Interview: Joel Harlow Talks Designing Aliens For ‘Beyond’ And What He Has Ready For ‘Star Trek 4’

In a couple of weeks Titan books will release “Star Trek Beyond – The Makeup Artistry of Joel Harlow,” which goes in depth into the designs which earned Beyond an Oscar nomination. TrekMovie had a chance to speak with Harlow about the new book,  the “50 aliens for 50 years project,” his redesigns of classic TOS aliens, the possibility of Star Trek 4, and more.  

Star Trek Beyond: The Makeup Artistry of Joel Harlow

What can you tell me about the book?

It is basically an archive of all the alien characters we made for Star Trek Beyond, some of which were seen in the film, some of which were never seen in the film. Some of which were only briefly seen. But to do justice to all of that work – I was working with Joe Nazarro on an article for a prosthetics magazine and he asked me how many images I had. I documented this film more than any I had ever done so I have over 5,000 photos.

Was this because of the 50 for 50 project?

Kind of. It didn’t start off as 50 for 50. It started that I knew this was a special film because it was going to come out on the 50th anniversary and I just wanted to – because Star Trek does mean so much to me – I just wanted to make sure I documented everything. And when I told him that he said that deserves a book. So when we finished our interview talking about how many characters we made and how each one is worthy of its own film. There is nothing that we short cut as far as “Oh, let’s just make another one” that is only going to be background. There is not a single background alien in that film. They are all foreground hero aliens worthy of their own story and their own film.

Will the book tell those stories?

Not so much because those stories were never developed. But the aesthetics of the characters will be. Being a coffee table book, it is mostly a document in photo of what each one of these characters went through from concept, design to mechanics, to finished sculpture to test makeup to alteration to finale makeup. It covers every aspect of the creative alien process for every one of those aliens.

First look spreads from “Star Trek Beyond: The Makeup Artistry of Joel Harlow”

Each alien in Beyond got its own backstory

So if each has a story does that mean each of these aliens has a name?

Yes. The names could probably have been a bit more thought out. I mean we were approaching 50 aliens in the shop. Some have spines, some have horns, some have teeth, some have quills, some have hair, some have gloves – whatever it is. I just needed a way in the shop to designate what element went with what character. You would get buried under codes so we gave them all names which fortunately or unfortunately stuck during the shoot. They would come to me and say which character is this? I would say “That’s Quills” or “That’s Bogs” or whatever it is. In sort of the history of these characters we should have spent more on the names but there just wasn’t time. We are building them all simultaneously and trying to get ready for their shoot date. So this is “Slug” and obviously he looks like a slug.

So there is actually a list? All the names are documented?

Yeah. I’ve got a list. Because initially what I did, just for the folks in the lab and the people who applied on set, I made a book through one of those online bookbuilding programs. I made a book of all of our aliens. That’s one of the things that I showed to the folks at Titan first. I was like, “Look, this is what I did just so that I could archive it for myself because I wanted to look back and say “these are the guys that worked on it…a lot of behind the scenes…the artisans, and technicians that helped to bring each character to life. I wanted that for myself. What Titan has done is infinitely better than that book because it’s got text to it, it’s got backstory to it, and it spelled out the process of what we were doing.

Those classic Trek aliens we could have seen in Beyond

Is it interesting, or weird, or fun for you to see people cosplaying some of these aliens you’ve created here?

No, it’s touching! It’s really touching, and I mentioned this in an interview earlier when I was on stage [at Star Trek Las Vegas 2017] that, you know, when we started we did have our versions of classic Trek aliens. We had Andorians, Gorn…whatever it is…that we ended up not going with.

So we maybe would have seen those in Beyond?

You would have seen versions of those in Beyond. They were our updated versions, but we ended up going with completely new races across the board except for, obviously, Vulcans and Keenser, and the Orion girls. Those, I think, are the three holdovers from the series. But I was a little nervous because we weren’t addressing some of the beloved alien characters. We were introducing an entirely new group. Even though I was very conscious about maintaining the aesthetic of the Star Trek alien, which is primarily humanoid…it’s hands, the head…but it’s that kind of aesthetic that sets the Star Trek alien apart from, say, the Star Wars alien, or other sci-fi franchise aliens. So we were really conscious in designing these new aliens to keep that aesthetic, and to see people cosplaying those characters…to me it means that they embraced what we did as opposed to, you know, why didn’t you do this? Why didn’t you do that? That’s exactly what we had in mind from the beginning. They had the others, but we wanted to give them the same feeling, but new lifeforms to look at.

