Rock ‘N Roll Makeup Artistry: Getting to Know The Walking Dead’s Jake Garber

Jake Garber isn’t just an Oscar-nominated makeup artist; he’s a zombie guru who makes his living transforming ordinary people into Walkers on The Walking Dead with the critically acclaimed special effects crew, KNB EFX. A self-ascribed rock-n-roller, Garber has an acute predilection for crafting special effects makeup in sci-fi and horror titles, having had a hand in nearly every genre out there.

Donning his work uniform—a weathered leather jacket, a vintage concert tee, and an iPod shuffling The Clash, The Stooges, and The Rolling Stones—Garber’s gone to work on legendary film and television sets. With an oeuvre that includes Kill Bill, Mad Men, Hellboy, Star Trek, The X-Files, Sin City and Django Unchained, he’s one of the most sought-after makeup artists working in the industry.

Over an iced black coffee in LA, Jake Garber talked with us about his career; from casting Walkers on The Walking Dead, to working with Quentin Tarantino, and how he copes with his unlikely fear of real-life blood.

THE CREDITS: How did you get into the world of makeup application?

GARBER: I was a horror movie junkie when I was growing up—Frankenstein, Wolfman, all of that. I loved Halloween. I like to say that what I do is a ‘Halloween hobby gone bad.’ [laughs]

Were you inspired by any specific movies while you were growing up?

There were a couple of landmarks. The first one I remember was Frankenstein—the Karloff one—that really did something to me. I thought the makeup was fantastic. Then, a little bit later on, the original Planet of the Apes really did a number on me. As far as makeup effects go, there was The Thing by John Carpenter, where Rob Bottin did all of these outlandish transformations without CGI or anything. It was outlandish. Complete fantasy. And it was done incredibly well.

How did you break into the field?

I’m from Minneapolis originally, where I met a makeup artist named Gary Boham. I was under his wing for about a year or so and I ended up doing corporate training films, runway, print ads, music videos—anything to pay the bucks. I did that for about five years and then I moved out to LA in 1989. I got a job making masks for Universal to walk around; masks for Frankenstein, Wolfman. That was the first job I had in Los Angeles and every job I’ve had since has kind of originated from that.

What do you love most about working in the horror genre?

I like doing the characters. The blood and guts stuff is honestly, kind of easy. For example: if you dump blood all over somebody and have a chainsaw wound on their chest, you can get away with a lot. If there’s an edge showing, you can just cover it up with blood. But if you’re putting, say, a false nose in the middle of somebody’s face, then you have to be more exacting. People tend to look at the blood stuff as being really wild—but in actuality, it’s probably the easiest aspect of the work.

What has been the most difficult makeup application you’ve done?

The one that was most challenging recently was on Django Unchained. We did a makeup test on Sam Jackson to make him look older. Sam really wanted to have a certain look for it, so we did a number of tests.

The guys at KNB did about 4 or 5 re-sculpts for each subsequent make up test. We did the make up tests in New Orleans, along with Allan Apone, until we got it.

It was difficult because everyone knows what an older black guy looks like or what somebody who’s bald looks like. You could do an alien, and not everybody’s seen that, so you have a bit more freedom with it. The real stuff is a lot more exacting—and, in that respect, it’s a lot more rewarding. If you can sign onto set and everyone wonders what you’re doing there, you can be like “ok, I must have done pretty good.”

You’ve won 3 Emmys for your work in The Walking Dead. That’s a tall order for special effects work on zombies, seeing as it’s such a ubiquitous pop culture figure. How did you come up with an innovative take for the show’s ‘walkers’?

I work for Greg Nicotero, who owns KNB—he’s one of the premiere zombie guys around. He’s the designer on the show in addition to being one of the executive producers and he directs on the show as well. He’s the one who came up with the new zombie, which he worked on in conjunction with (TWD writer) Frank Darabont, initially. We basically looked at the artwork from Robert Kirkman’s novel.

