Howard Berger — An Oscar Winner on Leadership, Teamwork, Taking Risks, and Great Directors
Howard Berger (@hoops511) traces the seeds of his special make-up effects career all the way back to a childhood obsession with monsters. His fascination with scary characters started after he was introduced to the film “Godzilla” around age four.
As a prolific special effects artist and the co-founder of KNB EFX Group, Howard has worked on iconic films such as “Kill Bill,” “Django Unchained” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
In this episode of Outliers (which is brought to you by Flow), I sit down with the Academy Award winner to discuss:
- The twists and turns of his award-winning career.
- His artistic process (starting with script reading).
- What he’s learned about teamwork.
- What it’s like working with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
“Filmmaking is supposed to be fun,” he says. “It is a challenge. It can be difficult. … At the end of the day, it’s the director’s vision. And you really all work as a team under one umbrella to facilitate that director’s vision.”
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Howard Berger’s parents never questioned why their son loved drawing monsters as a kid. His fascination with scary characters started after he was introduced to the film “Godzilla” around age four.
“For about three years, I was convinced I was either Dracula or Godzilla,” Howard says in this episode of Outliers. “I’d always wear a vampire cape and stomp around the house and destroy my sister’s things because that’s what Godzilla would do.” It wasn’t until after he saw the original “Planet of the Apes” movie that he realized his monster obsession could pave the way for a career in the film industry.
He’s won numerous awards, including an Emmy and an Oscar for his special make-up effects artistry turning actors into monsters. In this interview, I’m talking with Howard on the twists and turns of his award-winning career, his artistic process (starting with script reading), what he’s learned about teamwork, what it’s like working with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and much more.
Above all, Howard drives home what he values most: having fun. He’s living his dream, and while it might seem easy, making movies is hard work — a lot of it. Howard explains how he remains positive after 90, or even 100-hour workweeks (!), and how he embraces being the film industry equivalent of a bartender or psychiatrist.
“Once I have the trust of the actor and I trust the actor, then I really feel good about it,” says Howard, noting that makeup artists spend more time with actors than anyone else on set. “You start their day, you’re with them all day long, and then you finish their day when they come and get cleaned up … be there and be their confidant.”
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Connect with Howard
Links from the Episode
- Aurora Monster Models, the toy that furthered young Howard’s affinity for monsters
- Greg Nicotero, Co-Founder and Owner of KNB EFX Group (and Howard’s best friend)
- “Instant Family,” a film Howard worked on with Mark Walberg that didn’t include special makeup
- “Planet of the Apes,” the movie that made Howard want to become a makeup artist for film
- “Famous Monsters of Filmland,” a magazine the furthered Howard’s love of monsters
- “Kill Bill,” the movie series that Howard worked on that made him dislike doing bloody makeup
- Little Marvin, a producer and writer that Howard just worked with who he thinks is on the brink of stardom
- Dirk Rogers
- “Lone Survivor,” one of the movies Howard has been makeup department head on
- Andrew Adamson, director of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the film for which Howard won an Oscar that was produced by Mark Johnson
- Anthony Hopkins, one of the actors Howard worked with on the film “Hitchcock”
- Weta Workshop, the New Zealand-based film prop and special effects company founded by Sir Richard Taylor
- Tami Lane
- Local 706, the official labor union for make-up artists and hair stylists in film, television, stage and digital media.
“We basically went through the wardrobe. We lived in Narnia for seven months in New Zealand. And when the movie ended, we came out of the wardrobe and we were all heartbroken. To me, it’s my most favorite film I ever worked on, on all levels. And I’m super proud of the work.”
“It’s almost like working in the industry is like dog years. One year equals seven years. I always feel like one year in the film industry equals five years to your life. But you can counteract that with laughter — and the more you laugh, the longer you live. So at this point, I’m thinking I’m going to be probably about 1,000 years old because I’m always laughing.”
“When you’re on a show and you’re getting along with all the costume people, and you’re getting along with the camera crew and you’re getting along with the script supervisor and so forth, then it’s really magical because you feel like you’re a team and you’re friends with everybody.”
“All makeup effects shops are basically the ‘Island of Misfit Toys.’ So it’s like all the broken, weird, misshapen, reject toys all somehow gravitate to the world of makeup effects and everybody’s their own individual.”
