'The Walking Dead': Greg Nicotero Is Bringing The Dead To Life
"The Walking Dead" is a monstrous franchise, and one of its hydra-like heads is Greg Nicotero. The makeup and visual effects guru is an essential asset of the AMC television show, creating the distinct look and feel of the undead walkers... And he's branched out into producing and directing, including the incredible season five premiere.
But "Walking Dead" isn't just on TV and in comics... Nicotero is also bringing the dead to life every day until November 1 at Universal Studios Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights. The terrifying nighttime attraction features key scenes from the fourth season of the show, as well as some original scares throughout the "maze."
With Halloween Horror Nights well under way, MTV News got on the phone with Nicotero, as well as Director of Entertainment - Creative Development for NBC/Universal Themeparks Michael Aiello - to talk about what went into bringing the show to literal life... As well as some hints at the "Walking Dead" spinoff, and a possible movie:
MTV News: "The Walking Dead" has been part of Halloween Horror Nights for a couple years now, but Greg, what was it like being involved this time? What touches did you bring from the show?
Greg Nicotero: Well, you know Mike Aiello and I have collaborated pretty well in the last uh, this the what, third year?
Michael Aiello: Third year!
Nicotero: We liked the idea of taking the greatest hits of season four, so while we’re shooting the show we have these highlights... You know, we have the walker falling through the ceiling at the Big Spot, and then we have the country club, the Walker in the mud, and in the tunnel, and all that kind of stuff.
You know, what’s fun is, is that because Mike and his team at Universal Studios Orlando are so tuned into the show, we always land on the same moments - on the great moments that are the highlights of the season.
MTV: Now Mike, you and I have chatted quite a bit about various houses, and how you have to build up to the scares in a house - it's just a different process than passively watching a TV screen, or a movie in a theater. But I was curious to hear from Greg what that experience was like this year.
Nicotero: One of the most exciting things for me is the opportunity to design sequences for the show. You know, like the Big Spot sequence – that came out of episode one of season four, and it was a sequence that I directed. So I collaborated with the production design, and I storyboarded the whole sequence and worked out all the, just the mood and the scares and the tension.
And then taking what we did and then translating it into something where audience members can walk through something that we created for the show... I love that aspect of it. I like that it’s something that I had a hand in designing right out the gate. And then it’s a matter of translating those moments, and translating those scares, into the maze.
Like the hanging Walker in the country club. A lot of those things came from ideas that I had pitched to the writers. And then to be able to take those and say, "We need a couple walls here, and a scare. Let’s recreate this scare here, and that moment there." It’s a lot of fun and it’s one of the things I loved about it the most.
Aiello: The challenge for us in translating what "The Walking Dead" team create week after week for us to enjoy is doing it justice. It’s making sure that the environment and characters that we are creating look, feel, and act just as they do on the show.
Greg mentioned the Big Spot. You know with this maze this year, the big ideology for us was presenting scale... Because the two mazes in the past were great mazes, but it was about confining the guests into environments.
Season four, the one major theme as a fan that I took away from it was once the group exits the confines of the prison, everything kind of opens up. They’re all taking their various paths and it’s a very open environment. So we want to take that detail of the season and make sure that we are applying that to the maze.
Our Big Spot, the supermarket, any other year we would probably do a singular hallway that has some grocery shelves, and some mirrors that give the look or the illusion that the supermarket is larger than it actually is, but we didn’t want to do that with this actual maze. When you walk in the Big Spot here at Universal Orlando, you’re walking into a space the size of a supermarket. There are multiple aisles. The ceiling is huge. There is a helicopter coming through it.
Up, down, left, and right you are surrounded in that Big Spot environment and it’s the scale of a supermarket, so in the attraction it feels like a supermarket.
MTV: This is a little bit more of a general question, but such a large part of "The Walking Dead" is the characters and their continued survival - and their struggle with what the world means now that there are literally dead people walking around and eating them all the time. When you set it up like this and you distill it down to just the scares, what makes it essentially “Walking Dead” versus random zombie horror house?
Nicotero: Part of the appeal that I always find intriguing about "The Walking Dead" is like you said – it’s part character, part story, and part monster. What we do on the show very effectively is it's always sort of missing those – it’s like having three test tubes and you delicately mix them together.
For the Halloween Horror Nights experience you really are distilling it down to the frightening boo scares of the show. We talk when we are prepping episodes to direct that there is a sense of dread, and a sense of suspense, and that those boo scares really are important to keep the audience on their feet.
You know if Carl is walking up to a door, and he reaches for the doorknob, and as he slowly opens it there’s a loud pounding on the other side - and then the door flies open and there’s a Walker there - you know that’s sort of inherent to the DNA of the show. Those moments are best suited for the Halloween Horror Nights experience.
There are always those moments that are peppered in. Last year they had Daryl’s motorcycle there, and then of course the prison, which is actually just as much of a character as Rick Grimes, Terminus, and Michonne. You know everything has a place and I think with the Halloween environment that’s what people want. They want to distill it down to the exciting thrills and chills moments.
Aiello: I couldn’t say it better myself.
MTV: Greg, it was interesting to hear you say that you – and I know that you’re not just the make-up guru, but you’re also the producer and the director, you’re very involved in the show – but you go in and tell the writers, "Hey I have this idea for a walker." It feels like every episode of the show there’s a stand out walker... There’s some walker that you really remember. Like last week, we had that waterlogged walker who grabbed Bob. So how much does that direct where you are going in the show? Is that something you guys are trying to hit every single episode?
Nicotero: It's not something that we feel is important for each episode, but Scott Gimple - the show runner - and I do feel that we have a tremendous obligation to keep the show fresh. The idea of having walkers that have been trapped in a flooded basement for a year...
Robert Kirkman wrote that episode and we kept referencing the original RoboCop. Like the guy who gets hit with the toxic waste and all the skin is sort of dripping off of his flesh. So we did a combination of prosthetics, and then the walker that grabs Bob and then he fights with was a full animatronics puppet, so that so much of the skin was slopped off that you could actually see the skeleton and the bone underneath.
We want the audience to get different looks, and we will continue to do that.
In the Comic Con trailer for this season there is a shot where you can see walkers being blasted with a fire hose, and the fact that the fire hose blasts right through them and puts giant holes in them - I mean again, that’s just another opportunity to take our environment and just give the audience something visually exciting and different than just our standard walkers.
We try to change the look of the zombies every season so that they have decayed and decomposed more because of the elements. This season there’s walkers, their noses are missing so you can see a lot more bone structure. They’re more skull-like. Their teeth are gone. Hair is falling out. So every season we really try to continue to make the zombies look more and more horrific and grotesque.
MTV: I was actually on the set a couple weeks ago, and hung out in the makeup trailer for a little while, while they were making up some of the walker. And it was such an interesting process to watch. Both for the show and for Halloween Horror Nights, how much is it you guys very specifically designing the walkers, versus a fair amount of improvisation by the make-up artists on the ground?
Nicotero: On the show there are a certain walkers that are specifically designed. Like the water-logged walkers – which were, you know we had six different costume prosthetics made for those.
When we have big sequences where there’s dozens of zombies, a lot of those are a result of the improvisation of the make-up artists. I love the idea that each person is a canvas and that the makeup artists chose which tools they use tools to execute the most interesting looking zombie.
But, you know, we do have scripted walkers for each sequence that may have a specific look, whether they were hacked up with a knife before they were killed, or their skin is slopping off, or they were hit with a fire hose. So for the show’s purposes we do have specific hero walkers and then we have more custom, generic walkers.
