The eponymous mythical entity in David Lowery’s Arthurian reinterpretation “The Green Knight” was as tactile on set as it appears on screen. Imposing and oaken, this embodiment of the unknown (death and nature) is played by actor Ralph Ineson (“The Witch”) with masterful prosthetics from seasoned makeup effects artist Barrie Gower (“Game of Thrones”) and his team at BGFX, the London-based company he co-founded with his wife Sarah Gower.
Gower was unfamiliar with the tale of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” before Lowery approached him. The director provided visual references that likened the character to the anthropomorphic trees known as Ents in ‘The Lord of the Rings” saga. Other sources of inspiration were sculptures conceived out of reclaimed wood from shipwrecks.
“He basically said this character needed to be almost regal but he wanted it to look like he was created from the natural world, as if he was made out of tree bark and roots. We used a lot of real reference of organic materials,” Gower told Variety in a recent interview.
Although Gower believes Lowery never considered bringing the Green Knight to life digitally, other practical options were discussed. A performance puppet or animatronics that Ineson could voice afterwards were among the possibilities. Eventually, during the design process, they concluded it was feasible to achieve the desired effect through tangible makeup work.
The design phase lasted around two months. Multiple exchanges between the artisans and the filmmaker finessed the details of this ancient creature. Lowery send them sketches based on which they created sculpture maquettes. The director then drew over the photos of the maquettes to provide feedback.
Drawing details from a variety of forestry textures and colors, they sculpted these maquettes in modeling clay. For an extra three-dimensional quality, they added fake moss. Once the final form of the Green Knight was agreed on, a concept artist did several color passes. “He painted over the clay model and we had different shades of greens, yellows and browns to come to a conclusion with what seemed like the right hue,” Gower noted.
Given the large proportions of the Green Knight, specifically, his wooden head, Gower and his team explored a variety of materials to find those best suited for the job. The majority of modern prosthetics are made out of a silicon material, which, according to Gower, is ideal for isolated pieces, old age makeup, or subtle transformations. But when dealing with larger applications cast out of silicon, weight can become a concern.
Taking that into account, they cast out of silicon rubber and used lightweight foam for the interior of the prosthetics. The lighter the substance, the more comfortable for the actor, who has to undergo meticulous implementation.
“As with any complex prosthetic makeup, usually the first application or the first test is usually longer than what you ended up doing on the shoot, but it’s still quite an extensive makeup,” Gower explains. “We probably started with about a four-hour application for the initial test.”
The Green Knight’s head consisted of a large pullover, similar to a balaclava appliance, which glued around Ineson’s hairline and in front of his ears and under his chin. It then went down his neck and on the top of his chest. This appliance sat under the costume at the base. Following that large component, there was a large facepiece, which went all around the actor’s eyes and blended over the forehead.
“We had a separate chin piece as well, which had all the kind of extra little armatures roots and tendrils coming out of the chin, which simulated his beard,” said Gower.
Lowery was keen on maintaining an organic look for Green Knight, so while some of the original maquettes were slightly more symmetrical, the imperfect nature of asymmetry felt more attuned with the concept. Gower added sections of bark across the brow and down the side of the nose. Branches are also more extreme on one side of the head to throw off the symmetry.
“The piece on the head wasn’t symmetrical, that means it’s heavier on one side more than the other,” said Ineson. “To keep your neck upright with all that weight and just to exist inside this kind of cocoon is a strange experience.”
In addition to the facial construction, the artists also designed pull-on gloves, which were skin-tight. To make prosthetic gloves the craftspeople always reduce the hand formers sculpted in modeling clay. Once on, there’s no buckling. In fact, they fit like, well, gloves. However, because Ineson had broken his wrist a few weeks before the shoot, they had to split one of the gloves to accommodate his plastic cast. Thankfully they only filmed once under those circumstances. The actor had almost healed by that point.
“It was a long time ago, and it gives you time to forget quite how uncomfortable it was to make,” said Ineson about filming “The Green Knight” in 2019. “It was a great experience to do the film, but it was physically very demanding to carry that amount of prosthetics and armor around. It was a three-and-half-hour makeup job every morning to get the prosthetics on and get the face painted. That makes your day very long, which in itself is quite tiring.”
Each shooting day required a brand new set of appliances. To remove these at the end of the arduous workday, Gower and company use various mineral oils to melt the glue away. This essentially destroys the piece and the fine blending edges. Since they only get a one-day use, a member of their team works back at the workshop on a production line of all the face parts, the chins, and the balaclavas.
For Ineson, the burdensome wearable props were a tool to immerse himself in the role, disappearing under this hand-fabricated identity. With his face enclosed under multiple layers, his ears were covered, so he described hearing sounds as if he were underwater. Meanwhile, his vision was also subpar due to special effects contact lenses, which vocally he dislikes putting on. Inside that “cocoon,” as he calls it, all he had was his sense of smell, which was especially useful while on location in Ireland.
“For the final sequence at the Green Chapel, there was wild garlic flowering in the forest. Walking there in the costume with the armor, the huge prosthetic, and my sense of smell firing up, this really strong smell of wild garlic was great,” Ineson said. “Without wishing to sound too pretentious, it made me feel very close to nature and very much like the Green Knight.”
Through it all, Gower was always conscious that Ineson had to be able to deliver a performance from underneath the silicon. Changing the density of the material, making it softer, almost flesh-like, enabled more movement that translated into readable human facial expressions from the actor.
“It’s so impressive how thin the prosthetics was around my eyes and my cheeks and the edges of my mouth meant that I could really express and I could act in a way that I was worried I wouldn’t be able to do. I didn’t want to be doing it in a mask,” said Ineson. “I had to learn to use the prosthetics and realize to what extent I had to exaggerate some facial movements bigger than perhaps I would normally without the prosthetic. To find out what the line of that was I did quite a lot of work in the mirror.”
Almost as helpful to get immersed in the character were the reactions of the other actors and crew when he first walked onto set in full Green Knight attire while riding a horse for the scene at the Round Table. Feeling intimidating and powerful, he believes he naturally pushed his voice to sound deeper and broader than it already does in regular conversation.
“To see the look on everybody’s faces was incredible and really inspiring. It gave me a massive boost to know that I had already gotten so much of this character just by wearing the costume, so that also subconsciously made me feel bigger and more impressive,” the actors added.
Considering all the strenuousness that creating the Green Knight entailed, Ineson was disappointed to read some early reviews that confused the handcraft for CGI. Gower, conversely, took the mistaken attribution as a compliment. After 25 years in the entertainment industry, with periods were practical effects were thought to be on their way out, he is proud to have proven that this fantastical character can exist from rubber and even match or surpass its computer-generated counterparts.
“I’m overwhelmingly happy with the result that we achieved and I’m glad that we were able to do it all in camera and that it wasn’t going to be a post-production effect,” Gower noted. “There’s nothing really more satisfying than having a character who’s there on set and interacting with other actors and what you’re seeing and what you’re shooting every day is what’s going to end up in the cut at the end of the day as well.”