VFX: <I>The Dead Don't Die</I>
Issue: May/June 2019

VFX: The Dead Don't Die

NEW YORK CITY — Writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s zombie satire The Dead Don’t Die hit US cinema screens in June after a world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. The black comedy stars Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Tilda Swinton, Selena Gomez, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry, Steve Buscemi and Tom Waits as the residents of a small town taken over by the undead. 

The Dead Don’t Die is the filmmaker’s first foray into visual effects, and called on the expertise of full-service creation agency Chimney (www.chimneygroup.com) to help bring them to life. Led by VFX supervisor Sam O’Hare, Chimney produced all 300 VFX shots in the film, with over 230 being completed at its New York studio. 

The idea of reviving the classic era of zombies was an early conversation between Jarmusch and the Chimney team. While the current trend for this genre seems to be the fast-moving, disease-fueled zombies popularized by movies like 28 Days Later, Jarmusch saw the zombies of his film stemming back to the slow-moving, almost charming characters that still wants to eat human flesh. The director also emphasized the importance of his zombies looking as if they were dried up inside, with the texture of dust and ash, rather than the more gruesome and bloody reincarnations of today.

Lead VFX supervisor at Chimney, Sam O’Hare, harnessed his 18 years of experience for this project. The Chimney team collaborated closely with Jarmusch on how to bring this vision to life, from the initial meetings in May 2018 right through to the finished delivery for Cannes in April 2019. O’Hare was on-set in upstate New York for 15 days to cover the VFX-heavy shoot. 

“During the shoot, the practical effects team did some dust work,” O’Hare explains. “They used squibs to blow up dust packets and had a couple of other methods of shooting dust around, so we had that for reference. We also looked at various reference videos of ash and dust to see how it moved. It tends to have different sizes of particles that fall and are affected by the air currents at different rates. This formed the basis for our simulation approach.” 

With decapitations playing a key role in the film, Chimney Group worked closely with the props and stunts departments. 

“On-set for the decapitations, we used a mix of full-length blades and stubs that we replaced in post, and the edit cuts between these regularly,” explains VFX producer Nicole Melius. “Tilda Swinton’s character has a katana, and Adam Driver’s has a machete. The katana made really clean cuts like a razor blade, where the head would just slide off, but the machete was messier. Jim wanted it to feel more like swinging a baseball bat, and we had various discussions about the trajectory of heads post chop and how much movement the neck skin flaps should have.”

Chimney also had a scanning team on-set, and after each decapitation scene, they had victim sent directly to the scanner so they could get a matching model of them in the correct wardrobe and make-up. 

“The resulting models and textures became the primary models for the decapitations,” notes O’Hare. “These models only covered the exteriors of their bodies, of course. For the inside of the necks that became visible once we had chopped their heads off, we used anatomy models to build the neck interiors and then worked with various textures of meat and other innards and treated them to make them feel dried up and creepy.”

The Chimney team used a combination of Nuke, 3ds Max, Vray Next, Ornatrix and Houdini to complete the project.

“Our main 3D package for the show was 3ds Max, rendering in Vray Next,” O’Hare explains. “The hair on the CG heads was built in Ornatrix within Max. All of the simulation work for the dust was done in Houdini, and brought into 3ds Max for light and render.”

“Our collaboration with Chimney on The Dead Don’t Die was fantastic, both on-set and in post-production,” adds director Jim Jarmusch. “They not only carefully followed all our ideas for the visual effects, but also elevated them by bringing many of their own ideas and details. I was so very happy to work with them.” 

Jarmusch and his editorial team spent eight months at Chimney’s New York facility to edit and conform the film.

“Chimney was honored to work in partnership with this film’s brilliant cast and crew,” says O’Hare. “And we are particularly proud of our VFX team’s joint efforts with Jim.”