What These Iconic Movie Aliens Look Like Under The Makeup

Science fiction films — especially ones featuring aliens — require a suspension of disbelief. Filmmakers use all of the gadgets in their toolbox — plot, dialogue, score, costuming, and more — to convince audiences that they're aboard a fantastical, futuristic, or far-away world. Fans appreciate it when alien designs use makeup effects, so a creature feels like it exists in three-dimensional space. There's even a reality show dedicated to this concept: in SyFy's "Face Off," special effects designers compete to see who can create and apply the best look for their models.

Makeup artists and directors often like practical effects as much as fans. "Guardians of the Galaxy" special effects makeup designer David White told Fast Company, "James [Gunn] always pushed for practical and makeup effects. He wanted, like me, to see the real deal there on set." Some of the best alien effects can make it hard to see the human actor underneath all the layers of fantasy. That's where we come in! Read on for a look into the makeup process behind some of the most iconic sci-fi movie aliens.

Bolaji Badejo as the Xenomorph

If we're talking about iconic movie aliens, it doesn't get more iconic than the Xenomorph. Ridley Scott's sci-fi/horror masterpiece "Alien" follows a creature loose aboard a spaceship and sports one of the most frightening creature designs ever. From its face-hugger beginning to the chest-burster stage to the eventual full-grown Xenomorph, the design of this being's evolution strikes fear into viewers' hearts. Beneath the terrifying prosthetics and makeup, Nigerian creature performer Bolaji Badejo seems to have been a nice guy.

"As soon as I walked in, Ridley Scott knew he'd found the right person," Badejo told Cinefantastique (via CNN). The actor's 6'10" frame made him the perfect person to sport H.R. Giger's complicated design, including a bodysuit made of a material Scott described in a behind-the-scenes documentary as "thin as a contraceptive and as strong as nylon." Although they had to slather Badejo in KY Jelly to perfect the look of the alien's dripping acidic spittle, Badejo reportedly had no complaints on set. According to special effects supervisor Nick Allder, Badejo was "lovely, gentle and quiet" — three words we'd certainly never use to describe the Xenomorph itself!

Leonard Nimoy as Spock

Sometimes simple makeup is all it takes to make an alien. That's certainly the case for Leonard Nimoy's Spock, the iconic half-Vulcan, half-human "Star Trek" officer who led the original show and numerous films. His upturned eyebrows, pointy ears, and distinct bangs prove he's an alien. Those characteristics even make for an instantly-recognizable cosplay opportunity

Nimoy has played the character for decades, including "Star Trek: The Original Series" and two movies in the rebooted sci-fi franchise. However, he wasn't always eager to revisit those pointy ears. In 1982, he told TV Times that he was reluctant to reprise the character after the original show went off the air (via Allure). "The makeup is a tough problem for me," he said. "It's tedious. It's painful and it's confining." Overall, the process took two hours in the makeup chair, including laying on those pointy eyebrows hair by hair to ensure naturalistic movement. 

Spock almost looked very different. Nimoy told the Television Academy Foundation that he was initially supposed to have red skin, which would have required even more time in the makeup chair. But they soon realized that this presented a problem. "The thought occurred very quickly that if I did a red makeup... I was gonna be black on a black-and-white TV set. And that was not the intention," he recalled. Thankfully, they ditched the idea, settling on the Spock look we know and love today.

Dana Hee as Sil

Some filmmakers blend practical effects and CGI to achieve a cost-effective and memorable shot. "Stranger Things" showrunner Ross Duffer noted that Jamie Campbell Bower was in "90% practical" body makeup to play Vecna, adding light touches of CGI in post-production. "Species," a wonderfully ridiculous slice of 90s sci-fi sleaze, utilizes a similar approach.

Natasha Henstridge plays Sil, an alien who makes it her mission to breed the human race into extinction. For most of the movie, we see Sil in human form. When she transforms, a lot of the effects look like shoddy CGI to modern audiences. During the film's third act, we finally get a full view of the H.R. Giger-designed creature. While it now looks like Sil's design came from a computer screen, eagle-eyed viewers will notice that certain shots feature a human being in some pretty twisted makeup. Stuntwoman Dana Hee portrayed the alien form of Sil, which is most visible in the film's pool sequence and final showdown. 

