Editor’s note: Set in the pre-Civil War United States, 12 Years a Slave follows the journey of a free black man named Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is abducted and sold into slavery, where he remains for more than a decade until a chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist (played by Brad Pitt). The film’s key make-up artist, Nick London, sat down with make-up designer and department head Kalaadevi to talk about preparation, inspiration, the challenges of period make-up and more.

Nick London: How did you become a make-up artist for movies?

Kalaadevi with Chiwetel Ejiofor
Kalaadevi with Ejiofor. Photo courtesy of Nick London

Kalaadevi: Straight from graduating university in 1986, I was supporting myself from painting, printmaking and teaching art at a high school in Brooklyn. One late evening, as I was in Greenwich Village, I noticed the street lit as if by daylight by a film production. They were shooting one of the exterior scenes. I stopped and sat on the nearby steps of a building observing the crew, director, actors and technicians working as if they were musicians playing a complex orchestral piece—everything timed, ordered, synchronized, ready to become creation. It was always a desire of mine to sing in a chorus or a band, but I neither sang nor played an instrument. This film creation which I was witnessing ignited within me the idea of creating art with others, a communion of individual unique talents that create a whole art form.

The next day I was with my mother and shared that night’s experience and my sentiments with her. I later found out that when my mother went to work, in the entrance hall of her office [was] a flyer that caught her eye. The flyer read, “Retired union film make-up artist James Cole giving private classes.” My mother took the flyer, stuffed it in an envelope and posted it to my apartment. I knew this was a completely auspicious happening … I took classes, prepared for the 12-hour practical union test and passed straight away. I landed my first job soon after.

London: How did you research the looks for 12 Years a Slave?
Kalaadevi: I looked at Eastman Johnson paintings as research. Johnson painted slaves in their natural environment and they were so realistic … there were many daguerreotypes taken in the 1840s and 1850s of slaves. Often

Chiwetel Ejiofor
Ejiofor. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

times they were photographed [nude]. One could see the scars, markings and skin discoloration of long hours and years of cotton picking in the sun. I could see how malnutrition affects skin tone, texture and luster of the skin. I recreated the dull skin texture with matting agents and varying palettes thinned with alcohol as a base. There were also artists’ pencil renderings of slave pens and photographs documenting slave ships arriving to port. Often in these photos, I could see layers of whipping marks spanning over time … [an] immense feeling of compassion for the subject of this film was inspiring my make-up work, in that I was relentless in my effort to create as natural and real an effect as possible.

London: Did you design special make-up palettes or effects for the film?
Kalaadevi: Yes, I designed the special effects and the make-up color palette. When working with actors of color, their natural warm skin tones needed to be neutralized, cooled, ashened, so they would appear fatigued and burnt by the sun, tired and dehydrated, with chapped, dry lips. I was working and balancing four Illustrator palettes to blend the pigment I wanted. After working with the colors for some time, I established … a palette including 10 mixed-color hues which enabled me to create the desired effect. This was named the 12 Years a Slave Illustrator palette [by PPI], for use on brown- and black-skinned actors.

Lupita Nyong'o and Alfre Woodard
Lupita Nyong’o (left) and Alfre Woodard. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures


London: What did you find challenging about the period, the 1800s?
Kalaadevi: In the heat of summer in New Orleans, it was challenging to keep the facial hair glued onto the face, and because the aging was done with color, the aging make-up had to be constantly touched up. The actors would literally sweat it off after a scene.

London: How did you age the actors in stages for the 12-year period?
Kalaadevi: Aging was done with color, cool versus warm tones, thinning faces with chiaroscuro technique. The scars, blotchiness and irregularities were used to show whether the slave was healthy and working in the main house or working in the field.

London: This is your second film with director Steve McQueen. Does he work closely with the make-up when describing a look?

Kalaadevi on set
Kalaadevi on set. Photo courtesy of Nick London

Kalaadevi: Yes, Steve is a perfectionist, and has a very detailed vision of each character. It is my job to understand and work very closely with Steve and also the actors in fulfilling Steve’s creative vision. This film moved at a very fast pace, with what seemed to be very tight prep time. Sometimes it was a phrase, or a direction Steve gave me, and I would simply listen to his words and go with his emotion of the scene. Then I would stay up the night drawing and cutting and gluing scars, laying them all out in my hotel room, sometimes 60, 70, 80 of them, overlaying them, moving shapes … when morning came and I was in the trailer, I worked quite spontaneously. I had a plan, but then unclutched from it and allowed the feeling of the scene and the creative process to have [lives of their] own. Working with Steve McQueen is a collaborative process, whereby Steve holds the highest expectations of all his crew, all the artists, whether it be sound, art direction, editing, make-up or hair. And for the record, I would like to say, [I] will continue to happily fulfill the future visions of Steve McQueen.

12 Years a Slave opens Oct. 17.

Michael Fassbender, Nyong’o and Ejiofor. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures