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Star Trek Movie - Romulan Facial Tattooos

Interview with Neville Page, head art designer for Star Trek 2009

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Star Trek Movie - Romulan Facial Tattooos

Nero, leader of the Romulan crew on the Narada mining ship, from the 2009 Star Trek movie

If you’ve seen the new Star Trek movie (recently released on DVD/Blu Ray), then you know that there are some interesting tattoos on the Romulan characters. What you may not know is how much thought and work goes into creating movie tattoos like the ones worn by Nero and his crew. Actually, I didn’t know either, so I spoke with Neville Page, one of the head design artists for the movie, to find out what it took to design and apply the tattoos for this film.

I am, admittedly, a Trekker; I saw the movie three times this summer, including once at IMAX and I already have the DVD. It is incredible and, by far, my favorite of all the Star Trek movies. So, being able to delve deeper into the story line with Neville was an absolute dream come true. If you’re not a Trek fan, some of this article may not make much sense to you and I, unfortunately, can’t explain the entire Star Trek history in order to make it understandable. So, this article is pretty much just for my fellow Trekkers, who I’m sure will enjoy learning the following details as much as I did.

The thought process for creating the tattoos and body markings for the Romulan crew goes a lot deeper than drawing a few pictures. Neville was in charge of creating the designs for the markings, and did extensive research into Star Trek history and character development between TOS and TNG. He wanted to find a way to explain the V-shaped frontal ridges on the TNG Romulan foreheads, which didn’t exist in TOS. So, he first created a back-story to justify the change their faces underwent during that time, explaining that as a result of their grief, anger, and general bad-ass persona, they chose to cut and scar themselves, leaving behind such significant keloids on their foreheads that it eventually wended its way into the gene pool over many years, eventually becoming a natural characteristic of all Romulans and thus creating the distinct difference between them and their Vulcan cousins.

The next thing Neville had to do was anticipate a future race of Romulans, Nero’s crew, who were separate from the Empire (which had been destroyed) and had gone in their own direction of revenge against Vulcan and the Federation. Thus, another story base had to be created, again supplying the characters with some kind of physical manifestation of their personal evolution. It was then that Neville had the idea to give the characters facial tattoos. He actually apologized to me and the body art community for taking advantage of the popular misconception that facial tattoos indicate that a person is dangerous. Romulan lore explains that tattoos were part of a popular ritual for those grieving the loss of a loved one. They would paint their faces to signify their pain, but as the paint faded, so would their grief. In this case, however, with the loss of their entire planet, Nero and his crew marked their faces permanently, as a constant reminder of a pain and a desire for revenge that would never fade.

So, all of this back information and story line had to be developed first before the actual designing of the tattoos could proceed. Once Neville completely understood the characters he was creating the tattoos for, he was able to begin drawing. Another part of the story that, unfortunately, was cut during editing was the prior relationship between Nero and his wife before Romulus was destroyed. Nero was actually a very good man who loved his wife deeply. Losing her was no doubt the deepest cause of his anger, and his facial tattoos were actually designed based on a pair of earrings that she wore. Neville drew literally hundreds of designs for Nero’s tattoos before one was decided upon, so then all of the other drawings he had done for Nero were then available to be used on the rest of his crew. Knowing that his crew was loyal and undoubtedly had a lot of respect for Nero, it makes sense that their tattoos would be at least somewhat comparable to the ones worn by their leader.

Once the designs were finalized, the next step was application. Instead of being drawn or painted on, the FX crew actually used Tinsley Transfers, which are printed sheets of rub-on tattoos just like the kind you get out of vending machines. Tinsley has created many custom temporary tattoos for both TV and film actors including Wentworth Miller (Prison Break), Gary Oldman (Harry Potter) and Vin Diesel (XXX and Find Me Guilty). The rub-on images can be printed multiple times and literally save the makeup artists hours of work and help to ensure consistency.

But temporary rub-on tattoos usually look shiny, new and perfect when you first apply them, which was not the look they wanted for Nero and his crewmates. It was Mindy Hall, head of the makeup department, who chose just the right color for the ink to be used for the Tinsley Transfers. And I was scrutinizing every bit of Nero’s face when I was watching the IMAX version of the movie and was extremely impressed with just how realistic and properly aged the tattoos looked. It takes a really talented design and makeup team to pull off something like this so effectively, so much credit goes to the Makeup Department, especially Neville and Mindy.

It’s amazing just how much effort goes into one seemingly small detail when it comes to making a movie. The next time the credits are rolling, take a moment to read the names of the costume, makeup, and special effects team members and think about how much their efforts contributed to making your movie experience so enjoyable.

Oh, and...Live long and prosper.

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