Interview with Howard Berger

Howard Berger is one of the founder of the well known K.N.B. Effects. Howard started the company with Greg Nicotero in 1988. After the past 20 years, Howard has worked with almost every director in Hollywood and on hundred of films. K.N.B won many awards, including an Academy Award for “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”. The have also worked on films like “Army of Darkness”, “Kill Bill” series, “Sin City” and “Dances with Wolves”. Movie Mikes was able to talk with Howard and get him to reflect on phenomenal career.

Click here to purchase “Narnia” and other K.N.B. films

Mike Gencarelli: You’ve done special effects on over 150 movies and TV shows, name some of your favorite productions and why?
Howard Berger: I would say one of my favorites is “Army of Darkness”. I just love it. It was during a period of time that was like the good old days. Working on the film you just kind of jumped in and did it. Everyone worked as hard and as long as you had to and did whatever the director needed. It was really fun. The end result ended up being really great. It is something that we are really proud of and that movie is really dear to me. It was just so much fun. “From Dusk till Dawn” is definitely also one of my most favorite films. What was fun about it was that Greg (Nicotero) and I were both there, he ran the set and I ran the shots, unfortunately that doesn’t happen anymore. We had a facility on the set, where we did all the makeup and built all the stuff as fast as we could. Greg would stay on set with Robert Rodriquez. We would be on radio and Greg would yell, “Hey Howard, next shot”, and we would throw it together. Robert would add stuff as he went along and Greg would go “Do we have a body we can put in a vampire outfit and light it on fire?” I would give it to Greg and then he would orchestrate it on set. That was like six weeks just for the vampire sequence alone and was very exhausting. We were getting very little sleep and there was little turnaround. But still that one is one of my all-time favorites. The first “Narnia”, I am really super proud of. It was the biggest show we’ve done and biggest crew I have ever run on set. It was super hard but it taught me a lot of being the boss and being a leader. When we were doing that film, we were also doing a bunch of other stuff at same time. Greg was in Toronto doing “Land of the Dead” and we were on opposite time schedules. He was shooting nights in Toronto and I was shooting days in New Zealand. We would pick a time on Sundays, which was both our only day off to talk and check in, so that way we can be involved with what we were both working with on different ends of the world. It was really great and obviously paid off because we ended up winning an Oscar for it. Out of all the movies we’ve done those are my favorites. I calculate my favorites by if I can sit down and watch them now. I can always watch “Army of Darkness”. I can always watch “From Dusk Till Dawn” and of course “Narnia”. I am sure that there is a handful more but it is really only a handful.

Mike Gencarelli: What was the most challenging production that you have ever worked on?
Howard Berger: I would have to say for me it was really the “Narnia” films. It really kicked my ass. They were tough but I really love them. I am lucky we were able to get a chance to work on them.

Mike Gencarelli: You’ve been working special makeup effects and visual effects your whole career, how do you feel about CGI and how it seems to be taking over?
Howard Berger: It depends because we use it as a tool. We have become friends with CGI over the years. I believe that is why when we do movies the effects are successful, since we really interface with the visual effects department and that is the trick. If you fight against them, that is an issue and if you throw your hands up, that is an issue too. I think it has application obviously. Every single movie has some form of visual effects in it. Romantic comedies even have CGI effects in them. As long as it is used properly, I don’t mind it.

MG: How do you feel about the recent 3D craze?
HB: I think 3D is cool. It worked magnificently with “Avatar” because James Cameron is a genius. People say “Avatar” did well because it was in 3D and that is untrue. It did well because it was a good story and had new visuals. James Cameron created a new world we have never been to. When you have movies that are made in 2D and they convert them in 3D, like “Clash of the Titans”. It ends up biting them in the ass, because people say “This is the worst 3D, we’ve ever seen”. “Clash of the Titans” did not need to be 3D; they were just jumping on the bandwagon. It you are going to do 3D, you should do it properly.

MG: You’ve worked in virtually every movie genres, do you have a favorite?
HB: I tell you the truth, my favorite genre is fantasy. I am sounding like a broken record but I really love the world we created in “Narnia”. As I have gotten older, I really do not do the whole “gore” world anymore. I do not enjoy those films at all. I do not find torture being a horror film, it is obscene. As a guy on set, I also hate being covered in blood, so the less blood on me the better.

