Anyone who mentions the TV series Vikings around me knows I’m a big fan. It’s got everything: History! Violence! Men in Leather! And that’s just what I love as a viewer…. As a makeup artist, my eyes are feasting on the makeup, hair and costumes on the show.
Apparently I’m a vocal enough fangirl that The History Channel offered me an interview with Vikings makeup artist Tom McInerney. Not only has he won several awards for his special effects work on Vikings, but his past credits include Camelot and The Tudors. If you’ve watched Vikings with makeup in mind, you’d see that his work – especially the blood-and-guts special effects – is basically flawless.
As a beauty makeup artist into historical beauty rituals, of course I was going to ask about the historical beauty practices of the Vikings. After all, it IS a History Channel show. But I also included a few questions about the workings of a large-production TV series with special effects. And tried to pry more info about the upcoming character developments. Tom’s still working on the show’s production in Ireland, but he graciously answered all my questions and then some.
M.P. How much research go into the looks for the characters in Vikings? Does Vikings have its own historians? Do they tell you if you get something wrong?
T.M. There are historians that work for the show that inform us on details we need clarification on. At the beginning of the show we did extensive research .. but ultimately all we can work in terms of looks in the end are what the Vikings left behind them. They were a very civilised race of people that did very uncivilised things ..
M.P. What can you tell us about Viking beauty rituals?
T.M. The men were very proud of their beards and took great care grooming and cleaning themselves. Both men and women carried what you or I would call a vanity cases with bone combs and ear spoons and tweezers. They were known to bathe regularly and change their clothes often and were regarded as one of the cleanest peoples of middle ages.
M.P. Do you base some of your looks on what you can find about Viking skin and hair formulations?
T.M. No .. we base our looks on how the the Vikings lived and the environment they lived in. They were principally farmers and sailors and thus the looks we create need to pay homage to that life style. There was no sunblock back then .. they could have used lanolin or sheep fat as a form of moisturiser.. there are many natural things different tribes throughout the world use to enrich and protect their skins.. Based on what we know of the Vikings .. which is very little, we can only assume they had their own forms of skin care .. but its a skin care regime based on a social paradigm well outside our own so its really anybody’s guess what they did.
M.P. What’s in Floki’s eyeliner? Would it have a protective element? I know he’s a very devout Pagan – is there something religious or ritualistic about it? Were the Vikings into makeup? Was it a gender-specific thing?
T.M. From the small things we know about the Vikings its written that both men and women wore kohl around their eyes to enhance them. Bearing this in mind .. Floki is the show’s representative of the Pagan culture the Vikings embraced. He is a boat builder, carpenter and expresses deep connection to the Gods of his time. As a tribes man and an advocate of the Pagan culture, we embellish his look with various patinas that would suggest he may touch on an almost alchemic ritualistic approach to his craft- to which we use to inform his look , which allows us to embellish his eye make up .. we use Mac Black Track and Mac Smoulder eyeliner ..
M.P. Given that Floki’s wife Helga is an herbalist, would she be blending beauty potions as well as healing ones? And (will you give us a spoiler hint here): can she help Porunn?
T.M. Helga by virtue of the nature of her relationship with Floki is also deeply connected to the Pagan culture .. so you have to really dig into what that was. Pagan culture was deeply holistic very much like it is today and to assume that as a herbalist she wouldn’t be blending potions and apothecaries would be a little short sighted on our part. She is as much a healer as Floki is and is instrumental in Porunn’s survival.
M.P. The Seer is one of the most fascinating characters in Vikings – people go to him for help, yet he’s a very fearsome presence! What were your inspirations for him? And why is his mouth black?
