Makeup artist James MacKinnon has been a part of the Star Trek family since the early ’90s. In recent years, he’s served as makeup department head on Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Short Treks, and all three seasons of Star Trek: Picard. With the latter series now wrapped, we caught up with MacKinnon to talk about the challenges of creating new looks for the celebrated final season, and on being part of the Trek family for decades.
Nerdist: Definitely the most regular prosthetic makeup on a single character you got to do in Picard season 3 was on Worf (Michael Dorn). Obviously, Worf has white hair now, so that’s a visual change. But this was the first time Michael Dorn was in his iconic Klingon makeup in 20 years. He looked like the Worf we remember, but were there any subtle changes you made to his look that the average viewer might not notice? Beyond just the white hair?
James MacKinnon: I think we’re elevating what we did in the past, so still keeping to the core of his character. The sculpture is a little different. Our Klingon prosthetics are a different material. They were foam latex back then, and now they’re silicone, so there’s a weight difference. The paint job is different. Back in the foam days, it was opaque, so you had to paint all that detail, and now you kind of see through it.
We splatter this type of skin texture on there to have more realism, because that 8K camera can now see all the sculptures and all the paint. As an artist, you actually have to fine-tune where you don’t see my little paint splatters from an airbrush that looks realistic. That’s my job, to make sure that you look at him as Worf, not as Mike Dorn in makeup. But the sculpture is a little different, similar, but again, it’s different because the material is different and the flow of it is elevated, but still super close.
Your very first professional work was on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine back in the day, and then later the film First Contact. Even though you’d already worked on modern Trek shows like Discovery and the first seasons of Picard, with the original cast of The Next Generation back, did it feel like this season was like coming full circle for you?
MacKinnon: Oh yeah, but I was already seeing Jonathan Frakes in Toronto on Discovery, because he was directing a couple of episodes, so it was just great. They’re kind of my family now. It’s been so long. That relationship is there, and I can call them friends now, because we go to dinner, and I do little side projects with Jonathan for his TV show that he’s doing, Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction. But we have a little personal connection there, as well, which happened way back then. We were much, much younger, and they were a little bit older than me. Not by much, I’ve just aged well. (laughs) But it’s really nice to have friends that long and have a career expand with such an iconic TV show that is part of everybody’s life.
The makeup on the Borg Queen in Picard season three is the coolest and creepiest she’s ever looked. There was an HR Giger influence on her look going back as far as First Contact. But now it’s full-blown horrific. Was there ever any concern from the showrunners that she was maybe too horror-esque, or did they encourage you to take that far?
MacKinnon: Well, I think [Picard showrunner] Terry Matalas wanted it to be like that. Neville Page is our alien designer, so that starts with Terry and Neville, and that magic happens. After that, it goes to Vincent Van Dyke, where he has to figure out how to make that one-dimensional photograph sculptural, put it on her face, and how is that going to break down into pieces that I’m going to have to put on. There is subtle changes after that.
The process from the design, to the makeup, to the building, to the foam latex, to all the stuff; it all has to work for me on set as well. That’s the best combination of a team that this makes between me, Vincent, and Neville, because they know what they want, and who knows what happened underneath that swirly pool of goop that they fell in [in First Contact], because obviously, Data popped out and he was a little effed up, melted. He came out like that, so what is she going to look like? That’s been 20-some-odd years, so there’s a rotted zombie mess to it. That took five hours to do that makeup, too, which was fun. At 1:30 in the morning, we would start and at 7:00 in the morning she would go to set. Everybody’s sleeping while we’re working.
Speaking of the Borg, we saw a new incarnation of the Borg in the Picard series finale with the young Starfleet officers. Those all leaned into the zombie more and less into the robotic prosthetics. What kind of changes did you implement to make sure they still read to fans as Borg?
MacKinnon: Yeah. That was more of that nanobot type, that nanobot stuff that we did in a previous season. It was a little more showing where that is taking over their skin, so the veins are coming through. There’s a depth in there. There’s that possible roboty-type material too. It was a layering effect before they were to get to become true Borg, where their missing parts are put together. Right before they’re almost completely Borg instead of human. There was a little bit of a play of, how do we do that transition before they become the Borg? I agree with you, it’s a little rotty, veiny, and gross.
One place that had the most aliens in season 3 was the planet M’Talas Prime, where we met Ferengi crime lord Sneed. We hadn’t really seen Ferengi in a long time in Trek, at least not any with significant screen time. What was it like to do classic Ferengi makeup after so long, only now for a 4K world?
MacKinnon: It has been decades. It was amazing. Our Ferengi, Sneed, his makeup, and the actor underneath it were amazing. Obviously, we elevated that so you didn’t have the piece of carpet around the back of the head [like on The Next Generation] and that most likely was there because sculptures then were different. You didn’t have to have a complete sculpture back there, and you could have that hide all the seams and the edges. Now we got to actually see that, see the detail, what it would look back behind his head. It’s just an elevation. You still kept that core classic Ferengi look. But with those new materials, it can just be softer and more organic of a makeup now, yeah.
We saw Vulcans in this season of Picard too, who are very different from previous Vulcans. These were gangsters. How did you approach them, as opposed to the cousins, the Romulans? They’re almost the same, but not quite.
MacKinnon: Yeah. I mean, that’s a difference in the pointing of the eyebrows. The ears are shaped a little bit different and have a little bit of ridges. Kind of like the Romulans from the South [ of the planet Romulus] had ridges. The Romulans from the North didn’t have forehead pieces. That’s a long story. That might’ve been more of a budgetary thing, anyway.
You actually got to have an on-screen role in the final episode of Picard as a Starfleet officer. Before that, you played a Borg drone in season one, and appeared in Discovery too. Was it fun to be on the other side of the camera, and did you get a bit of the acting bug at all?
MacKinnon: I do! I like to get a SAG day out of it so I can get some residuals [laughs]. No, but I like a little bit of acting. I’m not an actor at all, but I like to put my face on there. On Discovery, Airiam, the robot girl, I was the guy who unplugged her and turned her off. I got to create her, and then kill her, basically.
Now that Picard has ended, what was the highlight of all three seasons for you? And what was your favorite of the metric ton of different makeups you got to do over the course of the series?
MacKinnon: It was to walk around that corner to see that legacy cast on the ship from The Next Generation. Yes, half of our makeup budget and everybody’s makeup budget went to build that ship. Not that I’m happy about that, but it was worth penny-pinching a little bit. Unfortunately, we penny-pinch for this kind of thing. Just to see those cast members again, after I saw them a hundred years ago in that same situation. They’re a couple of days older, but not by much. They’re what, 27 now? Yeah, it’s fun. It’s a fun relationship to have and grow with, and be part of. I’m sad it’s over with.
Star Trek: The Picard Legacy Collection Blu-ray set arrives on November 7 from Paramount Home Entertainment. It contains seasons 1-7 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, 4 feature films, and seasons 1-3 of Star Trek: Picard.