Gregory Nicotero On Set Interview PREDATORS (KNB Efx Group)

     May 6, 2010

If you’re a fan of makeup/creature/special effects in movies, you really should know who Gregory Nicotero is.  That’s because since 1985 when he worked on George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead, Nicotero has worked on over 100 movies and the company he formed with Robert Kurtzman and Howard Berger (KNB Efx Group) has worked on over 400 film and TV projects.  While I’d love to list the highlights, his resume is so insane you need to click over to IMDb and check it out.

So why am I talking about Greg Nicotero? Because when I visited the set of director Nimród Antal’s Predators last December in Austin, I was able to speak with him along with a few other online reporters.  While the cast of Predators were guarded when answering some of our questions, Nicotero was willing to talk about everything.  We talked about the differences between the new Predators and the classic Predator, how the movie is using mostly practical effects, what he had to do to get the suits ready in time, and so much more.  If you’re into makeup/creature effects, this is a must read interview.  Hit the jump to check it out:

While I normally offer the audio for every interview, I somehow lost this audio file.  Sorry about that.

Also, the interview starts off with Kerry Jones talking to us.  He plays one of the Predators and explained how difficult it was to try and act with the suit on and what it’s like behind the scenes.  Nicoterro comes in after a few minutes and then he eventually takes over.

Since some of you might not have seen the Predators trailer, I suggest watching it before the interview.

Question:  How difficult is it to fight him, if you can’t see him?

Kerry Jones: The trick is to move really well.  And basically when I was trying that stuff, I was trying not to think about it.  And that’s the main thing you have to just kind of not think about that you’re in a suit, and feel like it’s part of your body, and just try to blow through it all.

How many inches does thing add to your actual height?

Kerry Jones: Well I’m 6’7”, so it’s about 3 1/2 inches from the bottom of the two, which makes it look more difficult.  But again I was trying not to think about anything.  Just trying to feel like it was part of my body.

How long does it take to get into it?

Kerry Jones: Now it’s pretty fast.  I mean to do this, it probably took 20 or so minutes.  Obviously, it just gets faster and faster as you put it on and off.

On Halloween did you want to go off to a Starbucks and get coffee?

Kerry Jones: Actually on this Halloween, and I was wearing a different suit in Hawaii.  So I did get to dress up in a creature suit. All in all it’s good, and it’s great when you have guys like the crew.  It makes it a lot easier, and it makes it easier to do your job when you know that if anything happens, you have guys that will be right there to help you out, which makes it a lot better.  A lot of times we did a few shots where I was going to tackle the Predator and I got hurt on one shot but again, it was like they were right in there real fast to kind of get me out of the suit and make sure that I was okay.  So it makes it a lot easier.

How did you get hurt?

Kerry Jones: I had to jump through a tree and then run full speed and tackle him.  And basically, the impact the mask hit me in the face, and cut me around the eye and the nose.

Greg Nicotero: They were moving so fast that the first take we did when they collided both of the masks flew off, because they hit so hard and Kerry said the funniest thing though, because the last take it was the one I was talking about earlier, because they just collided.  It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen.  And when I push the playback carry had to run jump on a log and land in a puddle.  And then keep running at full speed in at the last minute.  He’s running and he lowers his head like a football player, and just collided.  And I watched the playback and I went; “Oh my God, that was the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my life”, and he said, “I just didn’t want to do it again.”  It was so exhausting and when you look, this is a full latex body.  Even all of this armor, this is all soft.  This is painted to look hard, this hard part here, in the backpack. is hard.  But this is all made to look like its hard armor.

Kerry Jones: Yet when I landed the first person to me was Greg of course and I didn’t really know what had happened.  I kind of felt like something was wrong.  And I was trying to look at his face to see his reaction.  The first person on the scene depending upon their reaction kind of makes you feel “okay how’s that?”  I look at his face and he wasn’t so shocked.  So I said “okay, it’s not so bad.”  But then someone took a picture and then showed it to me and my whole face was covered in blood.

Nicotero: He had a little cut here and a little cut their so I walked up and pull the mask off, because we had Velcro in here, and that’s how the mask attached. We put a little piece of wire, because they were colliding so hard.  So I walked up and I took the mask off and I looked and he had blood coming out of here and here.  And I said “okay, this doesn’t look good,” and so I didn’t want to get him nervous.  And I didn’t know what the issue was so then we took the head off.  We cleaned up a little bit of blood, and its just like he had little cut here.  And we just of course. wanted to make sure that he was okay, and there wasn’t anything seriously wrong.  The fact that some guys get banged up, and they get bruised.  That was sort of Kerry’s indoctrination to full-fledged being a stunt guy.

