Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, and former partner Robert Kurtzman started KNB EFX Group in 1988 after working on many effects films in the early and mid-1980s. Since then, the group (Kurtzman left in 2002 and moved back to Ohio to be a director and start his own effects facility) has become one of the busiest and most sought after firms in Hollywood. In the 1990s, KNB made their name by doing special makeup effects and “gags” for nearly the entire catalogue of the films for directors Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, John Carpenter, Wes Craven and Sam Raimi, and those relationships have been maintained right through the present. In the 2000s, the group expanded into even more prestigious territory, working on a Steven Spielberg project, and winning an Oscar for their makeups and puppets in the first Narnia film. Now, they have created zombies for the recent Frank Darabont TV series, The Walking Dead, an American Movie Classics project, debuting on Halloween.
Of Nicotero’s involvement in another Darabont project, following such films as The Green Mile and The Mist, Nicotero simply stated, “Frank’s a purist. He had rights to The Walking Dead. He loves ensemble characters. It was for him, really something that he had expressed interest in always wanting to do. When the graphic novel came along, he called me to say that we were doing zombies.”
Nicotero, who also directed second unit on The Walking Dead and The Mist, noted that Darabont, who directed the first episode, has a lifelong respect for makeup effects and monsters. “With Walking Dead, Frank like a lot of us, grew up loving classic Universal monster movies, and artwork and model kits,” he said. “A whole bunch of us got turned out of that same mold. Frank could have become a makeup effects artist, and I could have been a writer. We all sort of teeter on that same line.”
Noting other fans who became directors, Nicotero counted Eli Roth (Hostel) and Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy), who was previously a makeup effects artist. Nicotero stated that zombie films were formative in the experiences of this select group. “Night of the Living Dead has such a huge impact,” he said, “and Dawn of the Dead was hugely influential. It’s sort of in my blood a little bit. Somehow, I’ve become this person who is an expert on zombies. I have done a bunch of zombie things and worked for George Romero [director of the original Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead].
With so many zombie films already familiar to audiences, Nicotero knew that he had to go in fresh direction with The Walking Dead. “My goal is to make these zombies feel different and new,” he explained. “That has to do with the material and the way it’s presented. In Dawn of the Dead, you buy them as zombies. We wanted you to be able to look at these people and not see the prosthetics but understand the differences among them. We tried to push the envelope.”
To start, Nicotero was consulted in the casting of actors who would play zombies in the various episodes. “We picked people who had really great faces, great bone structure and long necks and gaunt looking so that when you were adding prosthetics to them, it wasn’t as obvious that you had a fuller face,” he described. “We cast eight out of Atlanta and eight out of LA. We had dentures that locked on the outside of their lips and put prosthetic pieces over those. We wanted them to look like they were already starting to decompose.”
For the background people, some shots required a full panoply of zombies. “We auditioned 150 extras and I picked great performers with great looks,” Nicotero, 47, commented. “They had a visual style which fit with what we were trying to do. The graphic novel is specific – sparse hair, and rotted looking. We used sparse pieces and lenses – as if they had been walking around but there hadn’t been a lot of people to feed on. “
Since their shop is in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, Nicotero had to split the work between the KNB shop and the production hub in Atlanta. “A few actors flew to LA, and a few we cast in Atlanta and shipped the lifecasts back to LA,” said Nicotero. Jaremy Aiello was the key sculptor who found the looks of the zombies. Garret Immel, Andy Schoneberg and Jake Garber worked in Atlanta, but it wasn’t a big crew to churn out zombies. You have a visual cue as to what people are supposed to look like from the graphic novel.”
