As 2011 comes to a close, EW.com wanted to honor some of the hardworking names and faces from behind the scenes for their outstanding achievements. Makeup designer Greg Nicotero is unquestionably the off-screen hero of AMC’s zombie megahit The Walking Dead, since he and his team at KNB Efx Group are responsible for the gruesome hordes of gore-splattered undead. No walker stood out more in Walking Dead‘s second season than the bloated creature our heroes found lurking at the bottom of a well. Let Nicotero walk you through the making — and breaking — of this season’s Most Valuable Zombie.
As Told By: Greg Nicotero
Right when they opened the writers’ room at the start of season 2, they said, “We want to do a field trip.” And I said, “Yeah! You should bring all the guys to KNB. They can walk around the shop, see what we’re building, what we’ve built, maybe get a little inspiration.” We had a whole bunch of stuff on display from other films that we had done. We had a mask that we made for Grindhouse of this infected guy, all bloated and distressed and disgusting.
I got a phone call two hours after they had left the shop. They said, “We want to do this idea: A walker fell into a well.” The well was filled with nine feet of water, and the walker would just start absorbing and absorbing all of the liquid in there, so that it would get completely bloated and discolored.
We had done some fake drowned bodies for movies in the past. One of the things we’ve noticed — looking at some morgue research and cadaver research — is that everything gets really swollen. The liquid saturates the skin so much that it swells up, and the skin starts to split. That was one of the things that we really wanted to play up.
We took a full-body cast and head-cast, and we sculpted the whole body from scratch. We put on a really thin skin, then backed it with silicone, then had a foam suit on the inside. In between the silicone and the foam suit, we put in balloons filled with water. So the actual liquid — the movement of the suit — would transfer as the performer moved side-to-side. If we made it out of foam latex, it would’ve been stiff. But we used silicone that was heavily plasticized — which means that the silicone was really soft. The suit probably weighed 60 pounds.
NEXT: The man in the zombie suit
Brian Hillard was the performer. Brian actually works here at KNB. Originally we had cast a different guy to play that part, but then he got sick. I needed somebody who could perform, and who also had a lot of endurance, because we were shooting in Atlanta at the end of July. Silicone doesn’t have cell structure, like foam does. It doesn’t breathe. So Brian was basically encased in a sixty-pound wet-suit. Every part of his body was covered. He had facial prosthetics, hands, full legs, feet. It was all glued down. It wasn’t like we could take him out between takes. He was in.
We shot that sequence over two days. The first day we shot the interior of the well. [Production designer] Greg Melton had built a 40-foot tall “well” rock wall. The base of it was in a swimming pool. We could open the door, put the zombie actor in there, then close the door. The camera would shoot down.
When we got to the exterior, they built a lip of the well that was six feet deep. We put slime and KY on a board, and we laid Brian on the board. On “Action,” we pulled him out, and he slid up and over the lip. It was challenging to get all those pieces to come together on a television schedule. Usually, it would have taken a couple months to build that. I think we ended up building the whole thing in about four weeks.
When the characters pull him over the lip of the well, he gets stuck, and he’s so full of liquid that he just ruptures like a water balloon. We had a second suit that was rigged with fake legs and a fake upper body. We secured the legs to the lip of the well. Then we loaded the entire inside of the torso with different bloodbags, filled with black viscous liquid, green viscous liquid, red viscous liquid, brown liquid. Then we put some entrails and some guts in there. We wanted it to be a gigantic explosion of gore.
For the actual separation, [special effects coordinator] Darrell Pritchett put squibs inside of there, because we wanted all the bags to explode simultaneously. On “Action!” my makeup effects crew pulled the upper body apart, and the physical effects crew squibbed all the bags. Then visual effects guys went in and added those few little tendrils of stretching, ripping intestines.
We shot the legs falling back into the well onstage. I’ve learned in my years of experience that rubber legs float. So we bought lead weights at the hardware store. We attached the weights to the legs so that the legs would fall, and when they hit the water they would sink. We added about eighty pounds of weight to the legs. Then we had all the fake blood, and the zombie blood, and all the different colored liquids in buckets.
On “Action!” we dropped the legs, and then poured the buckets of liquid down in behind the legs. I think we dumped about 12-15 gallons of entrails into that well. The trick was take 2, because then the legs were not only heavy, but also wet and slippery. And we had to carry the legs all the way up to the scaffold, 40 feet to the top, fill the buckets up with liquid, and drop them in. I want to say we did four takes of that.
I have a permanent crew of three other guys. We use a lot of local talent down in Atlanta, but the main crew is literally me and three guys. And I’m off directing second-unit a lot of the time. It’s certainly a tribute to my crew, what we’re able to pull off. KNB’s been around since 1988, and one of the things that I’m most proud of is that we’re able to bring a cinematic sensibility to Walking Dead.
For more on the Best and Worst of 2011, pick up Entertainment Weekly’s new issue, on stands now.