The biggest asset was something that Greg Nicotero was insistent on, which was that we be involved with the casting of the walkers. Greg started up a Zombie School that taught them how to walk and how to move. We have a very certain look that we like—we want to hire thin people with gaunt looks, not people with really strong features, per se.  We don’t want to have any long chins or big foreheads or anything like that. Actually, long necks are good. So there are certain physicalities we look for in the walkers, but the bottom line is that they have to perform well.

Working in the horror genre, do you ever get scared on set?

I don’t. But ironically, I cannot stand the sight of blood. I hate it! Real blood in any shape or form tends to get me a little bit—I have to catch my breath. The fake stuff, I know what it is: I can dump gallons of it on a set and not think twice about it, but if someone cuts their finger and a tablespoon of blood comes out, I’ll probably need a drink [laughs].

I take it you don’t watch Discovery Health for creative inspiration.

Well, I can watch those shows because there’s a filter with the screen [laughs]. But there are side jobs us makeup effects artists do—medical trade shows—and we’ll go to surgeries for research. I went to one where they were removing a lung from a woman to do a biopsy. For whatever reason, there was a complication and we saw, via camera, that the woman had started to bleed out—it was only a couple of seconds of course, they remedied it, and everything was fine—but I saw that blood and I just started to hyperventilate in the surgical mask. The doctors were like ‘get him out of here!’ I sat the rest of it out in the hallway. It’s a little embarrassing getting woozy over some blood, but hey, you deal with it [laughs].

For reference points, just about every special effects artist will start out looking at forensic books. That way, we know what burns look like, what wounds look like. But, even in that, we create the reality of what people think things are supposed to look like. For example, with a decapitated head—we all want it to look ‘real,’ with rosy cheeks and everything. But photos of actually decapitated heads don’t look like that—they look fake and like they’re made of wax, because all the blood drains from the head. If we did that for the film, people would say it looks fake.

You’ve worked on a number of Quentin Tarantino movies. Can you explain what that’s like?

To work on them is a blast. He is a genius and I’m not saying that in a sycophantic way at all. His retention of film and television history is unbelievable. Because of that, there’s a shorthand that we have. He’ll come up to me and say “Do this thing, like in Stagefright”—and he doesn’t have to go any further, because I know where he’s coming from. The one thing that he’s sort of famous for is he doesn’t allow any electronic media anything on set. No cell phones, iPhones, no iPads, nothing—not on vibrate, just not there. I’ve been on set once where someone beeped during a take and it was not good. [Tarantino] shut it down for the afternoon, he was just livid. And I agree with him about his reasoning: it makes people talk to each other. Quentin likes to have certain people around him. He’s always got music going on set, he knows what he wants.

He’s also completely opposed to digital effects—to the point where, as a makeup artist, you really have to bring your A-game. When we did Inglorious Bastards—at the end of the movie, Christoff gets the swastika carved in his forehead and it would have been a perfect example to say you know let’s do it this way, it’s safer, but Quentin wants the real thing. So I said ‘I’m going to do the cutting.” I knew that it was a razor sharp knife, and I knew that if we had any over-zealous extra involved, we would have lost our lead actor! But no error at all, it worked out well. That was pretty much the toughest day on set I ever had [laughs].

Did you have a favorite special effect that you worked on in Django Unchained?

There was some stuff I did on Leonardo DiCaprio, with his make up artist Heba Thorisdottir, that I was pleased with—and that people might not ever know about. He had just gotten back from Australia and had started to grow a beard out, but it wasn’t as full as he wanted. So I lengthened his beard and laid hair on it to give him a Colonel Sanders point. I love doing that sort of stuff, where people are like, ‘oh you did that?’

You’ve worked with so many prolific film icons—from Quentin Tarantino, to Uma Thurman, on Star Trek, The X-Files, and with Ron Perlman. What do you think has been your biggest ‘wow’ moment while working in Hollywood?

Getting nominated for an Oscar years ago, for Star Trek First Contact. They have a nominees luncheon and you see all these celebs there. I started walking toward the group picture and I was just like ‘how am I here?’ That one really hit me. It was bizarre. Going to the Oscars, it was great to go to it. But that’s not why I do what I do. I have friends who are basing their entire lives on validation, that’s just not really my scene.

