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From “Walking Dead” Zombies To “Breaking Bad” Faces

What happens to a zombie’s skin after it has been exposed to the elements for extended periods of time? Gregory Nicotero’s study on the subject for “The Walking Dead” has earned the special effects makeup artist his 8th Emmy nomination.


“These zombies are baking in the sun all day.  They are putrefying – their skin is getting leathery,” said Nicotero.   “However, they are rotting and decomposing at a slower rate than if they were simply dead.”


Now headed into its third season, “The Walking Dead” provides an ever-evolving zombie apocalypse.  In addition to refining the look of the undead “walkers” who have been zombified from the start of the series, there are also those who have recently been infected, as well as the illustrations of death and dismemberment resulting from of a wide variety of weapons brandished by the bands of survivors.


“Knives, crowbars, so many ways for them to die,” said Nicotero.  “We provide a lot of guidance for the actors on how to hold their bodies. If the actor can’t do the job, the death doesn’t read on the camera.”


Because the actors are crucial to relating the illusion created by the makeup artist, be it a five month old zombie, a five day old zombie or a zombie being cut in two with a machete, Nicotero takes an active role in casting.  He’s looking for physical qualities needed for the specific makeup design as well as the ability to satisfy movement skills required to portray an undead person.   After the best zombie actors have been selected, life casts are made.  Working with his studio K.N.B. EFX Group in Los Angeles, Nicotero will determine how to design the prosthetics.


Throughout the course of “The Walking Dead” an assortment of makeup applications have been used.  K.N.B. EFX Studio created a custom designed zombie 3D transfer 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 actor’s skin.  The edges are smoothed out, and oil-free makeups (primarily tattoo colors) are then applied.


While prosthetics are created to match the physical attributes of the actor, the makeup team can completely reinvent a new zombie look for the actor, allowing zombie actors to reappear in multiple episodes as a completely different zombie.  Additionally, practical applications can be mixed with visual effects: a zombie may have digitally removed body parts, such as arms or half a torso, by utilizing a green screen.


In addition to altering the appearance of the skin and wounds through the course of the seasons to illustrate the extended de-composition, Nicotero and his team have made other detailed modifications.  The lips have lifted up and pulled away from the teeth.  To capture this effect, each zombie has a set of dentures made.  The eyes also play a factor: they have become cloudier, having the appearance of a rotten egg.  To achieve this look, each actor must wear a set of specially made contact lenses.  Once the makeup application has been completed for the day’s cast of zombies, Nicotero does a “post mortem” –  he reviews the group and pulls the most effective looking zombies to the foreground.


In addition to his special effects makeup, Nicotero has also written, directed and acts as executive producers on the show.  Because he has been so involved with casting, coaching and positioning the extras, as well as working with the episode’s directors and  the lead actors since the beginning of the show, directing has been an easy transition for him.


“It’s been a crazy turn of events in the last three years,” said Nicotero.  “I’m directing, producing, working on some original material.  I’m lucky to be working with such a group that is so dedicated.  The group of actors loves this show; it’s a joy to work with them.”


Nicotero’s creative vision doesn’t end with his work on “The Walking Dead.”  He’s received a second Emmy nomination this year for special visual effect for one of the most memorable murder scenes in recent television history – the half exploded face of drug Kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) on “Breaking Bad.”


“Vince is such a genius to begin with.  It was great to collaborate with him.  We started with sketches,” said Nicotero.  “We focused on whether the mouth would become a gaping maw, whether the eye would be blown out, really morbid conversations.”


To capture the effect of a partially exploded face, Nicotero worked closely with Visual Effects Supervisor William Powloski and his team.  It was important that all the anatomy be depicted accurately.  A cast was made of.Esposito’s head to create a bust which was then split in two.  The visual effect then combined with the practical elements to capture the inner workings behind the eye socket and the cheek; a portion of the effect that a prosthetic would not be able to replicate authentically.


While Nicotero is honored to be recognized by his peers with this year’s Emmy nominations, the accomplishment he’s extremely excited about is the upcoming anniversary of his makeup company.  While the makeup house keeps busy with work on “The Walking Dead” and other Nicotero led projects, they also prepared the special effects needs for other productions, including the upcoming films “Oz the Great and Powerful,” and “Django Unchained.”


“February will mark the 25th year anniversary of the makeup company,” said Nicotero.  “This is just monumental.”


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