#19 The Walking Dead Executive Producer & Director | Greg Nicotero Interview

Updated: Jul 25



How does a makeup artist become the Executive Producer and Director? 


Greg Nicotero, SFX make up artist & EP/Director of The Walking Dead, shares nuts and bolts of the SFX department, including tips on how to get started, working with CGI & SFX, and how he integrated being a make up artist, producer, and director .

He was one of the founding members of the special effects company, KNB EFX Group, which hold awards from the Academy, BAFTA, and Emmys.

Listen to Greg share with Tanya fascinating stories of working with renowned directors & his experiences on The Walking Dead


Key points 1:25 Greg’s background/journey 4:25 How he turned his passion into a career 4:54- His work in The Walking Dead 6:40 - Working with other departments as makeup effects people 7:46 - Experience with different directors 9:28 - Impact of Pre-Med background in Film  13:15 - How to get started in SFX  16:20 -  Skills denoting talented makeup artists 19:00 - Challenges in film & COVID adjustments  19:40 - Developing next season of The Walking Dead 22:35 - COVID Protocols in TWD 24:00 - Technological threats to SFX jobs 26:11 - CGI vs. SFX decision process & collaboration 27:00 - TWD SFX & CGI 31:25 - Keeping the spirit of collaboration on set 31:57- Working on Sin City 33:00 - Experience in directing & how it helps him as a make up artist 33:59 – Working with actors on TWD 36:10 - Balancing work-life & career 37:59 - Working at Creepshow 

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Full transcript:

Greg Nicotero (00:00):

Those are the most exciting meetings, when you're sitting with the director, you, the visual effects person, the producer, and you're brainstorming ideas, because my job as an effects artist is the director wants to paint this beautiful picture. And my job is to provide him with the paint and the visual effects job is to give him the brush and then the producer job is to give him the canvas. And for me, the most effective are when there's a harmony between all of the elements to make this beautiful painting.


Tanya Musgrave (00:30):

Welcome to There to Here, an educational podcast where industry professionals talk nuts and bolts and how they got from there to here. On today's show, Academy and Emmy award winning SFX makeup artist, Greg Nicotero of KNB EFX Group talks blood and gore, and his journey to becoming EP and director of The Walking Dead. As this is a new podcast, we're really wanting feedback. So go to media.colabinc.org, fill out the feedback survey, and you'll be entered to win a $25 Amazon gift card. Congratulations to this week's winner, Ryan Schultz. And from CoLab INC, I'm Tanya Musgrave, and today we are honored to have Greg Nicotero, a special effects makeup legend, producer and director. He helped form the KNB EFX Group, which has gone on to win both an Academy award and Emmy for their special effects work. But you might probably know him best as the executive producer and director of The Walking Dead. Welcome to the show.


Greg Nicotero (01:19):

Thank you. Thank you. Very honored to be here.


Tanya Musgrave (01:22):

So makeup artist to EP director, how did you get from there to here?


Greg Nicotero (01:26):

I feel very fortunate. I grew up in Pittsburgh and ultimately ended up living about 45 minutes away from George Romero. George Romero wrote and directed Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Creepshow. So I loved horror movies when I was a kid. My parents were big movie buffs and I would see the scariest, creepiest, most horrific films that I could get my hands on when I was a little kid. But I never really equated it to like, "Oh, well there are actually people in the world that their job is to scare you," whether they're writing the scripts, or they're building the special effects, or they're directing, acting in it, whatever it is, there's a team of people behind the scenes and that's their job. And I was really interested in how they do that, of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man and the Creature from the Black lagoon. I love that there was a makeup artist with a cigarette and brushes, probably painting or as Boris Karloff.


Tanya Musgrave (02:26):

Yeah.


Greg Nicotero (02:27):

So I grew up really fascinated with the idea of making monsters. But it was always a hobby for me. I never thought, "Oh, I live in Pittsburgh. How would I ever translate that into a career in special effects or a career in the movies?" I'd never thought about it. My dad's a retired physician and I was going to be a doctor. I mean that was where I thought that my career path was taking me until one day, just as a fluke, I met George Romero. And George was a really nice guy and of course in Pittsburgh, he was the local legend. He was so nice and so welcoming and he would invite me out to the studio where he was preparing movies. And I was 15-years-old and I would go visit. And two years later, they were shooting Creepshow and I went and visited the set. And he had even said to me, "Oh, if you want a job, let us know. They have these production assistant jobs," and I'm like, "No, no, no. I'm going to go off to college soon and I'm going to be a doctor."


