'Outlander': Meet the people who make it look so bonny and beautiful

Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser in Starz’s Outlander. (Photo: Starz)

Annie McEwan may be the only woman in the TV-watching world who would prefer Sam Heughan not to take his shirt off. McEwan is the make-up designer on Outlander.

“If a scene starts with Jamie riding on his horse, getting off his horse, walking in and taking his shirt off, that fills me with dread.”

It’s not that McEwan is averse to the sight of a strapping Scot — rather, she doesn’t like the thought of Heughan’s ample torso being exposed, because she’s the person who has to apply the huge prosthetic scars that have adorned his back since he was whipped to the bare flesh in season one.

Photo: Starz

“It takes two and a half hours to put it on. He has to start lying down to get the middle bit done, and then we have to put him on this stool here. That’s because if he gets it all stuck on when he’s lying down and then stands up too soon, it falls off. It’s quite fragile when it’s on — which is why I hate the scenes where he takes his shirt off.”

The demands placed on the crew of Outlander are many and varied, but they’re not like those on any other show. For example: “This is the hairiest show I’ve ever worked on,” McEwan says later, as she shows me the 300-plus wigs that are worn by actors playing the show’s many Scottish Highlanders.

Other Outlander-specific problems include musket wear-and-tear. Leaning up against the walls of the armory, beneath a wall covered with Scottish Basket hilt swords, are more than 50 replica weapons. “They have soft rubber butts for smashing heads in the Battle of Culloden,” says armourer Jim Elliott. “But some of the actors got a bit carried away so we need to repair them.”

Tobias Menzies as Black Jack Randall) and Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser in Starz’s Outlander. (Photo: Starz)

And then there’s the old showbiz classic of how to get your leading lady to the restrooms. When they’re filming on location — which happens a lot, given the abundance of stunning Scottish castles used in the series — the producers think firstly of the light… and secondly of how long it will take Catriona Balfe to get to the ladies room wearing a gargantuan period frock. “She’s wearing so many layers,” says writer and producer Matt Roberts. “If it’s 20 minutes there, 20 minutes back, then you’re losing so much time!”

Outlander HQ in Cumbernauld, Scotland is a huge warehouse inside of which they have basically built an entire studio lot. But take a walk around it and you begin to realize why the show requires this kind of real estate.

“Outlander’s a massive period piece — in four periods,” says Roberts. During a tour of the stages, we walk through a full 360-degree set of a wood-paneled Boston apartment, where Claire (Catriona Balfe) and Frank (Tobias Menzies) will begin season 3 in 1949. Not far away, the design team are adding the final touches to a fully-working 18th-century printing press in the half-built print shop where we know Jamie and Claire will at some point be reunited. Leaving that set, we walk past the iconic “Standing Stones” tucked away in a corridor. The stones are the portal which take Claire back and forth through time to see Jamie.

“Go on, touch ‘em,” says Roberts. “You know you want to.”

Regrettably, I remain stranded in 2017, but the stones wobble a bit to the touch. They are made of fiberglass, not stone, and the ones I’m touching are actually the show’s second set — the originals were snapped in a windstorm on location last year.

Photo: Starz

Today’s working set is the interior of Lallybroch Castle, Jamie’s family home. The scene is a Hogmanay knees-up, meaning candle smoke, wet straw and men in kilts. On action, two young girls try to get Jamie to dance, offering him some figs as a sweetener. He does, reluctantly, but he doesn’t look happy. “He isn’t happy,” says Roberts. “Season 3 is about discovery but Jamie goes through some dark moments. Ultimately, though he realizes he still has people to live for.”

Talking of dark moments, no one on the Outlander lot looks more wired than Terry Dresbach, the costume designer. Her job may be the hardest of all – every season a different world, last year Louis XV Paris, this year Boston, the forties, the sixties, all those kilts, all that mud.

“When I started on Outlander it was like, ‘Isn’t this exciting! We’re always going somewhere new.’ Now I’m like, ‘Oh my God, can we just stop going somewhere new?’”

She pauses by a pair of outfits for Claire. The first is a classic 1960s A-Line cream suit, like something Jackie O might have worn. Simple and clean, no fuss, modern. Next to it is a massive 18th-century gown, festooned with pleats and quilting and lace. This is just one of 12: Because the characters only wear one outfit in their 18th-century guise, the team requires a dozen replicas. All of them have to be made from scratch.

“The reality is there’s no store where you can buy 18th century fabrics or shoes or hats… or freakin’ anything,” says Dresbach. “So we make it. Quilted fabric was a big deal in the 18th century — we quilt it. Here’s some smocking that we do. It’s very fussy little stuff — but on camera it makes a difference.” The two outfits next to each other are from two different worlds, but they’ll be worn by the same person.

“There it is,” says Dresbach, standing back to admire her work. “There’s our show.”

Season 3 of Outlander premieres Sept. 10 at 8 p.m. on Starz.

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