Primetime: AMC's 'The Walking Dead'
Issue: March 1, 2015

Primetime: AMC's 'The Walking Dead'

Anyone who watches The Walking Dead, airing Sunday nights on AMC, knows that zombies can be blown up, dismembered, stabbed, shot, crushed and set on fire — but the only way to actually kill them, is to kill their brains. The highly-successful, Emmy Award-winning series, based on Robert Kirkman’s original comics, has, for the past five seasons, been feeding viewers’ appetites for a zombiepocalypse. The Walking Dead tells the story of how survivors (non-zombies) of the pandemic are left to exist, relying solely on basic survival skills. While there’s not much by way of electricity, heat, gas or pre-packaged food for survivors, there certainly are plenty of zombies — as well as a multitude of ways to kill them. According to Al Lopez, VP of creative services at LA’s Stargate Studios, which works closely with the show’s VFX supervisor Victor Scalise, the “zombie kills” are “the bread and butter shots,” and the majority of the studio’s work on the series.

“There’s such a wide range of ways to kill a zombie in every episode and [the producers] are always coming up with new ones,” explains Lopez. “So, a lot of what we do is the violence — the killing of zombies. The blood when [the humans] stab them, the extensions of the weapons that they kill them with, the decapitations. For the most part, especially when we get into cutting the body and cutting body parts off, that’s us taking the footage and adding wounds, blood, taking off body limbs and making them fly off.”

Lopez points to scenes with one of the show’s characters, Michonne (actress Danai Gurira), who has been known to use her blade to slice up a few zombies. “That’s the focus of what we do,” he says, “which is cool, because they’re very creative on how to kill zombies.”

“Basically, anything they won’t legally let us do to a real actor,” jokes Michael Cook, VFX artist at Stargate. “We also do set extensions. For instance, last year, [some characters] were approaching a fence around a prison, which was shot on location where they didn’t actually have that building. So, we created a full 3D building and put it in seamlessly.” 

Stargate has also been known to add hundreds of zombies to scenes originally  shot with just a handful of zombie actors.

Lopez explains that for the actual zombie kills, a good amount of the VFX work they do are what he calls “headshots,” where, for instance, one of the characters would shoot a cross bow at a zombie’s head and the VFX team will add a CG arrow to the scene. So, the team has to track the camera and the zombie that’s being affected. “Without a solid track, our 2D and 3D compositing will just slip and slide, and never blend seamlessly," says Lopez.

After the team gets a solid track, they typically add a wound and some blood in the compositing stages, and then send the scene off to the 3D team. “We actually have a huge library of 3D blood that was created using Realflow,” says Lopez. “If they need something a little more special, we can go back into our RealFlow and create a special blood element.”

(Stargate's Michael Cook, left)

According to Lopez, “After we’ve tracked our 2D elements, and we start erasing parts of the zombie’s body, like arms or heads, we have to create 3D models of that. To be honest, I would say a good 50 or 60 percent of that work is done by our 2D compositors. They’ve gotten exceptionally good at taking an arm and making it fly off. It’s pretty quick. So that happens without ever having to go into the 3D department. When it becomes something more extensive, closer to camera or slow motion, you have to get 3D involved. For instance, a few episodes ago they went into a high-speed, slow-motion spot, and the zombie was moving right towards the camera. It gets shot in the head from behind and the head just comes apart in the camera. When you do something like that, you bring it to 3D so they can create a proxy model of the face and start to figure out how they want it to come apart. We usually try to do style frames before we go too deep into the artist time, which can get done in one of two ways: We can either get our matte painting department to do a style frame — and they always check back with 3D first to make sure that what they present in the matte/style frame can actually be done in 3D — or we’ll do a wire frame out of Maya or LightWave. Then, we go ahead and show how we would take the face apart [to the produces] and we get feedback on that. They’re very involved in the process on big shots like that — we’re sending Victor our work in progress. It could either be a wire frame or grey scale, and then he sends that up the ladder to the people who will ultimately say yes or no, and that goes back and forth a few times with notes, and then we’re kind of there.”

Aside from Maya and LightWave, which are key tools for Stargate's work on the series, the studio also uses Zbrush for 3D, Photoshop for the matte paintings, Mocha Pro for compositing when they do tracking, and V-Ray for rendering. “We’ve never looked back since we went with V-Ray,” says Lopez.

“We got really good at using Mental Ray,” adds Cook. “We could optimize scenes like crazy; we had the render times down. But honestly, the amount of time we spent optimizing stuff in Mental Ray — V-Ray just let us work on the creative aspect and visual quality. It just took all of the hand-holding management side of it out and just let you work.”

(Stargate's Al Lopez, left)

The series, which is shot on-location in Atlanta on 16mm film for a grainy, unique look, also stars Andrew Lincoln as lead character Rick Grimes, and Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon, who have all become master zombie killers since the pandemic occurred. “I know the amount of kills and the type of kills has expanded [since the show first premiered in 2010],” says Lopez. “I know we’re killing more zombies, in general, every episode. The zombies have been dead for five years and there’s a theory that they are a little bit more like butter. They can be cut up and damaged a lot easier this season than they have in the past, so it gets a little bloodier and we can do more damage to the zombies as we progress over the seasons. I think if you look at the first few seasons, [the characters] didn’t have a lot of weapons at their disposal. But they’ve picked up an arsenal along the way and they’ve become more creative on how to kill zombies. They’ve learned to use bats, blades, pick axes and whatever else is available, so they’re always able to to do a kill.” 

“It seems like Season 1 was a little more conservative with their kills,” adds Cook, “whereas now, the kills are much more complicated.”

Speaking to the show’s enormous popularity, Lopez says "we work on a lot of different projects, but they’re not [phenomenon], like The Walking Dead. It’s really great to work on a show with such high ratings, is so well-written and is so well-done. We do a lot of CG work on this show and nobody knows. That’s probably the most rewarding thing. That means we’re doing our job right.”