Dre goes to KNB Studios and Talks to Howard Berg for The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian DVD

     December 3, 2008

Written by Andre Dellamorte

In anticipation of the release of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, I was treated to two things, a tour of some of the special features of the Blu-ray, and a trip to the magical KNB studios. Looking at the special features it seems the makers are trying to expand the format with their “Circle Vision interactive” a format that takes you through the sets, and lets you look at a number of pieces of the making of certain sequences, and gives you a good view on how things are accomplished. The disc also logs what of it you’ve watched, while also giving the viewer a straight ahead layout so if you don’t want to navigate all the crooks and crannies, you can just watch each piece as you see fit. It’s an interesting take on the way to take advantage of Blu-ray’s developed technologies.

But the meat was going to Van Nuys to see the studio. KNB was formed under the watchful eye of Tom Savini, and the three men (Robert Kurtzman, Howard Berg, and Greg Nicotero) formed their own company, and earned their place in cult film histry by supplying the make-ups for Evil Dead 2. From there it was a rocky start, but the group soldiered on, and got bigger and bigger as the years went on, with Kurtzman going off to direct some, and Berger and Nicotero still holding the reigns, doing projects as far swung as Narnia, to Transformers, to Kill Bill, to Vanilla Sky, to Spy Kids.

After a brief snack, we were treated to Mr. Howard Berger, our tour guide and genial host, who joked that he worked on a couple of good films, and a number of bad ones. Asked to name which he joked in the manner to anyone familiar with his jovial personality, best displayed in the supplements on Evil Dead 2. I can think of few people I’ve met who couldn’t be happier to be working at the job they have.

He then walked us through each department. We started with the spray booth, where items are covered in urethane, or paint, and the area is sealed up so all the toxic chemicals go outside. While wandering through in the spray booth there was a full sized alien:

You have an alien.

Berger: We have a full sized alien, that’s true.

Done any Alien things?

Berger: Well I worked on Aliens when I worked for Greg Winston, but Greg (Nicotero) is a big collector, and has everything in the universe, so there were done on the original molds, and he wanted a full sized alien in his house. That’s part of the fun thing of what we do for a living. We can make stuff we always wanted as kids. I have a Creature of the Black Lagoon in my back yard, I have a Frankenstein in the house somewhere.

Then we went to the molds department. Negative impression sculptures are taken here. When an actor is taken in, they do a life-cast of them (if need be). “So this way the mold fits the actors face exactly. We don’t want to build anything that doesn’t fit right.” There were piles of molds including James McAvoy’s Mr. Tumnus, and Berger explained the difference between molds, with a silicone mold the more malleable. Things are built for specific uses, for a hero design (like Tumnus) the design is going to be more specific, but then there’s also a need for hundred and hundred of ears for background characters. “We literally have boxes and boxes of ears.”

We then went to the art tables where Andy Shoenberg was painting hands for Inglorious Basterds, and they were making a lot of dummies for dead nazis and dead Americans. AS per making dead bodies it’s “Reinventing the wheel. Every time we do a new one we try and think ‘what willl make it better? This time we’ll have close to perfect dummies because they were actually thought out opposed of jumping in the water without your swim-trunks on. They’re silicone. Sillicone hands and armatures, and the guys paint these all day long. One of our key artists Mike Bacardi is doing something similar – he’s painting hands for Inglorious Basterds. Actually a lot of these are based on people in the shop. Down here’s Greg (Nicotero). We have a lot of heads for background dead people. Literally hundred. We say ‘we’re the screaming old man with eyes rolled back’ and it’ll be ‘he’s over there!’ and we have have a gorge filled with head molds and body molds. We’re constantly dry-cleaning and dressing them. I don’t have a dead body, they don’t let me do it. I have a smashed head. I’m going to lose a bunch of weight then we’ll cast my head, and then we’ll be happy.” And the one head of his? “It was for a classic movie called Wishmaster.”

