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How movie makeup makes Ryan Gosling look bad

From First Man to Blade Runner and Skyfall, makeup maestro Donald Mowat paints physical and emotional wounds on stars like Daniel Craig and Mark Wahlberg.

Daniel McFadden

He's a good-looking lad, that Ryan Gosling. But one man has the job of making him look bad: movie makeup artist Donald Mowat.

Mowat was head of the makeup department on First Man and Blade Runner 2049, which earned him a Bafta nomination. He helps tell a movie's story by writing emotional and physical wounds on the faces of stars he works with, such as Claire Foy, Daniel Craig and Mark Wahlberg

Directed by Damien Chazelle, First Man might not appear to be a film that involves a lot of makeup, but in fact makeup artists have to think about technical considerations rather than simply ensuring the stars don't have a shiny forehead. "It's a character study of Ryan's face, of Claire's face, all in extreme closeup," says Mowat of First Man. "You've got grainy 35mm, 16mm, IMAX, digital, you've got all kinds of mediums happening. This was so unforgiving and so up close and personal."

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Makeup department head Donald Mowat paints a story on Ryan Gosling's face during production of First Man.

Daniel McFadden

While you might expect makeup designers to work closely with a film's costume designers and hair stylists to establish a look for the actors, one of the most important collaborations is with the movie's cinematographer. Also known as the director of photography, or DoP, the cinematographer controls the lighting and camera equipment that give a movie its overall aesthetic. Makeup plays a big part of that, but it's more technical than just choosing pretty colours.

"If we're using specialty elements like contact lenses," explains Mowat as an example, "I have to make sure that color temperature is suitable for that particular camera."

And makeup is more than just making the star look good in each individual scene. The way a character looks has to change and believably progress depending on what's happening at that point in the story. Take First Man's portrayal of the eight-day Apollo 11 mission, for example. Mowat had to make up the actors to show the mounting strains of being confined in the capsule. "We had to talk about stubble and levels of fatigue and sweat and being bleary-eyed," says Mowat of the incremental changes to the makeup as the mission passed. "It was very technical. I started to ask myself questions like, 'Does stubble grow the same in space?'"

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Makeup also played a crucial role in a pivotal scene in which Gosling's Neil Armstrong crashes a test flight, badly burning himself. "I wasn't sure if I was going too much, but Damien really wanted to make a statement with it," says Mowat of how he made up Gosling with fake burns. "It says, 'Look what happened to his face.' It establishes [space exploration] isn't fun and games, it's very high stakes."

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Ryan Gosling's Neil Armstrong has a fiery near-miss in First Man.

Daniel McFadden

Director Damien Chazelle went to great lengths to capture First Man's period look. "When we were prepping the film," Mowat says, "I received files of research, which is typical, but his research files were above and beyond anything I've ever seen... Damien went through every single character with us, with costume and hair. Every single character he would say, she needs to look a little older, a little more conservative, this one needs to be this or that. I'm talking to No. 47 on the call sheet who says one word."

Mowat deliberately avoided going too over-the-top with the 1960s look. "It's quite squeaky clean and very Americana, short hair and clean as a whistle", he says. "We do see a lot of films where everything '60s is a little bit like Laugh-In or Austin Powers, everyone thinks it's false eyelashes and Goldie Hawn." Instead he sought out photographs of "middle-class professional, academic, nerdy people," asking friends who were born in that era to send him pictures of their mothers and aunts. 

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Claire Foy had a subtle, natural look as Janet Armstrong in First Man.

Daniel McFadden

Having worked with director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins on films including Sicario and Prisoners, Mowat was recruited to do the makeup on Blade Runner 2049. Unlike Blade Runner, those films are set in the contemporary, "real" world. "When Denis asked me to do it, I was quite terrified," admits Mowat, "but then he told me so was he."

For the Blade Runner sequel, the goal of the makeup was to avoid making the replicant characters look robotic, continuing the original film's theme of showing replicants as indistinguishable from humans. And despite drawing on influences like David Bowie and fashion designer Alexander McQueen, Mowat was keen to keep the film's sci-fi aesthetic grounded. "As soon as you say Blade Runner you get all kinds of resumes from people from Cirque du Soleil and the opera," he says. "I don't know why people go to that because when you look at Blade Runner, the one and only, there aren't these sort of clown over-the-top theatrical make-up. Daryl Hannah is highly stylized, but that's really about it."

Ryan Gosling takes a beating in Blade Runner 2049.

Warner Bros

Time was tight for Blade Runner, particularly when it came to creating the look for Jared Leto's villain of the piece, a blind replicant manufacturer with sinister whited-out eyes. And the character almost had a very different look: a bald cap. "We did a test in Hungary and Denis looked at me and he says, 'Really, what do you think?'" remembers Mowat. "I said I think it's wrong. It takes us to Austin Powers, taking over the world. All he needed was a cat."

As well as making up Ryan Gosling on more than one film, Mowat has worked numerous times with actors, including Mark Wahlberg and Daniel Craig. "Mark was more by accident because I just ended up on a couple of films as the makeup designer," says Mowat. "These were not great films from the 90s, like The Big Hit and The Corruptor. He had these tremendous amount of tattoos, and at that time, when he was very young, he always seemed to have his shirt off. I knew how to cover them, and was able to do it very quickly... Now though he got all those tattoos laser removed, and I just thought, 'What am I going to do? He's now over 40, the shirt's never coming off!'"

Donald Mowat made up Daniel Craig's James Bond in Skyfall and Spectre.

Susie Allnutt

Mowat describes meeting James Bond star Daniel Craig as a "life-changer". "I didn't expect to do a Bond film," admits Mowat. "I watched them as a kid, but I thought they were a bit camp." But having worked with Craig on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mowat, who was born in Canada, was keen to work in the UK, where his family roots are. For 2012's hit Skyfall, Craig and director Sam Mendes wanted Mowat to show the dashing 007 at his most vulnerable. "Daniel said we're gonna mix this up and have a moment where [Bond] looks kind of a wreck, and the most human he's ever been," remembers Mowat. "It could have really backfired having him look so worn out and beat down before the re-emerging of the classic Bond. That was tricky."

Cinematic makeup has evolved with advances like waterproof, smudge-proof, alcohol-activated makeup, and silicon appliances. But Mowat prefers the tried-and-tested technique of painting highlights and shadows on the face, building up layers to create the desired effect. "I still like grease," he says. "I'm old school."

"What I'm seeing younger kids doing I find quite interesting," Mowat says. "But at the same time, if everything broke down on the computer and they were just on the set with a red pencil, can they make somebody look like they're been beaten up? They can't. But I can make an eye look like it's popped out of the head..."

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