Mulan Makeup Artist and Hair Designer Denise Kum on Bringing the Film's Look to Life
Disney's live-action remake of Mulan is now streaming on Disney+, allowing audiences to invite [...]
Disney's live-action remake of Mulan is now streaming on Disney+, allowing audiences to invite into their home a new version of the beloved 1998 animated film of the same name, as well as a new take on the story from Chinese folklore, "The Ballad of Mulan." With both the animated film and the folklore having such an important place in the hearts of fans all around the world, bringing Mulan to live-action required an epic scale and incredible detail and a key part of that detail is the makeup and hair styling in the film.
All throughout Mulan, audiences get to experience a wide range of looks. From Mulan's transformation for the matchmaker scene to her shift into her role as a fierce warrior, as well as the complex look of the witch Xianniang, in Mulan every character in the film has a look that tells a story of its own, one steeped in history, culture, and creative process. ComicBook.com recently spoke with the film's makeup and hair designer Denise Kum about Mulan in a wide-ranging conversation that talked about the creative process, the research that went into developing some of the film's most iconic looks, as well as some of Kum's favorites -- and, as you can guess, she couldn't pick just one.
Read on for our conversation with Kum.
ComicBook.com: How did you get to be involved with Mulan?
Denise Kum: Well, the director Niki Caro and I have worked together several times so this is the sixth feature film that I've done with her. And we have known each other for a long time, we actually have worked together as filmmakers but have known each other since we were both studying Fine Arts.
I would assume that working with someone you've worked with frequently has its own different advantages and challenges as compared to working with directors that you're not necessarily close with.
Also, a lot of directors, like all people in filmmaking, work with a different process. Niki often likes to keep her same creative team, myself and the production designer, have worked with her several times and also, probably Grant Major and I have worked with her a lot. And then Bina Daigeler and her have worked together twice, Mulan and Zookeeper's Wife. And this was the first time Mandy Walker had worked with her, our Fantastic DOP and Liz Tan, who is our first A.D. and associate producer, has worked on several films with Niki. So, I think, also on a film as big as this, it's probably about having a shorthand with people so you can communicate efficiently and get to where you need to be. And especially because Niki's such a visual director, I think it helps to have that. A lot of directors you work with, they're happy to work with different people but everybody has a different approach. Niki had asked me if I was interested. It's not really a project you can say no to or a director I could say no to. I also am of Chinese descent, and also was born in New Zealand, so it was great for me to be able to go back there, so it was ticking quite a lot of boxes. Also, I have two young daughters, so it was actually a film that they could be excited about and also watch because a lot of things I work on they can't really watch.prevnext
Like you said, you're of Chinese descent and I know that Mulan is one of those movies that has a lot of little pockets and facets to it. The animated film made it beloved to so many audiences who have never heard the Mulan story, the Mulan story itself is such a culturally important story, and then you're taking it all and putting it into live action. What was it like for you to get to be part of something that has so many complexities but also has so much important meaning to a lot of people around the world?
Well, I think it's the type of film, specifically, it has many, many different takes on it so, like you said, it's a much-beloved Disney Animation, but it also stems from a culturally specific story, the Ballad of Mulan.
Bizarrely, it's so Chinese but it also incredibly universal. It kind of ticks many boxes but [it was also exciting] to work with a pretty much Asian cast for me because it's never really been a normal thing to achieve, but also to, even more so, to work on a film of this epic nature where most of the action in the landscapes is shot outside. Of course, we do some studio stuff and some green screen, so it just makes a very lived-in experience and very tactile. Like a lot of the things we were doing were very practical. The whole film is built practically. We do a lot of in-camera stunts and a lot of in-camera trickery so it's quite old school for as epic as it is. Though, of course, we do utilize VFX.prevnext
One of the things that really caught my eye is, right off the bat, I noticed some little visual cues that were similar to the animated movie. I felt very much like I was stepping into something familiar, in a very real way. What elements of the animated film were inspirations for you when it came to building some of those makeup looks, the hair looks, and the style of the characters?
Well, for me, the color was always something that was endemic from the start, not least because I knew Niki wanted to make a colorful film. But both costume and production design, the makeup all decided that there had to be some light in it, it had to be vibrant. It had to be joyous. And most people would also think of, I guess, the lovely distressed antique, aged parts which obviously do exist but I really wanted it to pop, and especially when you're thinking about animation, for me personally, you think about the essence of color, it all comes from the primary colors. So those are also the colors that are redolent and very early animation frames of, say, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
If you think about the color palettes, that's pretty much red, white, yellow, black, and blue. In Chinese culture, color has a lot of meaning and a lot of symbolism, and particularly of those colors, so I basically wanted to use all of those things in the makeup. There were a couple of scenes that we referred to from the animation in terms of creating the characters, but everything was pretty much just workshopped and developed through each individual character and makeup in the matchmaker setting, which was quite amazing.
Last year I got an email from Niki saying that, because a lot of people these days, use the internet in wondrous ways beyond what I could ever have the time to do, like influencers or bloggers, but makeup that I had designed and obviously features and our film, for Mulan, when she goes to the matchmaker, had this phenomenon called the "Mulan makeup challenge" had arisen, which was absolutely gorgeous. I don't know if you've seen it, I only heard about it because Niki told me.prevnext
I think in a couple of days they had 300 million hits, and how do you even count that? But it was just the nature for me, that just because of posts on Weibo, they had taken on that particular makeup because obviously, trailers released it, and I think we've had early trailers and some press photos, and I loved it. They just want to emulate the makeup so you had little kids, you had older people, men, teenagers, all doing the makeup on each other and posting a photo of themselves. And I just thought was fantastic. It kind of became ... they made it their own in claiming, reclaiming it, and celebrating it. And with varying degrees of success and fun, I thought that was brilliant, in terms of the specifics of those looks that feature in that scene. And also for the actual matchmaker herself, who's played by a wonderful actress Pei-Pei Cheng, because she plays it very over the top. She's so funny.
