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Gregory Nicotero Brings Life To “The Walking Dead”

AMC’s latest television series, “The Walking Dead,” features a smart script, strong actors, stunning production value, and hundreds of zombies.  Gory, gnarly zombies covered in rotting flesh, gaping wounds, and missing body parts.  These creations are the handiwork of Gregory Nicotero and his special effects makeup house, K.N.B. Effects Group.


A long time friend of ”The Walking Dead’s” creator and executive producer Frank Darabont, Nicotero began verbalizing concepts for the show many years ago.  Darabont knew he wanted to develop a series centered on zombies but was looking for fresh and compelling material.  Once Darabont discovered Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead” graphic comics, his search was over and Nicotero began creating some busts and early prototypes.  Although the two men had a strong dialogue and understanding of their mutual zombie expectations, the constraints of a television schedule and budget provided many challenges in creating high quality prosthetics.


“It’s always a challenge on a TV schedule,” said Nicotero.  “We literally shot six mini-movies.  Each show was treated like it was a film: we didn’t prep the show any differently than we would prep a movie in terms of the man power or in terms of the amount of prosthetics.”


The pilot episode required 150 zombies to be created within a two day schedule.  With six weeks of prep prior to shooting, K.N.B. began building the various appliances.  During the third week, Nicotero traveled to Atlanta, the shooting location, to get involved in other aspects of pre-production, including casting.


“We had to audition people in Atlanta, so in my first few days on location I picked the people who had the right look and the right performance,” said Nicotero.  “When you are watching a wide shot with a bunch of zombies, the ones that walk a little too stiff, a little too much like Frankenstein, those pop right out.”


Having a vast understanding of casting as well as the entire filmmaking process aids Nicotero in getting the job done effectively.  When working with a large crowd scene filled with zombies, Nicotero employs different makeup applications for the three tiers of the group: background, mid-ground and close-ups.  The zombies who will be featured in close-ups receive the most custom-fit appliances, including dentures and contacts.  Those in the back are wearing specially designed masks.  He works closely with the cinematographer and the lighting crew to ensure the camera-ready zombies are in the correct spots.


“It’s challenging dealing with television where you have two to three cameras going at the same time,” said Nicotero.  “You’ll always have one camera that will be panning the crowd, trying to get close ups.  You have to be standing by the monitors during the take.  You have to be involved in choreographing the scene, in where the cameras go and in the lighting.  You have to have a good overall knowledge of filmmaking, because your effect can be made or broken in the photography, the choreography, in how it’s lit.”


Preparing a crowd of zombies for a shoot day is equally as challenging.  For a majority of the crowd, K.N.B. utilized custom designed zombie 3D transfer prosthetics made at their workshop in Los Angeles.  The 3D transfers are made out of a glue similar to the glue used to hold down prosthetic pieces.  The transfers are activitated with alcohol and then adhered to the face.  The edges are smoothed out, and oil-free makeups (primarily tattoo colors) are then applied.  Although this type of appliance cut the application time in half, Nicotero’s team put in very long hours during the pilot.


“We would start at 3:00am and go makeup after makeup,” said Nicotero.  “When they were ready to shoot at 8:00am, I would send a crew to set and keep another crew in the trailer.  They would just continue so by lunchtime, they had 100 people ready to go.  There were days where I had guys who never left the makeup trailer.”


The makeup artists use the actors’ physical attributes as inspiration for the zombie they are creating.  Many of same actors are turned into different zombies for subsequent episodes by adjusting their attributes – taking away a missing chin and giving them a missing nose, for example.  They’ll be given a wig or new hairstyle to further modify their look.  Additionally, attention is paid to mix up the “age” of the zombies.   Some zombies are less decomposed than others, depending on when that person transitioned into an undead being.


Nicotero and five other makeup artists worked on location in Georgia on a Saturday through Wednesday schedule (maximizing the quieter times on the busy Atlanta streets.)  He would then fly back to Los Angeles to work with the K.N.B. crew who were busy at work manufacturing pieces on Thursdays and Fridays.  Although most of the mold work was done in advance, there were still specialty prosthetics that had to be made.   In the pilot episode, there was a female zombie that had been cut in half and left baking in the summer heat.  To create the special prosthetics needed for the severely deformed and leathery appearance of this zombie, the actress was flown to Los Angeles where a life cast of her body was made.  Custom dentures, contact lenses and a special wig were created.  Using the life cast, full chest and back prosthetics were made that, once applied to the actress, completely transformed her.


To create the effect of the zombie cut in half, Stargate Studios, a California VFX house, was brought in.  While shooting, the actress wore blue stockings on her lower torso.  Stargate then erased her legs in post and replaced them with grass.  VFX aids in saving time on the set when it comes to the chase scenes where the main characters run through a crowd shooting up zombies.

“We had a few where we had practical exit wounds and blood,” said Nicotero.  “But you get into a situation where the camera is moving so fast and you don’t want the limitation of needing to stop and reset and put blood here or there.”


While most of the VFX applied in the zombie warfare is limited to spraying blood or decapitated bodies, as well as making crowd scenes extend by the thousands, Stargate was very instrumental in shaping the look of post-zombie devastated Atlanta.    In the pilot when actor Andy Lincoln emerges from the hospital to discover thousands upon thousands of dead bodies lying in the street and overflowing out of dump trucks, blown up buildings, and demolished helicopters and vehicles, all that was placed on location were 65 bodies and a helicopter.


“Those are the kinds of things you don’t realize are a visual effect, especially when you are watching a zombie show,” said Nicotero.  “To be able to watch a show and not know what the visual effects guys did, that’s a tribute to them.”


Nicotero and K.N.B. receive the new scripts two weeks prior to shooting – which doesn’t offer much time in prepping elaborate effects.  In certain instances, Nicotero himself will portray a zombie, especially if the scene requires an elaborate blend of prosthetics and visual effects.


“My company has been around for 22 years, so we are able to pull from a lot of stock, if we need severed hands or a chopped off head,” said Nicotero.  “The first thing we did when Gwyneth Horder-Payton was hired to direct the episode, I said ‘I will play that zombie.  There’s a mold of my head back in Los Angeles, so the guys can start building the prosthetic while I’m here.’  I worked with the stunt coordinator and the director and blocked the scene where I get my head chopped off.  In one take, I wore a blue hood, then they shot an element of the head, and they dropped it and rolled it.”

While shooting during the summer in Atlanta provided unique challenges – especially keeping makeup fresh during the hottest, brightest hours of the day, Nicotero appreciated that “The Walking Dead” was presenting a story that transcends the classic “horror” genre traditions: relying on night time scenes and dark, moody lighting where creatures come out of the shadows.   Darabont and Nicotero felt it was important to recognize the recent evolution of zombies being portrayed as very kinetic, animated creatures but didn’t want this trend dictating their style.  They wanted to accentuate the mob mentality of a group of zombies: individually they are not a great threat, but brought together as an angry mob they are incredibly dangerous.

“That’s something ‘The Walking Dead’ is really talking about, society being consumed by itself, so we spent a lot of time making sure the performance were top notch,” said Nicotero.  “Frank and Gail (Anne Hurd, executive producer) really allowed me to be involved on all levels of production.  They allowed me to actually embrace my knowledge of the genre.  That, to me, was why the show was so rewarding.”

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