From the looks of it, the many corpses on NCIS just have to lie there. But being dead is not as easy as it looks.
Michelle Martins was cast as a corpse in part because she's a stuntwoman. She plays Petty Officer Jody Ray in the Nov. 12 episode "Alibi"; her character sprints 80 yards before she gets hit by a truck and falls to the ground, like so:
"Oh, I'm not the dead body," Martins said with a straight face, wearing a bathrobe and sporting fake slices on her chest. "I just look like this."
Martins said crewmembers had been telling her all day that playing a dead woman must be a welcome break from the sprint-and-fall routine they'd shot earlier.
"I'd much rather sprint 80 yards over and over," she said.
NCIS executive producer Mark Horowitz, who casts the dead bodies, said whether he chooses a designated extra, a stuntperson, or an actor is dependent on whether the part requires the character "to appear alive." If the character is dead for the whole episode, he'll generally cast an extra. Whether the actor actually plays the corpse during shooting or whether they have to have a dummy made depends on "how severe their injuries are."
Horowitz is very particular about who gets cast. "Nothing looks worse than a bad dead body," he said. He explained that about half the people who audition to play a corpse can't keep their eyes still, whether they're open or closed. One time, a man playing a dead body left the set because he found his makeup far too disturbing.
"It's a hard, cold, metal autopsy table," Horowitz tells the people who audition for the part of a dead body. Because of the body drawers, he warned, "This is not the place for claustrophobic people."
"I try and weed out the faint of heart."
Brian Dietzen, who's been performing fake autopsies as Jimmy Palmer since the end of NCIS's first season, had his own take on the cadavers.
"Your whole body is freezing and your spot is on fire," he said of the bodies who have to lie on a cold metal table with the examiners' lights pointed at them, largely naked in the middle of a roomful of people. "It's kind of like living an anxiety dream."
Horowitz said some mothers of those he casts as dead bodies really don't like seeing their children as corpses, but Martins said her mother was tickled by the idea.
David McCallum (medical examiner Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard) said his performance is unaffected by the sentience of the figure on the autopsy table.
After Martins had climbed off the table, Horowitz proposed putting me in the body drawer.
He stood to my left and smiled for a photo before he rolled me in.
After he shut me in the drawer, I took this photo:
If the script calls for very severe injuries, then NCIS will have a corpse made to order. "It's a very expensive doll," Horowitz said.
W.M. Creations is the makeup effects studio that makes all the fake bodies on NCIS.
Several walls in W.M. Creations are covered in plaster heads that were cast from people who actually came to the studio; when one of those people dies, that person's head is moved from the production space to an office wall.
"We just transfer them to the other side," makeup artist Koji Ohmura said. "So to speak."
(President Abraham Lincoln is one of the celebrities who has not come to W.M. Creations — that plaster head was made from face casts done during his lifetime.)
Jim Gunter is playing a cadaver in Episode 11, "Homesick." Horowitz sent him to W.M. Creations along with this photo of his "death face." Gunter's character is dead for the entire episode.
After putting a skull cap on Gunter, effects makeup artists Koji Ohmura and Miyo Yamamoto massaged silicone onto his head. They said they make these casts once a week.
When he still had silicone only over his ears, Gunter said, "Do you have coffee here?"
Gunter had skipped coffee that morning because he knew he was going to have to sit very still while his whole face was coated in layers of silicone and plaster. This was not his first dead body role — he's played two or three other dead people — but it was his first time getting a cast of his face.
The whole process took about an hour. Different types of silicone are added as different layers of the cast — the back of the head, for one, has this faster-drying green silicone because the detail on the back of the head is not as important.
The makeup artists had to raise their voices so Gunter could hear them through the goop.
Every time Ohmura touched Gunter's nose, he said, "I'm working around your nose." He'd assure Gunter that he was making sure his nostrils were open so he'd be able to breathe.
"Doin' all right?" Yamamoto asked Gunter several times.
"Mhmm," he would mumble to her through the silicone.
When Ohmura carved out a small mouth opening, he told Gunter he could breathe through his mouth now if he wanted to.
As they put plaster bandages on the back of Gunter's head, Ohmura said, "It's getting heavier. I'm sorry for that."
Then, they put another layer of silicone — the faster-drying kind — over the slower-drying purple layer.
The front of his face was covered in plaster bandages to support the wobbly mold.
Once the plaster was set, they pried it off, faintly shouting out what they were doing so Gunter would know.
Ohmura carefully cut open the back of this silicone head, then eased the mask off and held it in front of Gunter. "Here's your face!" he said.
Yamamoto got Gunter his cup of coffee as soon as they took off the mask.
Ohmura noted that some makeup artists put straws in the nostrils to make sure they stay open. But "when we are working, we may hit it," he said, and they "try not to make bloody, real effects."
Gunter said he felt very relaxed throughout ("Pain is mind over matter"), but other people can find it rattling.
"If I see them moving a lot, then I talk to them more," Yamamoto said. Ohmura noted he will sometimes hold people's hands. They've both had casts of their heads made, so they know what it's like to trust your respiration to someone else.
Ohmura gestured to Michael Keaton's head. "Him and John Travolta were not cool with the process," he said.
There's a seam in Keaton's plaster head because the cast was made in two parts, so his face wouldn't be entirely coated at one time.
Gunter stayed in the chair as Yamamoto and Ohmura cleaned his face and carefully peeled off the skull cap. The mold, labeled NCIS, sat on the table.
Yamamoto and Ohmura checked the color of his hair against these hair samples. Gunter self-reported as "gray," but it was a little more complicated than that.
His hair was a mix of those two samples, they decided.
Ohmura took Gunter's measurements to use on the body doll itself. They'll find a similar body type in their collection and attach it to Gunter's one-of-a-kind head.
McCallum, who's been to the morgue several times for research, said the W.M. bodies feel like real dead bodies — the only noticeably unrealistic part is the lack of "omentum," a filmy membrane in the abdomen.