Mulan was originally set to be released in theaters at the end of March, but plans obviously changed, and the live-action adaptation of Disney's animated 1998 classic debuted on Disney+ earlier today. We praised the movie's visuals in our review (which you can check out by clicking here), and much of the credits for those absolutely goes to Make-Up And Hair Designer Denise Kum.
Her past credits include the likes of Captain America: The First Avenger, Hugo, and Ash vs Evil Dead, but Kum's work on Mulan is arguably her most impressive and visually stunning to date.
Talking to the prolific Make-Up And Hair Designer by email back in June, we asked Kum about what it took to bring the world of Mulan to life in live-action, the work that went into creating the appearances of the movie's villains, and even her work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe a few years back.
Needless to say, we want to say a huge thank you to Kum for taking the time to answer our questions!
How did you come to be involved with Mulan and what did it mean to you to be part of the movie?
Mulan’s director, Niki Caro, asked me to come on board to design the hair, makeup, and prosthetics for the Mulan project. We are longtime collaborators and friends. Mulan marks the sixth feature film we have completed together. It was an honor to be a part of the film and to personally be able to work on a story from my own Chinese heritage with such an important female role model.
Did the visuals in the animated movie inspire or influence your work at all in this live-action adaptation?
There are keyframes and images from the animated film that did inform some of the character’s realizations. For some of the looks, the make-up approach was not derivative but more a nod in the direction of heightened color and brightness you get with animation. For example, this is demonstrated in the sequence with the matchmaker character and Mulan. Using primary colors that are very symbolic in Chinese culture – and at the same very seminal and kept in old school Disney characters (such as Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse).
Which character in Mulan was the most challenging to work on?
They all had particular challenges depending on what live-action stunts they had to endure, and of course, the makeup, hair, and prosthetics had to last the distance. Yifei had to execute a few in-camera effects with tricks using a fishing line wire with different hairpieces which enabled her to move in a particular way – whether it was to tumble down, come unraveled, riding horseback or in the tea scene where she is balancing precariously. As our central character, she had to look completely authentic and convincing at all stages of the film, so maintaining that throughout filming was extremely important. In terms of a lot of components happening at once, Xianniang had prosthetics, a very long wig, airbrushed FX, and makeup which made navigating time in the chair with what was practical for each setup. As for the crowd, the background world of the shoot in China was very challenging for the team. We had Imperial Palace scenes in full formal costume, with many many wigs – some with cages, some with headwear all during a very hot and humid summer shoot. Ensuring all the actors remained cool and hydrated while maintaining full wig hairdos and preventing makeup from melting in extreme heat was definitely demanding.
What sort of work went into ensuring that Mulan was authentic to China during the period the movie is set in, and how much research did that require?
Substantial research was undertaken by all departments. There was a great collective bank of information – we had cultural advisors from an early stage of production that we could consult and run our ideas past. Since we were dealing with a period in time where there are no photographs, a time where information has been passed down via mythology – I started at the source by looking at a lot of sculptures, scrolls, paintings, cremains and poetry, as well as, literature and mythology of certain dynasties. Museums, collections, and art books were a great resource for the film. I found it extremely interesting to read texts on the cultural and social anthropology of ancient China. It was also important to mix history with a modern edge and make it engaging and relatable to a contemporary audience.
From what we've seen in the trailers, Mulan has a lot of different looks in the film, from a traditional ceremonial costume to her warrior armor. Can you talk us through the challenges of giving Liu Yifei those vastly different looks over the course of this movie?
Liu Yifei as Mulan has many looks as we follow her on her journey through the film, which begins with her as a child and growing into a young girl who has a natural beauty. In one scene, she made up heavily for an appointment with the village matchmaker, after this Mulan disguises herself as a boy to be conscripted into the imperial army. Thus, we see her as a male conscript and then as a soldier, and eventually, she reveals her “True Self” as our warrior woman. Yifei is wonderful to work with and was so open to all of the ideas for each look and each transformation. She has an exceptional attitude and of course great bone structure. I wanted to concentrate on each look as part of her journey… as each was an integral part of the storytelling. We did a few tests in order to create a convincing boy look, we had to balance whether to be more or less feminine – all to be done without looking like she has a scrap of makeup on. With the different looks, I would say making everything look invisible and seamless so nothing is distracting from the performance is important. From dirt levels to the movement of the hair – vastly different environments are always a test. As most of the action sequences are shot in real landscapes, and at a time with high winds, rain, snow, and then, of course, opposing climates of heat and humidity – whilst the actors are navigating being on a wire, harness or on horseback. Nature and nerves have a big part to play. Silhouette and shape were key to the feminine and masculine differences so it was very collaborative with the great costumes that Bina Daigeler designed for each of the looks
Gong Li's Xian Lang looks like an incredible character who transitions between practical and visual effects as she shapeshifts – what sort of role do you play in that transformation, and what was it like working on her?
Xianniang has special prosthetics that we would apply just before she was scheduled to be on set, as once they were on she had restricted use of her hands. We had stunt safe sets and hero closeup sets, which all had to work in practical terms and in physical situations often with weapons. These could then later be enhanced with VFX as required for any morphing or fighting sequences. Gong Li is incredibly self-aware, she was very mindful of all the components that were put together for her look, and when things needed to be checked, she was always patient. Which is great when part of the ensemble is not necessarily the most comfortable. She endured a very long wig with a crown, prosthetics, airbrushed makeup, lashes, and her beauty/character look which made up our Xianniang.
Jason Scott Lee's character is also unique from a visual perspective; what sort of work went into turning him into Mulan's villain?
Jason really brought the makeup of Bori Khan to life. Director, Niki Caro, wanted there to be a sense of battle to his character, so his facial scarring was meant to look like old wounds that had healed over. I combined this idea with the placement of the scarring to almost like facial tattooing; in the way, the lines and forms would assist his facial expressions. We did several tests where we would have Jason move his face in extreme ways and pull faces in the mirror so we could see what would work best and move with his expressions seamlessly – all in effort to deepen his inner fighter! Guyliner and man braids were also very key and we had fun with that.
You worked on Captain America: The First Avenger, and I was wondering if you could talk about what your work on that project involved as we have a lot of superhero fans on the site?
Captain America and the recent Black Widow are films that I have been lucky enough to be asked to work on, it’s always fun to visit as a day player, to help out with stunts, or actors when they need an extra pair of hands.
Would you like to return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe if the opportunity presents itself down the line?
I think that would be a very exciting prospect to consider.
It's still early days for the Mulan franchise, but if a sequel does happen, are you hoping to return?
Yes, it is the early days, but Mulan is such a great character, that a sequel would be great; And, an invitation that wouldn’t be refused.