Greg Nicotero (03:30):

So I said, "No," to my first job offer in the movie business. Cut to three years later, it's 1984, I'm visiting George for lunch downtown Pittsburgh. And he goes, "Hey, we got a green light to do Day of the Dead." And I'm like, "Hmm." Okay, so I turned down a job offer on Creepshow And I think between 1981 and 1984, my interest in movies just kept building and building and building. And I said, "Well, I'm not going to make the same mistake twice." So I accepted the job. I told my folks that I was going to take a semester off of school, work on this movie and then go back. And I was just going to do it just to get it out of my system. And that was 35 years ago maybe. I haven't gone back, I hate to admit it. But I will say that I was someone who followed my passion. It was something that I loved, it was something I was really interested in. And I didn't even think about the idea that I could turn it into a career. I just loved it so, so much.


Greg Nicotero (04:33):

I'm starting the business in 1984, I moved out to Los Angeles in 1985 and by 1988, I had my own company, KNB EFX Group, which is still around. We're the longest running makeup effects company in the world. And the last 10 years have taken me in an entirely different direction because after doing the first season of Walking Dead, Frank Darabont and Gale Anne Hurd had reached out and said, "Listen, you have years and years of experience, you love it more than anybody else we know, and we're doing this zombie show and we need your expertise. And we don't look at you as a makeup effects person alone, we look at you as somebody that can contribute much more to the show." So they made me a consulting producer. I was the second unit director, so I was shooting all the gory bits here and there. And the next thing I knew, I was the producing director on the show. I've directed 35 or 36 episodes of the show over the last 10 years.


Greg Nicotero (05:29):

And it's been one of the most unique journeys that I can ever imagine. And it led me to being showrunner on Creepshow. So on the off season of Walking Dead, I have my own TV show that's based on the movie that I turned the job down in 1980. So I always joke about if the 16-year-old me was watching this podcast and being like, "What was he thinking?" But everything happens for a reason and I've been on an amazing journey and I've worked with the best filmmakers in the world. And I consider myself the person who's had the greatest film school experience on a movie set ever.


Tanya Musgrave (06:15):

Yeah.


Greg Nicotero (06:15):

I worked with Quentin Tarantino, John Carpenter, Robert Rodriguez, Michael Bay, Wes Craven, everybody that I admired, everybody that I looked up to, I have had the great opportunity to be in the trenches with them.


Tanya Musgrave (06:29):

That's amazing. How was that transition from behind the behind the scenes role to the forefront of running the show?


Greg Nicotero (06:38):

Well what's interesting about it is when you're designing creature effects, your pedigree is you're collaborating with a lot of different departments. You're visualizing what the director wants, you have to interface with the production designer in case he needs specialized sets built. You're working with the director of photography to make sure that your stuff is lit well, that it's edited well, that it's photographed well. So it's different than a lot of other film jobs because you're interacting with a lot of different departments. And in a lot of instances, your job is to realize the director's vision by imagining something, starting with a sketch or with a clay sculpture, all the way up to being on set and being responsible for executing it and filming it.


Tanya Musgrave (07:26):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Greg Nicotero (07:29):

So it teaches you from the beginning that a lot of makeup effects people have to understand film. They have to understand the nuts and bolts of it.


Tanya Musgrave (07:38):

A ghost director from the beginning, huh?


Greg Nicotero (07:40):

Well yeah, and you never really think about it that way, but you know when you work with... I worked with Sam Raimi and still do quite a bit, and Sam did all the Evil Dead movies and all the Spider-Man movies. And Sam was an incredibly imaginative director because he would storyboard every single frame. And so when we did Army of Darkness, there was literally a book that thick of every single frame.


Tanya Musgrave (08:04):

Yeah.


Greg Nicotero (08:05):

So working with him, you realize you have to pre-visualize where the camera's going to be.


Tanya Musgrave (08:11):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Greg Nicotero (08:12):

Then you work with directors like Quentin Tarantino, who will spend three weeks with actors rehearsing. And it's so much an actor's medium because Quentin loves working with his actors. So he'll rehearse something, you can't go to Quentin and say, "Hey, where's the camera going to be when you shoot that scene?" Because it's a very organic process.


