Bringing The Houses of Dune To Life

Talking to Dune Makeup Artist Donald Mowat

Bringing The Houses of Dune To Life 4

Dune is a universe filled with countless peoples, all of different cultures and looks. Bringing that world to life on the big screen is a challenge, especially in a multi-million dollar blockbuster. But somehow Denis Villeneuve and his team made it all possible, bringing the unfilmable movie to life like it has never been seen before. But behind all the epic scale, and effects, there are the people that work tirelessly to bring the characters to life. Crafting the looks of their styles and prosthetics to make it all feel seamless and fully released.

Donald Mowat is a makeup artist that needs no introduction. His work on Blade Runner 2049, Skyfall, Prisoners, and now Dune is unmistakable. Bringing complex and simple concepts to the screen with talent and style. CGMagazine got the chance to talk to Donald in the run-up to the theatrical release of Dune. Discussing the process, his work on the project, and the ways he brought the world of Frank Herbert to life, he gives a glimpse behind the curtain, and a sense of what goes into making a film like Dune.

Exploring Dune With Director Denis Villeneuve And Actor Rebecca Ferguson 5
Dune (2021)

CGMagazine:  What got you involved with Dune, and what made you want to be part of the project?

Donald Mowat: Well, you know, Denis Villeneuve had asked me to be on board, I guess, gosh, couple years ago, so we’ve worked together — I’ve worked on three films for him as his sort of HOD makeup and Dune came up, and I was delighted. I was just delighted to be asked to be part of this.

CGMagazine: Dune is known for its unique visuals, unique imagery, from the books and all previous adaptations. Was that a challenge, bringing that to the screen and all the characters in the way they’re designed? And how much freedom did you have to try to create something unique to you?

Donald Mowat: Well, you know, I think that’s difficult. Having worked on Blade Runner for Denis Villeneuve, as well, you have all the comparisons. And there’s so many experts in the world who’ve read the books, and they’re just huge fans and people who really are scholars and know it so very well, which is always a bit intimidating. I really put it behind me and thought. “I won’t watch the other film”. And there was the TV miniseries, which I had a copy of.

“One of the makeup artists in David Lynch’s Dune had written to me”

I looked at a couple of references as I was starting to prep, and then I put everything away on the back burner, so to speak, because I just don’t want to be influenced by other people’s work. I say this with the utmost respect—in fact, one of the makeup artists in David Lynch’s Dune had written to me. It was a really nice note, but I thought I’d love to get together with him when we’re done. But I think it’s a really nice thing to just make it your own and for Denis. To be able to present him something fresh and just unique and different.

Bringing The Houses Of Dune To Life 1
Dune (2021)

CGMagazine: There’s so many houses, so many looks within the film. What was your take? Did you approach each one differently?

Donald Mowat: Well, I think I have a soft spot for the Harkonnens, and I just felt that it was a tremendous amount of work. You know, when we were prepping initially in the pre-production, Denis always sends me a visual reference of things he’s looking at, with Patrice our production designer and costume and Jackie and Bob. We all start to cross-reference, and we find different things that we feel would be interesting. So, we started photoshopping every single cast member. I would start to think with Josh Brolin and then Timmy and Rebecca and Javier and I kind of worked along that way.  But we did know, for instance, the Sardaukar would be militia-like except they were fierce and just ended up casting people or trying to have as many with beards and horses and warriors. The Fremen were more tribal, and people lived in the wilderness — I think having a desert feel similar to a Bedouin and lots of influence from the desert.

The Harkonnen were something we didn’t settle on for a while because I had to get the Baron sorted first. Then David Dasmalchian playing Piter and Dave Bautista so that kind of one lens to the next or if you do one character just pulling back a little, so it’s not over the top. I didn’t have a camera test, say for instance, with Javier Bardem until he came to Jordan where we were filming. It was more of a practical test, so I wasn’t able to see it on screen to make any adjustments and same thing with Dave Bautista based on scheduling. But I would say the Harkonnens were the most amount of work in terms of makeup, bald caps, eyebrow covers and just the texture of the skin and the complexion based a little on Mephisto and theatrical makeup.

Bringing The Houses Of Dune To Life
Dune (2021)

CGMagazine: When working on Dune, was there ever a stage where you had to step it back, bring back the designs you had, because they would be too elaborate?

