The Walking Dead Executive Producer and Special FX Makeup Designer Greg Nicotero talks about a zombie look he’s always wanted to try and his process for creating Hershel’s walker head.
Q: Executive Producer Gale Anne Hurd said we’ll be seeing some frightening walkers this season. What new tricks do you have up your sleeve?
A: I have many new tricks and a very long sleeve! Just like last season where we were able to introduce a new walker look by having the infected walkers with the bleeding eyes, we’ve taken the makeup one step further. While on set, even some of the actors were looking at the makeup and had noticed that we refined and modified our technique even further. For people who have been looking at our makeup for years now, when they still have that level of excitement, it means we’re keeping it fresh. That’s what’s most important to me.
Q: What can you tell us about the state of decay walkers are in, now that we’re in Season 5?
A: These walkers have been around for what we estimate to be a year and a half, so there’s a lot more exposed bone and skin falling off. We’ve got a whole new look on some of these featured walkers. It’s exciting.
Q: Is there any zombie makeup effect you haven’t yet done that you really want to do?
A: The makeup always tries to tell a story, whether it was a walker who was shot in the face or that was slashed. I was thinking about one, which I’m going to try to slide into the show somewhere, where there’s a zombie that has a machete or knife embedded in its chest — and as it’s attacking, someone pulls it out and uses it to kill the zombie. So, [that means] someone was fighting a zombie and stabbed the zombie in the chest, then was bitten and killed, and the knife just stayed there. The zombie isn’t going to pull the knife out of itself. We’re always very careful that the gags we do on the show feel very grounded in the storytelling.
Q: Are there any zombie special effects you’d be afraid to do?
A: The zombie baby thing, in our world, is tricky — they did it in the Dawn of the Dead remake, and they did it pretty well. I think kids and babies would be the first ones to be eaten because they’re more vulnerable and defenseless. It’s a little harder to imagine that they would have survived long enough to become a walker.
Q: Were there any particularly impressive students during this year’s zombie school? What’s the most important characteristic you look for in a potential walker for the series?
A: Well, we had about a dozen winners that I thought would be great the minute I looked at them. One of the biggest and most important aspects of these performers is how they take direction because they could be great, but if you need them to change it up and give us something different, they have to be able to perform. There’s more to it than just a pretty face!
Q: Can you talk a little bit about how you created the burned walkers in Episode 14, “The Grove” last season?
A: That came from an idea that I had in Season 3. During the episode “Clear,” where Michonne and Carl go to the restaurant to retrieve the picture of [Lori], I had pitched an idea that there was a fire in the back of that restaurant and that these burned walkers emerge from the back to attack Carl and Michonne. We got a little hint of it, but not enough to really sell that, so we had this burned makeup design and we then in turn saw them in Episode 14 last season. They were created with full body prosthetics to stimulate that burned, crispy look. I always reference cooking a hot dog on a grill for two hours. It was fun and I was really proud that we got them featured so prominently during a great episode.
VIDEO: The Making of The Walking Dead Episode 414, “The Grove”
Q: What about Hershel? How was his head zombified and reanimated during Episode 9, “After”?
A: We created a cast of Scott Wilson’s head and created an animatronic that had jaw movements. We sculpted the skin then molded it and created a foam latex head with a fiber glass under-structure that was cable-operated for the jaw. One little augmentation I wanted to do was digital eyes. The one thing that always gives away an animatronic head are the eyes because the eyes are always challenging to replicate in terms of movements and blinking. I went to Visual Effects and what we ended up with was an animatronic with real eyes as a digital composite onto the head. The fact that we had a couple of real flies flying around the head was a complete bonus.
Q: What’s more challenging: directing or special effects and makeup?
A: They’re different and it’s a different mind and skill set. With directing, you really have to step back and see the episode in its entirety. The first episode of Season 5 that I just finished directing was the most challenging in terms of the scope, the amount of work and the story we told — we literally made an entire movie within nine days. I still don’t know how I survived it. It was a true testament to every person’s ability. Dealing with makeup effects is a much more confined work area. It’s a bit more manageable, but I love them equally.