We then headed into the foam room: “A lot of the molds we keep using, so we might say ‘I need a female neck that I can slash.’ So we have a number of molds we can use ‘we need a six month pregnancy appliance.’ ‘We’ve got one from Frida, so we can use that.’ That’s why we always keep it handy because we’re always jumping into stuff. When we’re running foam rubber, part of the process is baking it, so we have a gigantic oven. Stuff is baked for about six hours at about 165 degrees. While we were doing Narnia we had that thing running continually for nine or ten months.”

“Patricia (Urias) is working on a thing called 3-D transfers, which is similar to doing Tattoo transfers, where you pour water on it – it works exactly the same way except that they’re three dimensional. We do a lot of this stuff now, we have hundred upon hundred of molds.” Then we saw some gelatins. It’s about the little pieces that would be attached to a face, like for Warwick Davis’s Nikabrik “A piece would get glued on to Warwick’s face, about 45 times, so it’s be glued down, blended off, painted, and then all the hair work and such. And it ends up looking very real. The Centaurs were broken down into three pieces: Foreheads, nose, and sides of face. We help change the jaw line a little bit. Then there’s the Faun noses… for a hero nose – like with James McAvoy – we’d used gelatin, but for the background fauns, we’d use foam rubber. We used gelatin on James because it looked better, more natural, it photographed better, though it doesn’t hold up as well during the course of a day. Where you can get more use out of ears, with noses I had them send me 200. At the end of the day we did 4,600 make-ups over the course of the shoot, which is huge. I don’t think there’s ever been that many on a film, so it was pretty crazy.” That must lead to some improvements over the course of filming? “The first time we did Peter Dinkage’s make up we spent about three hours, but we got it down to about an hour and a half. Warwick always stayed at three and a half, just cause there was more work on his hands, and Warwick likes to laugh and talk and that didn’t help matters. I would keep Warwick entertained, because there were aspects he hated, putting the beard on drove him crazy, so I’d get him laughing, and make fun of him, and he liked that sort of thing. I’d say ‘Hey Warwick, this is Greg, he’s a really huge Time Bandits fan.’ And he’d say ‘I’m not in Time Bandits.’ ‘Sorry, he’s a huge, huge R2-D2 fan.’ (laughs).”

What do the actors normally do when they’re in the chair? “They cry. (laughs) Some actors zone out, some refuse to sit still, and some actors need constant entertainment. The actors who zone out? Awesome. McAvoy zoned out.” Can you sleep through it? “You can, James wouldn’t because we were always moving him around, and all the hair work, it took us three and a half hours to do his make-up and the last hour and a half was just hairwork on his body. But he would just stand there for all the hand-laid and ironed and tonged hair. Peter would sleep, he could sleep through most of it.” And who was the worst person in a chair? “I won’t say the actor, but he played a character named Fat Bastard, but I won’t say the actor’s name. And he was an utter nightmare.” Because of the suit? “From breathing on earth. The Fat Bastard suit added to it, I would think, but when he wasn’t in the suit he was a miserable human being. It’ll be in my book, a big chapter on him, so it’ll be great.”

Then on to the Sculpture room. The Satyrs were a rush job on the first film, but the second film they got to make improvements, and they were redesigned (and with lighter colors for the night raid sequence) What were his favorite improvements? “I just like the whole look and feel of it. It’s now more animalistic than creature-like, it has a ram feeling. We got real horns and cast real horns. We stove-piped the heads out, like the minotaurs, so we weren’t as tied to human anatomy. And I just like the overall design. We went with a concept Aaron Simms, who’s an excellent designer, came up with it.”

He then showed us some computer sketches done for certain characters, which were done to save time from actually doing the appliance first “The big thing now is that Pre-Production time is limited. I would love to do tests for five months, and nail it perfect.” There were also some Dawn Treader test stuff being done. “Yeah, we’ve been doing a bunch of conceptual artwork on that. We’re not even close to that yet. Those are tough ones. We also do macquettes, so people can hold something tangible. We did some limited edition toy stuff from those, but not too much.”