Aiello: And for the maze, we do key out hero walkers that are featured throughout. And that’s the other thing about translating the show from what you do on TV and then the live attraction. We got a total for the maze – cause there’s two casts for the maze – we have to get into makeup 120 walkers total because we double cast every role so there’s constant coverage. Our performers are 45 minutes walking and then 45 minutes taking a break.
So that comes into play, with how much makeup we decide for some performers versus others. Because we have a finite amount of time to get all of those people, and all the other characters we have in the event into makeup in time for the event to open. We are very careful about which performers in the maze are receiving that hero makeup.
A lot of it is for the performers we know are going to be in full view most of the time. And then more of our "boo" performers that are coming from a darkened space to attack and then immediately recede, we’ll do a lighter make-up knowing that they’re literally a split second in contact with the guests.
So it is a careful balance of really involved makeup, and then overlays. Much like I’m sure when they are large walker sequences, there are varying stages of makeup versus masks or lighter makeup.
MTV: Greg, I know you did a recent interview saying you guys are always talking about doing longer episodes on the show but end up just packing it so full of action it fits into that hour. But a little while ago I talked to Chad L. Coleman, and he said that he felt like a "Walking Dead" movie was an inevitability. That at some point down the road it was going to happen. I was curious to get your take on that.
Nicotero: I would have to say that we pretty much do our own movies every Sunday night. You know the [season 5] premiere this year felt as much like a movie as any film that was out there.
We do have restrictions in terms of the length, but in instances like the season one and two premieres, we did have hour and a half episodes. So it’s really much more about the story that we have to tell.
Not that I wouldn’t love doing a "Walking Dead" movie, but you know to be quite honest I think we make movies every Sunday night with the characters and the stories we have to tell. Sure it would be great to sort of expand those a little bit but that’s why we have DVDs.
MTV: And I imagine you’re probably very busy not just working on the show but also the spin-off at this point. Are you officially working on that as well?
Nicotero: I got the script the other day.
MTV: Very cool. To wrap up, you guys have been running the mazes for a little while now. Having, I imagine, walked through them a couple time, seeing hundreds if not thousands of people walk through the maze, was there any particular part that you found surprising that people were scared at or laughed at? Or something you had to change halfway through because you found out it wasn’t working quite as well as you expected.
Aiello: The evolution of the maze is constant. I mean, mainly in the first two weekends we’re tweaking and changing because these mazes don’t live until we get people to go through them. In a week we’ve got enough knowledge to be able to have a good gauge of where scares can happen, and how a guest is going to react. But until you get people walking through, you never really can tell. So that first weekend especially is our test phase but we’re experimenting. When we design rooms, we design multiple places where our performers could come from but we’ll set them in a very specific place to begin with. But we’ll adjust and change based on the guest flow through the maze.
One room that really has kind of stood out as probably one of the scariest rooms in the maze is an area called "Storm Herd." Greg you’ll have to help me out with the episode number, where Daryl and Beth hide in the trunk of the car.
Nicotero: That was episode eleven.
Aiello: Yeah. They hid in the trunk of the car as you hear this herd of walkers pass by the car, but we as the viewer are only on the inside of the trunk. So we want to take the guests on the outside and have them experience that herd. We got an area where there’s a car, and it’s a completely strobe lit area with thunder and lightning. And that’s the only light source in the room.
We have twelve to fifteen walkers in that space on either side of the guests amongst trees and foliage that are attacking them the entire way through. And you are only getting glimpses through the lightning flash of what you’re actually being attacked by.
Nicotero: So that’s a great example of taking something we do on the show and then just changing it a little bit to make it different for the participants.
Norman Reedus: Woo!
Nicotero: That was Norman Reedus who just said “Woo!” by the way.
MTV: Oh! Hi, Norman.
Nicotero: He’s sitting here on my couch. Norman, say hi.
Reedus: What up!
Sadly, Norman Reedus won't guest appear at your Halloween Horror Nights experience (probably), but you can visit it at Universal Orlando until November 1.