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Bloody, amazing: The VFX of The Walking Dead

Intense deliberation, meticulous planning and swift, decisive execution. Whether you’re delivering visual effects for a genre busting, award-winning series or leading a pack of fearless apocalypse survivors, you want to make sure there are no mistakes. Catching his breath on the heels of The Walking Dead's mid-season finale, Sam Nicholson, Founder and CEO of Stargate Studios, explains how both Stargate and television's favorite zombie hunters keep hitting hard and upping their game to come back strong, year after year.


 

Why visual effects?


I love solving complex problems, living on that edge of tech and art and doing things that have never been done before. It’s a collaborative art where you work closely with an amazing group of talented people, both in and outside your field, creating something together. It’s like an orchestra with everyone playing a different instrument. When everybody is perfectly tuned and in synch, incredible things happen. Since the pilot episode of The Walking Dead, it has been a perfectly tuned orchestra.


Season One's trailer and so many moments that first year are still so memorable.


The Walking Dead
created a template that has held strong and lasted for six years. I love pilots and the first season so much. I love being involved at the very beginning, figuring out what’s going to be the signature of the show, reaching for the magic of what will make it different. Once you know that, everything after is execution and refinement but it’s the lead-in that I find incredibly exciting from an artistic standpoint.


“If you’re working on a farm cutting the heads off chickens all day, do you really want to go and kill zombies at night? Probably not. But, if you’re sitting in a bank dealing with crabby customers, then yeah, you probably do.”

 


The Walking Dead VFX breakdown
Still from The Walking Dead, VFX breakdown



Why has this become such a driving force, shaping the way series' are now made?


First of all, AMC did a great job of letting the filmmakers make the series the way it should be made, with a realistic amount of violence and gruesome effects. Second, the market was primed to have a show like this. It plays to a sense of inner frustration. With the collapse of the stock market and things being what they are in the world, people feel…neutered, if you will. To go out and kill some zombies would probably be a strangely cathartic thing. That post-apocalyptic vision of seeing ourselves as heroic survivors in a future world is appealing to those who crave visceral entertainment. If you’re working on a farm cutting the heads off chickens all day, do you really want to go and kill zombies at night? Probably not. But, if you’re sitting in a bank, dealing with crabby customers, then yeah, you probably do (laughs).

“To degrain and regrain, to add shake and weave and dust hits and make it feel really organic is a challenge to any visual effects artist. It’s not Toy Story, it’s The Walking Dead.”


Also, we’ve been shooting The Walking Dead on 16mm film – it’s one of the only 16mm shows left – and everybody asks why. We tested every digital camera out there, we tested all formats large and small, and we decided on 16mm for the good of the show. Zombies look great in 16mm. Visual effects tend to be too clean, and achieving effects that are seemingly casual and dirtied up has posed a challenge. To degrain and regrain, to add shake and weave and dust hits and make it feel really organic is a challenge to any visual effects artist. It’s not Toy Story, it’s The Walking Dead.


 

 

 

“…we’d sit for hours…dissecting every single visual effect and talking about their ramifications, the genre’s history... We must’ve had 10 hours of discussions alone on how blood should explode when someone’s hit with a bullet.”



It’s taken the zombie genre to a new level.


It has. The vision of Gale Anne Hurd to recognize the property and to produce it so well is so important. She is on set every day and very dedicated to the show and the filmmakers know it. When you have an Executive Producer who is in the trenches with you, that means a lot. Then, when you have someone of the caliber of Frank Darabont doing the first season…well, he’s just extraordinary. In the beginning, we’d sit for hours in his office dissecting every single visual effect and talking about their ramifications, the genre’s history, Sam Peckinpah... there must’ve been 10 hours of discussions alone on how blood should explode when someone’s hit with a bullet. Every single aspect of the first season of The Walking Dead was decided upon with such extreme attention to detail and that has carried forward now, stylistically, for six years. The mark of a good series is this: That the pilot and the first season are so strong that even when other directors or whoever else come through comes through, they can enhance it but they can’t reinvent it.



Tell us more about the working relationship between Stargate and Frank Darabont.


He’s a director who cares about careful craftsmanship. Look at The Green Mile or The Shawshank Redemption. Frank is very, very interesting. He’s up for any idea, will discuss things endlessly in pre-production and refine and refine, but once you get on set, he knows exactly what he wants. For him, there’s a time to be wildly creative and a time to execute. He loves to plan the shoot, then shoot the plan. He has it all in his head and he sees the entire picture before you’ve even shot a foot of film.


“…we know what’s going to be good. Just think of Torso Girl. We know we've done our job when people say, “Oh, I remember her!”



The Walking Dead VFX breakdown
Still from The Walking Dead, VFX breakdown



How do you measure success? Do you read reviews and follow reactions on social media
?