Then the Mechanical department, where make up effects meet the wirings added to animated faces beyond the control of their wearers. “Once all the pieces are manufacture it comes back here. So once it’s all together we produce these vacuum-form shells for underneath, molds essentially, that these are mounted to, and then there’s all these servos – transmitters mounted inside via Radio control – for nostril flare, eyes, brows, the whole shebang. Two people operate it, you take the mechanical casing and then there’s a skull cap, because the actor has to wear it, so that’s mounted to them, and they can’t see anything, and then we have our remote control.” Here we also found out about a new Transformer in the sequel, and it seems that one of the characters has a girlfriend.

Then we hit The Morgue. “It’s filled with dead bodies. Some of the stuff we did for Narnia, what we did was make stand-in animals, like the badger, so based on what digital information we can get, we created stand-ins. It was really important for the kids, so they had something to play off of, for the eyeline, and it was good for the digital guys, so they could get a sense of the lighting on the fur, and spatial relevance. We did Beverly Hills Chihuahua… Yeah, so we did stand-ins for that too”

Then we entered the fabrication department, and we then looked at teeth and eyes, and Satyr feet and hair. They also had Aslan Feet, and they explained how Aslan gets bigger in each film. “By the last book he’s the size of a house, but we won’t go that big, though it would be fun to build. We wanted to have a larger Aslan. It was used for digital reference, and to interact with Georgie.”

Then we went into the hair room where they were working on scalps for Inglorious Basterds. “This is where all the wigs are created, all the suits are made. Faun wigs, Giant wigs, old age stuff, Centaur stuff. 100 wigs, and 150 hair piece, eyebrows, mustaches, stuff like that. We only had a limited amount of dwarves, we had seven, like the Disney movie, we’d make them up differently every day so it’d be like there were hundreds. But it’s all hand tied. We have to punch one hair at time with these pieces. It takes about two weeks to make one.”

Then came the Q&A:

Berger: Do you guys have any questions? No? Then I’ll ask you guys, what was your favorite part of the tour? The mechanical area? Cool. The sad thing is that out of this entire industry, that’s a dying art. It’s a shame. CGI is a large part of it, but the big thing is SAG (the Srceen Actor’s Guild). When we operate puppets, we’re SAG puppeteers, and we’re having to fight more and more for SAG positions, and there’s a resistance for residuals, and so forth. So there’s less and less. And nobody makes big monsters any more. With Stan Winston passing, that’s the end of monster. There will never ever be big monsters again. He really fought for it. Like Jurrasic Park, they could have done that without the giant puppets, but he fought for it.

Is that the biggest change to the industry?

Berger: Puppets, and I’m afraid that films coming up instead of mechanical heads, they’ll be static heads they augment, which is discouraging.

Filmmakers, some must want to keep it the old way, is it a fight?

Berger: It’s a combination of a lot of different things, unfortunately there’s a lot of different people who put together budgets and don’t do it properly, don’t have the knowledge to do it. And so on paper, the practical reality doesn’t make sense at all, and costing quadruple. We just finished a movie that was like that, where they really limited the pre-production time and didn’t think things out, and now the film’s done and they’re going to have to CGI the hell out of it, they’re going to have to spend – I don’t know – ten or twenty million dollars fixing the movie that could have been circumvented by a pre-production period, a long pre-production period, we would have needed six months to really figure out this world that this movie takes place in.

Is that because of the strike you think?

Berger: Stupidity, literally. They probably came up with a budget, and said “It would be cheaper if cut down the prep.” But it’s not cheaper, because then you’re shooting, you’re fumbling through the movie and you are prepping at three times the cost. Because you’re at quadruple time, and you’re prepping as you’re shooting, so you’ve got another crew working, and you have to set up a whole other facility to work in. And you have no time to think so you finish prep and then it shoots tomorrow and if people don’t like it there’s no room to move, and then they say “Well, we’ll just have to fix it in post.” Terrible, terrible way. I haven’t figured out the word for it yet.

