Dialogue: Makeup Master Howard Berger Talks I Am Number Four Aliens and Sam Raimi's Oz

Dialogue: Makeup Master Howard Berger Talks I Am Number Four Aliens and Sam Raimi's Oz

May 27, 2011

Howard Berger is one of the most respected and talented makeup artists working today. He's a genius when it comes to making all manner of the unreal, real, whether it be producing gnarly head wounds in horror movies or the lovable creatures in kids movies (he even won an Oscar for his work on the Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe). So when we were offered a chance to chat with the legend on the eve of the DVD/Blu-ray release of one of his latest projects, I Am Number Four, we eagerly said yes.

Movies.com: Before we start talking about I Am Number Four, I just wanted to compliment and thank you for your work on Splice, which has some of the best make-up effects in years.

Howard Berger: I don't disagree. [laughs] No, I really like that movie. I'm very proud of it, so thank you.

Movies.com: As for I Am Number Four, which specific make-up effects did KNB handle?

Berger: We handled all the Mogs; the Mogadorians. We were hired in the 11th hour to redesign the characters. They had gone down another path with another company and I think Steven Spielberg wasn't keen on the look. So production called us – DJ Caruso the director and David Valdes the producer – and said, "Hey, listen, we're two weeks out from needing these character makeups. Can you start designing and building?" And so we said sure, why not, we're always up to the task.

I was already on another DreamWorks film, I was doing Fright Night, and so I was prepping that and we were able to design the makeups for the Mogs real quick under the criteria that they had to be able to assimilate and disappear within crowds of people. So even though they might be strange at a glance, you wouldn't be staring at them like they were aliens. No giant heads or mandibles or something crazy like that.

We talked a lot with the director, DJ, and Greg Nicotero, my business partner, happened to be on a plane back from Pittsburgh with DJ Caruso. So he absconded the seat next to DJ and they had a five-hour long talk about the Mogs from Pittsburgh to LA., which was more time than we normally get with directors these days. [laughs]

So we started doing designs and working a whole bunch of Photoshop work, we have an in-house illustrator named John Wheaton who is amazing, and as we were designing they cast Kevin Durand. So we did all our photos and life casting with Kevin and went ahead and designed props – probably like 30 different looks for the Mogs. We sent them over to DreamWorks, they were looked at by Steven and DJ and they ended up picking a direction they liked. Immediately we hoped in, started sculpting and molding and running appliances and coming up with all the tattoos, eye treatments and dentures. It was really a lot of work in a short amount of time.

Right before we shot we had Kevin come to the studio for a day to test it out. It worked great, we took a bunch of photos and videos and sent it to production. Before I knew it I was on a plane to Pittsburgh ready to shoot this movie. I think every night we had at most 12 Mogs, so it was a small crew. At first I started doing Kevin's makeup then my onset supervisor took over because I had to do Fright Night and he pretty much ran the rest of the show.

Movies.com: It's such a subtle make-up job, with key lumps and gills and variances here and there. How did you approach the design. Do you come up with 30 very different designs, basically canvassing the entire area, they pick and you refine? How do you come up something new in 2011?

Berger: We had to come up with a short list mighty quick because of the time frame. DJ was pretty good about what he wanted. We knew they had to have gills, they need to be bald, they need to have something reptilian about them. That was a good leaping off point, so even though we did like 30 versions, they actually weren't drastically different. But there were different head shapes and so forth.

The production had to make a decision pretty quick or we wouldn't make the deadline, so they were also pressured into making a decision which helped us start designing. One of the things that changed us was that Kevin was shooting I Am Number Four and Real Steel at the same time, both DreamWorks films. And the word came down that we were not allowed to shave his head, we had to do a bald cap because they couldn't lose his hair on Real Steel and they didn't want to use a wig. So that was a big ordeal. We had to create this beautiful silicone bald cap, that was the first piece that went on Kevin. Then there was a brow and the nose gills. Everything was all silicone.