Donald Mowat: You know, sometimes… now I don’t know… I feel like I’ve said this to people and on occasion, will get reprimanded. But I don’t think you can have costume, makeup and hair elements – all three at one time. I think you can have one or two, often two, but not three. And I live by it because I think where you’ve got the makeups, or it’s a very simple hairstyle, or it’s pulled back, like say Rebecca Ferguson, and she’s in the robes and beautiful costumes. Elaborate and very translucent makeup.

But I think if she had an elaborate hairstyle, it would have then it would simply be too much going on. If that makes sense.  And I think certainly with Timmy, he’s got the hair and basically trying to tame that hair but also enjoy the fact that it makes him boyish and makes him a little Romeo and Hamlet and everything else combined – is not having these guys looking like that and having this sort of romantic side to them. But I do think you have to pull back; I know with the Baron at one point. So my team, you know, five people did that make up and they’re incredible. They built it and sculpted it, and it was five sculptors, and it’s a five hour, almost six-hour makeup process.

CGMagazine: Oh boy!

Donald Mowat: And at one point, I did go to Denis saying, “What about the like concepts of Marlon Brando not really Apocalypse Now but more The Island of Dr. Moreau for the Baron”

CGMagazine: Yeah, I actually saw some of that in the design.

Donald Mowat: I’m glad because some people don’t always realize Dr. Moreau and I thought no, no, the makeup and the white and colour of his skin and the baldness has sort of a certain camp quality and that played into the clothes a little. I felt like, at one point, we talked about: should the Baron wear makeup? Or should he have hair? Does he wear a wig? And I think that’s where Denis’ sensibility came in, and he was able to say, “I think it’s too much”. And I completely agree because when I think back on the film, if we put the Baron and a wig or a toupee— it’s enough. It’s enough that he’s in a bathtub filled with oil, you know?

CGMagazine: I’m glad you brought up the Brando thing, because for a split second when I first saw the Baron and had the concept of Brando in my head.

Donald Mowat: I’m so happy to hear that.

CGMagazine: Do you ever see a conflict when you’re working with a movie where it does have a lot of CGI and does have a lot of digital effects that might take away from the practicality of hair and makeup that does bring these actors to the roles they’re playing?

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Dune (2021)

Donald Mowat: I think it’s a great question because, you know, the Baron is a practical makeup. Of course. But I think that there are films – sometimes it serves the film better and the people in charge who are paying and running it, it’s their call. The Baron was entrusted to me. Is this practical makeup? Which I believed it could be, and a lot of people were like, “Okay, let’s try it”, but I had the faith and the trust in Denis and Legendary and everybody else to say, “Okay, let’s try. Let’s try”. It’s an experiment, is what Denis said.  But there are other films where the characters are completely CGI, and it works equally, but this was great for performance.

This was theatrical, it was great for Stellan. I think that hair and makeup, it’s not a huge hair movie, so to speak. It’s not Mary Queen of Scots, but I think the balance – sometimes people forget that the simplicity of the hair or the makeup is something that’s hard to do. I mean, it’s harder sometimes to do very little or make it look like you did very little. You know, Timmy’s hair has a life of its own. To control that over the course of five months is not the easiest thing. But you don’t really want to say that to people, because it sounds like “Oh my god, you’re trying too hard”. But it’s acting, isn’t it sort of great acting, sometimes less is more. The subtle, the nuance, the not noticing it is for me – is when I think something’s kind of incredible.

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Dune (2021)

CGMagazine: Well, even just looking at the fact that the film does take over the course of months, and people’s hair changes, they grow, etc. I can’t even imagine the process of making sure it’s consistent from one scene to another to make sure it does have those things that carry the audience through.

Donald Mowat : Well, you know, continuity is something people often forget. I mean, it’s what threads it all together, especially with hair and makeup, and it’s probably the hardest type of continuity, because people change day to day as we know. I mean, you know, your temperature, you know, fatigue, whatever, your body temperature, everything.

So, we just make it look easy. But there are a couple of times when I think, how did we do that? And other times when I do see a mistake, and it’s sometimes beyond your control, or an editor has made a choice. And I’m not speaking of this film. But I have worked on projects where the editors and director have made a choice that use the take of something that doesn’t match. And it’s very unfortunate, because sometimes we take the heat for that, and which is why I think some of us get so neurotic. You know, I’m very protective of our work.

Brendan Frye
Brendan Frye

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