However, the creature element caused logistical problems for the crew. According to Yahoo!, director Roger Donaldson preferred to shoot with creative freedom. However, he now had to plan shots in advance with effects supervisor Richard Edlund and makeup designer Steve Johnson. Notably, Johnson was worried about pleasing Giger. But after sending Giger the final shots, Johnson said he "got the greatest fax back." (We think that means he liked it.)

Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca

The "Star Wars" universe is (consistently) expanding, adding more and more characters for fans to obsess over in future films and television series. However, few aliens in the franchise have as memorable of a design as Chewbacca — a character who's been around since George Lucas' original "Star Wars" film. Han Solo's trusty sidekick Chewbacca is a Wookiee, a hairy creature standing over seven feet tall. Peter Mayhew donned Chewie's iconic costume from 1997's "A New Hope" through 2015's "The Force Awakens." He retired in 2017 and handed over the role to Joonas Suotamo before his death in 2019.

For the most part, Chewbacca's look was accomplished through an articulated mask that allowed the actor to move the character's mouth. The only part of Mayhew's face visible through the character are the eyes, which were covered in black makeup to blend better into the creature effects. Mayhew kept the mask off for the most part on set. He told DisUnplugged in 2009, "I can sit down, be talking to people waiting to go on, they put the mask on, and Chewie just comes alive."

Dave Elsey, Creatures Supervisor on "Revenge of the Sith," noted in a behind-the-scenes featurette that Mayhew was happy to don the character's iconic look again. "Peter really enjoys the process," he said. "He kind of is Chewbacca without the suit and the makeup, actually."

Karen Gillan as Nebula

In most of her film roles, Karen Gillan's red hair is one of her most recognizable trademarks. From "Dr. Who" to "Jumanji," Gillan's red locks are on display. But this is decidedly not the case for her highest-grossing films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Gillan's Nebula is bald and blue.

For Gillan's debut as Nebula in "Guardians of the Galaxy," she shaved her head. At 2013's San Diego Comic-Con, she surprised fans with her new hairdo and dedication to the role. SFX makeup artist David White explained her complicated makeup look to Business Insider, sharing, "The five-piece prosthetic was a puzzle of butt joins and blend offs all on the same pieces. The density of the prosthetic changes to accommodate the need to control the amount of prosthetic movement from one piece to another." Gillan's transformation took more than four hours to apply; removal (thankfully) only took 30 minutes.

Gillan had grown her hair back when she reprised the role. By the time "Avengers Endgame" rolled around, she told the Daily Record, "I negotiated more hair, which was a relief, although it's actually very liberating being bald." She also noted that the makeup removal process came with its own difficulties. "The worst part is that your sweat has nowhere to go under all that make-up and the costume," she said. "Sometimes, when they take it off, the sweat literally squirts out on people." How's that for a superpower?

Dane DiLiegro as the Predator

Throughout the sci-fi franchise's history, numerous actors have stepped into the Predator's iconic prosthetics. In 2022's "Prey," the actor in the suit is Dane DiLiegro. According to Men's Health, DiLiegro used to play college basketball; at 6'9", it's easy to see why. Also, the actor knows his way around costumes and special effects makeup. His face has been hidden behind gnarly characters on shows like "American Horror Stories," "The Walking Dead," and "Sweet Home." He even played an alien in Doja Cat's music video for her hit song "Get into It (Yuh)."

To get into character as the Predator, DiLiegro and the film's effects team used six suits and four different heads. DiLiegro's face sat somewhere around the creature's neck, which meant he needed to look down for the Predator to look forward. In addition, he had trouble hearing because the inside of the suit was so loud. "One ear is blocked and there's a lot of motors," he told Bloody Disgusting. There are 30 servos in the head of this character. So, you can hear all the motors moving for the mandibles." So the actor wore an earpiece that delivered his cues.

Thankfully, the process of "predifying" the actor let him skip spending hours in makeup. Glue secured the Predator's head.

Daniel James as the Engineer

At the beginning of Ridley Scott's "Prometheus," an alien known as an Engineer stands on the edge of a waterfall. He consumes a black substance, crumbles into dust, and falls into the water — thereby seeding the planet with DNA that will eventually evolve into intelligent life. The so-called "Sacrifice Engineer" looks like he might have been a CGI creation — he sports an incredible number of abs and his skin has an eerie sheen. However, the alien design largely used practical effects on actor Daniel James.

