At first glance, “Oz the Great and Powerful” might not seem to have a lot in common with AMC’s hit zombie series “The Walking Dead,” but they share one key element: Greg Nicotero.
The veteran makeup artist now spends much of his time on the Georgia set of the popular show, serving as co-executive producer and directing episodes as well, but he also worked with Howard Berger and the artisans at their shop, KNB EFX Group, to create the fantastic looks for director Sam Raimi’s voyage to the world of Oz created by L. Frank Baum.
In Raimi’s vision, that land is populated by creations such as the China Girl (Joey King) and Finley (Zach Braff), the talking monkey that becomes a key companion for James Franco as his magician con man travels through the fantastic landscape and quickly becomes involved in a war between witches for control of the realm.
Hero Complex recently chatted via email with Nicotero — whose relationship with Raimi extends back decades and includes some of the director’s fan-favorite horror films — to discuss the contributions he and his team made to the complicated production.
HC: How does a shop like KNB prepare for a shoot like “Oz the Great and Powerful”? How many makeup artists work on a project of this scale and how many prosthetic makeup applications were required for the production?
GN: We had about 70 artists at KNB working on this project. Having worked most recently with Sam on [the 2009 film] “Drag Me to Hell,” capping nearly an 18-year partnership. He had commented to me how much fun it was after all these years to still be working together. The collaboration was quite a bit of fun. We started with concept art by John Wheaton and Bernie Wrightson (some of which for the witch’s flying monkeys was astounding) then moved into art for the Munchkins, Tinkers and the Wicked Witch. From there sculptures were done by Norman Cabrera, Jaremy Aiello, Garrett Immel, Andy Schoneberg, Nick Marra and David Grasso to translate the artwork into 3-D maquettes and sculptures. Carey Jones, our shop supervisor, worked tirelessly to facilitate the manufacture of the prosthetics, wigs and puppets for the show. It was a large makeup undertaking, but the work we did on the China Girl, from sculpture by Jaremy Aiello to completion by Alex Diaz, will go virtually unseen. We did our first tests of that in L.A. and then worked with a marionette to allow the performance to be captured on set per Sam’s request as accurately as possible. Dave Wogh also built monitors that we could puppeteer on set so that the actors could see and interact with our motion capture performers.
HC: Are there unique challenges to working on a 3-D movie that will have so many visual effects added during post-production?
GN: Shooting digitally always adds another layer of detail, which proves challenging on set when dealing with coloration of prosthetics and edges. We spent quite a bit of time testing in L.A., then the team in Michigan [where the film was shot] continued to refine and test. We probably did five different witch sculptures to refine as we went. That is a luxury we had on “Oz” we don’t get on many other shows, the chance to test and work out issues, then revisit them from the ground up. That is why the build phase at KNB is so crucial, and Carey Jones couldn’t have handled that better once the team left for Michigan.
HC: How many makeup artists do you routinely employ? Did you need to hire additional people in Michigan for the production?
GN: We have a core group of 35 people at KNB and then as each show comes in we spread them out. I have a great team that joins me in Georgia on “The Walking Dead,” and just as recently as January we had artists in Austin on [Robert Rodriguez’s upcoming film “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.”] I personally like to take people from the studio to location — who knows the character better than the person that sculpted and tested it? — so that is a large plus for me.
HC: Can you describe what kind of work went into getting the Munchkins ready? How did you and Howard Berger develop their look and what was it like on the days where you had all the actors playing Munchkins working?
GN: The Munchkin art was quite a departure from what could be translated into makeup work, so we began working on stylized hair pieces and slight prosthetics. The goal wasn’t to cover people entirely but use the whimsical aspect of the actor’s faces and augment them with subtle pieces and great hair accents.
HC: There’s a certain witch in the film who becomes significantly less beautiful by the end of the movie. Some fans might suggest that she bears a resemblance to some of the baddies who’ve appeared in Sam Raimi’s earlier films. Would they be right or is that just a coincidence?
GN: Sam has a very light-hearted affection for his past films proven brilliantly by “Drag Me to Hell,” which shows his love for the genre. Having a wee bit of a nod to what we referred to as the “heinous horror hag” always brings a smile to the fans of Sam’s earlier work.
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