MG: Which directors/actors has been the most fun to work with during your movies?
HB: Oh gosh, there are a lot of them. For directors, I love Quentin Tarantino. He is great and the opportunities I have had to be on set with him were really amazing, especially “Kill Bill”. I really learned a lot watching him and he is just wonderful. I love Andrew Adamson, who did the first two “Narnia” films. He really makes you work hard and think outside the box. Actor-wise, James McAvoy was a dream come true to work with. Robert Englund was by far one of my most favorite people to do makeup on. I got to do Freddy’s makeup when I was working for Kevin Yagher on “Nightmare on Elm Street 4”. Robert Englund is one of the nicest guys in the universe and a complete pleasure to do his makeup. Peter Dinklage and Warwick Davis were also both great. We got to do “The Book of Eli” last year and worked with Gary Oldman. Greg was on set not me but I got to interface with Gary during the testing periods. Any actor that appreciates your craft, shows interest and makes positive comments, bring them on! We do 50% and they have to do 50% to perform in it, since it is their face on camera.

MG: What happens to all these amazing creatures and effects that you create after the movies are finished?
HB: They all live here at K.N.B. We have a big storage facility in the back of the shop and everything is maintained by us. The studio and production office take ownership on the image on film. We retain ownership of the physical piece. Way back when we started out, we ended up handing over a lot of our stuff and it caused us to lose some jobs. People would call us up and say “Can we get some bodies…You know what never mind we have these already”. Greg and I came up with an adjusted contract so that we own rights to the physical piece.

MG: Besides special makeup effects and visual effects, you actually puppeteered in a few of your movies, does this stray far from your normal job description?
HB: I think it all fits in. Monster makers make the best monsters. Whether it is in a suit or puppeteering, it is what we are good at. When we were kids we ran around pretending we were the famous monsters and you just have a sense for it. I really do enjoy puppeteering. I have haven’t had an opportunity to do it for a while since it rarely come up often anymore. It’s part of being a monster maker to have a flow about the creature you are building and being able to execute it and create the performance on set.

MG: You have won both an Academy Award and BAFTA Award for your work on “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”, do you consider this the highlight of your career?
HB: I do. I do. I think it doesn’t really get better than that. After that I was sort of like what am I going to do now? It has been a childhood dream to win those awards and when it happened it was really truly a dream come true.

MG: I was told to ask you by someone with the initials G.N., if you have custom covers made for your “Narnia” display heads?
HB: Yes, I do have custom covered for the “Narnia” display heads. I actually care about making sure that they are protected compared to everything else in the shop. I am going to have to have a talk with that person after this [laughs].

MG: Have you ever considered directing any of your films?
HB: I did for a while but I am really not interested now. Greg is the director of the group and I think he has a great attitude for it. He has the patience and also the vision. He just did this short that we co-produced together, where he wrote and directed. He did a really fantastic job; I can’t say enough great things. I love what I do, but I also love my private time and doing my own personal things. For me being with my children is a huge thing now and to be honest, I am too selfish to direct. I have given spent decades of my life to the film industry, and I am in my mid-40’s now and I like the way my life is.

MG: What can you tell me about what the future holds for you?
HB: My plan is to keep K.N.B. going and keep doing really fun and inventive projects. Hopefully we can bring new things to the industry and also the audience. I just enjoy doing this and I want to keep having fun doing this. It is difficult now because it is a different world and also a different film industry. The studios and producers seem to care only about finances and the questions come up. Does anyone care of the movie being actually good? What about it being fun for the audience? Do they care about the quality? I would love somehow to be able to help guide film making back to where it should be. I am going to try and do my best and reinstate the art in the art of it. There seems to be little art left because it has been sucked dry by the bean counter. It is all about profit margin and trying to do something for as inexpensive as possible. The movies we all grew up on weren’t made that way. People cared about making the movie something special. I am just going to continue and hope to keep having fun doing what I am doing.

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