Getting actors to look like rotting pumpkins is an art on “The Walking Dead.”
The sensational AMC zombie melodrama, whose second season begins tonight, has as its stars a straggling crowd of actors whose real faces have been disguised by foam latex, dentures, glued-on wounds and milky white contact lenses that erase all humanity from their features.
For Greg Nicotero, co-executive producer and special FX makeup designer on the show, looking dead is serious business. He has turned his love of horror movies into an award-winning career that includes Emmys for “The Walking Dead” and HBO’s “The Pacific.”
He learned his craft with director George Romero (“Dawn of the Dead”) and Pittsburgh-based special effects expert Tom Savini. “I have a great pedigree. I grew in Pittsburgh. I used to go to the shopping mall that was near where they filmed ‘Dawn of the Dead.’ I used to read Famous Monsters magazine,” he says.
Prior to his work on “Dead,” Nicotero, 48, worked on Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” and “Kill Bill,” as well as Robert Rodriguez’s “Grindhouse.” With Howard Berger, he has his own special effects studio, KNB EFX, where a staff of 25 artists produces and replenishes prostheses and dentures for the 800-plus zombies who’ve traipsed through the new season’s 13 episodes.
Now that Nicotero is also a co-executive producer, he directs, designs the makeup and oversees a small staff in Atlanta, where the series films. Matching the makeup with the right actor is one of the challenges of the job.
“I have this great zombie in my episode and there was one particular guy that I worked with before, Kevin Galbraith. He’s a fan of the show and knows the genre,” Nicotero says. “He has the perfect build. And great sunken cheeks. I asked him, ‘Would you be willing to do this episode with no shirt on?’ ”
Using the images of “The Walking Dead” from the series of graphic novels on which the show is based, Nicotero and his team of four on-set makeup artists began the transformation from human to zombie with a cast of Galbraith’s teeth.