But, early on, not only did we want it to be colorful, it had to have a lot of humor in it. I also wanted the make up to not be too tasteful, it has to go between a fine line of being culturally specific and aesthetically fresh. So, for example, I did a lot of research on art, there's no photographs of that time, a lot of the things I looked at were scrolls, were paintings, were mainly pottery and a lot of things that are left over, so that's where the shapes of the hair that you're talking about come from. That's where all the color reference comes from, all the shapes, the rice flour, the idea of the white forehead and nose, and the rest of the makeup comes from pigments, so we actually replicated this kind of application using cosmetics but in a way that uses different brushes using powder puffs and things that could be patted and drawn on the skin like ink. In this way, it came quite painterly. It was almost like embellishing a statue. And all the little details like this little pigment marks and the shapes of the eyebrow. The width, the amount of redness on the cheek. All of these things come from different shapes and stories that have been passed down of how these things became fashionable, so whether it's actually hearsay or truth or not ... I loved how things become reality in terms of people's depiction as attractive.prevnext
There's a hua dian, it's a forehead decoration, the little marks on the forehead that we have on Mulan. It was said to have originated in the southern dynasty when a princess was taking a walk in the palace in spring, and this is what I love about the Chinese; it's just the way that they write, and a light breeze blew a plum blossom onto her forehead. How a light breeze blows a plum blossom onto the forehead, I have no idea. The plum blossom, for some reason, could not be washed off or removed and fortunately, it looked beautiful on her and became the latest trend. There's lots of the history.prevnext
One of the things I also thought was really interesting was that a lot of people pay direct attention to Mulan's makeup specifically in that matchmaker scene because it is so striking and so vibrant. So for a lot of people, that's been a huge attraction, but there's other fantastic makeup work on other characters through the film, I'm specifically thinking of Gong Li's character [Xianniang] who is very complex and that's part practical. And, also, clearly she does not turn into a bird in real life, unfortunately, which would be really cool. But tell me a little bit about what part you've had in creating the physical look for her because that's also such very specific makeup as well.
Well it was built over quite a long time because we had to prepare so much for her. And, obviously, our witch, she's a new character, pretty much. With her I wanted and, similarly, her bookend, her male counterpart would be Bori Khan. Both of them wanted to be larger than life, be quite dark, but also very almost mythological. So whereas Mulan, even though, obviously, you know how she sits for people, she's a real person, she's our warrior. The whole invention with her, because her costume is so complex and has so much detail to it, I was really inspired by the fact that a lot of the ideas of hawks, so I started to look at the feathers and the hawk ... Bina and I were looking at bones, obviously thinking about how we design the crown. This, of course, then informs how I braid the hair around the crown and how the whip works, so everything is quite organic like that.
With her makeup specifically, I looked at an artist called Shao Fan. And so, this artist shows us a lot of the central white panel I took another look and moved it on from just how it appears in ritual, in terms of the matchmaker, but I liked the exaggeration of it. And the fact that she had a mask that was a white band, I guess I responded very much to the fact that white, in Chinese symbolism, is very emblematic of the color of mourning, but at the same time, it's a complete opposite. It's also moral purity. On the Chinese stage, a white face can denote treachery, cunning, and [someone] dignified, so it was just a very ideological attempt rather than, "What else can we put on?" It was very much like, "Let's keep it white, let's keep it similar to the beauty that women at that period would have done, but let's twist it a bit." I liked the idea, too, that it would be a foil for her eyes, so we could actually then design her eye shape, which is very much designed off just a very simple feather.prevnext
Do you have a favorite look from Mulan?
God, it's hard to answer that. Just because you get into one and you develop it and it's like children right? And you're half developing this, but you haven't finished that one, and then all of a sudden, one will click into place and then the other one needs a bit more attention and the wig's not quite right, you keep bringing in that force to play. So it's only in standing back that you can understand the journey of developing it. creating it, building up, rebuilding it, maintaining it, and then decide. But for me, honestly, I have to say, I love the variety of it. I love doing Bori Khan and his whole look with his "guyliner" and his man braids and his scarification. I loved doing Xianniang because she's just so optimal, but very specific, and that was working very collaboratively with Gong Li and she had a lot of input.prevnext
All the subtleties in Mulan's makeup that we started with and all the shifts that she has at my heart, it was a really important process with her because she has so many different looks. And they're endemically structured around her story and her journey. Apart from the big matchmaker one, everything had to be seamless, so it was a different palette. But then I also love doing the Emperor, because, when we design the application, because he's just a whole lot of bling. He's just amazingly bling.
But then I also loved doing Ming-Na Wen because that was our little secret. That was quite a tough one because it's a bit sleeker and making her look like the animated Mulan because it was a really important thing because here she was handing over the mantle to the new Mulan, so I like that conceptually, but we also had to make this gorgeous woman look fresh and like the animation, but without looking like cosplaying.
That's like a whole pack of cards, or like a whole family. One doesn't really exist in isolation.
Mulan is now streaming on Disney+
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.prev