4 Mind-Blowing Secrets Behind the Makeup in Black Panther

Go behind the scenes with Academy Award-winning makeup designer Joel Harlow!

By Alanah Joseph Dec 06, 2018 8:04 PMTags
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Since its debut, Black Panther has evolved from a movie to a cultural phenomenon with its epic tale of the technologically advanced society of Wakanda, an El Dorado-like land in Africa.

As the first of its kind, the Hollywood pros behind the film had to combine centuries of African tradition and their own universe-bending creativity to bring this story alive. For director Ryan Coogler, makeup designer Joel Harlow, who worked on the sets of Star Trek Beyond, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Green Lantern and Alice Through the Looking Glass, was a clear choice. 

Best Beauty at Black Panther Red Carpets

"When I met with Ryan, he had a wealth of information, visual references and historical information, books, website imagery, just a bunch of visual reference based on actual African tribes," the Academy Award-winning makeup pro told E! News. "In a movie like this, you can't stray too far from those looks. You can't make stuff up, otherwise you're not respecting the heritage of the tribes that you're borrowing from."

For the Oakland, CA-born director, Joel and their expansive teams, research and innovation were consistent themes throughout the creation and production of the film. 

"Wakanda is the most technologically advanced region on the planet," he continued. "We wanted to extrapolate from traditional, tribal looks."

So, the department head imagined what the cultural rituals, like facial paint, scarification, body modifications and lip plating, would look like if the people had tools that were far advanced from anything we have today. 

To sum it up, he said, "It was a technological representation of traditional African looks."

The crew created five distinct looks—one for each fictional tribe—as well as intensive details that are key to the stories of the main characters. 

Check out the mind-blowing beauty practices that went into the film below!

Marvel Studios

Erik "Killmonger" Stevens' scars took months to create.
In order to achieve the marks seen on Erik "Killmonger" Stevens' (a.k.a. N'Jadaka) chest, the makeup crew made each hashmark individually, starting months prior to filming.

Joel revealed, "It started with a body cast. We plotted out all of those hashmark scars on with a pencil and then take sheets of saran wrap and trace them onto those sheets and then transfer that onto a flat board, where we sculpted hundreds and hundreds of hash marks."

Once the silicon molds of the scars were complete, the team filled each one with a thickened glue substance. It took two to four days for it to dry in the mold, making scar creation a carefully thought out practice.

Joel Harlow

When it was time to apply the scars to actor Michael B. Jordan, "Four of us, at three in the morning, were taking these sheet molds and pressing them on to Michael's skin and peeling them up, leaving those hashmarks on. Then, we blending them into the skin. It was like a three and a half hour process and then two hours at the end of the day getting them all off."

Marvel Studios

Okoye's tattoo was influenced by fighter pilot helmets.
"She is the General of the Dora Milaje, so her tattoo was designed to look like a fighter pilot helmet," he recalled of Danai Gurira's costume.

Initially, it appears as though the tattoo was drawn on—a simple on-set practice. But, the pro revealed that its creation was challenging and time-consuming.

Joel Harlow

"That was incredibly challenging," he continued. "You're dealing with tattoos that have to fit the curvature of a human head, which is round and has compound curves in it. It was a time-consuming and extensive application process and a combination of several tattoo application techniques."

You would need a background check to achieve the coloring of the tattoos in the film.
Going back to the movie's mantra of staying grounded within African tradition, "We wanted to take traditional tattoos and amplify them so they looked more modern," the makeup designer shared. "We played around with a variety of materials so that we could get them iridescent looking, so when the sun hit them they'd shimmer and glow, unlike a traditional tattoo."

On the set of Star Trek Beyond, Joel discovered just the product that would help him achieve the iridescence, but he would governmental permission to make it happen. 

Joel Harlow

"It's a powder that the government uses to print our currency," he shared casually. "There's a prismatic powder that shifts through three color spectrums so it makes it more difficult to counterfeit....It's something you have to sign a lot of paperwork just to get a little bit of. You have to have a background check to make sure that you're not a counterfeiter."

Yet, in Joel's innovation-first mindset, it was necessary.

"We wanted to show that this is a civilization that's far in advance of anything we've seen before," he finished.

Mission accomplished!

Marvel Studios

Some actors had to submit their teeth impressions prior to coming to set.
The facial jewelry had to be one of the most mind-blowing details of the film. The thought of having such a wide plate placed into your lip would make anyone unexposed to the tradition cringe, even just a little. But, as such a beautiful tradition, Ryan wanted to include it. 

"We borrowed heavily from the Mursi tribe of Africa for that look," the designer, with enough background to be a historian in his own right, said. "In their culture, they typically remove their bottom teeth so that the lip plate can fit in their mouth. Then, their lower lip is pierced and stretched around the lip plate."

To achieve the look, but ensure that it was temporary for actors, Joel's crew created their own way of doing it.

Joel Harlow

"We started that look by taking teeth impressions of our actors, and then sculpted that lower dental palette so that it looked like those front, lower teeth were missing," he revealed. "From there, we have a thin wire with a magnet on it. The magnet held a lightweight version of that lip plate. That's what kept it in place. It was a lot of work."

As the movie shattered box office records, it's safe to say that all of the hard work paid off.

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