In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Nebula’s Makeup Tells Rocket’s Unwritten Backstory

In The Scenario, reporter Kirbie Johnson takes readers behind the scenes of the buzziest movies and TV shows to reveal how the best wigs, special effects makeup, and more are created. For this edition, Johnson speaks with the hair and makeup department leads for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 about their record-breaking work on the film. Warning: This story contains detailed spoilers.

Guardians of the Galaxy as we know it comes to a close this month, culminating with an epic third volume that had grown adults sobbing. (I was one of them.) Following the backstory of Rocket — voiced by Bradley Cooper in the films — and his trajectory in joining the Guardians, it’s a tale of friendship, bravery, and, at times, emotional warfare, with a truly happy ending for our beloved Trash Panda and fitting send off for director James Gunn, who exits the Marvel cinematic universe to oversee DC Studios as co-CEO. The film has received wide acclaim from fans and critics, with some saying it’s the best Marvel installment since Avengers: End Game (2019).

The movie features incredible digital effects from Legacy FX: Characters like Rocket; his childhood friends Lylla the otter, Teefs the walrus, and Floor the rabbit; and his trusty “son” Groot were all the result of computer-generated images (CGI). A feat, especially when a majority of these characters have to interact with human beings and not stick out like a sore thumb. While digital effects did play a large role in the film, many of the human-portrayed characters’ makeups were a result of practical makeup application. In fact, the hair and makeup team broke a record based on the volume of prosthetic appliances utilized in Volume 3 — 22,541 to be exact — on 100 central cast members and over 1000 background actors. Additionally, 500 wigs and 117 pairs of contacts were utilized, as well as many pairs of fake teeth.

How Hair and Makeup Worked Together

Makeup department head Alexei Dmitriew and hair department head Cassie Russek tell Allure that the makeup and hair application was difficult due to sheer volume, but also because of the organizational strategy needed to keep hair and makeup on track in the film based on set restrictions.

<h1 class="title">Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 Special Effects 1</h1><cite class="credit">Courtesy of Marvel Studios</cite>

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 Special Effects 1

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

“We had so many complications because we shot it in the heart of COVID,” says Dmitriew. “We had so many people [on set] and at that time we had contact tracing. I had times that half of a [makeup] trailer was getting wiped out.” Dmitriew oversaw a core group of 15 makeup artists on the film who took on-set classes to learn key character makeups, including Mantis, Drax, Nebula, and Gamora, in the event the artist originally assigned to that character wasn’t able to be on set. They also had to account for the actor’s doubles as well. “I was really focused on trying to set people up for success to make sure that no matter what happened we had an A, B, and C plan.”

“Our role [as department heads] was to make sure that the prosthetics were going to fit the face,” says Russek. Not every background actor got the exact same treatment, so she and Dmitriew had to collaborate closely to perfect the looks for each one. “Then let's say the prosthetics were going to fit the face, but the hair color was going to be so wrong. We then have to decide how much does that prosthetic fit the face now that I need to do a wig? Or for [Dmitriew], the hair looks so good on this person — let's not put a makeup on them. [Dmitriew] is the makeup department head, I am the hair department head, but really we were one department.”

Example of an underskull.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 Underskull Makeup

Example of an underskull.
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
Adjusting the wig around the vampire bat mom&#39;s ears.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 Bat Vampire Mom

Adjusting the wig around the vampire bat mom's ears.
Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Each makeup in the film had its own level of difficulty. For instance, when the Guardians visited Counter-Earth, there were about 30 “Humanimal” characters that had custom makeups and 30 background actors who wore animal-centric masks. Some of these makeups required underskulls, which is essentially a custom 3D-printed carbon skullcap that goes on top of an actor's wrapped head. This allows things like ears, for example, to be magnetically applied to the head seamlessly. “The vampire bat mom took about an hour and a half to do and Cassie did her wig. That was a really cool underskull,” says Dmirtriew. “The ears are actually magnetized and then the makeup is done around [them].”

Making Nebula Look More Human Than Ever

<h1 class="title">Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 Peter and Nebula</h1><cite class="credit">Jessica Miglio/Courtesy Marvel Studios</cite>

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 Peter and Nebula

Jessica Miglio/Courtesy Marvel Studios

Dmitriew says of the main cast, Nebula’s makeup work has to be the most precise. “It’s hard to say which [makeup] was the most complicated,” he says. “Sometimes it's hair prep, sometimes it's a lot of underlayers. I think Nebula is one of the harder makeups on that whole show, because it's the hardest to get super clean.” Dmitriew himself worked on Nebula’s makeup in prior movies, going into the final film having already applied it 90 times. Because of the clean lines in the makeup there was little room for error. During the testing phase, Nebula’s makeup took around three hours to complete, but with practice, they were able to complete the look in an hour and 15 minutes.

