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Walking Dead Set Visit: Greg Nicotero Explains His Whisperer Designs

Walking Dead Whisperer Close Up

The Whisperers have finally made the jump from page to screen, arriving on The Walking Dead in true, creepy style thanks to designs from makeup artist Greg Nicotero. Walking Dead has featured some disgusting and disturbing walkers in the past, but the Whisperers - people who wear masks they've made from the skins of the dead - are like nothing the show has included before.

Recent seasons of The Walking Dead have seen the show shift focus from the walkers as the main menace to the threat posed by other humans. And while that doesn't mean the zombies never appear, they have taken a bit of a backseat to the horrors perpetrated by the living. In which case, the Whisperers couldn't be arriving at a better time, combining the elevated threat that comes from humans with the gross-out factor of the dead's decaying skin.

Related: The Walking Dead's Whisperers: Season 9's New Zombie Villains Explained

Nicotero has been involved with The Walking Dead since day one and he now serves as an executive producer on the series as well a frequent director. His first love, however, is designing and creating all of the horrific makeups seen on the show. And when Screen Rant visited the set of The Walking Dead last fall, we asked  Nicotero about translating the creepy look the Whisperers have in the comics into practical masks for his actors:

"It’s tricky because the way they were drawn in the comic books, they were trying to emulate that sort of sagging skin. So they all looked melted. And I was like, ‘I don’t want them to look melted and I don’t want it to look like Leatherface, either.’ So the trick is you’ve got to preserve kind of the bone structure of the skull - even though, theoretically, the bone structure wouldn’t be there because they’re flaying the skin off. But when you look at the masks, you can see that we maintained that kind of deep eye sockets because I wanted the brow to stick out enough to put a shadow over the eyes. So when you look at the faces, everything’s in shadow, so you get nothing there.

We played a lot. I wanted to over-texture everything, so all the sculptures are really over-textured and really shriveled-looking and a lot of rot and decay. It’s just one thing that we’ve been really pushing with the masks is to have them feel a little different. And even changing the shape of the eyes, like some of the eyes you kind of just angle the shape of the outside of the eyes and they look sad. But then you combine that with you can’t see into the eye or into the mouth and then it’s like, it’s kind of creepy. How many recent movies have had the masked killer? That’s what scares people is that you can’t bargain with them because they’re soulless, they’re humanless. And now we’ve got a group of people that - they’re wearing dead f--king skins!"

The masks are a different experience than wearing makeup for the actors, too. For one, the performance must come entirely from movements of the head and body since their facial features are frozen. The occasional close-up may allow them to emote through their eyes, but then the design of the masks purposefully keeps much of their face in shadow. The Walking Dead also films primarily during the summer months in Atlanta, Georgia, and that presents yet another challenge for the actors in Whisperer masks - the heat.

"The thing about the makeups is, they can still breathe through aspects of their heads. But when you put that full mask on, it’s a whole different world. And I’ll tell you, none of them have complained. Like, Samantha’s [Morton] a f--king rock star, man. She loved it. She came in and we put her mask on and we were playing around with hair. I wanted her to be blonde, I wanted her to look a little different than some of the other characters. We did a head cast of her in the U.K., and I’m just thinking, ‘God, I hope none of these people are claustrophobic,’ because it’s challenging and it’s sort of pushing them to this whole new place of like, ‘OK, you’ve got to act but it’s 110 degrees in your head and you’re sweating.’ And they all love it, thank god."

Samantha Morton and Ryan Hurst are playing the Whisperers' leader, Alpha, and her second-in-command, Beta. Alpha makes her debut in the midseason premiere and has appeared in promotional materials for season 9 that offer a look at Morton in her Whisperer mask, blonde hair and all. Meanwhile, Hurst's Beta has only been glimpsed in trailers, but it does appear that he will retain his half-mask from the comics. That gives Beta not only a unique look among the Whisperers, but it will also leave Hurst's long beard exposed as another distinguishing feature.

By far, the Whisperers are the most disturbing new addition to The Walking Dead in years, and the designs Nicotero and his team have developed for them make are especially creepy.

Next: Walking Dead's Fair Explained: Who Will The Show Kill Off?

The Walking Dead season 9 continues next Sunday, February 17th with "Omega" at 9pm/8c on AMC.

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