Is there a must-read book you’d recommend to up-and-coming makeup artists? And do you have any advice for those who are new to the field?

I recommend reading Stage Makeup by Richard Corson and The Technique of the Professional Makeup Artist by Vincent Kehoe. My advice is this: just do the work. If you’re good, you’re going to get hired. It’s a pretty small community and I think everyone has to pay your dues. You’re not going to start and get on set with Quentin Tarantino. You have to show somebody that you’re willing to do what it takes and you’re not going to get it for free. You also have to be your own worst critic. Practice. Get in the lab. Work your way up. Just do it—and do it because you love it.

Aside from working on major special effects projects, you’ve also had a hand in reality and beauty makeup. Can you tell us about your work on Mad Men?

On Mad Men, I worked for Debbie Zoller, who was our department head. I did makeup on the secretaries. I was basically a soldier. I showed up and she told me what to do.

She had done her research just amazingly. There was a bible there that basically said: these are the colors you can use—the palette, the type of material, everything. Certain things were off limits. There was no lower eyeliner, no iridescent cheek colors, only a certain range of lip color you could use, certain eyelashes. There was a very specific look.

Even so, we would have actors come in and say ‘Could I get some eyeliner?’ We had to say no, of course, because they didn’t do it back then [during the time period of Mad Men.]. Upper eyeliner sure, but lower liner? No way. And more often than you would think, someone would sneak off and do their eyeliner anyway! When that happened, we had the ability to let them go from the project. You knew it right away—if someone walked on set with an iridescent lip color, they’d be gone. Purple? Gone. Iridescent blush? Gone. It was very very specific. To have people undoing your work to look good, I don’t have much tolerance for that. It’s not about looking good, it’s about looking the part. If you want to be a model, be a model. An actor is something else. Hunter S. Thompson had a great quote: “you bought the ticket, take the ride.”

Speaking of taking the ride, I’m curious about your work on The Walking Dead, with the especially gory and gruesome parts. A while back, we interviewed a foley artist who used animal parts to make sound effects. Do you incorporate similar products into your work?

Oh yes. Nicotero is a big advocate of using real stuff. We have some fake things, but we use things like chicken breasts, chicken skin. Anything organic. As a matter of fact, I did one thing for the Amityville Horror Remake—for the bits of meat, we went out and got racks of ribs and sausage. I stuck it in the production freezer and crafts services ran out of food, so they came in and made it! [laughs] But yeah, we use primarily organic material–we’ve used real cow intestines, sausage casings, things like that.

I imagine, at times, it must smell horrible on set.

Well, there’s a way you can process it so it’s not as bad, but I’m biased. I used to work at a mink ranch and they had some smells that I’ll probably never get out of my head.

The Walking Dead has become one of the most successful television shows on air. How does it feel to be a part of such a thriving project?

It’s kind of bizarre because we are so far away from everyone when we shoot. We shoot in Senoia, Georgia. So we’re not really around a lot of people. A lot of fans have since shown up—but on Season 1, we were in downtown Atlanta and no one even knew who we were. On the first day of Season 2? There were helicopters overhead trying to catch it! It just got really big really fast. In the beginning, we were thinking of carrying around business cards around to say: “We’re on the show The Walking Dead, would you want to be a zombie on it?” Because everyone we asked said no—they just didn’t know what the show was. Now, we have to pretend like we don’t even work on it.

Do people ever just come up to you and act like zombies?

Oh yeah. And even if they do get the part, everyone wants to either eat someone or be killed. But, come on, not everyone can play lead guitar in the band! [laughs].


Want to make yourself into a walker, but lack Jake Garber's makeup expertise? Fear not, check out this app from The Walking Dead to make yourself into a walker. 

And, of course, be sure to watch the return of The Walking Dead Season 3, this Sunday on AMC.

Feature image: Make Up Artist Jake Garber with Zombie Puppet. Photo by Gene Page, courtesy of andThe Walking Dead Prouctions, LLC.

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