Are there a lot of battles with producers?

Berger: Rarely. It’s the first half of the movie where there’s arguing. From producers who had never done any sort of genre films, and compared to everything which was wrong “It should be like this, it should be like that” it should not be anything like that. It was very difficult the first half of the film, I followed their lead, and then when I looked at the film and saw how horrible it was I stopped listening and did whatever I wanted to, and I think it turned out much better. The concepts were poor, I didn’t like the look or what we produced, and it didn’t work on any level. And then once Greg and I stopped listening, and just prepped the way we thought we should I was much happier with everything, and to tell you the truth the stuff we shot in first half is being digitally replaced.

more interview and photos on page 2 ——->


So what the toughest creature for Prince Caspian?

Berger: Well everything a challenge, and so much of it has to do with time and money. I’d say the most complex (sighs) probably – for the first movie was Mr. Tumnus, believe it or not, was extremely complex. Even though it seems simple it’s not. The look to us a long time to find, and first it was difficult to find the right actor. That make up went through a lot variations, ear sizes, nose sizes, different colors, he was originally chestnut, but he went to blond. There was a lot of blond in his hair. Huge make up to do, it took three of us three and a half hours to do. I think the Minotaurs were a big task. Took months and months and months because of the hair works and mechanics, so everything was tough. And with the first film we inherited all of WETA’s design, which was mostly geared for CGI work, so we had to revisit it and that was time we didn’t accommodate for. We had six months, and the first three months of that was all redesigning. And we were building at the same time, but we hope to step in with finished designed, approved designs, and they weren’t by any means, so it was about redesigning for the practical world. It was tough, it was really tough.

How close do you have to stick to the books?

Berger: Extremely close because (Director) Andrew (Adamson) is very faithful and once again with Mr. Tumnus there were illustrations that were in the original C.S. Lewis book and WETA did a bunch of concept stuff, but our point of reference was Andrew, and him being a child and reading the books and how he visualized things, that’s where I took the cue for Tumnus, so I designed it with that in mind. I wanted to come as close as possible to Andrew’s memory of Mr. Tumnus when he was a child. It was a big thing. And what was great on the Narnia films is basically Andrew. That’s also a nice pleasure. You don’t to sit there and talk about a bank full of producers.

Was it easier going into this as a sequel?

Berger: It was easier, but it was harder because we had to up the ante. It had to be better, it had to be more inventive, more creative, easier to contend with on set. That was the big thing re-visualizing things so they lasted longer, more durable because the locations were tougher, and we were going to combat bad weather, which we had a lot of, and making sure that it was built to last.

What was your favorite invention for this film or Evolution?

Berger: It wasn’t so much what was on screen, but was off screen, we ended up building carts to store all the heads, we had covered head carts that were on were on these giant wheels, and they could house like a dozen heads so we were able to have really great storage, so when the storms hit, which was every ten minutes, we could gather up the heads and they were safe and sound, and could travel safely, which we didn’t think about before, we ended up holding a lot of heads and it was such a huge pain. What I think really well was our on-set execution. That improved ten-fold, really improved to make our lives earlier. Especially the battlefield stuff, which was really difficult.

You’re doing some pre-production for the third film, isn’t Andrew off that one?

Berger: It’s Michael Apted. It’s a little different, it’s a different animal. Different director, different writers, different visual effects, but we’re still there.

How has Blu-ray and high def changed make up? Or has it?

Berger: It has, we’ve had to change the color of blood to look like paint now, like the old 3-M blood, but it’s weird, we’ve started to adjust. We’ve done some High Def films this year, we’ve done some 3-D movies, so it’s definitely a different thing, different task.

Has the industry gotten better at working with you guys and CGI at the same time, we’re fifteen years on and I know that it must have been scary at first.