KI: You mentioned in your panel at Star Trek Las Vegas how you made sketches of some of the original, classic aliens. Can you rattle off a few names? You said Gorn I think…

Yeah we had Gorns, we had Andorians…we had so many. We ended up crossing over some of the original Trek aliens. But yeah, we ended up coming up with so many different amalgams of things. Even with Andorians, there’s that element…so we’ll take it and put it on this character, and work it into them. At the beginning…we had actually — and it got to sculptural form — a Klingon that was going to be one of these scavengers that Scotty meets on Altamid when he first meets Jaylah. One of those scavengers was going to be Klingon, but we ended up not going with that in favor of something else.

Was that going to be different from the ones we’d seen from Into Darkness?

Yes. It was still based on Neville Page’s design, but it was a more amped-up version…and Neville did design that, and then we translated it into 3D makeup, but it never got molded unfortunately. It seems closer to what I’m seeing in the press for Discovery. It seems like Neville took his original aesthetic for the Klingons and used it for that series.

I don’t suppose any of those designs are in the book…

There is our finished sculpture for the Klingon. It is in the book. There’s a lot in the book that you’ll never see anywhere else.

A Kelvin-verse Klingon

Looking ahead… to Star Trek 4?

Looking forward to future movies: Star Trek 4. A) have you heard anything about it? and, b) would you be interested in working on it?

Oh absolutely! I mean, I’ve never worked on a film that’s afforded me so much creative opportunity as Star Trek Beyond. Certainly, working on the 2009 Star Trek with JJ…we took home an Academy Award for that film, which was an absolute high point in my career. And then not being able to work on Into Darkness because I had a prior commitment, and coming back for Star Trek Beyond, what I wanted to do was take the level of quality of what we did on the 2009 reboot and amp it up in terms of volume. There are so many other concepts and designs that we had that are just waiting for their opportunity to be translated into living, breathing, acting characters.

Is there any chance, if a new film does happen, that we could see the Gorn that you designed or the Andorians?

I would love to bring those characters into it, absolutely. I think that I would push for that.

Have you heard anything about a fourth movie?

I haven’t. No, I haven’t. I’m just, fingers crossed, hoping that it happens. I’ve heard the same stuff that everyone’s heard online about a story with Chris Hemsworth, but inside track I haven’t heard anything. I would hope that they would come to me, and I had a great relationship with the entire production team so, fingers crossed that they’re knocking on the door sometime soon.

Any other stuff that you’re working on these days?

Yeah. I flew in yesterday because I’m on the set of Godzilla, you know the new Godzilla film. I’m also prepping the new Hellboy. I didn’t work on the others, and this is a reimagining…a completely new crew, completely new cast, a complete reimagining of the characters. It’s a chance to do something new with it that hasn’t been done before. 


“Star Trek Beyond – The Makeup Artistry of Joel Harlow” comes out Tuesday, October 17th and is available to pre-order now on Amazon.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Titan has informed us the proper release date is October 17th and the October 3rd date on Amazon is incorrect. The article has been updated to reflect this.

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What i actually wanted to say: It seems that those Kelvin-Movies are dead… Nonetheless really beautiful make-up artistry!

This team deserved an Oscar, and I will forever be upset it didn’t win.

Nothing like holding a grudge.

That’s not what a grudge is.

Well, the same stuff you’ve heard is just speculation. At this writing, no one is doing anything towards another big screen Trek outing….

How do you know?

Lets see, the studio is broke. Their meager schedule is already slotted up for the next two to three years, no mention of Trek. All of the actors involved in the last production have heard nothing about a fourth installment. The production crew from the last one has heard nothing, either. The actor known as George Kirk hasn’t heard anything. I suppose this could mean they are actually making a movie and keeping it top secret, or it means exactly what it means – nothing is happening. Someone will make one, but it’s many years down the road at this point.

Paramount has a lot going in internally right now.
Just because they have not made a decision to go ahead with a Trek sequel doesn’t mean they won t in the future.

