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KNB EFX Group and Stargate Studios Bring The Walking Dead To Life

By Christine Bunish

Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) heads for a deserted Atlanta on horseback in a multilayered composite shot created by Stargate Studios from 2D elements, matte paintings, photographs and live action.
Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) heads for a deserted Atlanta on horseback in a multilayered composite shot created by Stargate Studios from 2D elements, matte paintings, photographs and live action.

When swarms of post-apocalyptic zombies staggered onto the screen in AMC’s The Walking Dead last Halloween, viewers got up close and personal with the undead and the remnants of the world they and the surviving bands of humans inhabit thanks to remarkable make up effects by KNB EFX Group Inc. in Chatswoth, California (www.knbefxgroup.com) and equally impressive digital VFX by Stargate Studios in South Pasadena (www.stargatestudios.net).

With season two of The Walking Dead in production, the companies have reteamed to bring fans another memorable chapter in executive producer Frank Darabont’s compelling adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel. Although they won’t reveal details of the 13 new episodes, KNB EFX and Stargate Studios have their work cut out for them if they plan to top the show’s pilot (the most-watched premiere of any AMC series) and first five episodes, which were shot on location in Atlanta during one of the hottest summers on record.

KNB EFX Takes Zombies in New Directions

Even though The Walking Dead’s zombies are quite unique in the zombie genre, zombies are nothing new for Greg Nicotero, one of Hollywood’s busiest and most respected special effects make up professionals. Originally inspired to pursue a career in special effects after seeing Jaws and Dawn of the Dead, Nicotero broke into the business working for the legendary Tom Savini on George Romero’s zombie classic, Day of the Dead.

He formed KNB EFX in 1988 with friends Robert Kurtzman (who left in 2002) and Howard Berger; the Oscar and Emmy Award-winning company’s credits include Sin City, Kill Bill, Minority Report, Spider-Man, Ray, Chronicles of Narnia and Transformers. Nicotero was 2nd unit director on Darabont’s The Mist and lensed his own short film, United Monster Talent Agency, featuring some of Universal Studios’ most iconic creatures.

“Frank [Darabont] and I always talked about how exciting it would be to do a zombie project together,” says Nicotero of his friend of some 18 years. “We discussed The Walking Dead for about two years before AMC greenlit the show, so when the first draft of the script was done, we already had created a couple of prototype busts.” The goal was to “capture the spirit of the graphic novel in concept and design, to take a cue from the book. Its zombies were emaciated and gaunt with sunken cheekbones and eyes.”

The amazing make up effects of the zombie known as Bicycle Girl get a final dab from KNB EFX make up artist Andy Schoneberg.

The first zombie busts were sculpted in clay then molded in silicone. Acrylic teeth were added along with glass eyes, hair and even costumes. “Frank went to the pitch meeting and pulled out the busts we made,” says Nicotero. “They got us pretty far in getting people to come onboard with the show.”

Then sculptors got back to work in clay and on life casts to fabricate the hero prosthetic make ups and zombie prosthetics needed for the series. Jaremy Aiello was the key sculptor for the zombies’ look; Garret Immel, Andy Schoneberg and Jake Garber would later accompany Nicotero to Atlanta.

“Having the same crew that worked on the make up from its inception has made a tremendous difference,” he notes. “They had a vested interest in making the sculpture they created come to life. I was in the shop with them every day; if we got an idea we could brainstorm it, refine it and test it. They were instrumental in making everything look as good as it could look.”

To facilitate bringing the zombie look he envisioned to the screen, Nicotero took on a new role: casting. “First and foremost it was important to cast people with the right body type. Usually we get sent people and make them up. Romero’s zombie movies featured his friends and friends of friends.”

But Nicotero hand picked The Walking Dead’s featured zombies, selecting people with a gaunt look, great facial bone structure and long necks so that when layers of prosthetics were added they would have the look of decomposing corpses and not fleshed out actors.

“I was able to make the most of my past on-set experience with zombies,” he says. “Contact lenses are always a must – they make a big difference. The eyes are so important to [communicating] the life of a person, and contacts take a lot of that life away. We built up the ridge of the bridge of the nose for a look of decay and pushed lips away from teeth like you see with real mummified corpses.”

