Howard Berger


After working with the late, great Stan Winston on Predator and Aliens, and later, American Werewolf in London’s Rick Baker on Harry and the Hendersons, creature and effects maker Howard Berger teamed up with friend and fellow monster-maker Gregory Nicotero to form the KNB EFX Group, Inc. in Los Angeles.

Over the last twenty years, KNB have worked on a bevy of blockbusters – they won an Academy Award for their work on The Chronicles of Narnia : The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,  worked with Peter Jackson on King Kong, came up with the wild creatures of Men in Black, and for the new film Surrogates, the company successfully cloned Bruce Willis! CLINT MORRIS talks to the amiable Berger about his work on the highly-anticipated sci-fi thriller.

You’re in Queensland now?

I am. I’m on the last day of shooting the actual Dawn Treader for Chronicles of Narnia : Voyage of the Dawn Treader. And it’s going great. It has a big Australian cast – almost ninety percent of the performers are Australians.

Oh wonderful. Now congratulations on the Oscar win for Narnia, by the way.

Thank you. Thanks a lot!

Now did the Oscar Win suddenly make you the ‘Go-To Guy’ for Make-Up and Effects more so than before?

It certainly did not hurt, but KNB has always had a pretty good reputation. We’ve always been respected – but now we’re well respected [Laughs].

Is there healthy competition between KNB and the other effects companies in Hollywood – like, say, Stan Winston Studios?

Yeah, there’s basically three other top shops – there’s Spectral Motion, who works with Guillermo Del Toro on such movies as Hellboy; there’s ADI, who has worked on Alien Vs Predator, and a whole slew of other films; and the other one is what used to be Stan Winston Studios and they’re now called Legacy, and it’s run by a couple of guys who use to work with [the late] Stan [Winston]. Those three companies are our main competition – but its friendly competition. We all catch up once a month for dinner to talk about what’s going on the industry and the best way to approach things. It’s great.

So with a film like Surrogates, do you go in and pitch the studio or the director – in this case, Jonathan Mostow?

Absolutely. A few of the different companies submit their ideas to the producer and the director. And in this case, they decided to hire us. These days, more often than not, studios and filmmakers are coming to us – it’s much easier than having to pursue things.

And what were you responsible for in Surrogates?

Let’s see, we did a lot of stuff in the movie…. But since I haven’t seen the movie yet, I’m not sure what made it in there and what didn’t. We made robotic versions of the main actors, like Ving Rhames and Bruce Willis. We made up a lot of Surrogates for say, background shots. And some of the surrogates are damaged – say they have a damaged head or something – so we’d come up with damaged versions.

In the film, when you purchase a Surrogate you can customise it – kinda like customising a clone – however you want. Say you want to put spikes all over your head, or say you want to be a lizard-man, or maybe you want to paint yourself all black, like chrome – we’d do those, too.

And we were also responsible for what we call the endo-skeleton – which is what’s inside the Surrogate. It was pretty cool. We built it all from scratch. It’s like building a full-size human model kit.

Everything we did was a good combination of practical and CGI effects – and we do that because we love to trick the audience, it’s great when they don’t know what’s real and what’s not. I think sometimes if something looks too computer-generated or too much like an effect it can take an audience out of a movie.

And the humans are supposed to look better than their surrogate counterparts in the film, right?

Yeah, absolutely – that’s the whole pretence of the film. Say you think you looked your best at 21-years-old, you order a surrogate at that age – they can party, go out with girls and so forth. But something is happening to these Surrogates. It’s up to Bruce Willis to find out what’s going on.

Do you still use KY Jelly?

Yeah, I still use KY Jelly – absolutely! [Laughs]. Whenever the Surrogates get hurt, and their insides are exposed underneath, that’s a case of KY Jelly – painted fluorescent green, with powder that has a metallic feel to it – you’re seeing.

Do you have to actually spend time on the set?

Yeah, absolutely. There was a very short pre-production period, which seems to be the new thing in Hollywood, so a lot of the time we’re still building things on set. My business partner Greg Nicotero and I split up the shows so one of us can always be on set. This one was filmed in Boston.

So you work on multiple projects at once?

Yeah, absolutely – KNB is always busy. It’s rare that we’ve only got one show going. Last year, for instance, we were doing Drag Me to Hell, Surrogates, Final Destination, Public Enemies, and Inglourious Basterds all at once. So we were here, there and everywhere!

[Sorry folks, had to remove “Predators” mention]

Thanks so much for chatting to us about Surrogates, and your career, today Howard.

Not at all. Thank you very much.

SURROGATES is now showing

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Caffeinated Clint
Clint is the creator, editor and maintainer of Moviehole. Loves David Lynch, David Fincher... actually, any filmmaker by the name of David.