Tanya Musgrave (08:33):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Greg Nicotero (08:34):

Then you work with someone like Robert Rodriguez who really pioneered the idea of shooting movies on green-screen in Sin City and then compositing everything together. So what I've been able to do through my career was take little bits and pieces of each one of these filmmakers, develop my own style and my own understanding of how to shoot movies and TV shows. The greatest thing about it is I still feel like I have so much to learn and every day is a new challenge. And that's really a lot of fun. I still have fun doing it.


Tanya Musgrave (09:07):

It's interesting that you said that you were prepared to go to med school. And I don't know if you were already in med school or if that was where your trajectory was headed, but your attention to detail, that's the scientific side of the artistic side of anatomy and everything that you've got to have.


Greg Nicotero (09:25):

It's funny because when I did Day of the Dead, which was my first job, that came into play quite a bit because there was a scene where a guy gets bit in the arm by a zombie, and then they chop his arm off and they cauterize the stump of his... All this stuff.


Tanya Musgrave (09:40):

Yeah. Yeah.


Greg Nicotero (09:41):

And he called me to set. George Romero called me to set and said, "Hey, I got a question. So if we cut the arm off here," and I said, "Well, you got to tie it off because there's some pretty big arteries there." And ironically, my education, my premed, because I never made it to med school because I was taking my entrance exams when I got offered the job on Day of the Dead, but one of the movies that put KNB on the map in its infancy, it was our first year in business, was a film called Gross Anatomy. It was a Disney movie about medical school students.


Tanya Musgrave (10:11):

That's amazing.


Greg Nicotero (10:14):

So I went into the meeting and I had been recommended to the producer, Debra Hill, by George Romeo. And as soon as they found out that I had anatomy training because I had been in college, that's how we got that job. And ironically, the detail that we were able to put into these cadavers that Daphne Zuniga and Matthew Modine were dissecting in the movie, our next big job opportunity was a film called Dances with Wolves. And when Kevin Costner saw the cadavers we made, they were like, "Well, we need to make buffalo that look like they'd been skinned." So ironically, part of my premed history actually helped us get jobs that we normally may not have gotten because of the fact that I had some understanding and knowledge of it.


Tanya Musgrave (11:01):

I mean you have to have an attention to detail, but I mean what good is attention to detail if it's not actually accurate?


Greg Nicotero (11:09):

Well ironically enough, there's a movie called Freaked that was like Alex Winter, Keanu Reeves. They did this movie with all these weird wacky mutated characters. And we interviewed for the job and the director was like "Your stuff's too real looking. We're looking for something a little less realistic and a little more cartoony, a little more exaggerated." And I remember thinking about that going, "Well, if you think about the fact that our jobs required us to duplicate the reality of a skinned buffalo or the reality of a corpse or a cadaver, we're competent to do whatever task is put in front of us." But we ended up spending a lot of our career recreating fake animals because, "Oh, they did Dances with Wolves and City Slickers, and so they should make fake animals."


Greg Nicotero (11:56):

But we were lucky enough that we did a little bit of everything and that helped our career because we didn't get pigeonholed into just doing gore stuff, which is what a lot of other movies were happening in the late 80s and early 90s.


Tanya Musgrave (12:10):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Greg Nicotero (12:10):

The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, the Halloween franchise, those were a lot more gore effects. But we were able to out of the gate really jump in with movies like City Slickers and Sibling Rivalry, and we were able to broaden our horizons right out of the gate.


Tanya Musgrave (12:27):

So you had been able to study under Tom Savini, right?


Greg Nicotero (12:31):

Yes.


Tanya Musgrave (12:31):

This was even before he established his SFX makeup school. It must have been an amazing treat to be able to do that. And I guess it may seem like, like today, there are always programs for that now. There's a school for this and there's a school for that. So that old school, golden age apprenticeship is of faded away. So say that someone who isn't able to attend a school like that, but has the talent to garnish everything they can from YouTube or what have you, where could they go as a starting block to actually get started in the industry? Because for film in general, a degree could mean nothing against actual raw talent. So say they've got the talent, but they are not sure where to go.


