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Celebrity Makeup and FX Artist Joel Harlow Brings Our Favorite Characters to the Big Screen

Written by: Lauren Villa Joel Harlow

Vampires, aliens and demons? All in a day’s work. Enter the fantastical world of Joel Harlow, complete with scary monsters, old-school special effects fandom and special attention to detail. Harlow is an Academy Award-winning makeup and hairstyling artist responsible for many of the beloved and heavy-hitting characters in movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, The Lone Ranger, Alice in Wonderland and Star Trek.

Harlow speaks on what it’s like to work with Johnny Depp, what makeup means to Hollywood today and his craziest moments on set.

Q: First, can you tell our readers what inspired you to pursue makeup artistry?

Joel Harlow: My introduction into this world of fantasy characters was through King Kong—and that’s the original, black and white Willis O’Brien King Kong. I saw that and I knew I wanted to create that kind of feeling that I had when I saw that film.

Q: How did you discover the power of makeup in cinema?

JH: I had seen John Carpenter’s version of The Thing, where there are a bunch of fantastic make up effects done by Rob Bottin and his crew. That’s ultimately what I wanted to do, create full-size character transformation work like I had seen in The Thing. At the time, there were no classes for makeup. I mean, now there’s a makeup school on almost every street corner, but at the time you really had to hunt through books to get names of materials and techniques.

Q: What is it like working with Johnny Depp?

JH: He’s fantastic. He is the biggest fan of makeup, as I’m sure anybody can see by looking at the variety of characters that he’s portrayed. And he’s one of those guys who knows the language of makeup. He knows what makeup can do and knows it extremely well. He knows what I can do to achieve what he’s thinking—and truthfully, he knows it so well he could probably do it himself but fortunately for me, he has me do it [laughs].

Q: What were some of the best and worst places you’ve traveled to for work?

JH: London I love and I’ve been there more than a few times. A friend of mine calls it my spiritual home, which I kind of like. Places I haven’t enjoyed … let’s see. There are always areas where you have to go to that aren’t comfortable to tell the story, whether it’s shooting in a swamp in Louisiana with mosquitos the size of hummingbirds or what have you. I love Louisiana, but the insects are nuts.

Q: Do you give back to the community? If so, in what ways?

JH: I do what I consider gigantic demonstrations where I will spend upwards of $50, 000 to create a makeup character. Yes, it’s impressive to do a 12-foot creature and have it lumber around but is it only going to look good from 40 feet away? If it looks good from two feet away, you’ve done your job.

Q: What has changed most about the industry since you first started?

JH: I just saw a trailer for a film where all the characters are computer generated. It looked like a cartoon. I’ve watched films in which beautifully executed, practical creatures are anatomically driven and they suck you into the story. Now, I’m not saying that anyone should discount digital effects at all, but what I think we need is more of a marriage between digital and practical and I think that’s the biggest thing that’s changed.

Q: What can we expect from you in 2016?

JH: Let’s see, 2016 we will reveal the release of Star Trek Beyond. We did quite a few prosthetic makeup characters in that film, more than I think I’ve done in my whole career actually, so I’m very much looking forward to that.

Joel’s Top Influencers:
Allen Williams
Joey Rosco
Norman Cabrera
Matt Rose
Chet Zar
Bram Stoker
Stephen Gammell

10 Movies Joel has Worked On:
Inception
Star Trek
Star Trek Beyond
Dark Shadows
The Pirates of the Caribbean Series
Alice in Wonderland
The Lone Ranger
Green Lantern
Constantine
Battle Los Angeles