How ‘Chernobyl’ Makeup Designer Daniel Parker Captured Horrific Bodily Decay Resulting From Catastrophic Event

When hair, makeup and prosthetics designer Daniel Parker was approached for HBO’s Chernobyl, he wasn’t “terribly keen” about taking the series on, if he’s being honest. “Because one immediately thinks of zombies,” Parker explains, “and what they’re going to actually do with the subject.”

Pushed by his agent to read Craig Mazin’s scripts for the five-part miniseries, Parker eventually gave in, and was immediately “sold [by] the completely brilliant scripts that Craig wrote.”

Struck by the sincerity and honesty he observed in Mazin’s writing, the makeup designer shared one condition for signing on, when he hopped on a Skype call with the series creator and director Johan Renck: “Basically I said, ‘I absolutely love the scripts and I’m very interested in doing it. However, it must not be gratuitous. It must be true to the people, true to the story. Less is more, and as well as that, the whole thing has to be honest.’”

Earning his second and third Emmy nominations for his work on the series, both prosthetic and non-prosthetic, Parker’s first task with the drama was to do his due diligence. Reading as much as he could about the infamous explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, he paid particular attention to the effects of radiation exposure on the human body, which he would soon have to replicate.

Ultimately, the biggest hurdle for Parker was to do something with makeup that he’d never seen done before, at least with human characters—bringing a sense of immediacy and horrifying naturalism to the human cost of an event that had never occurred prior to April 1986, and would never happen again.


Could you describe your research process on Chernobyl?

I ended up doing three months of research. I started, and found it to be a lot more complicated than I expected, which was actually a good thing. My research initially started off with trying to get a hold of photographs, but there are very few photographs, and most of the photographs that are there are not honest—propaganda photographs that were made up by the USSR.

When you get down to the honest, real stuff, they’re really not good photographs, so I then started reading, and read and read. I read [about] the process—the actual chemical process—what happens to the human body when it’s exposed to this much radiation. From that reading, I then understood what happens to the human body, and I then started to develop the makeups and started doing tests.

How were you able to access those photographs that were real?

Craig had some of them; you know, they just appeared, because everybody was looking at this stuff. Every department. I think we all found some—costumes found some, even the art department found some, but they were [terrible photographs]. I mean, the Russians did not want people to see this. So, there’s very few photographs of the actual people. The ones that are there are very striking, I have to say, but none of them are very clear. None of them are really in color. They’re kind of sepia, and some are really blurry.

We’ll take a deep dive into the prosthetics you created for the series. But before we do, could you explain the insights you took from research that informed your portrait of Soviet era hair and makeup?

I’m so pleased you asked that because it was a very interesting journey, looking at 1986 USSR. Because you very quickly realize that 1986, [it] was actually not. [The USSR] was several years behind, and had its own look, as well. I have to say, it’s not often I’m pleased with my work, but on Chernobyl, there’s a lot of stuff I’m pleased with, and I think it shows massively in the scene when they’re evacuating Pripyat, and you see all those extras. It looks like documentary footage. They look so real, and I was so happy. I paid an enormous amount of attention to it, and gained tons and tons of photos that we could get—and certainly, my team did an amazing job to help recreate this look. I think we got it absolutely spot on.

Certain characters in Chernobyl, like Jared Harris’s Valery Legasov, died of cancer, as a result of more limited exposure to radiation. What kind of process did you go through to age actors, with this kind of scenario in mind?

It was really interesting because I was having to deal with premature old aging. I mean, I’ve aged people, and premature aging is different. It just has a different texture, a different look, and so one has to be extremely careful one doesn’t get it looking too over the top, or too plastic. It’s a really, really fine line. We did it on Jared; we also did it on Paul Ritter, playing Dyatlov. The pieces were made of silicone, and they were incredibly fine. They were so thin, and I think it worked really well.


It’s funny: To me, I think, do people really see that? It’s so subtle. People have commented on it, and actually that makeup on Jared particularly is enormously popular with people—that, and the realism of getting the look of the period. But the makeup on Jared, people really do notice it, and I actually thought it was too subtle when I saw the final cut. I thought: Oh, that’s a shame.

Chernobyl presents various physical manifestations of radiation sickness. Could you describe the different stages of the illness you captured in prosthetics, and the science that informed the way they looked?

There’s a lot to it, and it does very much depend on how much exposure [a character] had, how the body would change over this amount of time. In a good deal of the initial exposures, [there’s] the reddening of the face that you get, and mottling of the skin, and your lips and eyes start to swell. Everything starts to swell, and that’s what I refer to as Stage One.

Then, things started spreading, and we went to the hospital scenes in Moscow, as the firemen and some of the technicians were evacuated, where it was very interesting because it’s what’s called the “latency stage.” In the latency stage, all the swelling goes down, the redness is still there. They’re looking remarkably well, considering, and they’re feeling much better, and they think, Oh, that’s it. Great. No problem. That wasn’t so bad.