Kerry Jones: It was great.  It was very exciting. After it was all done, I kind of wanted to get up and get back in there, but they wouldn’t let me.

Nicotero: 10 seconds later he was like okay, I’ll go I’ll go.

Kerry Jones: It was exciting.  It’s all going to look fantastic, even that day I was kind of bummed out that I didn’t get to continue like Greg said go look at some of the takes and it will make you feel better.  So I went back and I hadn’t seen any of it yet.  So I stood behind Nimrod and looked at it and he was excited.  And I kind of saw everything and I said okay.  It makes me feel like alright let’s go.  It turned out really good.  It made it all worth it.

Which Super Predator is this?

Kerry Jones: The dog tracker.  The dog handler.

Does he have a mask and a helmet and articulated face?

Nicotero: The only one that has that is Mr. Black.  He is the only one that actually reveals his face. All the other ones they don’t they just, you just leave them with a mask on.

Kerry Jones: If you really think about it, even in the original movie, first of all, you don’t even see him that much. He’s cloaked for 65% of the movie.  And then when he revealed himself, he’s got a helmet on, and it’s only in that last hand-to-hand combat with Arnold that he reveals his face.  That was one of the first questions that we had when we started talking about it was when do we reveal face, and what’s that great moment?  And there was some discussion about revealing the face of each of them.  And then I thought it was too early in the movie.  So we picked a really good specific moment for the reveal of the face.

So Mr. Black is that like the lead Predator?

Kerry Jones: He’s the leader of the group, but each one of them has different functions that they perform.  I think an analogy that I used when Tony and I were talking before was the whole idea that it’s kind of cat and mouse. It’s a Tom and Jerry sort of thing, where the cat is sort of batting the mouse around, and the Predator’s sort of think that they have this attitude that they are superior hunters. They are just doing it just for fun.  It’s like I’m going to hunt these people down.  So the idea that the tables get turned a little bit, and the interaction between humans and the Predators their actually better hunters than the Predators gave them credit for.  So the tables turn a little bit.  The cat is batting the mouse around and then the mouse takes the mask off and he beats the cat too.  It’s that kind of weird thing that we were talking about.

Nicotero: This is one of our three super Predators. Each one of them has a different personality and a different function.  So this is our dog handler, Predator.  There are these alien hunting dogs that they used to flush out our heroes and track them.  So with this guy, you can notice the armor on his legs and the armor on his arms is there, because the dogs have these big horns in spikes.  So it sort of protective mode as well.  And then of course they all have their plasma cannons, and each one of them has a different function.  There is another super Predator called Baltimore, and one of his weapons is a UAV falcon that can launch off with his shoulders.  So they can not only track with their different sensors and helmets, but they can also track from the sky.  So it’s just another weapon that they use when they’re hunting.  And then we have our black super Predator who’s basically the leader of the three of these creatures.

What are the proper names for the Predators?  There is the normal Predator?

Nicotero: We refer to him as classic.  We re-created him when Shannon worked at Stan Winston Studios on the original version and he worked on the set.  So we were actually there.  We get to see Peter Hawken in studio and all that stuff.  And then the three super Predators.  There is a falconer.  There is the dog handler, and there is Black.  So those are our three designations for our super Predators.

One of them was called a berserker or something, which one is that?

Nicotero: We sort of swapped super Predator and berserker out because I think in the script at one point.  They were calling them berserkers and then super Predators, but basically there are three.  It’s sort of the most dangerous game.  The idea is that the best of the best of the human killers are being tracked by the best of the best of the Predators.  So it’s kind of like they are matching wits, which is kind of the idea of what we are doing.  Its pretty cool.  It’s very fun actually.

What’s the difference between a super Predator and the classic Predator?

Nicotero: There is a different design for the face of course, and the bodies with the classic Predator.  The armor is blocky, and we matched a lot of stuff.  The actor who is playing that is Derek Mears, who is about 6’3” who has done a lot of super work and we have worked with him quite a bit with the super Predators, we are using actors that are 6’8”.  So they are a lot taller and as you can see he is a lot leaner.  Robert Rodriguez and Nimrod, when we first started the project, they used a really great analogy.  He said the classic Predator is a cassette tape and the new Predators are the I pod version so that kind of triggered a lot of visual things in my head, in terms of making them taller, making them sleek and keeping the armor really close to the body.  So that they are not bulky, because we wanted to get the idea that they are fast, and that their elegant and that they are efficient.  Even in terms with like the dreadlocks and stuff like the dreadlocks and the classic Predator come out and give them that kind of Rasta look but we swept all the dreadlocks back.  We made the face a lot longer.  We just wanted everything about him to look more elegant is like a black widow.  We wanted it to just be really deadly looking.

