A few months ago, I was among some selected press members to be invited up to the Van Nuys facility KNB EFX, an Oscar-winning special makeup effects, animatronics and prosthetics shop that has stood out as one of the best in the biz since its creation 20 years ago by SFX gurus Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger. We were invited to this wonderful workshop to meet Berger himself and take a look at the facility and the team that has produced Oscar-winning makeup effects for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. With Berger and his team's work in the sequel, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, which comes out on DVD and Blu-ray. We were given quite an extensive tour of this facility by Howard Berger himself, and here are some of the things I learned on this hour-long tour of this immense edifice.
The studio was founded in 1988 by up and coming special effects wizards Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger. Two decades, over 600 film and TV credits to their name and a few Oscar nominations and wins later, KNB EFX has proven itself as one of the leaders in special makeup effects, prosthetics and creature creation throughout Hollywood. Their 22,000 square-foot Van Nuys facility is home to the team and countless creations they've made over the years. The shop is broken down into several departments, and Berger led us through each one and their involvement in the process.
Right away on the tour we noticed a full-sized Alien statue and someone mentioned it as we walked past. Berger explained how his partner, Greg Nicotero, is rather obsessed with the franchise.
First he took us to the Mold Department. He described the whole process of creating the molds, with the actor doing a live-cast in the shop. He showed us a live mold of James McAvoy for his Mr. Tumnus character in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and a few others they had lying around. He also showed us several smaller molds, like the ear molds that they had to do hundreds of which resulted in, "boxes and boxes of ears" for the film. He took us over to a woman named Andi who was painting hands and explained some of the projects they're currently undertaking.
"We're working on a couple of different projects right now, one of them is Quentin Tarantino's new movie, Inglourious Basterds," Berger said. "We're making a lot of dummies right now for dead Nazi's and dead American's and things like that." We actually saw, literally, piles of these dummy dead bodies just laying around right down the way.
"Warwick (Davis) played 45 times. Peter Dinklage played 94 times, because every time we do the makeup, we use a new set of appliances. We never ever reuse the same stuff. So we put Peter's makeup on and at the end of the day it all comes off and goes into the garbage and then we have all new sets every day. So these guys were running stuff 24/7 for months and months and months. We were able to reuse the ears, from time to time. I could probably get three applications out of a set of ears, but noses, I think Derek ended up sending me 200 noses. At the end of the day, the final count for all the makeups we did, we did 4,600 makeups, through the course of the whole nine-month shoot, which is huge. I don't think there have ever been that many makeups done in my films."
He then started talking about the specific actors in the film, like Warwick Davis, Peter Dinklage and James McAvoy and how they would spend their time in the hours they had to have all this work applied to them.
"I won't say the actor, but he played a character named Fat Bastard, but I won't say the actor's name," Berger coyly replied.
After a brief stop in the Sculpture Room, where we saw all sorts of conceptual art, maquettes and other goodies from the film, we went into the coolest part of the tour, the Mechanical Room. Here we saw Berger show us all the controls available on a mechanical head of one of the creatures of the film. With a huge remote control, he showed us all of the different movements possible on this mechanical device, and it was rather stunning how real this mechanical device looked in action. Any possible facial movement you can make, Berger could make on this mechanized head that fit over an actor's head, with this big remote. It actually takes two people to run, not including the actor, and it was just really cool to watch.
Our last stop of the day was Berger's own office, which housed the original Minobaur and General Otmin - the original suits and armor from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, which was very cool. Along with a number of maquettes and original concept artwork pieces, there was also a little golden gem - Berger's Oscar for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. He was also gracious and cool enough to let us each take a picture holding his Oscar next to the General Otmin piece and you can see my picture below.
Pretty friggin cool, eh? That brought our incredible tour of this amazing facility to a close, but that's not all I have from this day. We all participated in a roundtable interview session with Berger, and here's what we all talked about in this great roundtable session, which started out, oddly enough, with him asking a question of us.
Howard Berger Roundtable
Howard Berger: So, first let me ask you guys a question. What was your favorite part of the tour?
The mechanical area.
Howard Berger: The mechanical area? Cool. The sad thing is, out of this whole industry, that is a dying art.
Everything's being replaced by CGI.
Howard Berger: Well, it's CGI and I'll tell you what, a lot of it has to do with SAG, because when we operate puppets, we're SAG puppeteers. We are having to fight more and more for SAG positions, because there is really a resistance for residuals and so forth and it's getting less and less. That's actually a department in makeup effects that's starting to weed out. Nobody makes big monsters anymore, with Stan Winston passing, that's the end of giant monsters. You'll never ever see big monsters again, because he really fought for it, like Jurassic Park. They could've done that without giant monsters but he fought for it. That's the one thing we're losing right now, puppets and mechanical creatures. I'm even afraid that in the next films coming up, we would've done mechanical heads and now we'll just do static heads and fill digitally on there, so it's discouraging.
Some filmmakers obviously want to keep it this way, so is it a fight then?