"The prosthetics were ridiculous," James told If Only UK. "It took 10 hours to put the costume on, which was made up of 27 separate silicon pieces which were glued onto me in a set order so that there were no breaks in the suit." In creating the look of the Engineer, creature effects designer Neville Page told Wired that he drew on an unlikely collection of influences that included The Statue of Liberty, Michaelangelo's David, and Elvis Presley. "It's about the specifics of a cheek, a nose," he explained. A behind-the-scenes photo shared on Reddit (by a friend of James') shows the actor speaking with Scott on set, closely resembling the final look we see in the film.

Ray Park as Darth Maul

The "Star Wars" prequels get a lot of flack from critics. Even Ewan McGregor acknowledged that the "Star Wars" prequel films' green-screen and CGI-heavy style made it hard for fans to look past its subpar effects. However, one prequel trilogy character that has gotten a lot of love over the years is Ray Park's, Darth Maul. Although he was killed off shortly after his debut in "The Phantom Menace," the character returned for the "Clone Wars" television series and "Solo: A Star Wars Story." A large part of that love likely comes from the character's instantly-iconic red and black makeup — a welcome practical effect in a movie that's overstuffed with digital ones.

Maul, an alien from the planet Dathomir, has distinctive facial tattoos. Makeup artist Paul Engelen directly applied this effect to Park's face. During an interview with Make-up Artist Magazine, Engelen described the process in depth. "The red I used was actually a water-base aquacolor that would fade but it was quite easy to reapply by sponging on," he said. "The black was Reel tattoo color, which I had to paint on. It's kind of elasticized so would tend to peel rather than run." Engelen noted that there were concerns about the film's shooting locations having an effect on the process. Thankfully, everything went off without a hitch. "Even in the heat of the Tunisian desert... even with all of the action scenes shot out there, it worked," he said.

Maïwenn Le Besco as the Diva Plavalaguna

Luc Besson's sci-fi action film "The Fifth Element" is a colorful film, filled with fantastical aliens sporting high-fashion Jean-Paul Gaultier couture. The film's plot involves an alien-controlled superweapon capable of defeating an evil supposedly headed for earth. As part of their quest, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) and Dallas (Bruce Willis) must track down a pop star who is famous across the galaxy.

In one of the film's most memorable sequences, the narrative comes to a halt as Leelo and Dallas watch Plavalaguna singing for a crowd. The alien's voice came from Albanian opera singer Inva Mula, but the actual actor under the makeup and prosthetics was Maïwenn Le Besco. (The diva's aria sounds even more tragic when you know that Besson cheated on his wife Le Besco during the filming of "The Fifth Element," ultimately leaving her for Jovovich.)

According to Le Besco, the process of becoming the diva took three hours. They started by making her face blue, and then they glued the tentacled alien head to hers. She walked around on stilts, and finally, they would put in the dress. "It's very fragile," she recalled. "They were giving me food with... a straw." The process worked, and the diva became one of the film's most recognizable characters.

Alice Krige as the Borg Queen

Alice Krige deserves way more credit. The actor has appeared in films like "Sleepwalkers," "Gretel & Hansel," and "Silent Hill" — often playing genre characters whose shocking appearances are guided by makeup and prosthetics. Her most famous role along these lines is, of course, "Star Trek: First Contact," where she played the Borg Queen. Part of a race of beings who absorb other species, the Borg Queen manages to get aboard the Enterprise and begin the process of assimilating Data (Brent Spiner). Since then, she has reprised the character several times, appearing on the finale of "Star Trek: Voyager" as well as voicing the Queen on "Star Trek: Lower Decks."

Krige told the Chicago Tribune that the Borg Queen's makeup and prosthetics were integral to her finding the character. "The first body suit was [made] of hard rubber and was quite painful to wear," she said. "My second suit was a foam-rubber one, and that was fine. Once we got the makeup, suit, and contact lenses as convincing and comfortable as humanly possible, I had these great tools that helped me become an extremely interesting creature." Becoming the Queen required six hours in the makeup chair before she could even put on the suit. Only then could she comfortably deliver her iconic line: "I am the Borg."