Greg Nicotero (13:12):

Well there are apprenticeships and internships that are still available, actually during now with the state of the world, it's a little trickier unfortunately.


Tanya Musgrave (13:24):

Yeah.


Greg Nicotero (13:25):

But on Walking Dead in the past, we did do apprenticeships with people that were going to the Savannah Arts Center. And a lot of times, you do have people that can start. I started doing production assistant work.


Tanya Musgrave (13:43):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Greg Nicotero (13:44):

But we've had some people at the studio here at KNB that were interns. But with our field, it's a little more specialized, so you have to have some knowledge and understanding of latex and the materials and the paints and the clay. It's not as easy as like, "Oh, I want to do that and I want to go apprentice there." So it's a little more difficult here on the shop. We've partnered with a couple of makeup schools and allowed some of their students to come and work here for credit. And like I said, on Walking Dead, there's been a lot of instances where people would come and they'd work in the camera department for a couple of days, and then the grip department, and then the sound department and makeup effects. And they get a chance to experience filmmaking as a whole.


Greg Nicotero (14:28):

And I think that's really important and certainly educational. When I was growing up, there was no YouTube. So you couldn't just watch what you wanted to watch on the internet. Probably from 1977 to 1990, special effects makeup was in its heyday. You had Rick Baker and Stan Winston and Rob Bottin and Tom Savini, these guys that were changing the landscape of special effects with American Werewolf in London and The Thing. And so makeup effects guys were like rock stars. They had marquee value just like the actors did. And if you look at a movie like Friday the 13th or Dawn of the Dead, Tom Savini's work in those movies is probably as recognizable as any of the actors, or even more recognizable as any of the actors that were in those movies.


Greg Nicotero (15:13):

So we entered this world where there was such a cool vibe about people that got into special effects and back then, they were all a little nerdy and a little maybe not necessarily outgoing. And now of course, that's the way the world is. That's what everybody embraces. People looked at me like I was a little off when I would talk about horror movies. Now, that's the way the world is and it's like, "Oh good. It's nice to know that everybody's caught up to the shit that we love."


Tanya Musgrave (15:51):

So along those lines with learning you mentioned in an interview once, I remember you said that teeth were a challenge and details such as a pink tongue or white teeth getting gritted up with black cake icing and stuff like that. So you guys are really, really down on the details. Anybody who's a makeup artist has to be a detailed person. So my question is is there any particular detail that you look for actually in a makeup artist, little things that they might do the equivalent of vacuuming under a rug or something, that clue you in, that they're one to watch, that, "Hey, this one's a good egg. We need to keep our eye on them?"


Greg Nicotero (16:24):

Probably the hardest aspect of being a makeup artist is matching the skin tones. If you look at Amadeus, which Dick Smith did this brilliant old age makeup on F. Murray Abraham, part of what it's about is you create these pieces and then the performers have to bring them to life. But it has to look natural and it can't take you out of the movie. And it's really, really an art form. Even if you look at the movie Bombshell and you look at Charlize Theron.


Tanya Musgrave (16:58):

Yes.


Greg Nicotero (16:59):

You don't even know that it's her.


Tanya Musgrave (17:01):

Yes.


Greg Nicotero (17:01):

Because it's such a brilliantly, subtle exercise in makeup. I mean Gary Oldman, when he played Winston Churchill, as makeup artists, we tend to look for like, "Ooh, where's the edge? And why does this look different?" And really that is the application and getting rid of the seams is one thing, but the coloring really just takes a whole other level of understanding of painting. And with a lot of makeup artists, when you look at their portfolios or you look at their work and you study it, trying to figure out how they did it, that to me is what I look for is really just that ability to replicate something that people see every single day walking down the street.


Greg Nicotero (17:48):

If you see an old age makeup, you see the liver spots and you see the wrinkles. You're always looking at that. And as makeup artists, we tend to look at people differently because we look at the color of their skin and we look at their wrinkles and we look at the way their hair is. And you always file that stuff away so that when you get a call for an old age makeup, you're like, "Oh my God, I saw this guy on the street once and man, he had the coolest face."


Tanya Musgrave (18:15):

Yeah. I mean what you were saying before with Bombshell and with Churchill, it's almost harder... I don't know. As a monster, you can rough it up.


Greg Nicotero (18:24):

Yeah, absolutely.