Is that because of the strike, do you think?
Howard Berger: Stupidity. Literally, people probably came up with a budget and said, 'It'll be cheaper if we 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 quadruple-time as you're shooting and then prepping after you're done shooting. You have a whole other crew working and you have to set up a facility to do that in and then you have no time to think and you're prepping it and then it shoots tomorrow and people don't like it, there's no room to move. Then they go, 'Well, we'll just have to fix it in post.' It's a terrible terrible way. I haven't figured out the word for it yet.
Do you lose a lot of battles with the producers over the looks of the things you create?
Howard Berger: Some, well, rarely. I'd say this last film we did, yeah the first half of the movie was a tremendous amount of arguing and battling in what we felt was right and what they felt was right, coming from producers who had never done any sort of genre film and compared it to everything that was wrong. You know, 'It should be more like this, it should be more like that.' It's like, 'Ahh, it shouldn't be anything like that.' It was very difficult for the first half of the film, I followed their lead and when I took a look and saw how horrible everything was, I stopped listening and just did whatever I wanted to and I think it turned out much better.
What was the toughest creature to make for Narnia?
You said that Aslan is bigger in the second book. How close do you try to stick to the books?
Howard Berger: Extremely close because Andrew (Adamson) is very faithful. Once again with Mr. Tumnus, there are illustrations in the original C.S. Lewis book and WETA did a bunch of concept stuff, but really our point of reference was talking to Andrew and he was talking about when he was a child and read the books, how he visualized things. That was really where I took the cue from in Tumnus. So I designed in with that in mind, thinking that I wanted to come as close as I could to Andrew's memory of Mr. Tumnus when he was a child.
Was it easier going into the sequel?
Howard Berger: It was easier, but it was harder too because we really had to up the ante. It had to be better, it had to be more inventive, it had to be more creative, it had to be easier to contend with on set. That was a big thing too, really revisualizing so things lasted longer and was far more durable, knowing our locations were tougher than the first film. We were going to be up against bad weather from time to time. We had a lot of bad weather and I just made sure everything was built better and was built to last.
You're doing some pre-production for the third film and Andrew is not directing?
Howard Berger: He's not. It's Michael Apted. It's a little different. This movie will be a different animal. Different director, different writers, but we're there.
What were some of the behind-the-scenes and some of the featurettes that you did for the DVD?
With the advent of Blu-ray, I've heard it's changed a lot for makeup. How has that changed your process?
Howard Berger: It has. It's tough with different things. Blood has changed, believe it or not. We've had to change the color of blood. It looks like paint now, like the old 3M blood like Dawn Of The Dead, which I love, by the way. But it's weird. We've started to adjust. This year we've done a couple of high-def films, we've done a couple of 3-D movies, high-def 3-D movies, so it's definitely a different thing, a different task.
Are you working more with the CGI departments now to cover things?
Howard Berger: I think what we do with the CGI department now is coordinate. What I really despise is when a makeup artist goes, 'Well, they can just do it in CGI.' I'm like, 'No, no, no. That's not what we want. That's not how it works. We do it practical, and if we think that there's an aspect that the director wants that we can't do, because of physics and gravity, then we can.' It's like, 'I want to see blood shooting out,' and it's like, come on. We are on Earth, it goes up and down. But there are those directors like Quentin Tarantino who won't give in to CGI, won't give into digital filmmaking ever. He'll be the last guy holding reels of film. He just calls it science-fiction. Luckily we have people like Andrew Adamson and there's people like Jon Favreau, who, though have strong CGI in their films, they still want everything on set, and that's super cool.
So what do you guys do for Halloween?
What advice do you have for people that want to get into this industry?
Howard Berger: It's tough. I get a lot of emails and now with Facebook, and people are like, 'How do I get in? I'm a big fan.' It's hard, you know. I always tell the truth, that it's a very difficult industry to get into now because it's closing up. Fewer shops, fewer jobs and there's still a lot of people who do it. I don't discourage anyone from going into it. I don't really recommend the schools. There's only one school that I like and it's in Canada, the Vancouver Film School. They have a great makeup department, a training ground, but the best is the Dick Smith makeup course. It's a correspondents course and you just go online to DickSmith.com or something and it's a great course. We've all taken it and we're professionals but we paid for it and got it because it's a wealth of information. It's a matter of, obviously, being artistic and loving movies, loving monsters and being enthusiastic and really really wanting to do it. I get discouraged because I meet a lot of people who are like, 'Well, I think I want to get into this.' I'll go, 'Well, do you know how to do any of this?' 'No, I just think it looks fun.' Ugh. Wrong, wrong, wrong. You have to go, 'I love monsters and I have to make them or I'm going to go crazy.'
That about wraps it up from my day at the Van Nuys makeup effects house, KNB EFX with makeup effects legend Howard Berger. You can see Berger and his wonderful team's work in the second Narnia film, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, when it hits the shelves on DVD and Blu-ray on December 2. That's all from the valley, folks. Peace in. Gallagher out!