The buzz online these days surrounding AMC's "The Walking Dead" may be about the series' show runner-centric creative churn, but one face that's been with the ratings hit from the very beginning is producer and zombie makeup master Greg Nicotero. The man behind ever walker -- real or animatronic -- that's seen on the adaptation of Robert Kirkman's Image Comics title, Nicotero has seen his traditional role as effects man expand over his time with the show. Returning to Season 3 full time after a stint working on Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," Nicotero was thrown right back into the action.
"First and foremost, we started shooting earlier. We started a month earlier this year because we knew we had 16 episodes, and we had less prep time than we usually do," he recalled while talking with CBR News. "It was a little tricky. The interesting part about being a producer on the show is that I think I only had a week off [between Seasons 2 and 3]."
The first challenge Nicotero tackled for the year in terms of zombie construction were Michonne's "pets" -- two armless, jawless walkers who tested the limits of what Nicotero and team could build in real life. "The way I approach the show is that I build stuff that I want to see and I think would be cool," he said. "So the first thing we started doing was test makeup for the pets. I wanted to be able to do that really cool jawless look practically, so the idea was to build their faces out so you could remove the jaw and make it look realistic and cool. We did one version where we used the actors eyes, but I thought, 'We're always putting stuff in the actors' eyes anyway. Maybe we could just do fake stuff and make fake eyes.' It was really interesting because I want to keep the audience guessing on how we did stuff, and just like in Season 1, it was a combination of practical and visual effects. The CGI guys removed their arms, but the faces were all practical."
The toolkit used by his team expanded for this season as more and more bits from previous installments have been reworked to meet the needs of the show's story. "We learned a lot from last season. Like in the episode where Shane dies, we built these two articulated heads that would still be moving and then Shane comes up and crushes them with a shovel, and its brains are spilling out. That got us thinking about good ways to smash heads with great blood splatter where you could integrate those practical and visual effects. Right when the audience figures out how we did it, we throw a different technique at it."
New techniques or not, there were still plenty of walkers to build for Season 3. "In the prison, there are a lot of bodies that have been laying around in the sun, rotting. If you leave a banana in the sun for ten minutes, it turns black. So a dead body in the sun for a couple weeks, how disgusting would that be?" Nicotero said. "We sculpted full male and female body decomposers for the set, but also for animatronic puppets. It's us playing between a guy in makeup and a puppet, so it changes up the show, visually. There's this classic 'Walking Dead' look to the zombies, where the lips have peeled back from around the teeth and it's very skull-like with sparse hair. The puppets let us get more and more like the drawings in the graphic novel.
"We come up with heads made just for biting that can bit out your throat or bite your face off. A lot of that we did on the fly last year. But this year we were able to build up our workshop so when the scripts come in or if I see some footage that needs a little salt and pepper, I say 'Bring out the attack head!'"
Aside from making zombies, Nicotero has stepped behind the camera more and more as the show has grown, directing several episodes including last season's "Judge, Jury, Executioner" which challenged him with its utter lack of zombie action. "I had to kill of Jeff DeMunn, who I've known for 15 years," he recalled. "It was exciting because the challenge of it was that we were shooting '12 Angry Men.' I had every character in the show sitting in a room together talking. Everyone here was going, 'Oh God. It's an eight-page dialogue scene. How are we going to do this?' But Jeff was so good in the episode and the scene was so spell-binding that it just drew you in. I loved all the speculation about 'When's Shane going to die?' so no one saw Dale coming.
"When this season came up, they asked me to do two episodes," he added. "With the first episode I did, which was episode five, the exciting part about it is that there are three big moments in the graphic novel that popped up there. I got to establish aspects that will continually play through the season. And I got a bunch of action scenes to do, which was different than what I got last year. And since then, what happens is whenever they go 'We need more shots on this episode' I run off and do it. I'm kind of the in house producer/director because if they need something reshot, they just have me do it. I'm literally directing two or three days a week every week. It's the boot camp of all boot camps."
Nicotero's next full episode hits in March, the second-to-last episode of the year with the ominous title "This Sorrowful Life." "Being a director made me a better effects guy," he said. "No one approaches this like a television show. We view it like we're making a movie every week. The episodes are so big this year. The intention of the show is different. Last year we had Hershel's farm, and it was safe. We didn't venture off too much, and there weren't walkers everywhere. This season, we have these two divergent storylines, and we don't want it to be safe. Playing that up is important, which means lots more zombies."
Speaking of, Nicotero also appeared on screen this season in full zombie regalia, so it may be hard for fans to pick him out of the crowd. "I just did my cameo for the year. I expect a lot from the extras and the stunt guys, because we can make them look great, but they've got to go and sell it. And I look at it that I'd never ask them to do something I wouldn't do myself, so my cameo was me in full makeup. I was covered in junk and had dentures outside my mouth with all this sticky stuff. I had a blast. I went up to people at lunch and would just stand behind them and breath. And they didn't recognize me!"
And as the show moves forward, the producer plans to stick with it. A fan of the comics as well as the production, Nicotero has read up through the shocking events of issue #100 with an eye towards what zombies he can make next. "[That issue] was brutal. I really love the graphic novel because it's so dark and really takes you to a weird place. The funny thing about it was that I was in San Diego sitting next to Steven Yeun when I was reading it. It was chilling. That's the best way to describe it. And I love how cinematic it was. It fucked me up for a couple of days."
"The Walking Dead" returns to AMC this Sunday at 9:00 Eastern and Pacific.