In one sense, this show is unlike typical zombie films which are often shot at night in the shadows. “With The Walking Dead we were in broad daylight in direct sunlight in Atlanta,” Nicotero revealed. “In the past, we had foreground, mid-ground and background makeups. Some of the people who put masks on in the background, we had to make sure that they didn’t get too close to the camera. For the big scenes, we had 150 masks in the background, some in the middle, and the others close up. “
To create the believable bloody flesh effect on the zombies, Nicotero borrowed a technique that he first employed on another big KNB film this year, Piranha. “We had tattoo-colored dried blood that we spattered on the zombies,” he detailed. “We did not brush the blood on. In Piranha, we did wounds on the victims and spattered blood on the sides of their faces. It implied more violence and it didn’t look brushed on. It thought that that was really important to me – to tell the story visually with the way the blood was applied.
“We had tattoo color blood that we used on Piranha and they were in the water,” he continued. “From a dramatic standpoint, you couldn’t have them coming out of the water with clean wounds. We spattered blood on these 3D wounds. They were wet looking and the blood looked fresh. All of those sequences played really well. We were pre-dressing the blood so that it was visual.”
For The Walking Dead, Nicotero, after a short hiatus, prepared with his crew for six weeks starting at the end of this past May. “We had [to shoot] a pilot and five episodes,” he remarked. “The crew were making hero gags and makeups in LA when we were shooting in Atlanta. The shop was supplying us with all of the pieces while we were shooting. The first two episodes were brutal – there were days when there were 150 zombies.”
To prepare for shooting, the production would dress the streets with military equipment in downtown Atlanta on Saturdays and Sundays. Then, the crew would shoot during the weekdays. In the story, the lead actor Rick Grimes wakes up eight days later after a coma. We realize what’s happened to the world alongside of him.
We are soon running through downtown Atlanta infested with zombies.
Darabont directed the pilot and then new directors came in to direct the other episodes – these directors had honed their skills on other cable TV shows such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men. “I would meet with them and go through the zombie rules and the dos and don’ts about shooting zombie sequences,” Nicotero added about directors who had not had much experience with special makeup effects. “We would sit and talk about Dawn of the Dead. These other directors didn’t grow up on the same diets that we grew up on. They came in very prepared to handle the dramatic aspects, but they didn’t grow up reading Famous Monsters or Fangoria like Frank and I did.”
Each episode of The Walking Dead had a different director for logical reasons: the director has a week of preparation for his episode and eight days of shooting, and while the crew is shooting one episode, the next director comes in to prepare. This might prove to be a logistical nightmare for some effects shops, but Nicotero was not fazed. “At KNB, we have one of the best crews in the world,” he said proudly. “We were able to turn gags around quickly. I would consult with the directors and say ‘this is how we could do this gag.’ We were able to work on building a gag much earlier [than normally]. I was able to think ahead and look at upcoming scripts so that we can go to the directors and help guide them.”
For example, Gwyneth Horder-Payton was the director on episode three. “It was a very specific sequence and we blocked the whole thing out and worked on the angles of a gag,” Nicotero stated. “Everybody had to be on the game and 100% prepared for a TV schedule. Frank was really grateful that we were heavily involved. They are giving us a consulting producer credit. [For the same reasons], Rob Bottin got an associate producer credit on The Howling. It’s nice to have your contribution acknowledged.”
On an effects-heavy TV show, with so many makeups and such a short schedule, Nicotero knew that his team needed to be streamlined and efficient. “You always think it’s a constant battle to preserve the quality of makeup effects,” he lamented. “So often, people like to have this preconceived notion that makeup effects is going to kill your schedule. If you are well planned, you show up on set with your team, you set up to do your shot, and you move on. For instance, on Predators, we had a very short prep time. We did nine different suits on that show, and the production never waited on us.”
Because of KNB’s combination of skills and efficiency, Nicotero noted that they are well liked in the film and TV industry. “We have built this reputation of being able to do great work and be production friendly,” he underscored. “That’s why after 23 years, we are still around. You are not just hiring a makeup effects company. We are dedicated to what they do. Some shops are still around for exactly that fact. You jump around from Atlanta, to New York to Austin. And you will get me or Howard on set 90% of the time.”
