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SYFY WIRE Emmy Contender

Emmy Contenders: Star Trek: Picard's James Mackinnon gives us Borg makeup tips

By Jennifer Vineyard
Picard and Hugh meet

Welcome to Emmy Contenders 2020. This month, SYFY WIRE is speaking to some of the actors and artisans whose work earned them Emmy nominations this year. Today we speak with James Mackinnon, who previously won five Emmys (for Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story, and Star Trek: Discovery) and is now nominated for his role as makeup department head for CBS All Access’s Star Trek: Picard.

Star Trek: Picard may have broken the record for largest makeup call. While shooting the episodes “Absolute Candor” and “Stardust City Rag” in tandem – upstairs and downstairs at two Universal Stages – makeup department chief James Mackinnon found himself managing 107 makeup artists. But even though it was 2 a.m., his team custom-tailored 13 different types of Romulan foreheads and seven different ear shapes (in light, medium, and dark colors) for each actor, to create a fully populated Romulan village on the planet Vashti. (Then there was the planet Freecloud, which had a much more diverse alien mix.) Mackinnon chatted with SYFY WIRE about making Romulans sexy, turning bananas into flesh wounds, and becoming a Borg during his stint as an extra.

How did you become a Borg? What was involved?

This part of the job can be really fun. I mean, the hours can suck and schedules can be really tight, but there are these little moments to do some fun things. Being on camera as a Borg was a lifelong dream. On Star Trek: Discovery, I got to be one of the doctors that turned off Airiam’s memory chips, so I did a little acting there. And at the beginning of the year, I said, “I would love to be in one of the make-ups throughout the Picard season.” I already have my head cast, so they don’t have to pay for a cast. There was a moment when we were reading the script for Episode 6, and I went to [supervising producer] Jason Zimmerman and said, “I would love to do this one.” And he said, “Oh, that would be perfect, because we’re going to build the Borg suit in visual effects.” We went to the other producers and said, “We’re going to save you a couple of bucks. You don’t have to hire an actor. James is going to step in.”

James Mackinnon - Borg

My assistants Richard [Redlefsen] and Alexei [Dmitriew] slipped me in during lunch, because we didn’t want production to wait. Our lunch break is 45 minutes, and this makeup usually takes an hour and a half, but we pounded through! I’m a very TNG-looking Borg, so it’s a bit of a throwback. My ocular eye piece was sculpted a little bit differently than the other ones. It was so much fun, and it’s on camera forever. And then when I do talks with the fans, I can give them more information about how it feels.

Are you a Method actor? Did you insist everyone treat you like a Borg in between takes?

Oh, I’m a huge Method actor. [Laughs] And you know what? It doesn’t hurt, being a Borg. The glues are cold. It’s basically like you left a clay mask on for a little too long, just that little bit of tightening when the glue is dried. You have a foam latex or silicone on top of that, so there is a little bit of weight. And we always sculpt our stuff as fine and thin as possible, so the actors can emote through the prosthetic. You do have to act like 20 percent more underneath that prosthetic to be able to move the exterior of it.

The ex-Borg, or xBs, are really elaborate, with their scar tissue and remnants of the Borg tech still embedded in them. I was wondering how you developed this process to figure out how much you could do with makeup, how much might need to be visual effects, especially for the tech removal scenes, and what kinds of discussions you had about casting amputee actors instead of removing limbs digitally?

Yeah, that’s a great process, absolutely, putting amputees and people with missing limbs to work. That was our number one goal. Jason Zimmerman, the visual effects supervisor, we’ve been working together since Sleepy Hollow, and we’ve had many conversations about this. There are things I can do up to a point, and he knows where he can extend it. He might say, “I’m not going to spend $17 on something when James can do it for $2.”

I think Episode 5 is when you see the eyeball coming out? That could have been visual effects, but it ended up being practical. We made a fake eyeball that could pop out, and the camera cut right before it looked like it was coming out. And it’s always nicer for an actor to be able to play with the actual thing that’s happening, instead of a green ball or something.

I hear bananas are your secret weapon for gory scenes like that.

Yes. [Laughs] Bananas are my go-to for inside flesh. Whenever you slice somebody open, there’s fatty tissue and other layers of stuff. If you sculpt as deep as possible, and add a little bit of banana, little chunks of banana, with a little bit of [fake] blood, it makes it look like fatty tissue. Instead of just blood splattering against the wall, you add a little banana, and you’ve got brain tissue coming out. So I always have a banana in the trailer every day, just in case you need a little bit of meaty tissue. And it doesn’t go to waste. A banana is nature’s napkin.

What other surprising things do you keep in the trailer?

Hmmm. I have a little box that has a fingertip, toenails, cut-off fingers, cut-off toes. I have Lady Gaga’s toe from American Horror Story. You never know when you might need a toe or an eyeball. I have prosthetics left over from Deep Space Nine and Voyager. I think I have a Klingon nose. And some vampire foreheads from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, from Season 1. I could never use them again, but I do have them. I used to do Paul Walker’s makeup for the Fast & Furious movies, and ever since he passed away, I’ve kept his makeup bag in every trailer I’ve worked in since.

Seven of Nine from Picard courtesy Paramount

You worked with Seven of Nine on Voyager, and the team evolved her look. And then you modified it further.

We’re paying homage to the original look. The ocular piece is part of her, so it should be embedded in her. Vincent Van Dyke sculpted a very delicate prosthetic, a blendable prosthetic around the metal piece, and when we were putting on, that little piece was a little too fluffy. It was a little too close to her eye. It was a little too on her cheek. I went, “The camera’s going to see this. Jason’s going to need to clean this up in post-production.” So what I did is I sniped the little prosthetic off and I glued that to her thing. Then I had a material called Bondo, which is a filler we have, and I stuffed some inside a syringe and I put a little bead right around the edge of her silver ocular piece. That made the little bit of skin bump look like it was coming out of her skin, through her skin.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about creating the first hot emo Romulan, Narek.

He’s a good-looking cat. It’s hard to screw him up. Obviously, Harry Treadaway’s a little bit of a redhead, so we darkened up his hair and his beard every day, which gave him a bit of a sexier look. The placement of where his eyebrow peaks or points can change his look dramatically. Too high, he can look pissed off. Too low, it looks like real eyebrows. Michael Westmore came up with a guide to Romulan and Vulcan eyebrow placement, and it’s two fingers above your eye, where that peak goes. Originally, Narek was going to have a Romulan forehead. We did a test, and it didn’t look right. So in the end, he just has the eyebrow blockers and Romulan eyebrows. Even though that prosthetic is thin and tight, it does change the look.

Narek Star Trek Picard hero

Your entry into the Star Trek world, back in 1996, was working with makeup legend Michael Westmore. Tell me about the little makeup easter egg that you planted this season, by having his daughter McKenzie play one of your new alien species in the background.

Westmore spelled backwards is Rhomsew, if you take a few letters out. [Laughs]