'1917' Hair and Makeup Team: How to "Dirty Down" 7,000 Extras

1917 Hair and Makeup Team - Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of François Duhamel/Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

The Sam Mendes-directed film required its hair and makeup team to pay extra attention to continuity.

Oscar-nominated hair and makeup designer Naomi Donne had a few tricks up her sleeve when trying to keep bloody wounds, explosive powder and dirt stains looking the same in each take to maintain the continuity of Universal's 1917.

The single-shot style of the war film inspired her and prosthetics designer Tristan Versluis to use an unorthodox remote-controlled blood pump to depict Lance Corporal Blake's (Dean-Charles Chapman) stab wound in real time. Normally, Donne says, the crew would cut the take "and throw a load of blood on and then carry on." But since the scene was filmed in one go, she relied on a pump, activated from a distance: "It had to be timed perfectly. It had to have the right amount of blood. You pray that it happens OK, because it's a huge deal to go again."

The challenge was setting up the remote control at "exactly the right moment, so that the blood would squirt," which they rehearsed in the makeup room beforehand. "Things like that are very complicated. When you're doing a lot of takes, you're not always going to guarantee the same result each take," Donne says.

She employed another makeup trick during the explosion that buries Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay): Donne poured a custom-made, sugar-based powder into his mouth to imitate chalky rubble. She tasked special effects makeup master David Stoneman with making "quite a lot of sacks" of a safe substance that matched the chalk dust used by the visual effects team. "It was seamless," she says of her first time using the sugar substance. "We could pour it in George's mouth, and it was actually quite pleasant. It's sugary and didn't cause any problems … or affect his lungs."

Thought also went into details as minute as which dirt was used to begrime the soldiers. Stoneman helped color-match samples of the dirt from where the trenches were dug on set and translated the mud's yellow-orange hues into faux-dirt makeup for actors (which required 17,000 biodegradable towels to clean off).

"When you dirty down the extras, when they're in the trenches and they're covered in ground and dirt and muck, the dirt matches the landscape," Donne says. "They look like they've been there forever."

All 7,000 background actors had individualized hairstyles, too. Their "really funny haircuts" reflected the reality that soldiers have grown out "long bits on the top," but since the men weren't allowed to have hair showing under their helmets, their hair was cut across in front, leading to "strange" choppy bangs. Using no wigs, Donne and her team cut every single person's hair based on a reference of a specific soldier from World War I. "We had hundreds and hundreds of pictures of real soldiers, and everyone was matched to one, so they maintained their haircut throughout the film," she says. "It wasn't just a sea of men. These are real men who all had different lives."

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.