Q&A with ‘Walking Dead’ special effects guru Greg Nicotero

Aaron Sagers

Special to CNN

(CNN) — In news that likely didn’t surprise anyone, AMC announced Tuesday that “The Walking Dead” was renewed for a fifth season. Airing Sunday nights, the zombie apocalypse show picked up 20.2 million viewers for its Season Four premiere, a number that breaks records for nonsports telecasts on cable.

Situated right in the middle of this pop culture hoard of zombies is Greg Nicotero, a makeup effects guru. He’s a director and executive producer on the show.

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In 1988, Nicotero co-founded KNB EFX group, a popular effects studio for film and TV, and went on to establish a reputation in Hollywood.

Long before he joined Robert Kirkman, “Walking Dead” comic book creator, and Frank Darabont, show creator, Nicotero launched his career as a student of zombie icons George A. Romero and Tom Savini.

Nicotero, who still runs KNB, has now become involved in the theme park business by acting as a consultant for Universal Studios Orlando’s “Walking Dead” attraction at their Halloween Horror Nights event. (It’s also represented in part at Universal Hollywood.

Shortly before the news about Season Five was official, Greg Nicotero spoke to CNN via phone to discuss his outlook on the future of “The Walking Dead,” the theme park attraction and the hidden tributes he sneaks into episodes he directs:

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CNN: Having spoken with you before, you strike me as someone always striving to learn new techniques. What do you find yourself looking at for the show’s future?

Greg Nicotero: I appreciate you saying that because every season when I watch the show, I’m constantly looking at what I feel people responded to and what people like, and what I thought was successful or could be refined.

A show like “The Walking Dead” gives us that opportunity to refine the look of the Walkers and the performances. We have the opportunity to play with the concepts, the designs, the sculptures. Every year we’re able to do that and it’s exciting.

CNN: What are some new things you’ve learned to bring into “The Walking Dead” moving forward?

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Nicotero: When you make something for a movie, when it’s done filming, you remove the prosthetics and throw it away. For these guys (at Universal Orlando], they build it for a completely different mindset. There have been things they’ve done that I’ve been like, :Wow, that’s really smart, I wish I’d thought of that.”

For example, they will put magnets inside the teeth and magnets inside the prosthetics. So the teeth don’t clip onto the actor’s teeth but the teeth attach inside the prosthetic, so you don’t have to put custom dentures into every single performer. That’s a really neat idea because, for background stuff, you don’t need to worry about putting teeth into all of them. I think that works really well.

CNN: As the show progresses each season, and becomes increasingly successful, is there pressure because people expect more from the show, and because it receives additional attention?

Nicotero: I think we put the pressure on ourselves to raise the bar.

Andy Lincoln and I have had many conversations about that — about our commitment to the show, our passion and our commitment to the fans. I am really proud of Season Four and where the show is going. The fact that viewers have responded very positively is rewarding because we fought very hard to make sure the show continues every season to raise the bar. We’re all creative, passionate people — every single crew member and actor on the show wants it to be better.

Our show runner, Scott Gimple, is a fan first and a great writer second, so I feel like we all challenge each other. I don’t know if “pressure” is the right word, but we feel an obligation to continue to make the show great.

CNN: When Universal first approached you about bringing “The Walking Dead” to a theme park, was there any hesitation?

Nicotero: No, as a matter of fact, it was quite the opposite. The show has been able to attract quite a significant fan base, and what interested me in this collaboration was giving fans a little more of an interactive experience. What Universal Orlando has been able to do is put fans directly in the middle of the experience.

You get to walk through the hallways of the prison, see Hershel’s barn, all these really exciting moments. It’s like the greatest hits of the show. Being able to do this is an exciting endeavor.

CNN: Was there a concern about quality control since the Walkers in the park are based on your design, but you’re not there to manage it?

Nicotero: I’m not there on a day-to-day basis, but I have interacted and consulted with Mike Aiello and his creative team in regards to all of the sculptures. I provided them with photos of a lot of sculptures we did at KNB EFX. They replicated a lot of the stuff we did. In a few instances, like with Michonne’s pets, I sent them actual prosthetic pieces used on the show so their sculptors could duplicate, as close as possible, the work we did on the show. I really was involved in that capacity.

CNN: What do you think the appeal is of theme park guests walking through “The Walking Dead”?

NIcotero: I am a movie fan. I’ve flown to Martha’s Vineyard to see where they shot “Jaws.” I have been to the Monroeville Mall to see where they shot “Dawn of the Dead,” been to the steps in “The Exorcist” where Father Karras falls down the steps. I have been that guy who has been to those locations because it connects me to the material I love so much.

That’s what everybody does when they go to Universal. They’re going to connect themselves to the experience, and they now know what it’s like to be on the set of “The Walking Dead.” Fans will seek out those experiences.

CNN: Has the success of “The Walking Dead” added to the awareness of George Romero’s work, or do you feel like you need to encourage people to look back to “Night of the Living Dead” and his other films?

Nicotero: That’s a great question, and I’m very glad you asked that.

I saw George about two weeks ago in Los Angeles. There was a 30th anniversary screening of “Day of the Dead,” and I went and hadn’t seen George in about two years. The guy, in my opinion, is a genius.

He was the guy that got me into the business. “Dawn of the Dead” and “Jaws” teeter back-and-forth as the number one movie that I loved, and which influenced me. Before 1968 (when “Night of the Living Dead” came out), zombies were strictly referred to as a voodoo character, not even an undead but under a spell. He created a new creature; they came back from the dead, eat the flesh of the living and you shoot them in the head to kill them.

As far as I’m concerned, “The Walking Dead” wouldn’t exist without George Romero. … Robert Kirkman’s comic book is really a love letter to George Romero. His movies were so groundbreaking that they influenced guys like me and Robert Kirkman and Darabont. When I saw him two weeks ago, I was still geeking out.

CNN: Now you’re serving as a frequent director on “The Walking Dead,” so how does that make you think differently about your past effects work?

Nicotero: I think about things differently because I did come up in the ranks of the makeup effects world. When I get to direct episodes now, what’s fun is I throw little tributes in there.

We did a cameo of the airport zombie from “Dawn of the Dead” with the plaid shirt in Episode 15 last year. I get to put those little in-jokes in. I love doing that. I’m directing Episode 15, and I’m popping in a few tributes.

The thing I love the most is I’ve been doing this 30 years, and every day I come to work and still learn more. It really is the ultimate position, creatively, for me.