Of all the folks working behind the scenes on AMC's The Walking Dead, Greg Nicotero is no doubt the most valuable. For not only is the makeup maestro responsible for the look of the show's zombies, but he offers genre storytelling experience and expertise that led to his promotion to co-executive producer for season 2. On a recent visit to The Walking Dead's season 2 set, south of Atlanta, I joined a group of journalists in chatting with Nicotero. Find out what he had to say after the jump.
On improving the makeup for season 2:
After last season I made up a list of the do's and don'ts of season 2. As I was watching the show, there were a couple of little things I noticed that I was like, "I can improve upon that. I can make it better." No one else in the world would have noticed it except for me and probably Frank [Darabont]. But even Frank… There was one gag we did when Amy gets bit in the neck. We had multiple angles. There was one angle we did that we had to do two or three takes on. Because you know – blood is inherently unpredictable. You never know where the blood's going to go. You just gotta push the syringe and hope that it times out perfectly. If the blood comes too early and it gets on the wardrobe of the zombies before you shoot… There are little things you have to worry about. I'm the worst, because my stomach's in knots before every time we shoot something. But there was a weird wrinkle in the neck in the take that they used in the show. I remember seeing it and going, "Oh…" It drives me crazy, so in my mind I'm thinking, "Okay, next season, how do I avoid something like that?" Then of course I talked to Frank and he said, "Dude, if they're not looking at the neck, there's a problem. They shouldn't be looking over there. They should be looking right at the zombie bite!" So it was funny to have him put it into perspective. We spent a lot of time looking at the make-ups that we thought were very successful, or people talked about more or were more iconic; and using that as our jumping off point for this season. So we sculpted a lot, or added new pieces and a lot of new prosthetics and we have a lot of hero characters.
This show is tonally a little different from last year. Because last year we were in the middle of the city, so a walker could come out from any building anywhere. This year because we've sidetracked to Hershel's farm, much like in the graphic novel, the farm certainly isn't populated with walkers. So there are a couple of episodes where they're not walker heavy, then all of the sudden – boom – in the next one there's sixty or eighty of them.
So I wasn't nervous about it, because I was really proud of what we did last year, and I just always am looking at what we do and thinking about how we can make it better and how we can improve it. That's probably the genre fan in me, the moviegoer that wants to see something different and see something new and go, "Okay, so what are you gonna show me now?" So this is kind of like the sequel to The Walking Dead. The first season was the first movie, this is the second and third movie. I look at them sort of like our little Lord of the Rings movies I guess. [Laughs.]
On what he's most proud of this season:
Overall I think the look of the walkers in general I think have improved from last year. There was one shot in an episode last year where there was a close-up of a zombie; and she turned towards camera and she had a close-up of a wound on her cheek. I remember that shot bothered me. Because she doesn't look like a zombie. She looks like a girl with a wound on her cheek. So what I need to do is I need to make sure that we suspend the audience's disbelief; that we literally did find zombies in Georgia some place and we wrangled them on set and we shot them. So we've accentuated a lot of the make-ups by exaggerating the cheekbones and elongating the chins. And we designed a whole bunch of new contact lenses. So every hero zombie you see in the show this year has been improved upon because of stuff that I noticed when I watched the show. It's like contact lenses versus no contact lenses… When you have a scene and there's eighty or a hundred walkers, there's no way you can put a hundred sets of lenses. You put lenses in the first twenty or twenty-five and in the background you just tell them to keep their chins down. But every once in a while you'll see a shot where one of them will get too close, and for me it takes me right out of the show, because I'm like, "Oh, that guy's eyes should be dead!" But I'm probably the only person who really notices. I don't think other people do. But when you see those really creepy eyes, it's just such a great accent to it. Because it becomes less like a person with makeup and really makes a big difference. I'm constantly standing next to the monitor, and I've never been as diligent as I am on this show, watching the monitor next to the director. Because the directors sort of look to me to make sure I'm keeping an eye on the zombie part, rather than other stuff. After every take they're like, "How was that?" I'm like, "Well, there was one guy that was doing a little bit of Frankenstein. I gotta go…" "Yeah, go get him." So I'll walk onto the set and go, "Keep your arms down. Do this…" You're constantly finessing the background in every single shot, because if you have one extra who's doing something where his arms are swinging, it takes you right out of it.
On how his role has evolved now that he's co-executive producer:
It was just something that evolved at the end of last year. Gale [Anne Hurd] and Frank had called and said, "Listen, you really do do more than just special effects make-up and second unit. You have an active role in propelling the quality of the show forward. So we want to give you a consulting producer credit." So that came up at the end of last year. Then this year, even from the beginning I'd taken a more active role in looking at more advanced cuts of the show and visual effects shots and script notes and things. So my voice is being heard as a producer. This came up several months ago, but I think they just got around to announcing it, because they wanted to tie it in with the Emmy win and the webisodes that I had done and tying it in with the beginning of the show. But… I'm a make-up effects guy… I got an email from Sam Raimi last night saying, "Hey, congratulations!" I said, "Yeah, it's nice to be treated like an adult." Because by nature there's this boyish charm that you have when you're playing with monsters and you're putting fake blood on stuff. There's just something about make-up effects guys that have this youthfulness about them. To be involved in the show in that capacity and to be involved when the directors come in with designing the effects with them and going through the gags with them, and really now having a voice where I can go and say, "Guys, you know, we haven't done anything like this. Let's take a gag like this and let's write it into a future episode." So I'm able to look at it from a make-up effects standpoint, but also to see where the characters are going and have conversations with Andy Lincoln and those guys about their characters. So it's really exciting. It's a new chapter in my career to be able to contribute so significantly.
Last year, I thought that was the best. Last year when they called and said we want you to be a consulting producer, I thought, "Wow, this is great! How can it get better?" Then this year, having such a heavy involvement in the show and input in the scripts and things, it's really tremendously exciting. This is what you work for, to be able to help shape material that you love so much.