Tanya Musgrave (18:26):

And hide a multitude of sins. Whereas when you're actually doing a clean face, it's a lot more difficult. So you mentioned in an interview that you did want to get to the point of baffling an audience, like "How did they do that?" What is your Everest or your unicorn, if you have one in that regard? You've done zombies, you've done monsters, you've done real people's faces, the prosthetics and stuff and Hitchcock. Is there an ultimate challenge that you do want to tackle? Does it even exist even outside of film?


Greg Nicotero (18:55):

The beauty of being in the film industry is that every movie gives you a new set of challenges. On Walking Dead, the challenges were like, "Okay. Well we're going to shoot in a TV schedule, so you have eight days," in the heat in Georgia. So you're going to worry about people sweating and touching up their makeups and all this stuff. I feel really fortunate that I've been able to work with the filmmakers that I have and I've been able to work on the projects that I've worked on. So for me, it's just if we revisit an alien or we revisit a zombie, or we revisit a werewolf or something, it's almost taking everything that you've learned from previous experiences and making them even better the next time.


Greg Nicotero (19:38):

I mean we're developing a lot of stuff right now for Walking Dead that takes into account the fact that we're now dealing with a virus that can be transmitted very easily. So a lot of what we've been talking about for the upcoming seasons of The Walking Dead is how to maintain the visual aesthetic of the show, but also keep in mind that we have to put the safety for all the performers and the makeup artists first. So we're developing background masks and we're developing makeups that we can speed up the process so that you're in contact with them less, but that you're still maintaining everything that we've done on the show. And it's challenging and I've embraced this time to really think outside of the box and be more creative about how we're dealing with these day to day problems and working with the network. And it really has been interesting because we're coming up with ideas and processes that we necessarily wouldn't have even thought of if we wouldn't be in this situation.


Greg Nicotero (20:43):

So it's been really interesting to reevaluate what we do and try to come up with methods that work better for production.


Tanya Musgrave (20:52):

Do you think it's feasible? Particularly in the environment right now with having something like The Walking Dead that has so many people in makeup, and then you have potential white paper that's coming across everybody's desk saying, "Okay, only one person in the makeup trailer at once. That kind of thing. Do you think it's feasible?


Greg Nicotero (21:12):

Not only is it feasible, we've already done it. We've already tested it, we've already run it through its paces and not only can it be done, but we found that some of these modifications are even more efficient than what we were doing before.


Tanya Musgrave (21:28):

Really?


Greg Nicotero (21:28):

So in a lot of ways, we've taken these challenges and made our jobs, I'm not going to say easier because I feel like once we start filming and we are on set with the protocols that you have to put in place, that will slow production down. So my job has been like, "Okay, well we got to find a way to make sure that our part of this production moves not only smoothly, but it is more efficient." And it has been, and we've done a bunch of tests and it's been pretty exciting.


Tanya Musgrave (21:56):

That is really exciting because there's a good amount of people, including makeup artists, who are very scared about this upcoming stage that we're in, because they're saying, "Our jobs are all going to be cut in half. We're not going to be allowed to do this." And so I'm curious if whatever techniques that you guys are coming up with, is that going to be released? Is that going to be something that is under the guise of KNB EFX where people will-


Greg Nicotero (22:23):

Well I think everybody's working on their own protocols that suit their particular projects.


Tanya Musgrave (22:29):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Greg Nicotero (22:29):

Walking Dead is by far the most makeup intensive television show on the air right now, because every single episode, there's hundreds and hundreds of characters in makeup. So we have been dealing with that aspect of it because that's how it applies to us. A lot of the other shows that are on the air right now, they have a lot. I mean probably Star Trek has a good number of makeups. It's suited to every single individual production.


Tanya Musgrave (23:00):

Yeah.


Greg Nicotero (23:00):

Because we have volume and I think that's the one thing that we were dealing with. So I think every single show is going to have to adapt differently. I would imagine that once you get past 20 or 30 extras, they're just going to start handing them over to visual effects because it's pretty easy to put crowds of people or crowds of zombies, crowds of extras into shots and not have to bring in the extra makeup people, the extra costumers, the extras themselves. So I know all of this stuff is all being discussed over and over again.