T.M. We needed a clairvoyant, a person with prescience that was blind. To tell that story with the right kind of gravitas we need to look a little closer at the kind of person that was .. Homosexuality as I understand it in those times was not as we know it today . Historians tell us they were a polyamorous society with homosexual men relegated to certain quarters of society, quarters that indulged clairvoyance and mysticism .. that’s where we meet our Seer.. he is a homosexual mystic with no eyes .. rather than give him contacts we took away his sight to allow him his Vision .. the Black on his lips serves two purposes .. because he’s “blind” he can’t see what he’s eating and thus his lips are stained from the mushrooms he consumes to enrich his prescience it also makes him really f@*$ing scary!
M.P. Tattoos in Viking times: How were they done and by whom? Were they decoration? Rites of Passage? Medallions of Honor? To Frighten Enemies?
T.M. At the moment their is no character that does the tattoos .. Though I’ve always been fond of the idea that there’s a Viking Tattoo artist somewhere in Kettigat similar in kind to the Seer carving his magic in indelible ink though the skins of our warriors. They’re used as both rites of passage and medallions of honour and it’s a fantastic way to illustrate the passage of time in the show.
M.P. How much time do you get to develop the makeups for the characters? Are there full scripts and character briefs beforehand? Are you meeting with hair and wardrobe throughout?
T.M. On average we get about two weeks to develop the look of a new character for the show. Unless the character had a major story arch in the show the character briefs are led by the scripts and often the Director of each episode might want to make his mark by adding something special of his own to some ones look .. it varies greatly form episode to episode.
M.P. How many tests do you go through for each character?
T.M. Often 3 or 4 .. for our main cast it can be up to 30.
M.P. How much time does it take to get a character ready for the day’s shooting? How much time does it take to get them ready to go home? How many makeup artists are working on the show during shooting?
T.M. It takes an average of 45 minutes to get our cast through the works in the morning. One or two can take up to an hour and a half. Depending on what we’ve shot during the day we usually get them ready to go home in less than 10 minutes. I have a full time crew of 10, including prosthetics and a daily crew of about 30.
M.P. And how does shooting in HD affect the makeup you’re doing?
T.M. It doesn’t … HD is an ignorant brute of a medium to work with. It is has no finesse and its only real purpose is to meet a deadline quickly. So long as our make ups leave the chair looking as perfect to our eye as we can make it then the only problem I have to deal with is what LUTs (filters) the DOP is using which will affect the colour ratios. The Term LUTS refers to Colour look up tables .. (the options your phone sometimes gives you to add things like a sepia look to your photo) and depending on what LUTs are being used at the time of filming can affect how all our work can look.. I’m not surprised they dropped the C from the abbreviation of LUTs.
M.P. From your Instagram it appears that most of the makeup effects are done on set – that is, not in post-production. Is there anything that “can’t be done” on set and has to be done in post?
T.M. .. We can do almost anything .. things that are fixed in post are usually things that are outside our control like under eye problems or break outs .. coldsores etc..
M.P. There are some pretty harsh conditions on set – wind, rain, cold… not to mention spectacularly bloody battles. How do you keep the makeup holding up on set? And is there anything you’d share that works in real life too?
T.M. We do have some pretty harsh conditions to work in but to be honest the only things that keep the make up and hair and costume looking good are the army just off camera waiting to pounce and fix as soon as the Director says cut.
M.P. You also do beauty makeup for photo shoots – are there inspirations and techniques you bring from working in special effects?
T.M. My training was in fashion and beauty. It is the most fundamental form of training I can think of. In terms of inspirations and techniques .. well I know how to hold a brush properly and keep my eyes open to changing trends which informs my sculpture and my mould making and my colour theory
M.P. Lagertha’s look is quite trendy on social media and in real life – is there anyone else’s look you’d like to see walking down the street in 2016?
T.M. I think Helga has a really strong look, though almost all of my looks are no make up looks.. I’ve heard of some people wanting to get tattoos done like Ragnars .. that would be be really interesting to see.
Vikings Season 4 premieres Thursday, February 18, 2016 on the History Channel.
You can follow Tom on Instagram for more behind the scenes peeks at his work.