In the world of horror and creature creation, there is a very short list of names that are royalty. Among those names is the guy who creates incredible zombies (The Walking Dead and Diary of the Dead), horrifying injuries (Hostel: Part II and Piranha), and some damned fine monsters (Bride of Re-Animator and Army of Darkness): Greg Nicotero.
For the past sixteen years, Nicotero has worked with Austin, Texas-based auteur Robert Rodriguez at Troublemaker Studios, most recently as the go-to guy for Predators. Seated at a table flanked by the heads of a Predator and a Super-Predator, Nicotero offered insight into his creative process, the difficulties in re-creating such an iconic character, and the fact that, at heart, he’s just a big fan of the series himself.
“I had actually worked on the first film, on set for a couple of weeks, so we pulled all the photos out, and our job was to recreate that character all the way down to the laser cannon and the armor.”
But recreation wasn’t the only thing on the menu. According to Nicotero, it was Rodriguez’s idea to bring the new breed of Predator, the “Super-Predator,” into the mix.
“If the Predator is the cassette tape, then the Super-Predator is the ipod version…We used that analogy to make the [Super Predator] more sleek, more streamlined.”
The result was something out of a twisted nightmare. Considering that the crew had only twelve weeks, from concept to finished product, they pulled off nothing less than a minor monster miracle. Among the differences was a more raw look with radio-controlled eyes instead of the actor wearing contacts and dreadlocks that swept back away from the face. It makes the original Predator look almost cute in comparison.
One thing that will make fans and make-up maniacs happy is that they decided to go practical with the effects instead of digital. When you see the Predator creatures on the screen, they’re actually actors in suits.
“Robert was really excited that we had Predators walking around the parking lot. He was like ‘Man! There’s a Predator in my studio!'”
Nicotero’s KNB did all the concept designs and worked very closely on construction with Troublemaker Studios’ own people. However, it wasn’t without challenges. The actors were limited not only by the heavy suit and vision difficulties (unlike with the first Predator, the actor couldn’t see out the creature’s eyes. He was only able to see out of the back of the monster’s throat), but also by environmental issues. The crew shot for four weeks in Hawaii, followed by the remainder of filming in Austin, Texas, during winter when everything was frozen over. There were many instances where, when the heads would come off between takes, steam would billow up from the actors’ bodies. But, according to Nicotero, the actors rose to the challenge.
“It’s really an art form to be able to perform in one of these suits,” he says. “It takes a really dedicated performer, and one of the guys who stood out was a guy named Kerry Jones, who played multiple predators. Derek Mears played the classic Predator, and he has a lot of suit experience. It really does make or break your creature. You can have a fantastic design, but if the performer doesn’t bring it to life, it just looks like a guy walking around in a suit.”
And the Predators themselves aren’t the only creatures in the game-planet jungle. Also featured are the Predators’ hunting dogs, massive creatures with spines sticking out of their backs and faces that are vicious. Nicotero was proud of those creations as well, though most of their running sequences were done digitally. Any other time they’re on the screen, they’re a full-sized puppet. There are also a few creatures that, while they made screen time, they appear in kind of a blink-and-you-miss-it way, which, judging from the concept art and test makeups, is a tragedy.
Nicotero had a few things to say on the subject of digital-vs.-practical effects as well.
“The interesting thing is that a lot of film makers that are coming into their own now…Guillermo Del Toro, Eli Roth, these guys all grew up on a diet of films that we all watched when we were kids. I feel that there’s now more of a shift to practical stuff with digital augmentation. With the directors that are now stepping up , we’ve gotten to a point now with prosthetics and digital effects that it’s a perfect marriage, a perfect handoff, and I think Predators is a good example of that. You don’t want to feel like the career path you’ve chosen is being phased out by another tool. I think there’s a really great blend right now.”
And what is it that brings quality to everything that Nicotero does?
“I want to work on a film that I want to go see. I love monster movies. It’s just a lot of fun to get a chance to do something like this where there’s lots of monsters.”
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