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How Karen Gillan Transformed Into Nebula

The Guardians of the Galaxy are many things: a rag-tag band of misfits, a lovable analog for seemingly everybody's actual family, a bunch of a-holes. They're also a pretty crazy looking group, and on the set, gallons of makeup and truckloads of prosthetics are the order of the day. It takes some serious wizardry on the part of around 50 makeup effects artists to turn Dave Bautista into Drax the Destroyer, or Zoe Saldana into Gamora (and how they made up Bradley Cooper to look like a three-foot talking raccoon, we'll never know — it's probably something to do with computers). 

In all seriousness, a lot of expert makeup work goes into the Guardians. Out of all of them, though, nobody's look is more difficult to achieve than that of Nebula, daughter of Thanos and villain turned Avenger. She's portrayed by Scottish actress Karen Gillan, who you may recognize from movies like Oculus and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle or her tenure as Amy Pond on Doctor Who, even if she looks just a bit different in the MCU. This is how Gillan undergoes her transformation into one of the most dangerous women in the galaxy.

It starts with a bust

In order to design Nebula's prosthetics, Guardians of the Galaxy's makeup team began with a full-size sculpted bust of Gillan's head, which was used to properly fit the prosthetics they'd soon be applying to the actress herself. Makeup effects artist David White called the design the "most complex and interesting" of any of the Guardians, and likened it to putting together a 3-D puzzle. Speaking with Business Insider, White said, "The five-piece prosthetic was a puzzle of butt joins and blend offs, all on the same pieces, and the density of the prosthetic changes to accommodate the need to control the amount of prosthetic movement from one piece to another."

In other words, the areas where Gillan's expressiveness would have to shine through (such as the cheeks and forehead) needed thinner prosthetic pieces than areas for which this wasn't a consideration (such as the top of her head). The makeup team applied the carefully designed prosthetics to Gillan's mug each and every day, after first putting on a latex bald cap — which, especially in the case of the first Guardians movie, was really kind of a formality.

So long to the locks

Guardians of the Galaxy's version of the Nebula makeup required Gillan to shave her entire head, which she understood would be necessary before accepting the gig. Speaking with Screen Rant shortly before the film's release, Gillan said, "I was told even before I auditioned that the actress who got this would have to shave her head, and I didn't think I was gonna get it. So I was like, 'absolutely, I will shave my head! Sure!' Then, like three screen tests later, [I thought], 'oh God, this might actually happen.'"

Gillan famously demonstrated her dedication at Comic Con San Diego in 2013, when the Guardians cast was introduced. She arrived to the event sporting shoulder-length locks, but when an audience member pointed out that Nebula was supposed to be bald, Gillan replied, "Yeah, she is — and I might have done something a little bit crazy." She then removed what turned out to be a wig, revealing her completely smooth dome and drawing a raucous response from the crowd. "It's liberating!" she told those in attendance. "I think everyone here should shave their heads."

By the time she reprised her role in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, her makeup's design had undergone a slight modification. "I shaved half of my head this time, but they took away the butt — like, the underneath-half of my hair, and then left the top part," Gillan told The Wrap before the flick's release. "That was the best gift ever."

Sitting... and sitting...

For the first Guardians film, Gillan's stint in the makeup chair each morning was nothing short of grueling. Being Nebula's first appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the flick was introducing a character who had a very specific look in the comics — one which the makeup team took extra time to ensure came off looking perfect onscreen. Gillan would start each day extremely early (sometimes as early as two in the morning), and sit for her makeup's application for about five hours.

The process involved delicately putting that five-piece puzzle together on Gillan's face, carefully matching the prosthetics' blue shade with makeup wherever her skin was exposed (like on her nose and ears, and around her eyes). Of course, every piece would have to be a perfect fit, including the "cybernetic implant" on the left side of her head. Once the day's shooting was complete, it was another 30 minutes in the makeup chair for everything to be removed — and then, the next morning, she'd have to endure the process all over again. By the time Guardians Vol. 2 was ramping up production, the makeup team had gotten their process down to the point where they could essentially cut the amount of time in half, requiring her to sit for only two-and-a-half hours every morning.

