During assembly on Thursday, March 15, Jack Case '18 described his recent visit with Greg Nicotero, special make-up effects creator, television producer, and director, which was arranged for Jack as the 2016-2017 recipient of the Newman Prize.
Established in 1992 by Mark Vittert ’65, the award annually gives a member of the junior class the opportunity to meet with a famous American of his/her choice. Its namesake is the late Eric Newman ’28, who was a student at JBS on opening day in 1923. Interested juniors submit a brief application, listing the five living Americans with whom they'd like to meet, and are then interviewed by a small panel of alumni, including Andy Newman '62 (Eric's son), Lisa Greenman Kraner '71 and Liberty Vittert '06.
During assembly Andy Newman announced that Nandini Jain is the 2017-2018 prize recipient.
Jack's prepared remarks and Nandini's choices follow.
Good morning everyone.
I’m not a morning person, so I get it if you just scooched down in your seat in preparation for a long speech that you think is going to be boring. But I’m telling you, you’re not going to want to take a nap through this one. As you probably have already figured out, I won the Newman Prize last year, and, at that time, I was much less prepared to be at this podium when they called my name. I don’t remember if I was coherent as I spoke, but I remember trying to say something along the lines of “Thank you,” and I encouraged everyone to apply who even had the slightest interest. And that still rings true. It’s past that time for the current juniors, but, for the sophomores and below, I can’t tell you enough how rare of an opportunity this is, and you’d be insane to not even apply.
I got really lucky with this one. My first choice, Greg Nicotero, zombie makeup artist on The Walking Dead, just so happened to be an alum of the school outside of Pittsburgh where Ms. Salrin used to work before coming here. If that’s not luck, I don’t know what is. I want to extend a quick thank you to Ms. Salrin and Mrs. Swicord for all of the work that they put into this. I couldn’t have asked for more. So, thank you, ladies.
For anyone who has been living under a rock, The Walking Dead is a TV series on AMC about a post-apocalyptic world where zombies are eating people and then those who get bitten turn into zombies themselves. The prequel series, if you will, is called Fear The Walking Dead which Greg also works on. It shows the beginning of the outbreak and how normal life gets completely disrupted. Imagine you were cooking lasagna for dinner and a zombie walks up to your window. You try to help them, right? Because they look like an injured person. But this person grabs you and immediately bites your neck and seals your fate to become a zombie just like them. So not only did my mom and I get to meet Greg Nicotero, but we got to be on the set of Fear The Walking Dead, which is filmed in Austin Texas.
Travel was uneventful except for one small detail. When you get a call from an unknown number, most people just let it go to voicemail or hang up, right? Well, my mom is a doctor and gets a call from a random California number during our lay over on the way to Austin. She answered “Hello this is Dr. Baxter” and, oh my gosh, I have never seen such a expression of wide-eyed excitement as the one that took over my mom’s face as it did right then as she mouthed the words “IT’S GREG NICOTERO.” We both just about had heart attacks before we even got to meet the guy. But, he just casually called her cell phone to check how the flight was so far and told us to call back when we got to Austin. So fast forward a flight and drive to the hotel ~ we’re in the room and we called him back to tell him we got in safely and went to bed.
The next morning we made a huge mistake: getting up at 8 in the morning. More sleep would have been a great idea, but I think we were too excited for that. We got breakfast in the lobby and shortly after I received a text message.
We were under the impression that we were only going to get to see him on set. To have the chance to meet for a chat in person beforehand was extremely exciting. We went down to the lobby and easily recognized him. I mean, I can’t say he’s super generic looking. I don’t know why it surprised me so much, it’s not like he’s not a normal person or anything, but he is so laid back. We talked for a little about the Newman Prize because he was curious, and, to my surprise, he was in a way appreciative of the fact that a random kid from Missouri wanted to meet him. We also bonded over the fact that both of our parents are doctors. I asked a few questions about how he got introduced into the business of special effects and producing. He had the best response to this possible: "Well, I just so happened to be friends with George Romero who gave me a job on a set. So I took a semester off of my pre-med track and never went back." Now I would say that if the majority of us in here took a semester off of getting a medical degree to go do makeup, our parents would die just to roll over in their graves. But that’s really how he started out ~ being buddies with one of the biggest names in the sci-fi FX industry. He is also an artist and had always loved comic books. He currently has a studio in LA where he lives and draws up ideas for makeups.
