'Blade Runner 2049' Makeup Designer Describes Film Work, Weighs In on Digital Cosmetics "Debate"

Blade Runner 2049 Still - Split - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Stephen Vaughan

Donald Mowat also discusses his work on 'Stronger.'

The work of veteran makeup designer Donald Mowat has appeared in a long list of films, including Sicario, Spectre, Skyfall, Nocturnal Animals and 8 Mile. Here, he talks with The Hollywood Reporter about his work on Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (for which he served as makeup designer and department head) and David Gordon Green's Stronger (as hair and makeup designer), along with a VFX collaboration on these films. Separately, he shared some general concerns about the use of digital cosmetics in Hollywood.

For Blade Runner, let’s start with your work on Joi (Ana de Armas).

Coming up with the pink [as pictured in the above scene] was a little bit harder than I thought it would be. We got to a sort of bubblegum pink and [cinematographer Roger Deakins] would light the face. [The hair] had to have a contrast so it's a kind of multi-purple. We were prepping a little bit in L.A. and then flying to Hungary for production, so I was buying every color of pink I could and getting contact lenses made for Ana and then bringing them to Hungary and doing a makeup test for Roger and Denis.

Tell us about creating Jared Leto as Wallace.

Jared wore a scleral lens, which is the opposite of a corneal lens, a standard lens for vision. When you cover the entire eye with a hand-painted lens, it limits visibility. Jared wanted to not only look visually impaired, but be visually impaired. So we had to incorporate a hand-painted [lens], and there’s only three people in America, actually the world, who paint contact lenses. And they had to be hand-painted specific to this character Jared had in mind. He also wanted his vision blocked. So it meant a little bit more work and then doubling up the lens to really give him that feeling on set. He had to be walked to and from the set.

Ana, when she’s in the pink makeup, wore a scleral lens as well. Kind of a plum color. It’s not a very comfortable thing to do, and it can be very difficult on someone who has to wear them. The actor has got to be committed to that visual. [1982’s original Blade Runner] had elements of that so it felt like kind of an homage to it.

The challenge to Ryan Gosling’s character was that we shot everything out of sequence as films do, so we have to pretty much come up with everything that will happen to them. We didn’t shoot the fight sequence with Dave Bautista [the first scene in the film] until the very final week of production, yet we established Ryan immediately after that sequence on the very first day of shooting. So it’s really kind of editing in your head and trying to imagine what will happen through every scene. Ryan was very collaborative and willing to let me do what I thought was the right thing and keep the wounds and the breakdown and distress very neutral but believable and kind of cinematic without it being over-the-top.

Stronger is obviously a very different movie.

For Stronger [the true story of Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing], I had very limited resources and it was based on a true story — a very difficult story. It was a crossover with visual effects, you know with green stockings and then have a kind of in-between stage where Jake would have to wear a prosthetic stump. When he’s in the hospital, it’s just old-school, just two holes in that bed that his legs go into, and then the stumps are attached. They are prosthetics, glued on and sewed onto a pair of shorts that he could then put on.

One thing I noticed with Jeff Bauman, who is the most remarkable man I’ve ever met in my life, is that he has these very distinctive dark, coal-like eyes.... I said to Jake, why don’t we do a slightly darker contact lens. It worked. It was very jarring, the transformation on Jake, and I brought a wonderful hairdresser on, Sheryl Daniels, who suggested doing a perm. And all of that came together, the perm and the dark lenses. And we did the very sickly, kind of drug- induced makeup. With that morphine look, people do tend to look a little embalmed, if that makes sense. It was a sort of smoothness to him that was effective because it made him look thinner and gaunt, but also younger in a strange way.

Separate from these films and generally speaking, it’s well known that digital effects are now being used to clean up some actors’ skin or make them look a little younger. When that technique is used, do you supervise?

It’s really discussed a lot now, and I’m very torn about it. In the Academy we have a committee now…but I don’t find we are called enough on it. There’s things that are changed without really talking to us and beyond our control. But I think it’s changing. I feel like both categories are sort of coming together rather than [functioning as] two very distinct crafts. But I do know sometimes people are feeling like they’ve done a digital cleanup without any — sometimes it’s too much or it’s not really what you intended. [Digital] cosmetic cleanups are necessary sometimes, but not always. Sometimes people go, I think, too far with it.

Are you finding, generally, most movies, if there’s a celebrity actress, they do some sort of cleanup?

Well I do, it’s changing, I think, what people are expecting. I learned how to do makeup when I started working in the ‘80s, when we really relied much more on the cinematographer and very good corrective makeup and on film. It’s such a huge debate. There are things that couldn’t have been done [without VFX] but now there’s people that don’t actually know how to do something very quickly without relying on a visual effect or a digital cleanup. I find that unfortunate because there’s a lot of history in how we used to do things, and certainly things we borrowed from earlier in Hollywood.