Is this the opposite of the WWF?

Nicotero: Yes, exactly, the exact opposite of Mickey Rourke.  Which actually we shot the entire movie, Sin City right in this building.

Do you reference Predator to in the aliens in this Predator movie?

Nicotero: No not at all.  There is something really so iconic about the original Predator, and it is exciting because when we first started working on the film.  Shannon and I pulled out all of our photos, and it was just great pictures, but it’s also interesting, because when you get into what’s really great about this particular project, is that these are characters.  It’s not just special effects.  It’s not like you bring a puppet in, these are characters and so we were involved in developing the look and the attitude of all the characters.  We designed all of the super Predator bodies in the faces and all that and all the pieces and we worked with troublemaker, digital and they helped to design a lot of the armor.  And then we had to take everything and sculpted and mold it and we had about 12 weeks to build everything which is astounding.  I had 62 people working at K & B in Los Angeles, and because it’s such a great franchise, and because we were going back to the original film in terms of tone and spirit.  You know when you watch the last AVP movie is like a Freddy versus Jason movie.  They just took a Freddy and Jason and put aliens.  So it’s really going back to the spirit of what the film was originally intended to be.  Everybody was really enthusiastic.

Every time we had a fitting all 62 people would stop what they were doing.  And they would want to come over and look.  It was really the first time that we had seen this classic Predator look since the first movie, because the designs had changed.  And everyone put their fingerprints on it here and there.  So it kind of went back to the beginning it was really exciting for everybody.  It was one of those situations where you can’t just take a mold off of the shelf and go okay.  Well here’s the Predator hand, and now we’re going to make every single piece all the dreadlocks and all of the jewelry on the dreadlocks.  And every single piece had to be manufactured and sculpted and molded and designed and manufactured.  And of course we needed multiple suits; because we have stones to seven and we have hero suits.  And then we have suits that get blown out.  So each character had multiple incarnations, and Kerry Jones, who was wearing death suit right there.  He is a suit performer and he also works at K & B he’s one of our makeup effects guys.  He’s been on location and worked at the shop for years.  So he had the perfect body physique and he’s really athletic and he’s perfect in the suit.  I have him walk over and you can look at the suit, a little more closely.

And the production design that you did of an alien stick figure to that end up in the movie?  Is that an alien type creature or is that something else?

Nicotero: There is a great sequence where our heroes realize that they are being hunted.  What it is is that our heroes are being tracked.  Of course and their goal is to find out what is tracking them.  And what is hunting them so they set a booby-trap and they are able to successfully vanquish one of these creatures, and they think it’s a Predator and then they realize that it has the same altimeter that they are wearing this little piece of alien machinery that on them.  So suddenly they went, wait a minute this thing isn’t even a one of the Predator this isn’t hunting us this is being hunted just like we are.  So it’s just this weird light little red herring sequence.

Did you design that to be an alien like Aliens?

Nicotero: No, not really.  We wanted it to have a completely different flavor than the Predator is a because you have to be able to look at it and visually no that it looks different, and there was a couple pieces of artwork that we had generated.  And we wanted it to be kind of phony looking, and we get these weird kind of the shoulders and I hadn’t thought about that till you said that.  But we do these kind of weird shoulder bone sections in the faces it was kind of Japanese inspired.  It has that kind of flavor of Japanese sculpture we wanted it to be tall and really thin be a long in the arms and we just wanted to throw the proportions.  So it is a completely different creature.  I mean the fact that it has the shoulder things I hadn’t even thought about that.  Kerry Jones, who is wearing that suit, he played that creature and we shot a lot of that stuff down in Hawaii.  My first dinner with Robert Rodriguez, about a year ago.  He said “hey man were going to be Predators and we’ve got about 15 creatures that we have to do.  How much money do you think that would cost?”  It’s just one of those like we are eating pizza talking about the movie and they called in July.