He gave us a rundown of what the day would be like on set and excused himself to go get ready. We were picked up to go to set around 11:30 and made it to ‘base camp’ around 12. Base camp is where all of the actors' trailers are as well as the SFX trailer. We just so happened to ride in the van on the way to set with one of the actresses from The Walking Dead, Melissa McBride, who plays Carol. When we got to base camp, Alexa, the site organizer, showed us to Greg’s main trailer. We were greeted immediately by five zombies and their makeup artists. My mom and I hung around in the trailer, pestering the artists with questions for about three hours. It was, and I quote “A big zombie day on set” which means that about 10 hero zombies were made up as well as around 30 mids. Heroes are the zombies who are up close to the camera and have to look really gnarly whereas the mids only get a general dead look.
We then headed to set, about a 10-minute drive from base camp on windy backwoods roads. In order to find locations for shooting, they hire scouts who know the area well and can find specific locations ~ in this case, a cabin by the side of a river. The scouts were able to find a river and a riverbank that would be perfect for a cabin... but no cabin, so they built one. They specifically built it to look old and worn. If you had told me that that cabin had been there for years, I would have believed you.
Greg gave us a tour of the set and introduced us to everyone including the director, Michael Satrazemis, and the actors, Michael Dillahunt and Jenna Elfman. The sheer number of people that it takes to be behind the scenes on a movie set was baffling. There were easily 200 people running around doing whatever they could to keep the production running smoothly. Some were setting up lighting, setting props, putting makeup on the actors; others drove vans between set and base camp; still more were around to mic check and get coffee for the director ~ there were just endless things to do. You know the tent that is always set up in movies where the director can watch what is being filmed and says “action” and “cut?" Well that is kind of the idea: there are TV screens in a tent away from the actual filming of the scene in which you can go and watch the cameras, but the director himself is in the heart of the filming. The director is usually talking to the actors during the filming of a scene or between takes and is way more involved than just sitting in the tent. ....
We watched the process on camera in the tent (‘video village’ is what they call it) of them filming a hero zombie with a two-hour makeup. They were done with that scene in about 20 minutes. Greg then had to catch a flight back to his home in LA because his daughter had a volleyball tournament. But I got a picture with him, and we were allowed to stay on set for as long as we wanted.
Since the day started at 11, we had ‘lunch’ at about 5 pm and then went back onto set around 6. Quick side note, if you are in any way looking to be fit, a movie set is not the place to be. The food was amazing, and there was so much of it, always. Anyways, it was pitch black when we returned to set and they had huge skylights up so that everyone could see in the dark and so the actors could be seen during filming. Night is when all of the zombies were coming out of the river and attacking the actors as they piled up in the moat around the cabin. It was also freezing cold and drizzling, which we were poorly prepared for. The zombies had to wear wet suits under their costumes to protect them from hypothermia, and I was standing around, granted not soaking wet, but just in a sweatshirt. Video village was moved inside of the cabin for the night filming. When we went in to watch things being filmed, we were literally sitting on the set on the couch that will be in the shots of the series on TV. The night ended with a bang... literally. The last scene that they filmed was with gunshots and full blank rounds which means that the shots were just as loud as a normal round would sound. This was also the time that we really started to regret waking up around 8 ~ at that point it was 2 in the morning ~ and we had chugged just about all of the coffee that we could stomach. We headed back to base camp, said our good-byes and thank you's, and headed back to the hotel.
This visit was not set up as a tour or an educational process by any means, but I really did learn a lot. As much as the special effects industry interests me, I could not see myself being behind the scenes in the future. If I were to pursue a career in Hollywood, I would want to act. I learned how a set really works and how much effort goes into just two or three shots. Filming for a series is a fast-paced and scheduled work day whereas filming a movie is different because you don’t have as rigid deadlines to meet. I like doing makeup, but just for the fun of it, not for a specific purpose other than Halloween. Nonetheless, it was incredible to watch those prosthetics get turned into that zombie on the right by an artist. Of course, I had to get my hands dirty as well and watch that zombie get even dirtier on set and then watch him join all of his brain-eating buddies in the freezing river. It was an odd sort of proud parent moment.
This was hands down the coolest thing I have ever done, and I really want to thank everyone for making it possible. So thank you to Ms. Salrin, Mrs. Swicord, Mr. Abbott, and the Newman Committee. And thank you to my mom. Living 18 years with a person and still liking them is no easy feat. You’re my best friend and my mom, and I love goofing around with you. Thank you for making me the person I am today, that’s ultimately why we got to go on this trip.
Okay, I’ll stop taking now so we can all get to the main event. Thanks again!
NANDINI JAIN'S CHOICES:
- Founder and CEO of Teach for America Wendy Kopp
- Broadcast journalist Judy Woodruff
- Comedian and actress Kate McKinnon
- Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg
- Composer and conductor John Williams