Tanya Musgrave (23:36):

Okay. So back in the 90s, there was a bit of a scare after Jurassic Park. They're just like, "Oh, all of these practical effects, they're going to go digital." So you use a blend of puppetry and animatronics layered with your gore, it's a continued finessing and perfection of old school tactics. But now as a producer yourself, you're aware of cost analysis of things and these days, of course with the COVID factor, with the new school digital effects and character animation, are there any aspects of your job that you're afraid will go away?


Greg Nicotero (24:09):

No. I think probably big giant crowds of 400 people will probably go away. But honestly, when you have a day where you have to turn 400 people into zombies, it's really not fun because you got to...


Tanya Musgrave (24:23):

Like, "Thank goodness."


Greg Nicotero (24:23):

Everybody's ready and they take their masks off in between set. You have the close up people and it's a challenge. So I feel like filmmaking is going to change and filmmaking is going to evolve as it always has. One of the fascinating scenarios to come up, it is these big LED screens. I mean I've been on a couple shows where they've used... The Mandalorian used them to get the interactive light. It's really a unique experience to see those things working and think about the fact that, "Oh, they've taken the whole green screen aspect of it away. Now they're doing it live." There was a process that we shot in years ago called introvision, which was basically they would shoot the background plates and project them onto a screen. And then they would build the sets and they would do it in front of the screen.


Greg Nicotero (25:15):

So the LED screens are that technology, just updated of course. But there's been lots of unique advances. And I think that those advances will continue because you have to take into consideration that if you can build another world on stage and not have to fly to Hawaii to shoot the Jurassic Park movie, that we're going to take advantage of those scenarios because of the fact that they don't have to go outside, they can be in a controlled environment.


Tanya Musgrave (25:46):

We actually have some listener questions from our Insta and Facebook stories and Twitter. If you want to ask your questions to future guests, our handle on Insta and Twitter is @ColabIncPodcast. So who gets to make the call on whether an effect will be SFX makeup or CGI? And what does that break down process look like of going down through a script breakdown and saying, "This one's going to be CGI or this one's SFX?"


Greg Nicotero (26:10):

Those are the most exciting meetings, when you're sitting with the director, you, the visual effects person, the producer, and you're brainstorming ideas, because my job as an effects artist is the director wants to paint this beautiful picture. And my job is to provide him with the paint and the visual effects job is to give him the brush and then the producer job is to give him the canvas. And for me, the most effective are when there's a harmony between all of the elements to make this beautiful painting. We start brainstorming about like, "Oh, well if you need a dinosaur to walk across the room, then that's not something that can be easily created, a 60 foot dinosaur. But if you need a closeup of a big dinosaur head that actors can interact with, then we can do that."


Greg Nicotero (26:58):

A lot of times, Walking Dead is a good example because we had a digital lion named Shiva that was Ezekiel's pet. When we started developing the character, I had basically said, "Well guys, listen to me, it's going to be important that the actors are not just acting to a gray ball on set or a little circle with a lion face on it." I said, "I think that it's going to be important and the actors will perform better if they have something to perform with."


Tanya Musgrave (27:29):

Of course.


Greg Nicotero (27:30):

So we built a standing version of this tiger and a lying down version of this tiger. And we had puppeteers throughout the takes that were making the lion breathe, that were moving the head around. And it really contributed to a better scene. The actors would come to me later and be like, "Oh my God, that was unbelievable." And I loved that I had something that I could react to. When we got into post, some of the hero shots of the tiger were digital. And a lot of people were like, "Well, how did you feel about the fact that there were digital shots and practical shots?" I said, "Guys, it doesn't matter. What matters is is that we created a convincing effect." And we used both techniques.


Greg Nicotero (28:15):

Ultimately, you have to understand. There were shots that I had directed where the tiger was in the foreground and then the camera's over his head, so that tiger's head was moving around and Ezekiel was here and Rick was in the background and we had the hair and we had that thing breathing and it looked fantastic. And you have to understand that your contribution to any piece of film is to make sure that it tells the story. And the creation of that tiger, for me, was very exciting because we were able to make the storytelling better. And we worked in conjunction with visual effects in terms of designing the color of the fur and the stripes and how big the tiger was going to be, all these different things.