All of our artists are The Walking Dead fans and they love visual effects, it’s true of all of them. Most of the effects are done out of our Atlanta studio and we built it in the production facility so the artists are on site, close to production. We have a very close creative tie to the show and there’s a lot of continuity because we’ve been doing it for so many years, and we know what’s going to be good. Just think of Torso Girl. We know we've done our job when people say, “Oh, I remember her!”

How does a zombie get made?


Well, first, everybody wants to be a zombie but the main thing you have to look at is, how much do they weigh? There aren’t a lot of chubby zombies (laughs). They did a fantastic job in Atlanta of casting every single thin person who showed up on that set. Torso Girl, for example, was one of the thinnest people I’ve ever seen. Once Greg got done with her with his prosthetics, and we were able to work on the torso and all of the guts, she became just amazing. Actually, remember the guy that was in the well, the one that got split in half – Water-Soaked Zombie? He was actually chubby and definitely got a reaction because of that in our dailies. Everyone saw him and went ‘Agggh!’ (laughs). Every day, we look at every single shot, every single version, with all of the artists in every network – right at breakfast time. If people drop their bagel then we know it’s a great shot (laughs). There’s a distinct style to a Walking Dead zombie that has to be adhered to.The blood has to be black. It has to have a Sam Peckinpah-style artistic violence. It has to be gritty and real and can’t look too slick.


How invested are you in this series and how important is its success to you?


I’m thrilled when the show is successful. I never want the visual effects to overshadow the story or be used incorrectly. The real challenge with visual effects for television in particular is that you have to hit a budget and a schedule. We’re the most proud at Stargate when we hit the creative mandate and we do it on schedule and on budget. That’s why you get invited back to the party year after year. You can have a hit show but if you’re over on these things, what good is it? To have a career in high end television like this, the ‘good-fast-cheap’ triangle has to be met all at once. Fortunately, Autodesk software, computational horsepower, storage, all those things, are moving in our direction to do better work each year, deliver more of it, and still hold the price at a constant.


“When you’re doing certain shots...you just know they’ll be iconic. I love a single shot…that becomes a poster moment and captures everything the show is about.”



What’s been the most digitally heavy shot


Season Six’s Episode One has the most digital-reliant shot, but the most complex has probably been the final shot of the first year, where Rick is on the tank surrounded by zombies and we pull all the way up above the buildings. We had to build four or five square blocks of downtown Atlanta, destroy it, populate it with zombies, then match move that into a move coming up from Rick’s face – on a crane up 50 or 60 feet into a completely digital world.


Everyone knows that one, having watched the series or not.


When you’re doing certain shots, shots like that one, you just know they’ll be iconic. The one where Rick is riding down the highway on the horse toward Atlanta, the one that became the poster shot, wasn’t particularly difficult to shoot but it had to be very pure and simple. It’s not always complexity that makes a shot great, it’s the strength of the design. That shot gives you the whole story and you understand immediately the concept of the whole series. The comic is well conceived and so wonderfully illustrated that we’re able to bring those iconic images to life. I just finished working on The Ten Commandments where we parted the Red Sea, so I love the whole Cecil B. DeMille ‘let’s go big’ approach, but at the same time, I love a single shot like that one that becomes a poster moment and captures everything the show is about.


Do you refer to the comics a lot?


Yes, I think you have to become fully immersed. To be good at visual effects is not just knowing the right plugin to use, it’s really understanding the story and the style and moving that style into every single frame and every single element of the work. You have to absorb it as a culture, go to Comic-Con, and get into the zombie thing all the way. Whatever you do, you have to do it really well.


“The concern used to be that an editor or director would stop on a frame in the edit bay…now, hundreds of thousands of people scour your shots online for some sort of a flaw.”

 

The Walking Dead VFX breakdown
Still from The Walking Dead, VFX breakdown



Did you know if Glenn was dead or not – and when did you know?


Well… we’re all very aware of the story but there’s a code of silence. We are careful with dailies and highly secure with the material because a single shot can be a spoiler. Obviously, we never say a word and everyone is sworn to secrecy. Given the amount of characters that get killed off on this show, we have to be exceedingly careful, always.


It’s astonishing how that final shot of him being swarmed was so heavily shared, discussed, and analyzed.


(Laughs) The concern used to be that an editor or director would stop on a frame in the edit bay and point out a problem with it while four or five other people were standing around, but now, hundreds of thousands of people scour your shots online for some sort of a flaw. It’s incredible. To do flawless work is very, very difficult on a television schedule. Certainly, there are always flaws to be found because nothing can ever be perfect. When it comes to visual effects in postproduction, everybody wants it to be perfect. Whatever didn’t go perfect in principle photography, they want to make up for in post. A lot of what we do is perfecting the images, making them better here and there, and it’s a continuous battle to do so alongside the budget and the schedule. Thanks to the collaboration of incredible artists and their talents, we are able to do that while still re-inventing the genre.




Stargate Studios
' visual effects teams deliver an average of 3,000 bloody, amazing shots per season for AMC’s 'The Walking Dead,' using
Maya for every grisly bit of modeling, rigging and animation.

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