in tribes like the Suri and Mursi tribes regularly remove their bottom teeth and have their bottom lips pierced and stretched with a lip plate as a sign of inner strength.

This lip plate is seen being worn by the leader of the River Tribe in “Black Panther,” but Harlow had to find a way to replicate it without forcing anyone into some serious dental reconstruction.

“What we did was we made a dental piece that was worn on the lower teeth and had a magnet,” he said. “The lip plate would attach to the magnet and then we’d use makeup to put fake skin around the outside of the plate and then blend it in. It took a few times to get the blending right so that it would look good at all angles of the camera.”

The Surma are also known for marking their bodies with scars, something that inspired the scars that cover Erik Killmonger’s chest. For Harlow, creating those scars for actor Michael B. Jordan was the film’s biggest challenge, especially considering that the makeup needed to be waterproof for Killmonger’s waterfall battle with T’Challa.

“There were four of us applying the makeup onto Michael for three-and-a-half hours, and it consisted of about 80 silicone molds,” Harlow explained. “And in those molds was a glue with the actual scarification mark, and there were about a hundred of those in each mold.”

Jordan’s body would be covered with these scars in a jigsaw pattern, which were first mapped out by Harlow’s team with a cast of the actor’s body. After hours of applying the molds, the silicone would be peeled off, leaving the scars made from glue in their place and using makeup to blend it in.

But the job wasn’t done there. Whether it was the humidity of the set in Atlanta or the wear and tear that comes with wearing costumes over the scars or filming in water, Harlow had to constantly fix and reapply the scars throughout the shoot.

“And then at the end of the day, we had to spend another two hours with him scrubbing oil on him to get the stuff off. But I gotta give it to Michael, he was a really great sport and was so patient through the entire process,” he said.

Harlow has received three Oscar nominations with one win, and it remains to be seen whether the popularity of “Black Panther” will push him to his fourth. In the meantime, he is working on the pilot for CBS’ upcoming reboot of “Magnum P.I.,” and moviegoers will next see how he transformed David Harbour into Hellboy in the demonic hero’s upcoming reboot next year.

But before then, he’ll see his Wakandan work appear again next month in “Avengers: Infinity War,” where Black Panther and his allies will play a major role in the film’s climax. All the creative forces at Marvel Studios work closely together from film to film, and that extended to Harlow as he and his team shared their notes with the “Infinity War” artists on how to get all the Wakanda makeup just right.

“When we worked on ‘Black Panther,’ we were so focused on trying to respect the cultures we were taking inspiration from, so we supplied everything Wakandan to the ‘Infinity War’ team,” Harlow said. “I wasn’t able to work on the film because I was doing ‘Godzilla: King of Monsters’ at the time, but some of the artists from our team also helped out on ‘Avengers’ to make sure the makeup was just right.”