EFX Experts Work Their Magic In “Fantastic Flesh”

Nearly everyone can recall the first monster that scared the bejesus out of them when they were kids. For older folks it’s Boris Karloff in Frankenstein or Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolf Man. For their children it’s Linda Blair’s portrayal of a possessed child in The Exorcist or the nonhuman killing machines seen in Jaws and Alien. And all of these monsters were terrifying because of the magic worked by special effects (EFX) professionals with paste, latex, plastic and a whole lot of creativity.

Now, award-winning EFX expert Gregory Nicotero — who has worked on over a hundred films from Evil Dead II to The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian — talks about the films that influenced his career choice and the tricks of his trade. When we spoke, he was promoting the documentary Starz Inside: Fantastic Flesh, airing Oct. 7 on Starz, but we talked about far more than that, including, not surprisingly, Pittsburgh, where his career and those of so many other horror directors, writers and effects wizards began.

So what is it about Pittsburgh that makes the city such a hotbed of horror?

Greg Nicotero: [laughs] Pittsburgh is almost like the birthplace of modern horror movies. You could say that Tobe Hooper put Texas on the map and George Romero put Pittsburgh on the map with Night of the Living Dead. I think there is a certain personality that Pennsylvania has that becomes part of the folklore for those kinds of movies.

“Fantastic Flesh” is an incredible documentary. What inspired you to make it?

I really felt that in today’s filmmaking society, everybody’s focus is so much on computer-generated effects that they sometimes forget that without the talented artists that really opened the door for visual effects — meaning makeup effects, creatures and animatronics — none of this stuff would exist today. There’s a difference between creating a fantasy character and creating a prosthetic. When you do a prosthetic, you are basically enhancing an actor or making a creature suit or building something fantastic. It requires a lot of imagination and a lot of artistic style.

You’ve been doing this for over 20 years. Who influenced you?

Whenever you meet someone who does makeup or prosthetics, [you find] they had a similar upbringing. They were all influenced by Jack Pierce at Universal Studios and the Frankenstein monster and Creature From the Black Lagoon and The Wizard of Oz and Planet of the Apes and The Exorcist — those seminal films that had characters that were created through makeup really made an indelible mark on a certain group of people. And those groups of people were so influenced by them that they wanted to get into it themselves — so it propagates its own species.

Today you can create pretty much anything, can’t you?

We’ve done everything from vampires to werewolves to centaurs to character makeups and full-body creature suits and 12-foot-tall animatronic puppets. The bottom line is it’s really about coming up with the tools that work for telling the story.

Back in the day, the tools to transform Lon Chaney Jr. into the wolf man were that you’d have some prosthetic pieces and some yak hair and they would dissolve footage over the top of itself so that it looked like the hair was growing. Basically, the makeup artist would run in and glue more hair on and they would film some more and he would run back in and glue some more and that was the innovation of the time. For our careers, it sort of skyrocketed in the early ’80s because you had movies like The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, The Thing, Creepshow, and those movies took makeup effects to a new level and people started realizing the sky’s the limit, we can do whatever we want — a girl possessed by the devil, or old-age makeup, or an alien. And opening that door pushes filmmaking and directors even further so they thought, “If we can do this, what can we do next?” And that’s why CGI became so prominent. You start mutating and evolving the tools.

When the art was young, I’m guessing that directors would say, “I’d like to do this, or that. Can we?” But today, don’t EFX experts sometimes drive the concept of the film? Or is there something of a partnership between modern EFX creators and film directors?

That really depends on the director. Most of the directors that we work with really have a strong vision. With guys like Quentin Tarantino — who I just got off a phone conference with because we’re doing his next film — he’s a kind of guy that likes practical effects. He’s not big on CGI work. He’s much more grounded in the practicality of doing things on set and having a physical piece that the actors can work with. But there are certain films that feel like they are driven by the effects.

