When it comes to gore, there’s nobody quite like Greg Nicotero.
A go-to makeup artist, he’s worked on everything (Kill Bill, The Chronicles of Narnia, Inglourious Basterds) and with everyone (Quinten Tarantino, George Romero, Steven Spielberg). And now, as the head of special make up effects for AMC’s TV adaptation of The Walking Dead, he’ll be leading the shuffle of the undead right to a TV near you. Currently filming the series in Atlanta, Nicotero was nice enough to set aside some time talk zombies, and the things you wouldn’t believe he has to obsess over for each extra lumbering around with rotting flesh.
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Allie Townsend: How’s it going on set so far?
Greg Nicotero: We’ve done over 400 zombie makeups in the last three weeks.
Honestly, (Director) Frank Darabont has been one of my greatest friends for 18 years. It’s a dream project. You grow up and you work with guys who were all affected by the same films and the same projects when they were growing up, and if you talk to Frank or Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez or Sam Raimi, we all watched Night of the Living Dead, we all watched Jaws – we’re all cut from the same cloth.
AT: Is this the biggest horror series you’ve been involved with?
GN: Yes. I would say without a doubt it’s certainly the most ambitious. I’ve done a lot of series. We’ve done a lot of stuff for 24. We’ve done Masters of Horror, but this is just a completely different animal.
Looking at the people involved, looking at Frank Darabont and (Producer) Gale Anne Hurd, instantly they bring a class and sophistication to this. Frank is so dedicated to be faithful to the graphic novel. He is just as much a fan of The Walking Dead as anybody else, so his whole goal is to stay faithful to the novel and give fans everything that they want. The key moments of the novel are being played out with absolute precision. And where it diverges (from the novel), Frank is such a brilliant director that it actually improves on the original material.
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AT: This material seems tough to do well. What’s it like to make a TV series work with zombies from a technical aspect?
GN: The first thing I did when we got here was have a three-week training session. We had 150 extras come out and we auditioned them. One thing George Romero taught me years and years ago, he said, “Listen, if you ever demonstrate to people what a zombie should do and you roll the camera, then every single zombie’s going to do exactly what you showed them to do. What you want to do is find what you like about different people’s performances.” And I really do believe that this is the first time that that amount of care has been taken to make sure that we get real performances.
AT: What was the image you wanted to create?
GN: It’s one thing to put wounds or blood or rot on people, but they have to have two things: They have to be able to perform and they have specific physical attributes. The graphic novel is so specific about having very gaunt faces. There are plot points that talk about the fact that these things haven’t fed. That’s why they’re so dangerous and so ravenous. They’re walking around and they’re in this weird, lethargic state and it’s because they haven’t eaten. But then, when there’s actually an opportunity to feed, it becomes this weird, piranha feeding frenzy.
Because Frank and I have such a strong idea in our heads about what we want these zombies to look like and how they should be portrayed, he asked me to over see the zombie school. Every day, I handpick the featured zombies. That way, I know that all of the zombies that are going to be shot close up will adhere to the physical attributes that we’re going for. We want really long necks; really thin, big check bones and big eyes. When I pick 25 different people who all have really great character in their faces, then all of a sudden it looks like you have a crowd of emaciated, malnourished creatures that are basically looking to feed.
AT: Only 25 zombies?
GN: It depends on the day. Some days we have 25. I know this weekend we have 50 on Saturday, and then 90 on Sunday. We start at 3 a.m. I have a team of eight makeup artists and each of us goes through and bangs out three zombies each and then shifts into doing background zombie makeups and then we have masks for the deep, deep background. It’s all about filling the frame.
There’s even talk of adding hundreds more with CGI down the streets of Atlanta. I can’t wait to see it already. It just has such a classic feel to it and because The Walking Dead has so many iconic images, I sit here on the set and watch zombies walk down the street and it feels authentic. It’s not a rock video. It doesn’t have zombies running 900 miles an hour. It’s really moody and creepy and it has that great feel to it that I grew up watching.
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AT: How long does it take to zombify someone?
GN: It’s about an hour and 15 minutes. We start with prosthetic pieces. Those are glued on and painted. We usually pale the person out. We add some discoloration, some purples and browns. We mix up several different colors of zombie blood because at this point the blood is kind of like sludge. It’s not bright, vibrant blood like humans have because there’s not oxygen being pumped through it anymore so we have really dark rough colored zombie blood and then we dirty them up and but dentures and contact lenses in.
AT: You’ve worked on everything, but is The Walking Dead a little different?
GN: It is. For one, it’s a TV show so we don’t have the same time and budget resources that you have in feature. But, because I have done zombie films so many times in the past, the beauty of this project for me is that I have been able to refine everything that I’ve done over the last 12 years of gore gags. When you’re on set, you do a blood gag. Blood is inherently unpredictable. It could spray one way or it could not, so what we’ve done our best to take the guesswork out of the blood dispersion. We’ve pre-mixed how thick it should be when someone gets shot, how thin it should be if they get hit with an ax, we’ve really tried to take the guess work out of all of it so we could get it down to a science.
AT: So you’ve also been an extra in a few zombie films. Will we see you this season?
GN: Yes. You may not recognize me but you will see me. I will be dispatching one of our lead characters.
AT: Really? I’m going to try to pick you out all season.
GN: (Laughs.) Try to do it. Honestly, a lot of times it’s out of necessity. If you have a specific special effect on camera, it’s always better to put one of the crew on camera. When you’re dealing with an extra, you’re not 100 % sure that they’re going to understand that they have to hit the mark. It really is an art form. A lot of times it’s easier for me to put on some zombie makeup and bite somebody because at least I know the gag will be well executed.