Bringing the Undead to Life: The Magic’s in the Makeup Team

Makeup artist Corinne Foster and actor David Schaefer.

Makeup artist Corinne Foster and actor David Schaefer. Photo by Daniel Sawyer Schaefer

By Stephanie Hoover & Crystal Foley Guest Columnists

Blood, gore and guts—all the stuff we love about zombie flicks—wouldn’t be possible without a great makeup team.

However, with the exploding popularity of zombie shows, it takes more than greatness for a series to stand out. It takes a unique spin on the oft-created apocalypse, which is exactly what Syfy’s newest show, Z Nation, aims to do. Corinne Foster, the makeup department head, said finding the originality in her interpretation of zombie makeup is her favorite part.

“I love the creativity of it, and the chance to just do something [the way] you think it should be, rather than what other people think it should be,” said Foster. “Creating zombies gives you the chance to create the unknown, so nothing you do is wrong and it doesn’t matter, ultimately, as long as it looks really cool.”

Zombified actors (l to r) David Schaefer, Brian McElroy, Nicole Suba, Caleb Miller and Benjamin Ginsborough-Hron.

Zombified actors (l to r) David Schaefer, Brian McElroy, Nicole Suba, Caleb Miller and Benjamin Ginsborough-Hron. Photo by Daniel Sawyer Schaefer

Z Nation takes us three years into the apocalypse with a cast of survivors on a mission. As the survivors in the series travel across the country, we meet a variety of zombies along the way—including nuclear zombies, toxic zombies, oil zombies, and dust cloud zombies.

As opposed to many other zombie series and films, many of the ‘Zs’, as zombies are dubbed in Z Nation, are characterized. Because the show takes place a few years into the apocalypse, several current zombies have been surviving for a while before being infected; therefore many of them have background stories and connections with the present survivors. Foster said she and her team have enjoyed the variety and challenge of emulating the characters in the zombie makeup.

David Schaefer

David Schaefer. Photo by Daniel Sawyer Schaefer

“Because we’re playing with the idea that their speed is varied based on how long they’ve been decaying, it makes it a lot funner [sic] in the fact that every zombie kind of has its own style of movement and personality from each episode,” she said.

It’s not enough to just think up an awesome looking zombie; Foster must also think about how that zombie will appear after it goes through post-production. She says she did about 10 makeup tests in order to make the zombies look realistic once filters were applied.

“We had to find the right color palette that translated through the color treatment to get that look of what we were going for,” she said. “In person they’re really green.”

Foster, who heads Synapse FX in Los Angeles, is no stranger to zombie makeup. She has worked on two other zombie specials for Syfy, Zombie Night and Rise of the Zombies. However, the team has run into a few issues with their preferred water-based makeup, Kryolan Aquacolor, while on set in Spokane, Washington. Retouching has been a constant, said Foster, because the makeup isn’t staying on as effectively. She speculates this may be due to the hard water in Spokane or possibly the difference in altitude and elements.

Corinne Foster puts the finishing touches on actor Derrick Walton-Cooper.

Corinne Foster puts the finishing touches on actor Derrick Walton-Cooper. Photo by Daniel Sawyer Schaefer

“We definitely have had a little bit more of a rough time in needing to stay on top of their touch-ups and… the fact that the weather changes constantly,” she said. “It’s so hard to figure out, like, ‘how much do we seal them today? It’s a sunny day! Oh wait, it’s raining.’”

The makeup team consists of four artists from L.A. and three recruited artists from Seattle. Due to the fast-paced environment and limited budget restrictions for the show, the team uses a modeling technique that is applied with sponges in order to get the right skin texture.

Going from human to zombie can take a while. Dependent upon the extent of prosthetic makeup needed, featured zombies may be in the chair for as little as an hour and a half or as long as four hours. Background extras are typically in the chair for 30 to 45 minutes. All the extras are from the Pacific Northwest, Foster said, and are refreshing to work with.

Actor Tommy Goodwin

Actor Tommy Goodwin. Photo by Daniel Sawyer Schaefer

“We’ve had a lot of really, really great extras that are all from the Northwest. I feel like the difference in people we have here versus in L.A. is that these people are excited at the idea of being a zombie,” she said. “Having them be excited…  makes it that much more fun and just makes it better because they want to be in it and they want to be scary.”

Foster has also enjoyed creating the looks for the main characters. Her favorite character to make up is “Murphy,” the only known survivor of a zombie bite, played by Keith Allan. As a survivor he has a few zombie battle wounds, to say the least, and is always in full character makeup.

“I think in general creating his look is by far my favorite thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of fun playing with the idea of him and what he is.”

Creating the undead every day is no easy task, and makeup has the longest days on set, along with wardrobe and transportation. Foster said her shortest day has been 13 hours, while her longest has been 20 when there are large scenes with a lot of extras. She said one day they had 53 extras, which understandably required all seven artists on set.

Luckily, Foster said she has had a few chances to unwind and explore a bit of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoyed an introductory visit to Seattle over the Fourth of July and also traveled out to the rainforest and Forks for a little Twilight sightseeing.

While the Z Nation crew may be filming in Washington, season one will not be taking us there in the show. However, Foster said there is still hope the survivors may make their way up to the Pacific Northwest.

“I believe they cross through on their way to California,” she said. “But that won’t be until season two, if there is a season two!”

Z Nation is giving a different perspective on the zombie story. Picking them out of the bumbling hoard, and creating individual characters. Zombie identity is changing and Foster and her team are going to show us what that looks like.

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