What Peter Swords King went through while doing make-up for Disney’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass”

What Peter Swords King went through while doing make-up for Disney’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass”
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To hear Peter Swords King talk, there’s no such thing as “ … making it up as you go along” while you’re handling the make-up end of a major motion picture.

And given some of the projects that Peter has worked on over the past 15 years (i.e., all three of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films plus The Hobbit trilogy. Not to mention Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Into the Woods and the just-released-on-Blu-ray-&-DVD Alice Through the Looking Glass), this Academy Award-winner knows all too well the huge amount of pre-production work that has to be done on a movie of this size.

“Take – for example – The Hobbit. I must have done over a thousand drawings of the dwarves that were going to introduced in An Unexpected Journey,“ King recalled during a recent phone interview. “It took that long, that many tries to come up with a look for those characters that finally met with Peter Jackson’s approval.”

Peter Swords King (right) works with an associate on a character make-up for "The Hobbit."
Peter Swords King (right) works with an associate on a character make-up for "The Hobbit."
New Line Cinema / MGM

And even then – after all of those months of hard work that went to the creation of the prosthetics, wigs and beards that would be used on these characters – as soon as those dwarves went before the cameras, the two Peters immediately encountered all sorts of problems.

“Now you have to remember that The Hobbit was shot in HD 3D. So when we began doing camera tests for that movie … Well, while those make-ups looked great to the naked eye, as soon as they went in front of the cameras, those make-ups began to read as bright yellow on the monitors,” King continued. “And I was like ‘Oh my God. What’s going on here?’ “

What the two Peters eventually discovered was that -- in order to get these make-ups to look good / read properly when they were being shot in HD -- they first had to make a slight adjustment to that scene’s lighting. Go a bit more blue, which then counter-acted that artificial bright yellow cast which the HD cameras caused. Once Jackson made that minor adjustment, the dwarf make-ups that King created for The Hobbit looked just fine up there on the big screen.

New Line Cinema / MGM

“But that’s a problem that a lot of productions are dealing with these days. Since so many movies are now being shot in HD and then being shown on enormous screens once they’re out in theaters, if just one hair is out of place on someone’s mustache, it then looks as though this huge wire is jutting out from that actor’s face. This is why –nowadays – the make-up for every performer on set now has to be checked before every take. Just in case someone’s accidentally brushed their beard the wrong way. You don’t want the camera catching that,” Peter stated. “You have to be extremely vigilant on set these days. Which – when you’re working on a shoot that went as long as The Hobbit did, 266 days – can get exhausting.”

Which is why King always enjoys working with veteran performers like Johnny Depp. Actors who are all too familiar with the challenges that come with making a major motion picture and are willing collaborators once they climb up into that make-up chair.

“Johnny’s lovely to work with. I’ve actually done his make-up on four films now. Just last year, I was down in Australia working on Disney’s next Pirates movie, Dead Men Tell No Tales. And when Johnny’s in the make-up chair, he’s very, very cooperative. He gives you the freedom to try and come up with new looks for his character,” Peter said.


“Mind you, when you’re working on a sequel, you can’t change things too much. Otherwise it gets confusing for people. But with characters like Captain Jack Sparrow & the Mad Hatter, you can take some chances with those make-ups because the audience already knows who Johnny Depp is. They’re familiar with how his face looks like,” King continued. “Besides – when you’re a performer who’s played the same role multiple times – it can sometimes get a bit boring for them. And changing the way that a character looks, even making minor tweaks for that particular production, can then help energize an actor who finds themselves in a situation like that.”

Of course, this wasn’t really an issue on Disney’s Alice Through the Looking Glass. Given that this James Bobin film is (SPOILERS AHEAD) a time travel tale, Peter had the opportunity to create all sorts of different looks for Depp’s Mad Hatter. Take this Lewis Carroll character from childhood all the way through to death’s door.

“We obviously used the look that Tim Burton and Valli O’Reilly originally created for Alice in Wonderland as our jumping-off point. We replicated that look. But when we first meet the Mad Hatter in Through the Looking Glass, he’s in a far different place emotionally than this character was at the end of the first Alice film. The Hatter’s very worried about his family now. And the make-up and costume that Johnny Depp is wearing when the Hatter & Alice first meet again in this new movie, even the way the Mad Hatter’s hair is parted in this scene tries to visually convey that information,” King said.


And since the Mad Hatter is the character who really brings color & vibrancy to Underland, James & Peter repeatedly used Johnny’s hair & make-up as a way to remind the audience how high the emotional stakes were in Alice Through the Looking Glass.

“That’s what was really fun about working on this film. The make-up actually helps to tell the story here. For example, we visually communicate to the audience that the Mad Hatter had calmed down by changing that character’s hair color from bright red to ruddy brown. Conversely, when the Hatter seemed to be lying on his death bed, we could let the audience know that this character was making a rapid recovery by suddenly have color flood back into his face. Having the Hatter’s hair quickly go from being flat & grey to curly & bright red,” Peter stated.

“It’s at that exact moment in Through the Looking Glass that the Mad Hatter finally becomes the character that audiences knew & loved from the first Alice film,” King continued. “And I have to tell you that – rather than just replicate the look that the Hatter had in that earlier movie – it was genuinely fun to be able to collaborate with Johnny Depp on multiple versions of this Lewis Carroll character. Give the Hatter all sorts of different looks, make him be all sorts of different ages before he then finally turned back into the same colorful, vibrant character that the Hatter was in the first Alice film.”


So has Peter been doing the same thing with the most recent major motion picture he did make-up on, Star Wars: Episode VIII (which was shot at Pinewood Studios in the UK between February & July of this year)? Has King perhaps been experimenting with the way that Mark Hamill’s Luke and Carrie Fisher’s Leia look in this new Lucasfilm production? Since Peter is a guy who obviously knows how to keep a secret, he politely steered our conversation back in the direction of Disney’s Alice Through the Looking Glass.

“Let’s just say that I always enjoy using make-up as a way to illustrate how time can change a character. Like – on Looking Glass – I worked with Helena Bonham Carter & James Bobin to come up with just the right look for a younger version of the Red Queen,” King concluded. “That was a lot of fun, finding all of the little nuances we could use to then differentiate the younger version of Iracebeth from the one we met in the first Alice film. But again you can’t change too much. Otherwise it confuses people.”

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