Greg Nicotero (29:01):

The beauty of visual effects is you can change things or you can alter things. If a zombie bites a person's face and the blood squirts this way, but you're like, "Oh, I really wanted the blood to squirt that way," they can add a little augmentation. They can add a little squirt for you. I would say on our show, a lot of the work that is actually done is removing like, "Oh, there was a light stand in the shot or a car drove by in the background. Or one camera didn't notice that there were people sitting in the background of the shot." There's a lot of digital fixes that are done where it's like, "Oh, you got to paint that guy out of the shot." That stuff you couldn't have done. You would have had to throw that shot away.


Greg Nicotero (29:41):

So I would say a lot of the work that we do on The Walking Dead is augmenting things. And liquid is very challenging to duplicate. So we'll sit on set and we'll spray blood in different directions, and then they'll take that and they'll comp it onto a zombie's head exploding. But even in the 10 years that the show has been on, visual effects has just gotten simpler and better. Makeup has gotten simpler... Not simpler, but better and our techniques have gotten better. Oh, there was a rather controversial episode of The Walking Dead where Negan was introduced and Negan killed two lead characters, Steven Yeun and Michael Cudlitz.


Tanya Musgrave (30:26):

Right.


Greg Nicotero (30:26):

And I directed the episode. And for me, one of the hardest things was I love those actor, I hated to see them go. But in the comic book, it was pretty brutal and pretty horrific. So we did this prosthetic and we had the eyeball that looks like the eyeballs popping out. So when we actually finished the episode, visual effects went in and they bulged the eye and they moved the eye a little bit after the impact. Now that's something that we wouldn't have been able to do, but just that little augmentation makes a big difference. So it's really critical that you're part of this team, your visual effects team and the makeup effects team. And for me, because I'm also a director and a producer, I embraced that spirit of collaboration.


Tanya Musgrave (31:18):

Yeah.


Greg Nicotero (31:18):

And honestly, of everything that's going on in the world and in film right now, the one thing that we got to make sure that we don't lose is that spirit of collaboration, because if you're going to have less-


Tanya Musgrave (31:29):

Absolutely.


Greg Nicotero (31:30):

On set, the idea of being able to collaborate with your key people, your director of photography and your costume designer and your production designer and your actors, that's going to be harder to do. And that to me is the thing that I'm most determined to preserve, because there's been times when you're on set and somebody will go, "Hey, what if you did that? Oh my God, that's an amazing idea." I worked on a movie, I mentioned it earlier, with Robert Rodriguez in 2004 called Sin City. It was really a great opportunity for us to create a lot of different character makeups. We had Mickey Rourke's character as Marv, and Benicio del Toro and Nick Stahl, and Clive Owen.


Greg Nicotero (32:11):

We had a lot of really great actors that we got to work with and I was really proud of that. I was really proud of that movie. I was proud of the makeups and the character designs. And I think all the actors really elevated what we did. So to me, that was without a doubt one of the highlights of my career, just being able to be a part of something like that. I mean Walking Dead's been fantastic, but I'm still in the middle of it. So I can't look back and go "oh that was kind of cool," because there's a lot more coming.


Tanya Musgrave (32:43):

Yeah, yeah. I remember you had mentioned something. I mean Sin City is such a unique aesthetic as well. So I mean I imagine that it would be quite an awesome challenge. I remember you said something about using milk for blood.


Greg Nicotero (32:57):

Yeah. Yeah, because of the viscosity of it. It wasn't as transparent and the interesting thing about that was you could be shooting Bruce Willis one day on green screen, and then three days later, Jessica Alba would show up. And then a week later, Mickey Rourke would show up. And that movie really was, like you said, so stylized and it really was one of the first times that I felt that it captured the spirit of a living graphic novel. I just am very proud of that movie.


Tanya Musgrave (33:27):

Okay. Next question. How has your background influenced your approach to directing actors?


Greg Nicotero (33:34):

Great question. The first thing that's critical that you have to establish with your actors is trust. Actors have to trust you. You're probably going to disagree with them at some point, they might have an idea that you don't love and you got to talk them into it, or they might have a great idea and you got to incorporate it in there, it's that collaboration. On Walking Dead, for me, what was interesting was the actors, because they had seen what I had contributed to the show as a makeup artist, when it came time for me to direct, they all literally huddled around me and they protected me. Andy Lincoln, Jeffrey DeMunn, Sarah Callies, Jon Bernthal, all the actors really, they wanted to see me survive and succeed. That was a great lesson.