Look at a movie like The Thing, that John Carpenter directed. Rob Bottin’s vision of what the movie was supposed to look like was so strong that some people have criticized it for taking over the movie. I personally disagree with that 100 percent, but the reality is we’ll be talking about a specific scene from a movie and we’ll go in and see what the director has to say. So it’s an ongoing, evolving process, like creating a makeup on Mickey Rourke to make him look like Marv from Sin City. Rob Rodriguez originally said, “Mickey’s got a great face … I don’t want to cover him in a bunch of rubber.” But as we went through the process, we found that perfect mix between how much of it was Mickey and how much was prosthetics. And that’s a really great example because I sort of looked at Mickey as the modern-day Frankenstein monster. He’s the hulking guy that can’t control his violent nature because deep down he was in love with a girl that was killed.

[Sin City] is an interesting movie and to me it was a tremendous challenge. In films that are based on graphic novels or comic books, the makeup is challenging because you are treading this fine line between the comic book and reality.

Somewhere in “Fantastic Flesh,” an effects artist makes the point that he goes to films to see a fellow artist at work. But people go to scary movies to be scared. Do you think this doc will minimize the frights in these films for fans?

To a certain point [it will]. But there’s still a fascination with it. Using The Exorcist as an example, if [when The Exorcist came out] there had been a TV show like Entertainment Tonight that said, “look how they turned Linda Blair into a demon,” would ruin the mystique of the movie. … But today’s society is not the same as the society of the ’70s. Every DVD that comes out has a double disc set with the making of [the film]. People are so fascinated with the filmmaking process that they want to learn how it’s done.

The most exciting thing about the documentary is that we hear from Tom Savini, the innovator of gore and splatter in the 70s. And we hear from Dick Smith, who basically pioneered the old-age makeup so dramatically that you can’t watch Amadeus the same way knowing that it was a young F. Murray Abraham in makeup. You watch it and you look for something that shows you it’s a young guy and you can’t find it.

What’s been the hardest effect you’ve ever done?

We’re constantly challenged every time we get called for a movie. Certainly, Kill Bill, with the House of Blue Leaves sequence where we literally had to chop up 80 guys — and do it in a sort of cartoony, Quentin Tarantino-Hong Kong-action-movie style — was tremendously challenging. … And there are so many layers and levels to what we do. Sometimes it’s being able to work quickly on our feet when the director changes his mind or has a new idea that’s spawned by something he’s seen that you can turn around and execute; that’s definitely a challenge.

Which of your films made you go “Wow!” when you saw the finished product?

The Chronicles of Narnia was pretty astonishing. The interesting thing about that was that it was a really good blend of practical makeup and digital augmentation. For us to create a character with green socks and to see in the movie that they have added these goat legs, it’s pretty astounding. The Mist is another good example. That was a great experience for us. We designed creatures and I directed second unit so I was really able to be involved and see that the work that we had done was realized onscreen. … Everyone was working in concert to get the best work out there. So it’s between those two movies and Sin City, which was a challenge because nobody had made a movie like that before.

You’ve worked in so many different genres: comedy, family, horror. What is your approach to each one?

What we really wanted to do when we started the company [KNB EFX Group] was to be able to diversify. When we started in 1988, the first films we did were gory slasher/killer movies. And we got a call from Disney about a film called Gross Anatomy — a film about medical students. I had been pre-med before I left college to pursue the film industry, so I was really excited about doing something that is based on the realities of anatomy and cadavers. So, our third or fourth job was creating realistic cadavers for medical students. And in a very short time period, we went from doing gory stuff to doing very realistic dummies. When we met with Kevin Costner for Dances With Wolves, he was so impressed with the reality of the cadavers that he hired us for Dances With Wolves to do the buffaloes. So we went from gory stuff to a film that won an Oscar for Best Picture. … We did a little bit of everything and that certainly allowed us to be more visible because we had a versatility that a lot of other studios at that time didn’t have.

What film can you recall really scaring you?

I went to see Jaws opening weekend. I was 12 years old and I had nightmares for weeks. The last time I was scared at a movie was probably the first Alien. There was a magazine available at the time called Famous Monsters. It was the only magazine that had pictures of monsters in it. And there were pictures of Jack Pierce applying Lon Chaney’s makeup or Bud Westmore brushing latex into a mold for the creature from the Black Lagoon. So when you see this picture and those guys working in a studio environment, you say, “Those guys actually made monsters. That’s the coolest thing in the world. How do I get that job?” For me, that’s how it came about. And for me to have been fortunate enough to hook up with Tom Savini and George Romero in Pittsburgh, I was realizing a childhood dream.