The Lone Ranger is a film of epic scope. Everything is larger than life. The characters, the set pieces, the costumes, and the makeup are all created to amaze. Spectacle is the point of a summer blockbuster, after all, but it can also be a film’s worst enemy. After its poor showing at the box office, the $215 million film is now best known as one of 2013’s biggest disasters. That stigma is a hard one to shake, and can often poison the perception of both the film as a whole and the individual accomplishments of the production.

Nobody knows this better than makeup head Joel Harlow, who is up for the Best Makeup and Hairstyling Oscar, competing against the seemingly more DIY teams of Dallas Buyers Club and Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa. To look at the budget and then see how the film looks, it’s easy to assume that Harlow had it easy. “I hear people talking about how they were strapped for money and manpower and I get that, and to look at a movie like this you’d think, ‘Oh, they had every resource in the world,'” Harlow told EW. “We didn’t. For this movie, as big as it is, our core group was five people. We built all the prosthetics ourselves. We were sculpting when we weren’t filming. On the weekends, between shots, between setups, we’d go back to the trailers and sculpt.”

The genesis of the movie started on the set of The Rum Diaries in 2009. “I was pulling images for a carnival sequence that was coming up, and I had a bunch of pictures printed out laying on my counter and Johnny [Depp] came in and he saw those photos and he saw this Kirby Sattler painting and said, ‘That might be an interesting look for Tonto.’ So I suggested doing a test. I sculpted a few prosthetics and we cast it one weekend in Puerto Rico. And that’s ultimately what fast-tracked the movie — that look.”

On set, Tonto’s look was meant to mimic a clay mask that their Comanche consultant said was appropriate for the time. “Rather than doing a clay mask every day, I decided to do it as a series of prosthetics. He’s got seven prosthetics on his face and four on his body to simulate that cracked look. To do it with a clay substance would have been a logistical nightmare as far as continuity goes,” Harlow said.

Depp’s Tonto might have had the flashiest look, but all the leads had specific, time-consuming makeup procedures. Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Harrington was slathered in period-appropriate rouge, William Fichtner’s Butch Cavendish required dental prosthetics and a wire to simulate a nasty scar on his lip, and nearly all of the characters needed their modern-day pearly whites to be yellowed. Armie Hammer sometimes had to go back and forth from the clean-cut John Reid to the scruffy Lone Ranger in a single day. That meant tracking all the scars he’d gotten from his various exploits and giving him a five o’clock shadow at a moment’s notice. “You have to lay on the stubble,” Harlow said. “You glue on finely chopped hair and nobody knows. This is the sort of transformational stuff that happens in the [makeup] trailers. If someone notices it, you haven’t done your job.”

Still, the devil is in the details on a movie like this. Sometimes on set, in addition to getting the leads camera-ready, they had to deal with upwards of 300 extras. Harlow called in some reinforcements on days like that, but there was little rest for him and his team and, the majority of the hair and makeup on the film was carried out with his team of five.

Harlow admits that there were shortcuts he could have taken. “We could have made it easier on ourselves by not building all these elaborate characters. But I love it,” he said. “There’s this sequence where the Lone Ranger and Tonto come riding through and you see all these 1800s midway oddities. There’s the half-man/half-woman. There’s the dog face boy. None of those were scripted. We just sat down, me and my crew, and decided we wanted to populate the background with as many interesting makeups as possible. We could have made it easier on ourselves and said there’s enough work, let’s not do that. But we didn’t. We wanted give the audience more of a visual treat.”

The Lone Ranger

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 149 minutes
  • Gore Verbinski