Greg Nicotero (34:21):

I think the most interesting aspect of that is once I had directed, I had a completely new understanding of how to deal with other directors in terms of pitching ideas for makeup effects. We had gone right on to do Django Unchained after I had directed my first episode of Walking Dead. And I spent a lot of time on set with Quentin talking about... He wanted to know what my experience directing was like. He was very curious.


Tanya Musgrave (34:47):

Yeah.


Greg Nicotero (34:48):

And one of the biggest things I took away from that is the directors want to hear your vision of something. Quentin, I couldn't go to Quentin and say, "Hey, we're shooting this scene in six months. What do you want to see for that scene?" What I ended up doing was I ended up imagining, "Okay, if I was shooting the scene, what elements would I need to accomplish this particular scene?" And I would build those elements. So when it came time to shooting specific scenes on Django Unchained, Quentin would come by the shop and I would talk him through the elements that we had built. And he was like, "How did you know that I would need this?" "Well, I put myself in your shoes and imagined where the camera would be. I imagined what elements that you would need to accomplish what you wrote on the page."


Greg Nicotero (35:37):

So I feel like having been able to be a director makes me a better makeup artist, because I can understand what needs to be built and present it to the directors in a way that allows them the freedom to shoot what they want to shoot.


Tanya Musgrave (35:53):

Do you think that someone has to value career over relationships to get to the top of the industry?


Greg Nicotero (36:00):

Oh boy. That's the age old question. I mean it really is. I mean I'll tell you, Walking Dead has kept me away from my family for a long time. And I still to this day feel a lot of sadness that there were things that I missed being with my children. But the truth of the matter is I feel like I've been able to give them a better life by sometimes having to be away from them. I mean I traveled back and forth to Georgia 8,000 times in the last nine years. But relationships are relationships and the people in your life that understand that everybody has to make sacrifices, those relationships, those people that are in your life that understand that, they'll always be in your life. Career is something that continues to evolve and continues to change and I'm at a point now where I've been able to say, "Guys, I need to go home and be with my wife and my kids for a while. I need that time."


Greg Nicotero (37:02):

So it's always a delicate balance and it's always challenging. But the truth of the matter is the people that are in your life that love you, that care about you and the relationships that mean something, they understand that unfortunately, we're not in a career where you get up at eight o'clock and you go to work nine to five. This career takes you all over the world and I consider myself lucky that I've been able to share that with my children. And I have photos of my kids when they were three-years-old on the set of The Walking Dead and now they're 15 and 18. And they have a memory and they have something that they would have never had, and I'm grateful for that.


Tanya Musgrave (37:46):

Yeah. Last question. What question should I have asked you?


Greg Nicotero (37:51):

I don't know. You did pretty well. You did pretty well. Creepshow is something that I'm really proud of because it gave me the opportunity to be the showrunner, to collaborate with writers, collaborate with directors, collaborate with actors, and continue this tradition of storytelling that was very near and dear to me because of my relationship with George Romero. So we're about to, knock on wood, start shooting season two in the next couple of weeks. We were one day away from filming then we got shut down. So we're developing scripts for season three and I've written a couple of scripts.


Greg Nicotero (38:35):

And again, like I was saying earlier, the idea that I get to continually grow as an artist and as a filmmaker is something that, at 57-years-old, you would think like, "Oh, he's done it all. And I mean are you slowing down at any point?" I'm like, "I don't see it." I've been writing all day today because we're developing stories for season three of Creepshow and working with writers. And they'll send you an outline and then you read it and then you start brainstorming. "What happens if this happened? Oh my God, what if the alien..." And then you get into this really fun groove of just imagining these make believe worlds and collaborating with people that inspire you. I love that, and I'm inspired by every single person that I work with.


Tanya Musgrave (39:21):

Yeah. It's a good thing to hope for when you are able to combine everything creative and everything personal, like what you were saying before. Greg, thank you so much for joining us. If you enjoyed this interview, follow us right here and check out more episodes at media.colabinc.org. If you have comments or know someone who would be a great guest on our show, send in your suggestions to tanya@colabinc.org. And Greg, thanks again so much for your time. Be well and God bless. We'll see you next time on There to Here.

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