Hair and makeup designer Daniel Parker had to dig through a lot of research before recreating the fatal burns caused by the 1986 nuclear disaster while working on “Chernobyl.” While Parker, who earned a nomination for his work on the HBO limited series, said he had immediate ideas as to how he wanted to approach the physical manifestation of radiation poisoning, he soon discovered that very little research existed.
“I realized there’s not much out there, especially when it comes to Chernobyl — I had to read what radiation poisoning actually does to people,” Parker said during the latest episode of Variety’s Artisans series presented by HBO. It was his reading that informed the way he portrayed each character’s debilitation on the series, in which he used complex prosthetics to track each state of radiation poisoning: reddening, latency, swelling and death.
“The biggest challenge on the show was getting the different stages looking correct as far as skin is concerned — what you can see through the skin, what you can’t see through the skin,” Parker said. “What I was doing was breaking the rules — the material I was using was silicone and you put a certain amount of color into silicone or else it looks like wax. And I wanted it to look like wax, it’s like when you have a bit of dead skin. I also wanted the feeling of bruising and the body falling to pieces under the skin.”
Parker began his transformation by covering the actor’s body in “transfers,” which he said are patches of veins and blotches of bruising. “I’d literally go bang, bang, bang all over the body. And this could be done in minutes, which you could never get that detail by painting by hand,” he said.
He then positioned the prosthetic skin and blistering on top, making some areas transparent enough to see the bruising underneath. “To be honest with you, everything was a challenge,” Parker said after outlining his process. “It was a difficult job to do. But so very, very worthwhile in order to actually show people what does happen, and what did happen to these people.”
Parker also added that he worried the burn makeup would be too hard to stomach for audience members, noting that the days in which he created burn prosthetics were the longest and most stressful days on set. “It’s always a battle because it’s my work and I of course want people to see my work but you can’t see too much of this.”
He went on, “You don’t see everything but you see a lot, and you see enough.”
The stress all became worth it, however, when filming one of the most emotional scenes of the series, which showed the burn victims in the Moscow hospital. One victim was shown barely alive on the hospital bed, whose skin was modeled after one particularly horrific photo from the 1989 disaster, which Parker said looked “like a living version of the mummy Ramses.” After all his research and tests, this scene was the first time he would see if his experimental prosthetics would work.
Parker said after looking through the monitor during filming, he felt completely assured that he had done the victims justice. “I thought, Oh my god. We got it.”