VFX For TV: AMC's <I>Fear The Walking Dead</I>
Karen Moltenbrey
Issue: March/April 2019

VFX For TV: AMC's Fear The Walking Dead

The notion of zombies, or the living dead, can be traced back thousands of years to many cultures around the world, invoking fear among the living, as zombies have a reputation for being hard to kill. In fact, the popular belief is that the only sure way to permanently stop a zombie is to destroy its brain — the approach taken in the widely popular AMC TV series Fear the Walking Dead.  

To this end, the majority of the visual effects work — performed by Alkemy X, one of last season’s primary VFX vendors — evolves around kill shots to the head of walkers, says Steve Sanchez (pictured), senior visual effects supervisor at Alkemy X in New York, which is continuing the work on the upcoming Season 5. That usually involves weapon extensions, whether a knife, stick or other object.

“Our job is to extend the blade or prop in CG and have it enter the walker’s head,” Sanchez says. “We also remove limbs and create the subsequent wounds.” 

Sanchez notes that in Season 4 — for which Christopher Scollard served as the on-set VFX supervisor (client side) — one of the main characters fashioned a weapon from a piece of metal that she would thrust through walkers’ skulls. On set, weapons such as this are half the size that is depicted in the show, and are retractable, with a soft edge. “All safe, all done in-camera,” he adds. “We clean up the cushion at the end of the prop and extend it in CG, then add blood and gore, and a wound, and have the weapon exit the back of the head, with blood spurting out.”

Fear, which began in August 2015, is a spin-off of the equally popular The Walking Dead, which itself began airing in October 2010. In the apocalypse timetable, Fear is a prequel, occurring on the West Coast in the early days of the strain with a different cast. As such, the walkers are not in the full stages of infection as their Walking Dead counterparts are. However, the spin-off has been slowly catching up to the original series’ timeline, as evidenced last season with the Morgan Jones character crossover. 

“The longer they are infected, the more gruesome-looking they become. In Season 4, they looked similar as they do in Walking Dead,” notes Sanchez, adding that the aesthetic is mostly a result of prosthetics and makeup.

On average, Alkemy X produces 30 to 40 effects shots per episode with a crew of approximately 18, depending on the VFX intensity of the episode. Although walker kills comprise the mainstay of the visual effects for the series, the artists’ work runs the gamut, from large set extensions to crowd duplication and more. 

Last season, for instance, the artists performed a wide range of digital work to support the story line as a survivor, Madison, works to establish a community of fellow survivors inside an abandoned baseball stadium. Through flashbacks, the audience learns across various episodes that the Vultures, a rival group of survivors, have created a walker horde that sieges the stadium and destroys it in a fire. 

For the setting, the film crew turned a functional Triple-A baseball stadium near Austin, TX, into the apocalyptic settlement, complete with the addition of livestock, such as goats and cows, as well as crops and gardens. They also converted luxury boxed seats inside the 15,000-seat stadium into apartments for the survivors. Because it was a working stadium during baseball season, the facility could not be damaged, although the filmmakers were permitted to turn the lush grass field into a dusty landscape that could easily be restored. 

At a certain story point, the stadium succumbs to the devastating fire. Although the set dressers did a good job of making the wood appear severely charred, Alkemy X assisted with the wider shots, adding digital matte paintings, various enhancements and atmospheric smoke.

For the massive walker horde, 30 or so actors were dressed in charred costumes. Then, Alkemy X created hundreds and hundreds of digital walkers.

According to Sanchez, the on-set production team sent Alchemy X photos and digital scans of the costumed actors, as well as motion-capture data for the walkers’ movements. The artists then used the digital scans as reference while modeling, rigging and applying the walker mocap data in Autodesk’s Maya. From there, they built custom shaders for the digital walkers and ingested the animated models into a custom crowd system within SideFX’s Houdini. Also utilizing Houdini, they lit and rendered the frames within the software's Mantra. “We sporadically inserted them and added some keyframe animation for the hero walkers and procedural animation cycles for those in the background,” he says.

As for the stadium work, Alkemy X found a good deal of references and purchased photos of burnt wood and charred walls, and along with the skill of the studio’s digital matte painters, “we just went to town and painted everything,” says Sanchez. “With a 3D track — duplicating the camera to match what was done on set — it was easy to integrate everything.” 

Typically, the matte painters at the studio start their work in Adobe’s Photoshop and then finish in Foundry’s Nuke.

Alkemy X often provides set extensions and other environmental work to alter the appearance of backgrounds for the series, including a cliff extension to provide more drama as a car crashes over the side of an embankment. More common work includes the removal of modern architecture and infrastructure from shots in and around contemporary Austin.

In a scene from last season as well, the artists had to remove an arm from survivor Martha, who had been handcuffed to a vehicle after she was found to be plotting against the hero survivors. As she began morphing into a walker, she removed her own arm to escape. Before the survivor Morgan kills her, she turns around a full 180 degrees. “We had to remove her arm at the shoulder. She was wearing a green sleeve in case we had to pull keys,” Sanchez notes. 

The shot required full-3D tracking of her body. A paint artist then removed her arm, and a matte painter created a texture of a torn-up arm with visible bone, blood and gore. Next, the 3D department projected that image onto its bone model. They then cleaned it up, textured it, lit it and rendered it, while the comp team put it all together. “It looked amazing,” Sanchez says. 

Another memorable episode from Season 4 is a scene where the walkers are devouring a horse as a hurricane bears down — revealed in a lengthy camera pan from left to right. There are also walkers in the far background and some coming in from the forest, and a pair next to a large truck belonging to the survivors. The wind increases with the approaching storm, and the “gag” is that the walkers (who are on wires on set) are lifted off their feet. 

All of this was shot in stages and then composited by the artists in Nuke. They also captured the on-set rain and enhanced the plates with CG rain, then added some digital walkers as well. “We put some in the far background, and as they progress forward, they are fighting against the wind and eventually get blown away. “It was funny, and a nice epic shot,” says Sanchez.

While the crew at Alkemy X has created digital walkers, it is more the exception than the rule. “We are doing it for some upcoming episodes, but [the filmmakers] are really good at capturing extras on set in amazing costumes,” Sanchez notes, “so there isn’t a lot of need for it. But, when they want to populate [the scene] more, we can add digital walkers in the mid-ground and far background.” 

According to Sanchez, the work in Fear is film quality but delivered on a television schedule — the show is shot in 2K using Arri's Alexa. 

“That means we have to get it right the first time — from organization to animation, render and composite,” he says. 

While the turnaround time varies for each show, on average, the team has three weeks to deliver an episode’s shots.

Currently, Alkemy X is working on Season 5, which begins airing sometime after the current season of The Walking Dead — ensuring that fans do not have to wait long in order to get their walker fix. And while Sanchez is unable to detail the work they have done so far for this new season, he teases that it is completely different from what they did last season.

Rest assured, the apocalypse continues.