Ironically, I was in Germany on Inglourious Basterds and The Book of Eli and was on Piranha and someone just sent me a link to a real cool article and Roberts said “yeah, we just got a green light on Predators and K N B Is doing all the work” and Nick Katero’s been in the trenches with me since From Dusk till Dawn, and I called him and said “hey, I guess we’re starting” and he went “oh yeah” he just sort of forgot to tell me that we were starting and so we just sort of started panicking a little bit, trying to figure out what to do.  And between myself and Shannon who basically runs K & B with myself and Howard Berger.  We just sort of sat down with a 40 page list of every single step that we had to go through.  Fox wanted to see everything, but it’s tricky because you get into it and you say okay you sculpt the head.  But then the mandibles are separate and the hands are separate in the theater separate and the body separate and then there’s all the armor, and there’s just sort of a short time that we had to sort of sculpt everything separately and then we just bring in the guys for fittings and hope that everything went on the way it was supposed to go on, and look at the way it’s supposed to look.  I think between that and Nimrod’s enthusiasm, those were the two most rewarding moments, because like I said earlier every single person at K N B stopped what they were doing and walked out to see what it looked like and the stars were lined up for us on this one, because everything went together.  The mechanical department, Jeff Edwards and Dave Wild built all the articulated faces and all that kind of stuff so we had a whole fabrication costume department and we had a whole sculpting department.

Speaking of articulating faces, are all the Predators purely practical or is there any CG with any at all?

Nicotero: No CG in the predators.  Only when they cloak and de-cloak.  When they’re cloaked and they’re running and jumping and leaping, those will be digital, because you’re only to be able to see the outline of them.  But we did a couple shots with the classic Predator and Mr. Black running into each other for the beginning of this super confrontation, where they finally meet and fight. And I asked the stunt guy, have you ever done this with human beings, and he said no.  He said he had done it with guys in suits, but never with the level of ferocity that they fought with.  It was amazing.  After each take I ran in and said you guys are you alright? Is everything okay in there? They’re all wearing suits and they can’t see them they can’t breathe I don’t know if you went to the hunting camp site, but there were those logs, and it’s muddy and there’s no way you can move around their very easily.  And these guys did a great job.

Couldn’t hear this question…sorry.

Nicotero: In green cylume, that’s kind of a classic sort of Predator.  Does a lot of mythological stuff that is associated with the Predators.  Even when you look at the classical Predator, even the netting that he has, a lot of fans refer to that as part of his cloaking device.  When we first come upon the classic Predator, he’s been vanquished by our super Predator.  So he has been stripped of all of his armor.  There is this really great reveal where he sort of had been kind of tied up and all of his armor has been taken off.  And it’s kind of thrown around the ground.  We have these great iconic moments where, he starts putting his armor back on.  But it’s not like ramble where you can see the close-ups of everything.  You still get the feeling that Nimrod really loves the iconic look of everything because that was the discussion about okay when the classic Predator finally put the mask back on.  That’s a great iconic image and we need to re-create those specific moments for the fans because Nimrod talks about how I remember being a kid is going to be Abaco Theatre in Westwood and seeing Predator I think one of the funniest moments was when we were shooting one of the fights between the Predators.  They had these big blades and the blades lock at one point.  The idea is that one of the Predators breaks one of the blades and gets a stronghold on the other Predator and Nimrod yells “cut” and runs out and runs onto the ground and picks up the tip of the broken blade and sticks it in his pocket. I thought it was just a really funny thing to do. I went over there later and he said “dude look there’s mud on it and it’s all scratched up”.  “This was accused in an actual Predator versus Predator fight.”

And I said well, I would’ve given it to you, but know he wants to put it in a little shadowbox and frame it and then in the next take.  We did it again and the tip broke off again.  Like it was supposed to and as soon as he yells cut.  I’m just watching him and he walks out and he went over and picked up the other tip.  He was so excited about it.  It’s funny, I worked with a lot of directors in the 25 years that I’ve been doing this, and generally when you hear a director yelling on set, everybody scatters in the other direction.  Nimrod has so much excitement and enthusiasm that he just yells at the end of the take “thats pancakes baby!”  I love it!  And he just starts yelling all this crazy stuff, because he is so enthusiastic about it.  In your head is starting to think of okay pancakes is good.  Pancakes with bananas is really good.  So now you start waiting on set.  And okay, am I going to start getting pancakes and she just start thinking about that kind of stuff.  It was really funny because one time.  We walked over and looked at the monitor.  And he kind of shook his head and he says “okay, everybody that’s a wrap!”  And then one of my guys comes over and says “we didn’t get the pancakes today.”  And I’m like oh no you’re right.  We didn’t get pancakes.  And we walked over to Nimrod, and he said “no no no, I’m just thinking about something else.”  It’s just this kind of goofy theme that follows him because of course when we are in Hawaii.  One morning we all went to breakfast and all the guys on my crew all got pancakes.  And we were like this is really weird why are we getting pancakes?  And we realized because Nimrod says that every single day on set that you start thinking about it. We had to order pancakes from the caterer the other day, and they were all batter.

Before you had mentioned the three various different types of Predators are those specific Predator characters, or are there multiples of each type of Predator?

