Special effects makeup expert Glenn Hetrick was working at Alchemy FX when he got an email with the word "Klingon" on it and almost lost his mind. He was being asked to help with the Star Trek: Discovery's alien designs, and none of them got him more excited than the prospect of being able to work on the evolution of the warrior race from the planet Qo'noS. ("I'll never delete that email," he said.)
Overflowing with ideas, he went right to work on a potential Klingon look with his fellow creature-designer Neville Page, using Page's own head for the prototype. (Page being bald helped). "At first, we went, 'This is really cool,'" Hetrick said. "But it felt incomplete. What are we going to do, show him wearing this in a black T-shirt?"
So the two men then decided to go ahead and spend "an obscene amount of money" creating something they hadn't yet been asked to do: creating 3-D-printed Biomech armor for Page to model in his Klingon-test debut. Then they borrowed Charlie Chaplin's speech from The Great Dictator, translated it into Klingon, and embedded the writing on the armor. "When [the producers] showed up for the camera test, we presented Neville as a Klingon from head to toe," Hetrick said, recalling the moment with pride. "He was completely covered, and it was awesome."
And that's how Hetrick and company became the heads of the special makeup effects department for Star Trek: Discovery, a show for which their prosthetic-makeup designs — for Klingons, Vulcans, Tellarites, Andorians, Orions, Kelpiens, and more — have now been nominated for an Emmy.
"We're not just working on a sci-fi show, we're working on Star Trek," Hetrick said. "So there is this incredible pressure to meet the demand of what we think the fans would want. We're not just doing makeup, we're creating or recreating alien designs. We're trying to adhere as much as we can to canon, but still evolving it and making it something for today's audience – making it smarter, cooler, and technically more impressive so it can hold up in HD. But we don't want anything that looks so different that someone goes, 'That's not what an Andorian looks like.' It's a fine line."
Take the Tellarites, for example. ("One of my geekiest moments was going, 'We get to make a Tellarite!'" Hetrick exclaimed.) In the original series, the Tellarites were a makeshift creation, cobbled together overnight — "essentially just really bad pig masks," Hetrick noted. The challenge was to create something better that would still seem as if it were the same species, which was a pretty tall order. For inspiration, Hetrick looked at the bipedal anthropomorphic men that Stan Winson created for The Island of Doctor Moreau, especially a memorable pig-hybrid creature.
Everything had to have an evolutionary imperative, Hetrick insisted — there always had to be a reason why. If an Orion were green, then why are they green? Was it something to do with the climate on their planet? Was it camouflage? Those kinds of questions never came up in previous Star Trek iterations, but Hetrick and his team felt they needed to answer them — if not for the show itself, then for themselves. Toward that end, Hetrick wrote up a "cultural axiom" document describing the Klingons' respective home-world cultures and environments throughout the empire. This gave them a backstory based on canon, but extrapolated from the little clues sprinkled throughout Star Trek lore.
For example, we can assume that Klingons grew up with dogs. Christopher Lloyd's Klingon in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock has what is known as the monster dog sitting next to him. The Klingon guards on the penal colony Rura Penthe in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country keep masked beasts. "Clearly, Klingons raise different species of super tough dogs, but what would that do to the Klingons who raise them?" Hetrick said. He deduced that there must be a Klingon house of beast-masters, who live in the wild with animals as hunters or rangers.
"Being Klingon, how would they raise their children with such animals? They would throw the children into the pens with all of the hunting dogs, and whichever children survived would have great mastery over these animals. The ones that didn't, didn't."
Such a sink-or-swim tutorial method of child-rearing would presumably result in a lot of scarring, which the young survivors would wear as a badge of honor.
Other houses might use scarring in a more ritualistic way. "They're almost like tattoos," Hetrick said. "They have symbolic meaning to House Mo'Kai." Members of House Antaak, however, have cranial ridge extensions and chin ridges as a genetic signature. And members of House D'Ghor decorate their head ridges with chains inspired by Earth's Byzantium period. "We took very specific aesthetic references from culture on our planet and gave them a Klingon twist," Hetrick said. The list goes on and on – Hetrick dreamed up colors and designs for 24 great houses total, only six of which we've seen so far in season one.
Hetrick loved the challenge of all this — especially, perhaps, when the script called for full-frontal alien nudity (a first in the Trek universe). "When we first read that, we were like, 'Wow! We're going to make the first naked Klingon!'" he recalled. The chance to explore Klingon anatomy beyond their heads a real treat, he said, and it revealed even more of the influence of H.R. Giger on Star Trek: Discovery's Klingon design.
Hetrick's new generation of Klingons have one thing in common: No hair — no coifs, no eyebrows, no mustaches, no goatees. An explanation for this can be found in the story of Klingon spiritual leader Kahless the Unforgettable, in which Kahless cut off a lock of his hair, put it in lava, and twisted it to forge the first bat'leth — a symbol of unification in Klingon mythology. "We're obsessed with that story," Hetrick said. "And as we unpack it, we're going to find tons of other reasons for the Klingon look" — which is going to change in season two, he promised. "I think people are going to freak out when this unfurls in front of them."
The look of the Star Trek aliens has changed over the course of the canon because technology has changed. (Hetrick now uses 3-D printing to make silicone prosthetic pieces). The changes have now made it possible to apply an alien makeup in about two-and-a-half hours for a full head, four hours for a torso."We can't get away with foam latex and grease makeup in HD," Hetrick said. "Everything has to be translucent silicone, so it reads like real skin."
Veteran makeup artist James MacKinnon – who has also worked on TNG, DS9, and more — said using the prosthetics allows him to paint with a lighter touch, so that "you think it's a Kelpien, not Doug Jones underneath the makeup." Because the Kelpiens' nose holes are not where humans' are, Jones had sounded a bit nasally during the filming of the first episode. Hearing that, MacKinnon took Jones' prosthetic back to the trailer and channeled out a crevice between his nose and the prosthetic on the inside, to help him breathe.
"It's changed his voice, and he's much happier," MacKinnon noted. "That's the kind of thing we figure out once we get on set."
Helping the actors feel more comfortable in their makeup also helps improves their performances. "It can be very difficult to emote with that prosthetic thickness," Hetrick said. "I tell the actors, 'You worry about your acting, I'll worry about your face,'" MacKinnon said. As for the audience, Hetrick said he wants them to be able to ignore all his team's hard work and get lost in the story: "The illusion, the magic, that's part of the fun!"