To its credit, AMC “never said ‘You can’t do that,’ just ‘Use your own best judgment,’” he reports. And Darabont’s and Nicotero’s best judgment was “to make it awesome.”

KNB EFX make up artists Garret Immel (left, in top shot) and Andy Schoneberg (right) apply the finishing touches to the prosthetic torso of the Bicycle Girl zombie.

Although The Walking Dead’s zombies don’t tend to have personalities – “they act like more of a collective: one part of society overtaking another part of society” – one of the most striking individual zombies in season one was a young woman dubbed Bicycle Girl. With her lower body eaten away, the decomposing woman pathetically dragged herself across the grass until Sheriff Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln) put her out of her misery. Many viewers took Bicycle Girl to be an outstanding example of animatronics; in truth, she was a stand out example of special effects make up augmented by digital VFX.

“We had sculpted her whole facial prosthetic, chest and back appliances and trailing entrails,” recalls Nicotero. “We had initially planned to dig a trench in the ground so her lower half was concealed and the gag would be entirely practical, but the park where we were shooting said we couldn’t dig a hole or put her on a platform.

“Frank really wanted her on the ground anyway. So we put blue stockings on her legs and shot her rolling over and limply crawling to Rick. We also created chewed up bones and trailing intestines and dragged them in the same path of her crawl. Then Stargate composited everything together for a great melding of those practical elements.”

Nicotero takes it as “the ultimate compliment that viewers didn’t know how we did that shot.”

He calls the interplay of digital VFX and practical effects “a delicate ballet” but says “when people understand how to use each to maximum effect, you get the best results – a perfect blend of the two art forms.”

KNB EFX fabricated a good portion of the prosthetics out of 3D prosthetic transfers, which Nicotero likens to “zombie tattoos.” The process “allowed us to do full volume make up in an hour and 20 minutes instead of three hours. We had hundreds of generic prosthetic pieces so when an actor came in his face was a new canvas, and we could use our imaginations and do whatever we wanted to do.”

The make up process began by gluing on and painting the prosthetics, which were continually replenished by KNB EFX’s California studio. Zombies were rendered pale and discolored. Fake blood was added – often by spattering with a brush – and dirt, dentures and contact lenses were applied.

The heat wave that hit during production didn’t threaten to melt the make up, but it meant that frequent touch ups were required. Team supervisors checked to ensure that zombies taking a drink or washing their hands didn’t remove critical make up.

For crowd scenes KNB EFX crafted three tiers of zombie make up for featured, background and deep background characters. “It wasn’t practical to do 150 make ups with the 10-person crew we had, so we were smart about how to apportion things,” Nicotero explains. “We had maybe 30 featured zombies and 30 background zombies with make up and 30 deep background zombies with masks. Sometimes the zombies just needed wardrobe if they were at the end of a street filling out crowd scenes.”

Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln, center) leaves the hospital to discover the aftermath of the horrific zombie attack in a parking lot largely populated by 3D elements and matte paintings from Stargate Studios.
Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln, center) leaves the hospital to discover the aftermath of the horrific zombie attack in a parking lot largely populated by 3D elements and matte paintings from Stargate Studios.

The last two episodes that depicted bodies strewn around the exterior of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) featured 60 zombie dummies and 60 actors in make up. “You couldn’t tell them apart,” says Nicotero. “That was the goal: to make everything as authentic and real as possible.”

That authenticity extended to one of KNB EFX’s most successful non-zombie efforts: crafting the 1:1 horse model for the street scene in which the sheriff’s fallen horse is mobbed by a huge swarm of ravenous zombies who tear it to pieces.

An aerial shot of an abandoned tank in downtown Atlanta reveals swarming zombies, many generated by Stargate Studios using Massive Softwareís crowd-simulation tool.
An aerial shot of an abandoned tank in downtown Atlanta reveals swarming zombies, many generated by Stargate Studios using Massive Software’s crowd-simulation tool.

Stargate Studios Creates Post-Apocalyptic Atlanta

A self-confessed “huge fan” of the graphic novel, Jason Sperling “petitioned” Stargate Studios to put him on The Walking Dead; he was convinced that his background knowledge would serve him well. Sperling was named VFX supervisor for the show and was on set in Atlanta during production; the pilot was co-supervised by Sam Nicholson, Stargate’s owner.