It’s weird they ignored established STAR TREK aliens in the JJ Films (except of course Vulcans)…or even altered them like the Klingons and the Romulans (which is it TOS no forehead or TNG with forehead).

Why wouldn’t Klingons have a forehead?

Anyway, if it’d cranial ridges you’re talking about, for one thing, it’s an alternate timeline so it doesn’t matter, another thing, you really don’t think that ALL Klingons from that time were without ridges do you? That’d be silly…besides, Discovery has shown that there still are Klingons with ridges in that time.

I don’t understand why they didn’t use Andorians and other classic Trek aliens on Yorktown. That was a dumb move.

Yeah that was the one disappointing thing for me as well. Its the 50th anniversary of the show but yet they don’t present any famaliar aliens from the shows. It woudld’ve been cool if we see not only TOS aliens but aliens from the other shows like Bajorans, Cardassians, Trills, Talaxians, etc, just as really fun easter eggs for us to try and catch. A reminder of how big Trek has gotten. But instead just all new aliens. Kind of a weird decision.

Such elaborate make up designs for the aliens. I can see how/why the reboots cost so much money. It is worth it to see even if just for a few scenes.

This is where I have problems with people who just bash the Kelvin films as being made by people who don’t care. Say what you will about whether you liked the finished product but you have to appreciate what goes into making the films. To see how extremely hard they worked on it and wow those alien designs are gorgeous. I’ll always be upset the team didn’t win an Oscar for makeup.

Agree with those who were wishing to see more of the classic aliens in the JJ films. Don’t mind seeing new ones but they really should throw some Andorians and Tellerites in the mix.

Was cool to see the moving antenna on the Andorians on Enterprise. The concept of the antenna conveying emotion was brilliant.

I’m really hoping we see Andorians on Discovery. That was the one thing Enteprirse got really right, taking a very one dimensional species with a limited background from TOS and really expanding them. I know it wont happen but would love to see a Shran descendant on the show.

As far as the Discovery Klingons go, all this talk about honoring canon is exactly that- lip service. With 24 Houses to play with, each with it’s own look, one might think the Enterprise canon of at least 1 House having the smooth headed humanoid looking Klingons caused by Dr Soong’s Augment virus in Enterprise would have been honored.
Would have fit canon like a glove.
So much for adherence to canon.

They should just post pre-production shots online so we could help mitigate these disasters beforehand.

That’s actually a good point. There really should be human headed klingons showing up from time to time. Fits canon. Fans satisfied. The only downside I’d guess would be potential confusion among newbies.

On Reddit someone said we only seen 7 of the houses in the pilot so its still possible that can happen. Not really holding my breath though.

BTW. I liked your comment Bob T

The “pink alien” photographed above, in my opinion, is one of the worst “makeup” designs I have ever seen!
Just how could that creature EVER evolve?
I bet her mother died at child birth.

Maybe that species is hatched in eggs and the spikes grow in later. ;)

But I think everyone thinks of her first when they think of the new aliens in that movie. It is a really intricate design.

Star Trek is off the schedule for 2018 and 2019.

No discussions within Paramount outside of creative. New Paramount boss Jim Giannpolous took his Paramount ‘dog and pony show’ on the road and didn’t even mention Star Trek to corporate, stockholders, or to staff. Surprised there isn’t better reporting here. It appears they’ve abandoned Trek, but I think it’s probably contractual with CBS.

Redstone splitting Star Trek between two corporations and two CEOs is the worst thing that ever happened to Trek. Fans, especially TOS fans, haven’t really grappled with this yet.

Jefferies Tuber,

It wasn’t just STAR TREK. Before the split Paramount Television was exploring motion pictures for all their Desilu owned properties, STAR TREK, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and MANNIX. CBS was given ownership of all 3 after, and negotiated movie development rights for all of them with Paramount in a package deal. MANNIX seems to have gone nowhere but the other two did not. I suspect with its budget woes Paramount is thinking now that a much cheaper to produce MANNIX movie is a safer bet than STAR TREK in regards to the ROI that it desperately needs. I just can’t imagine what sort of script the ParaSuits think that it has to be? Seems obvious the old series’ secretary character would need to evolve into his business manager or partner at the very least?

I just picked up my copy of the makeup book.