Star Trek Discovery completely retooled the look of the show from the previous series. Glenn Hetrick and James Mackinnon are the artists behind the new character designs and are responsible for making all of the alien characters come to life. At WonderCon 2018 we had the chance to sit down with them at a roundtable discussion and discuss their inspirations behind the designs and the challenges they faced when redesigning existing aliens like the Klingons, along with creating entirely new ones like the Kelpians.
There is a lot of synergy between the two of you… a lot of collaboration and prosthetics to the designs. How do you work together, what is the process that you tend to go to?
Glenn Hetrick: It has to be an incredibly distilled process. Because we design in LA, James is on set in Toronto applying. And we have to still deal with shipping and some things up there. So normally things go very smoothly. But there has been issues, where there are storms in the middle of an episode. So where boxes got stuck, in like a FedEx facility in Nebraska, or whatever. And so, you have to prepare for those eventualities right? So, it is a fine-tuned machine between… And when I say us, or Alf (Alchemy Effects), we’re talking about a group of 80 or 90 men and women are handling those. So just the shipping aspect alone is sort of its own art. Making sure everything is out. And that when they unpack it and know where everything is. So actually, giving that the attention that it deserves, as professionals, and highlighting how important it is that the stuff gets up there. A lot of times you will see a departure between the studio that builds and designs versus your on-set team. And it’s sort of in a box and, “Here you go. And good luck. We’re not there, not our problem.” Being a team and knowing how many challenges that they face in a day, and how many things can change… We are trying to take as much off of their plate when they are unpacking boxes and getting ready to apply stuff. And making it a smooth process is very important
How much of an input do you have, from the make-up side to the design side and vice versa?
James MacKinnon: Mine is just a… If something maybe needs to be changed, or I need a make-up broken down a little bit more. Or maybe, if it’s a four-piece make-up, let’s add a lip. A side lip, which will stay on longer. Have his, or her facial, movements move better. But we try to have these conversations in the testing period, when I’m in LA, before I go up. Those are the times… best to do it then than later.
What is the balance between the people who obviously the people from Canada and the people from here do they get involved in the creative or do they just follow directions?
Glenn: There’s multi-levels to it. So we start with the executives and myself and Neville will start with just words. And this is one of the things that makes the show so incredible. You do not get this opportunity, right… So here, we’re often episodes ahead. We started almost eight months out from when we were shooting. We are working off of just spoken concepts. Not even b-ported. Not even scripted. And we’re being included… A very rare experience. And being allowed to participate in the concept on paper as it’s written. Then we move that as we start to hone in on what episodes it’s gonna land in, which characters and male or female. So, for instance, with the Klingons, as we got closer and closer, I created a cultural axioms document for all the great houses. The concept behind that was, up till now, every house kind of looks the same. Why would that be? If you think about how on our planet how many different cultures… and the cultural patina that gives us our food, our architecture, fashion, or jewelry. What would it be like in the empire? They all grew up on different planets, they didn’t all grow up on Kronos. And they’ve been space faring for how long? We’re just this tiny new species really. So we’re trying to convey that, with the Klingon, that each house has its own individual look. So much so, that their skin, if you pay close attention, the delegates that we see in season one, in 102 and a few later, like Dennas and Ujilli. So you are seeing representative house Mo’Kai, and house D’Ghor, their skin tones are actually different. Just like us. So that’s one of those things that started so long ago, as just words and is played out as a main function of…or an evolutionary imperative in our design. So Neville will do a lot of that digitally. We’ll start with those conversations. He’ll present all these ideas digitally and we’ll look at various versions of it. And meanwhile, we will be testing physical things. Showing different skin tones samples, before we ever sculpted a Klingon. We don’t even have our actors yet. So then they cast the actors. And we are also very lucky they embrace the idea of try… It’s a very inclusive, generous, open environment. They let us speak to our actors. And we got a lot of input from Doug on Saru. We get a lot of input from Mary on L’Rell. And with James, working with Mary so closely, we’ve actually changed that makeup several times since we started to make it better with his input and Mary’s input.
James: Yep. No, I can’t even say anything (laughs)
Glenn: But that’s sort of…that’s how the process works. Digital to physical fit. But you know, in new ways never before attempted in the prosthetic world. Because every relationship with a company called 3D Systems. So if you look at the stock market them and Stratus Systems are the two biggest companies in the world that do 3D printing. We happen to benefit from the fact that they are in Burbank, down the street from us. And that Neville is so heavily cutting edge involved in 3D design and printing, that we get to work with 3DS. 3DS is proving out, how we can integrate technologies, their best technologies, into the film pipeline. And thus we are getting it at a cost would be preclusive to anyone else, right now. But won’t be in the future. And it’s allowing us to try things that no one else has ever done. So for instance, the Klingons. Their heads, occipital ridges, and their throats, there’s design detail. Is it possible? Yes, it’s possible… if you have a year to sculpt sixteen of them, right. But we’re getting that fidelity by taking some of Nev’s design, directly printing it, molding it, and pouring that in clay. So the sculptors find their character, each my lead artist, in each Klingon life cast, in their scripted character. But they can add these details, that would take months, because we are doing them on a computer, in a day, printing them out, and adding that level. That tertiary fine detail level to our sculptures by using 3D print to clay. So Trek is the place to do it, right?
Out of all the characters, or the special effects, on season one, which was the most difficult task?
Glenn: Which were the most difficult to realize? Airiam was real tough, right? Just speak to that because it’s just hard surface, soft surface stuff…
James: It’s mixing silicone with a hard surface, 3D printed helmet, ears…did we get a test? No… We did a test in Toronto, not here (LA). So I got the pieces, and trying to figure out to how to get them to be perfectly lined up with each other, so it doesn’t look like you slipped a helmet on it. It’s all one unit. And that, I think, started out four and a half hours, to do the make-up. And I think we got it down to two and a half. It’s just time, after time, after time. Like Doug’s make-up took three hours. I got it down to an hour and forty-five minutes.
Glenn: Saru is very difficult too. Because, just finding that character, probably the biggest journey for us as a creative team. There’s a whole separate version of him that almost made it to screen. And changed very close to when we started shooting. And it looks nothing like the current version. And, one of the driving forces was when we saw that, and all the awesome VFX on it… you lost Doug. And when you have a performer of that top level, creature suit performer, you need to let Doug act through the make-up. And so we went much more minimal, and got Saru down to something that really facilitates Doug’s performance and his ability to emote and create empathy. More so than giant makeup. That makes that very difficult. When you are working for months on one angle, and then suddenly, you are doing something completely different. That’s tough one.
James: And he knows how to act underneath the prosthetics (Glenn: More than anyone in the world). Because you have to over act to make that exterior piece move. And if you don’t know how to do that, it’s just gonna be this… none, yeah.