“Really, it's the first time we've seen both of Nebula's eyes.”

In Vol. 3, Nebula has a more human response to her interactions than in previous films and was intentionally made to look more humanlike as well. In fact, her makeup plays into part of Rocket’s backstory, which was a note from director and writer James Gunn. “Rocket has the story [that he] has been helping [Nebula],” says Dmitriew. “Her right arm was modified [by Rocket]. From the very beginning, James was like, ‘Rocket’s been improving her — that would have been something that he did.’ But did you notice there's a huge change in this makeup? Normally, her eye has the big mechanical eye piece, so that metal plate went all the way across her eye. In this movie, it doesn't — Rocket removed it at one point. Really, it's the first time that we've seen both her eyes.” Dmitriew shares that Nebula never had a left eyebrow before because that's where the mechanical part went. Now with both eyebrows, more emotion is expressed through the character.

“That's one of the reasons why she defends Rocket so much,” says Dmitriew. “When he wakes up [after flatlining on the table], the first thing [Rocket] says is, ‘Where's Nebula’? They have such a bond and that is part of their bond.”

Behind the Guardians' Hair Transformations

Adding to Nebula’s transformation time was that Karen Gillan, who plays Nebula, didn’t shave her head for the role like she did in the first film. Russek shared that they had to figure out how to create a bald-looking head without getting rid of Gillan’s naturally long hair because, as a working actor, she had other projects too. Russek also notes Gillan was getting married right after filming wrapped. “Shawn Smith, who has been with Legacy FX forever, came up with this amazing way to do the bald wrap,” says Russek. “Not a lot of people know how to do it.” Getting the rest of the team up to speed with a bald wrap class was one of the first things they did when the film’s production started.  Since the movie was filmed in Atlanta, the team had to overcome issues like swampy weather which can affect how the bald wrap holds up. “It’s a process with a lot of gel and blow dryer,” Russek says. “As you are sectioning it off, you have to apply the gel and then blow dry as you're going. You start to mold it.” Overall, this process took 45 minutes on average to complete.

<h1 class="title">Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 Peter Quill Curly Hair</h1><cite class="credit">Jessica Miglio/Courtesy Marvel Studios</cite>

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 Peter Quill Curly Hair

Jessica Miglio/Courtesy Marvel Studios

In addition to the bald characters that required precision and time to effectively create a natural-looking head utilizing the bald wrap method, there’s incredible wig work in this film. Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill even wore a wig in Guardians 3, which looked dramatically different from the character’s hair in other movies.

“His hair is definitely curlier, it has a little bit more texture,” said Russek. “They were trying to keep him unkempt. The whole start of [the film], you can really notice it's in his face and drab — he's so sad that he's lost Gamora, and he obviously has a drinking problem. Peter was going through a huge transformation through this movie.”

<cite class="credit">Disney</cite>

Zoe Saldaña’s Gamora is now part of The Ravagers, an interstellar criminal syndicate in the universe. The Gamora we knew before is not the Gamora we see in this film, and her hair, styled in locs, showcases her new lifestyle. “It almost felt like she just let her hair grow and she never did it,” says Russek. “[Gamora has] got some good hair texture. It's so cool because she kind of always has this piece that goes right in front and she just looks so badass. It’s my favorite that Gamora has ever looked.”

Creating Quill's Stuck in Space Scene

One of the most impressive makeups in the movie is so involved that most may think it’s 100% created through digital effects. However, Dmitriew divulged a majority of it was done through practical makeup effects. As the movie comes to a close and the Guardians rescue all of the children and animals from the burning ship, Quill gets left behind and ultimately stuck in space, causing him to freeze over and begin to contort, with his face becoming bulbous as lack of atmospheric pressure causes ebullism in his body.

“There were three different stages that we did for [Chris’s] makeup,” says Dmitriew. “When he is first floating in air in space, [his personal makeup artist] Jane Galli does a frost makeup that gets him to the first stage.” From there, there are two different stages of prosthetic makeups. First is where Peter looks a little “blown up,” according to Dmitriew. However, Quill’s face quickly expands, moves, and gets bigger which brings him to the last stage, which was rather involved given the makeup was actually moving. “We did a prosthetic makeup on Chris that had hoses that went in and they were actually full of ‘bladders’ on these air compressors, so we would blow and move it around.” These final makeups were digitally augmented to add frost on top of them and to morph them seamlessly from one stage to another, but everything the audience saw moving was practical makeup. The process on Pratt took around two hours total.

“We really try to be as fast and efficient and it all comes with prep, right?” says Dmitriew. “We're prepping everything. We're making sure that, you know, we go into everything with a game plan and we know exactly what we're doing.”

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Originally Appeared on Allure