For all the other Mogs we were able to shave their heads, which was a huge time saver. I think the first time I put it on Kevin, it took two and a half hours to apply. I got it down to an hour and a half by the time we were done. All the other guys were about an hour and a half as well because they all head foreheads and noses with the gills. Then painted, then tattoos-- all that crazy stuff.

It was all very rush rush, but sometimes that works, believe it or not. If you do have too much time, sometimes you end up over-developing it. People get stuck on little things and they miss the big picture.

Movies.com: So the crunch can help?

Berger: Yeah, it can. This was a really good opportunity to help design and execute. My first night on set was a big test for the make-up. We made up all the Mogs and took 'em on set and DJ and everyone were thrilled. Word came down from Steven he was very happy with everything.

The hardest part of the show was getting everything done on time and having enough prosthetics, because every day we put a new piece on one of the actors. So we needed to have enough produced out of KNB and ready throughout the duration of the shoot.

Movies.com: Are there any new approaches or technologies that are redefining the way you guys do things these days or is it all still pretty traditional methods?

Berger: Well now that filmmaking is different in general we're dealing with HD and 3-D and certain materials that don't photograph that well like that. Foam rubber, which we still use, doesn't look as great as silicone. Silicone has that very flesh-like translucency, the way it reflects light and absorbs light. But we'll use different materials. There's latex, there's something called 3-D transfers. Like on a show we do, The Walking Dead, a large portion of those makeups are all 3-D transfers.

Now it's a matter of finding things that look great on film, but also expediency as well. Shooting schedules are always getting tighter, budgets are always getting tighter, so you just have to work within the limitations and silicone is one of the ones we've found to be a great tool and a great material. I'm using it on a tremendous amount of movies. The last Narnia film I did, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, everything was silicone. It was great, it's beautiful, it goes down very well and the actor can move in it. So we felt we should make the Mogs out of silicone, especially since they were all bald, the material just had to have that same, flesh-like quality.

Movies.com: It's amazing what's possible with silicone. I was actually writing a post earlier today about a colleague of yours, Jordu Schell, and a mind-blowing Peter Cushing bust that he did.

Berger: Yeah, that thing is amazing. I loved it, thought it was gorgeous. Silicone is just a great material, but everything has its application. You wouldn't use silicone for, lets say, a giant monster suit. People have, I know people that have made an entire suit out of silicone, but that's just asking for a disaster. That's not a good application for that material.

Every film we do we have to step back and say just because it's new doesn't mean it's better. You have to find what's best for that project. obviously, at the end of the day, consider how the makeup looks, but also keep in mind the production and the limitations you have to live within. That will help you determine what materials you're going to use and what direction you're going to take them in.

Movies.com: What are you working on right now?

Berger: Right now we're starting the second season of The Walking Dead. Then we're doing this movie called Oz, which is a prequel to the Wizard of Oz, that Sam Raimi is doing.

Movies.com: I imagine with Raimi on board and you guys designing that is going to have an amazing amount of makeup effects.

Berger: I hope so. It's shaping up quiet well. There are also some other projects going on. It's always busy here at KNB. Greg and I have always got people coming in and out that we want to keep employed, so we've got to just keep taking on movies to do that.

Movies.com: I'd think that's an easy position to be in when you're the best in the business. It's insane how much of a difference maker you guys can be to the overall quality of a film. Just seeing your name attached is a seal of approval.

Berger: Oh cool, thank you for saying that. We're really proud here. We've got a great crew and we get to work on some very cool movies, so we're fortunate.

Movies.com: How big is your crew?

Berger: Right now I think we're looking at about 40 people in the shop. It all depends on how much work we've got going on, same for when we go on set. On I Am Number Four I think it was just six people who did all the make-up. We'd do two shifts, first the background guys then we'd bring on the hero guys and do those make-ups, get 'em ready and go have fun on set.

We've had crews that are really huge, though. On the first Narnia I had 60 people on set and 120 people in the shop. So it was a big job.

Movies.com: And that's why you won an Oscar for it.

Berger: [laughs] I'm still exhausted from working on that movie.

[Photos thank to MakeUpMag.com]

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