Then, you hit what I call Stage Two, which is a massive swelling of the body and enormous amounts of pain, because everything is starting to break down at a tremendous pace. The whole cellular structure of the body is starting to break down. The mucus membranes, of course being the softer membranes, that’s all going first. Then, you start to lose your saliva glands. I mean, it’s just horrendous beyond belief.

And then, you get to the final stage, what I refer to as Stage Three, by which time your skin is completely falling off. Your skin is dying. This is why I’ve created the makeups the way they look, because everything’s happening from underneath, as well as on top. Underneath, all your blood vessels are bursting and leaking everywhere, so everything is showing through the skin that’s dying, and you can actually see through the skin, which is the thing that I wanted to create, mixed in with the dying of the skin—the necrosis.

Liam Daniel/HBO

One of the interesting things was that to see Vasily in this last stage in bed, that was based on the actual man, that makeup. That was one of the few references I had, but it was very, very bad—a very, very bad photograph. By this stage, you’re actually losing so much fluid, you go from being swollen to shrinking down to nothing. That [shooting] day, I was in the makeup room and [Adam Nagaitis] had already been taken to set. He’d done tests, but I’d never seen him lying down, and when I came to the set and saw the monitor, I just thought, Oh my God, we got it. We got that photograph. It was completely 100%, which was mostly due to the research. But you were trying to work to the photograph, [which] was very interesting, and it showed the research, and the ideas, and the whole theory of doing the makeup actually did work. I was absolutely flabbergasted, I have to say.

How did you figure out how you were going to deal with the evolution of certain looks over the course of five episodes?

I sat down with Craig and Johan, and we decided where in the scripts each person actually changed to the next stage. We broke it down into three stages, and then I further broke it down into substages, and basically, it was led by the script.

How much prep time did you have to get all of your makeups in line? 

I had three months to do research and prep, which sounds like a long time, but it’s never enough. Literally, some of those prosthetics turned up on set, and I asked producers and the director, “Please, please trust me. You’re going to get something amazing, but you have to trust me, because I just don’t have the time. But he will be there, and you’ll like it.” And they did. They were absolutely phenomenal, they had complete trust in me, and they let me do my thing, which is always the best way. If you’re going to employ somebody, let them do what you’re employing them to do.

Were all of the prosthetics simply silicone, presented in different kinds of ways? Did you paint your prosthetics to get the striking colors we see, in the late stages of radiation sickness?

Well, the early stages were just paint, but actually it’s very interesting because a lot of it was not painted. What I did was, I used a company called TattooedNow—a tattoo company that makes tattoos for movies. I made very complicated transfers, with veins and all kinds of bruising, and stuff like that, that all linked together, that I actually applied to the body first. It was like painting the actors’ skin with an incredibly complex paint job, but because of the transfers, we could do it incredibly fast. The transfers would be on in minutes, [as] opposed to taking hours and hours to paint.

Liam Daniel/HBO

Then, on top of that went the silicone pieces. The silicone pieces were also transparent, except not all of them. In some areas, they were more opaque than in other areas; some areas didn’t actually even have any silicone. They actually sat down directly on these transfers, so you’ve got this enormous depth of color and feeling. Some of it, you couldn’t see through; some of it, you could see through. This was basically my idea of how to do this, and it was working backwards.

This is the thing you don’t do with silicone for human prosthetics. You just don’t do it. Basically, I broke the golden rule by not putting enough treatment in the silicone, and not painting on top.

To clarify, how exactly did you handle the final stages of the body’s decay, when the skin is blueish black, and fluids are leaking out?

In the same way. It was just to bring out some of the texture. There was a tiny amount of very liquid paint on top, just to sink into the hollows of the textures. But apart from that, I avoided painting on top, because I wanted the colors to come from within the pieces, and from underneath the pieces.

I wanted the skin to look waxy. You know, when you cut yourself and there’s kind of like a shard of peeling skin, it looks waxy. It’s lost its color. I wanted the skin to look dead, and the thing is, that’s how the skin does look in these circumstances.

But to get that look, you’ve actually got to break the rules. You’ve got to go against what people say: “This is what you must do, otherwise it’ll look terrible.” Well yeah, that’s what I want to do. I want it to look terrible, but controlled terrible—the terrible that I want.

How long did it take to put Chernobyl’s most involved prosthetics on, and take them off?

To be honest with you, the time it took was a lot—basically, because most of it, we hadn’t had time to test. And it was done on the day, because there wasn’t the time to make it all and test it We did do some tests, but it took lots of time. Honestly, I’m not altogether sure because everything was so overlapping. The moment we finished one, another one started, and there were two teams at work. [But] I would say to do the big, big makeups, they’re about six hours apiece—and that’s pretty fast, for what it is.

What other tools did you draw on to portray radiation sickness? 

We had contact lenses, hair, no hair, blisters, seeping wounds. I mean, you name it, we had it, because it’s an all-over look. We blackened the tongues, because everything goes black—and the gums, as well—and the nails, they start to rot. Literally, we went through every single detail that you can possibly imagine, because it was so important to get it right.