The little touches

Once all of the prosthetics are in place, there are several minor touches needed to finish off the look. Of course, not every inch of her face is covered in latex; her ears, nose, mouth, and the back of her neck have to be touched up with blue makeup, which is carefully applied with special swabs. To achieve a delicate shading in these areas, more makeup is layered on with an airbrush. If you've ever had your face airbrushed, it's a pretty safe bet that you, too, may be a Hollywood actor starring in an effects-driven blockbuster.

Finally, some fine detail is provided all around using fine brushes, and — in certain areas — stencils, which are used to give a textured look. A final once-over with the airbrush, some black shading around the eyes, and a set of false eyelashes finishes off Gillan's head and neck — but while all of this is being done, there are a few other matters for the makeup team to attend to.

Give her a hand

While Gillan's face and head are being worked on, additional artists tend to her hands, which are also painted completely blue (including the nails, of course). The same texturing stencil is applied to the backs of her hands, and once this is complete, there's the little matter of Nebula's cybernetic arms to consider.

After Gillan is made up in blue all the way down past her shoulders, she's fitted with a pair of prosthetic sleeves — the right one featuring Nebula's lovely blue skin tone and "seams" around the shoulder, and the left made to look completely metallic (all the better to match her left eye piece). The right arm also receives the stencil treatment and fine detailing. Gillan is then given a final once-over by the team, and then (finally) she's done! Well, almost. There's one last piece to the puzzle, and if hours in the makeup chair doesn't sound like very much fun, it sounds to us like a walk in the park compared to what she has to endure next.

Have we got contact?

As you may have gathered, there are no digital effects employed to achieve Nebula's look (well, aside from that time she was being pulled into her various pieces by Thanos; that would have been a little tough to pull off with practical effects). You may also have noticed that Nebula's eyes are jet-black, and this is likewise not achieved digitally. According to makeup artist White, Gillan is fitted with 22-millimeter black contact lenses which cover her entire eye to finish off her daily makeup ordeal.

Sitting for what must seem like an eternity while a gaggle of people paint, swab, glue, and airbrush you all over before finally having to stick unreasonably sized objects in your eyes sounds like the kind of torture few actors would be able to stand, but for Gillan, it's just another day at the office. In fact, after appearing as Nebula in four movies, it's safe to say that she's pretty much gotten used to it.

All part of her process

It takes a lot of time and expert makeup work to transform a pleasant Scottish actress into a menacing alien warrior, but it's hard to deny that the results are anything short of astounding. Sure, Bautista and Saldana must also undergo their own grueling processes to get ready for their day's work, but it's still relatively easy to tell, you know, who they are. Gillan as Nebula is virtually unrecognizable, and perhaps it's because the character's demeanor and manner of speech is so far from Gillan's that the actress has learned to embrace the makeup process — she says that without it, she has a hard time even reading her lines.

"Essentially, I have the character's skin glued to my face, which is really as close as I could possibly get to her," the actress has said. "It's pretty cool. And it's kind of intense and slightly claustrophobic. It's definitely become like part of my ritual, in terms of like getting into character. One time I did a rehearsal without the makeup and I did not feel like her at all. It's become a vital part of the process for me."

The Nebula workout

Of course, all of the makeup on Earth wouldn't make a difference if Gillan weren't capable of nailing Nebula's physicality, and — like most Marvel actors — she undergoes a training regimen which requires an insane amount of dedication. In addition to healthy doses of cardio exercises like cycling and running, she took part in martial arts training, and lots of it. "I had to do fight training every day that I wasn't shooting," she told the crowd at St. Louis Comic Con in 2017. "They told me that you have to do something six thousand times before it's second nature. I didn't manage to do the routine six thousand times, but we certainly tried."

Weightlifting is also a critical part of her routine when preparing to step into Nebula's shoes. "I had to transform myself, because prior to playing the role, I didn't do any [strength training]," the actress told PopSugar. Her routine before and during a shoot consists of three days per week of heavy weight training, interspersed with two days of dedicated fighting and mixed martial arts — all, she says, "in order to look like I could do damage to someone." Mission accomplished, Ms. Gillan. You look as if you wouldn't hurt a fly, but Nebula is absolutely terrifying.