Nicotero: They’re all in the super Predator family, but they are all specific characters.  Each one has a different personality based on what his function in the film is.

So there’s not like three or four falconers?  The falconer is one character?

Nicotero: Correct.

So how many overall Predators are there?

Nicotero: There’s four in the movie.  Three are super Predators and then our classic Predator.  And then we have our alien dogs and a couple other alien bits and pieces, and there is this whole alien landscape that they are creating on the planet as well.  So.  In regards to I’m sure when I see the movie still be some weird things slithering through, where I think hey, I don’t remember that.  Because as the movie progresses, and they start putting it together and spicing it up by adding a little salt here and a little pepper here.  They’ll be a little bit of that kind of stuff which is the exciting part of it.  You know when you have a movie like this that really evolves.  It’s like when we get the transformer movies.  It was all a bunch of smaller robot pieces and then you’re on set, and you’re watching them blow everything up and you see the movie and you say “wow there’s a big giant spaceship crashes there and it turns into a transformer.”  It’s stuff that you don’t really see, because our involvement is so heavy.  During the preproduction when I’m shooting and then once we wrap we go away.  And then the visual effects guys take over.  And then they add all those little bits and pieces.  They come up with ideas during the cut in the editing, and they said while would be really cool if we did this thing here where the blade pops out.  So then you see the movie and say wow that’s a really neat idea.  I wish we would have thought of that.

So is classic Predator on the run from the super Predator as well?

Nicotero: No.

So, we were told it was a hunting planet.  And so I guess they are just sort of bringing game in.  So he wasn’t brought in?

Nicotero: I don’t really know if he was ever brought in or if he was one of the hunters that they said you’re just not good enough as a hunter.  I don’t know, we don’t ever actually talked about that.

So he’s not in line with the super Predator?

Nicotero: No.

When exactly did you come on the project?  Was it July.  August, September?

Nicotero: It was the end of July.

I’m just curious of the exact time frame that you had from the moment you came on to when you needed all of the stuff to be done.

Nicotero: We came on at the end of July.  The first thing we did was that we had to get casts of all of the guys playing the suits.  The first week and a half with life casting on all of the actors, and then we started building the classic Predator, because we knew what that was going to look like.  We were still designing super Predator.  And then I think we shipped stuff to Hawaii in the beginning of October.  When did we start shooting?

It was in October, I think the end of September.

Nicotero: Yet, we had to ship stuff to Hawaii at the end of September.  So July August and September.  The Predators we had about two or three week window and that.  Because we didn’t have a lot of Predator stuff shipping to Hawaii.  Just a little bit, but we started in July.  It was pretty fast and pretty insane.  My relationship with Robert has been such… you know, the way Robert shoots movies.  His prep is less and less.  He has so much of the movie shot in his head that when we did sin city.  We designed a mock makeup, and we had four different concepts within a week.  We had printed and sculpt it and had Mickey up to the shot when we were testing and saying yellow bastard and all that stuff.  We really don’t have a lot of time.  Robert just kind of moves, on-the-fly quickly.  And we’ve adapted.  That’s why we work with Robert consistently in the last 14 years is because, as he’s grown as a director and as a visual filmmaker K & B has grown as well.  And so we’ve kind of grown up in the ranks together.

Can you talk about the Predator dogs and what you referenced for the design?

Nicotero: The one thing that Nimrod started talking about was how these pictures of these hyenas from Africa were like this big.  They were just tall and powerful, really muscular.  And Chris Olivia, who was one of the designers here at Troublemaker had done a concept where he incorporated all of these horns.  So that the Predator dogs had these really unique horns that lineup on the side of the head.  And then go backwards from the shoulders.  So we kind of reference pet hyena aspect of it.  And then Chris kind of did a sketch that everybody responded to.  And then we took it and just sculpted it full size 3-dimensional.  That would probably be a Troublemaker visual effects question more than us because he really designed that character, which is kind of finessed is a little bit as we went forward.

For more Predators coverage:

PREDATORS Set Visit – Collider Goes to Troublemaker Studios in Austin and Leaves Very Impressed

Director Nimrod Antal On Set Interview PREDATORS – Read or Listen Here

Adrien Brody On Set Interview PREDATORS – Read or Listen Here

Topher Grace On Set Interview PREDATORS – Read or Listen Here

Alicia Braga On Set Interview PREDATORS – Read or Listen Here

Danny Trejo On Set Interview PREDATORS – Read or Listen Here

Walton Goggins On Set Interview PREDATORS – Talks THE SHILED, JUSTIFIED, More

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