In addition to having Darabont as executive producer, Nicotero noted producer Gale Ann Hurd’s involvement. “She has made some of the groundbreaking films of our time,” said the effects man. “Gale has worked with the best in the business. To be able to work alongside both her and Frank was really rewarding. We were all part of a show that was so well put-together. Also, Robert Kirkman [creator of The Walking Dead graphic novels] and I got to be very good friends on the show.”
A famous adage is that a makeup is only as good as the actor wearing it, a belief that Nicotero underscored. “The actors – I couldn’t say more about them,” he conveyed. “Rick Grimes is a sheriff in Georgia but the actor [Andrew Lincoln] is from England. I would watch him work and feel the power and emotion. When I’m standing in the room watching him, his intensity is palpable. Like in Alien, the terror that the characters are put upon by is real. And you are only as successful as your heroes in your horror movies.”
Nicotero emphatically stated that considering the talent on The Walking Dead, he feels as though it will be a lauded show. “It was fascinating for me to deal with talent like that,” he said. “It was an experience that I hadn’t really had very often in 25 with that type of chemistry among the talent, the director and the crew. Reservoir Dogs and Sin City were the same way.”
Shooting on The Walking Dead wrapped in August, with the first episodes airing on AMC in October. “Frank and I had been talking about the show for two-three years,” Nicotero said. “I had a lot of ideas what I wanted to do already in my head. If we had six weeks to design and build everything, it would have been brutal. I knew what I wanted to do, but I needed the green light to start production. I was able to take the expertise from my other zombie shows and apply it to this: 3D prosthetic transfers, left cheek, chin, right cheek, bridge of the nose, forehead and eyebags. We accomplished that like a movie, not like a TV show. I think a lot of it was because of my relationship with Frank, and he had made me such a prominent part of the show. When somebody puts all that on your shoulders, you want it to be absolutely the best it can be. It was all of our baby. It was a completely different experience than I was accustomed to.”
With Predators in a similar vein to KNB’s responsibilities on Walking Dead, as Robert Rodriguez [Predators’ producer] has been one of Nicotero’s best friends for 15 years, the effects expert noted that his studio takes on every project with the same zest and desire to do something fresh and original: “Our company has proven that. With Predators, Piranha, Splice, the Narnia films, and Book of Eli, our versatility shows in the types of projects that we do. We did The Last Exorcism with Eli Roth which wasn’t a big effects movie, but we did a couple of gags.”
One other Nicotero project which debuts in fall of 2010 is a short film that he directed called United Monster Talent Agency, which imagines that the monsters from the classic horror films of the 1920s through 1950s were all cast out of a big agency who rents them out to productions as needed. The film, a loving tribute to the era, is shot as if it were an American newsreel from the late 1950s. “We recreated the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein,” he excitedly explained. “People had acknowledged that I contributed to their projects, and they wanted to contribute to mine. I was on the plane on the way home from Predators when I thought it up. The guys [at KNB] got to recreate all of the Universal monsters and creatures, and it was a creative time in our studio. Every once in a while, you really do need a shot of adrenaline. I had my costume designer Beth Hathaway working towards the same goal. We wanted to keep it authentic and real as [the talent agency] could have existed somewhere. It was an opportunity to have some fun.”
Two days out of the three shooting days, Nicotero directed scenes shot at KNB on sets that his crew built. “Howard said whatever you need,” Nicotero said of his partner in KNB. “Howard applied makeups when I was directing. It’s been a long time that we were on the same movie set together. We split the duties; we are never on the same set at the same time. For example, he was in New Mexico on Fright Night, while I was in Atlanta on The Walking Dead.”
Thus far, the response to UMTA has been tremendous worldwide. “It premiered at eight different film festivals,” Nicotero stated. “I’m going to Europe to promote it. AMC is interested in premiering it on their network in October. I didn’t do anything to disrespect the genre. I was able to do something unique.”
Nicotero’s next movie is the fourth Spy Kids film directed by Robert Rodriguez in Texas.