Leaders don’t point fingers, they solve problems
“I want to keep my team’s energy up. I don’t ever want them to worry about anything except about the work. So I take the brunt of everything, but that’s what a leader does. I don’t pass the buck. I don’t throw people under the bus if there’s an issue, even if it’s somebody else’s issue … it’s about not placing the blame. It’s about rectifying the situation. … I always say everything after ‘but’ is baloney, essentially.”
Optimism is the mindset of the successful
“I surround myself with very optimistic and positive people. So I don’t have people like, ‘yeah, these guys suck.’ … I don’t have room for that. I don’t have time for that. And I don’t want that sort of energy invading my department or the film set. If you don’t want to be here, I’m good. You can go home. Trust me. I’m going to be fine without you. And you’re going to be fine without me. There’s the door. … even if you’re having a bad day, you know, tomorrow’s a new day and it’s going to be a better day.”
Come prepared, but don’t forget to ask questions
“The best directors are the ones that come prepared. They understand the script. … they have a plan, they’re sensible. They listen. They respect your opinion and your contribution. And then they plant a seed and let that seed grow … how I judge a good director is the way the director deals with actors. … That’s the other thing too, asking questions is super important. No question is dumb.”
When the system changes, make it work for you
“There used to be an apprenticeship. … when the studios ran everything and it was really, really great … there used to be a makeup and hair apprenticeship and you had to go through that in order to be eligible to join the union and get jobs. And I feel like we really miss that. Now, we take apprenticeship upon ourselves … especially in light of trying to be more inclusive and diverse in the people that are in our industry.”
Talent isn’t valuable if you’re too hard to work with
“Art of course is very important, but I’m not always looking for artists. I’m looking for craftspeople, people that are great thinkers that think outside the book box and can do this project, or I can hand this over, and attitude is a huge thing. We’ve had people that are great artists, but not really great people. And we’ve weeded them out. And then I’ve had maybe not the best artists, but they’re really wonderful people. And we’ve kept them on and we’ve nurtured them and they’ve become very successful in what they do. I’m way more willing to be patient and invest my time into people that want to be there and really love it.”
Good leaders seek out people with superior, complementary skills
“I always look for people that are enthusiastic, that are going to be part of the team, that are gonna make us look better. … That’s why I like to work a lot with Tami Lane. Tami is way better at certain things than I am, you know? And I’m better at certain things than she is — not many, but maybe one or two things — but it’s good. You want to have people that are better than you. Like I’m not that proficient at beauty makeup on women. … Tami’s way better at it. So I look at people that have strength in that area more so than I do.”
The responsibility of being your coworkers’ confidant
“Once I have the trust of the actor and I trust the actor, then I really feel good about it. As a makeup artist, you’re actually kind of a little bit of like a bartender/psychiatrist. You spend more time with actors than anybody. You start their day, you’re with them all day long, and then you finish their day when they come and get cleaned up, and it’s been nice. … You build an environment in the makeup trailer that the actors feel they’re safe. And that they’re being taken care of and being respected and are there to have a good time. And that’s really, really important to me.”
Professional boundaries FTW
“I have also learned, because I get to work with so many actors, that you still have to draw a line in the sand for yourself. I don’t go out and have dinner with actors. When I say I’m friends with them that means occasionally, like text messages or maybe a call, not … let’s go to Disneyland and hold hands. … you have to be careful of your relationship. You’re still a professional.”
Supportive parents make a world of difference
“My father passed away 25 years ago and he never got to see any of this. And I think that if he had the opportunity, he would be like, ‘what do you mean, you won an Oscar?’ … And it always goes back to me thinking about my parents, because both my parents passed a long time ago. And I always think if they were here, they’d flip because this was my dad’s dream. And I just really was lucky that I got to live it, and I just know that he’s hopefully looking down and going, ‘wow, I can’t even believe that my son accomplished so much.’ So I’m very proud of what I’ve done, but I’m also very, very grateful. Every day I wake up and I’m like, ‘thank you so much for letting me do this.’”
Take the leap — it could be the ‘chance of a lifetime’
“It’s just a lot of hard work, and just having taken the initiative, it was scary. I was scared taking a chance all the time. Like I used to work for people, I used to work for Rick Baker and Stan Winston and Kevin Jaeger. And then one day I said, ‘I’m going to start my own company with my friend, Greg Nicotero.’”
Kindness is key
“We need to be kind to each other. We need to be considerate and respectful and we need to do what makes us happy. And that’s important. … Have a great time. This is what life’s supposed to be, fun. We’re here for a reason. It’s not to be miserable. It’s to enjoy it and make other people’s lives better.”