Berger: Yeah, absolutely, after Jurassic Park we were getting nervous, everybody was, we had three options: we could fight it – which a lot of guys did and lost – “anything they can do we can do” which is not possible, the other thing was quit – which we didn’t do – and the third thing was we did, which was flow with it, try to reinvent ourselves, and diversify, and try and work our way in, you know, “You’re a tool, we’re a tool, let’s work together.” The Narnia films are a good example, the stuff we did for Sin City is an example – we did those at the same time.

Are you working more now with CGI departments?

Berger: I think we work with them to co-ordinate, what I really despise is when makeup artists say “They can just do this CGI” no. That’s not what we want, that’s not how it works. We do it practical, and if we think there’s an aspect the director wants that we can’t do because of physics and gravity “I want to see the blood shooting out” c’mon. We’re on Earth, it goes up and down. That’s about it. But there’s those director who won’t give in to CGI, who won’t give in to digital filmmaking ever. He’ll be the last guy to hold reels of films. He calls it Science Fiction “Yeah, it’s never going to happen.” But luckily we have people like Andrew Adamson, and people like Jon Favreau who still want things on set, and that’s super cool.

You don’t have to look too hard to see that practical always has something palpable to it.

Berger: Absolutely.

It’s magic.

Berger: It is, that’s exactly what it is. When CGI just came about you had directors, I just called it the “lazy director’s tool” and there’s certainly a lot of films where directors say “we’ll just do it CGI and plates so we can go home.” Worthless scum.

Has there been anything better than (John Carpenter’s) The Thing?

Berger: As far creature stuff goes, probably not, I mean I still watch that and wonder how he did stuff.

What advice do you have for people who want to get into this industry?

Berger: It’s tough, I get a lot of e-mails from people on Facebook, I’m on Facebook, but it’s hard. I always tell the truth, this is very difficult industry to get into nowadays because things are closing, fewer shops, fewer jobs, I don’t discourage anyone – if you want to do it, do it – I don’t really recommend the schools, there’s only one I like it’s in Canada, it’s Vancover film school, it’s got a great make up department, but the best is the Dick Smith make up course, which is a correspondence course , you just go on to www.dicksmithmake-up.com, and we’ve all taken it, professionals, because it’s a wealth of information. It’s a matter of being artistic and loving movies, loving monsters, and being enthusiastic. I get discouraged because people say they want to get into it, but haven’t done any work, they think it looks fun. Wrong, wrong, wrong. You have to go “I love monsters, I have to make them,” then you’re the right guy for the job.

Is stuff like Narnia the most fun to work on?

Berger: For me it is, Greg and have different films we like to work on. Greg does all the horror stuff, he loves that, I used to but I just don’t feel that they’re making horror films that are very good any more. Only because I’m not really hip on the torture stuff. I’m really tired of doing blood and guts stuff, I don’t like being covered in blood, I hate the feel of the sticky. I prefer the fantasy stuff. I want to work on things my kids can see. We do such a broad variety of things.

Did you come back for Land of the Dead at all?

Berger: No, I was in New Zealand on Narnia, and Greg was in Canada, cause he’s got the ties to George Romero, he loves zombie. If we could do a zombie in every single movie he’d be happy. I watched Shaun of the Dead last night on the plane ride home last night, and that’s my favorite zombie movie, I know call me crazy, I just watch that movie over and over, and I said to Greg, if we do another zombie film, the zombies should be just like Shaun of the Dead. Because they’re simplistic they’re fresh. We always do rotted stuff, “well, they’re so rotted they shouldn’t be walking around, but Shaun of the Dead is fantastic zombie movie.

And with that, after I got my photo with Berger’s Oscar, we were asked – politely – to leave. I could have stayed much, much longer. And many of the questions were mine in the roundtable. There’s something about guys like Howard Berger that make films as great as they are. It’s men like him, and Greg Nicotero that make you love movies as much as any great director.

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