“The biggest challenge for us was bringing such an ambitious world view to the TV audience,” he says. “Frank did an incredible storyboard for the pilot. We were able to give him mock ups of what his shots might look like; that gained his trust and built our artistic relationship. Tonally and image-wise, the pilot really set the look and feel for the rest of the season and, we hope, the rest of the series.”

One of the key early moments in The Walking Dead finds the sheriff waking up in the hospital to find himself the only one alive on the premises and the only apparent survivor in his small town as he ventures outside. After passing hundreds of bodies, some actors and some digitally cloned, he reaches the parking lot, which shows evidence of a lost battle: Helicopters are immobilized, Humvees are abandoned, tents are empty, barrels and debris are strewn everywhere, and a building in the background bears holes and scorch marks.

According to Sperling, star Andrew Lincoln was photographed walking in his hospital gown against a 60-foot greenscreen that wrapped around part of the parking lot and the body of a real helicopter. “We added the chopper’s 3D rotors and built a second chopper from a 3D model,” he says. “The tents, Humvees and Jeeps and all the debris were 3D. The destroyed building and some additional debris were matte paintings.”

Stargate Studios’ primary tools were Adobe Photoshop for matte painting, Autodesk Maya and NewTek LightWave 3D for 3D modeling and animation and Adobe After Effects for 2D compositing. All of the software ran on the company’s battery of PCs.

“The show was shot on a mix of 16mm and 35mm film,” says Sperling. “The 16mm gave it an especially gritty look, although it’s a challenge doing VFX with 16mm; we tried to use 35mm for the greenscreen work to give us a better key and more latitude to do what we needed.”

The Bicycle Girl zombie as she appeared to viewers, her lower limbs having been encased in blue tights so she seems to drag only her torso and entrails ñ a triumph of KNB EFXís make up effects and Stargate Studiosí digital VFX.
The Bicycle Girl zombie as she appeared to viewers, her lower limbs having been encased in blue tights so she seems to drag only her torso and entrails – a triumph of KNB EFX’s make up effects and Stargate Studios’ digital VFX.

The Bicycle Girl sequence was “a great challenge for everyone involved,” he reports. “We had to seamlessly blend Greg’s fantastic prosthetics with the femur, entrails and nasty guts we created in Maya to replace the actor’s legs. Greg provided us with a femur and the torso piece, and we took a lot of photos and textured them onto the 3D geometry we created. We even did some amazing finishing touches like the trail on the grass left by her entrails.”

A scene in which the sheriff appears to be a lone man facing hundreds of swarming zombies involved blocking off a number of downtown Atlanta streets over a weekend. The sheriff, on horseback, is mobbed by zombies who fell the horse and proceed to devour it as the lawman escapes to an abandoned tank. “The concept was to start the shot real close to the tank and pull the camera back to reveal the trouble Rick is in,” Sperling explains.

“There were a hundred extras swarming the tank, but when the camera pulled back to show hundreds more we had to generate them with Massive Software’s crowd-simulation tool originally developed for the Lord of the Rings movies,” he says. “We did a motion capture session with Robin Conover at Lightstone Animation. One of the featured zombies who had been to zombie training school gave us a lot of different motion data that we could use to move the 3D zombies throughout the environment.”

Stargate Studios also created the 3D streets, crosswalks, lights, buildings and trees revealed in the background.

One of the most iconic shots of season one shows the sheriff riding his horse on the highway, the Atlanta skyline looming in the distance. The side of the road leaving the city is full of abandoned and destroyed vehicles; the sheriff’s side is deserted except for him.

“Rick’s ride into Atlanta has a direct correlation to the panel in the graphic novel,” Sperling says. “It was inspirational to our final VFX shot and a nice juxtaposition of the reality of the world he’s entering into. When people at Comic-Con 2010 saw that shot, which became The Walking Dead poster, they got really excited about the show.”

The complex shot features multiple 2D elements, matte paintings and live action composited together. “Andrew was shot on the horse in a parking lot about five miles away,” Sperling reports. “We had 35mm plates of the Atlanta skyline and a ton of stills. The highway was real, but we extended the lanes on both sides with matte painting. The cars were real photographic elements that we dirtied up. While I was in Atlanta I saw an auto accident and shot stills, with my Canon EOS Rebel T2i, of all the cars that were backed up.”

The railroad tracks flanking the deserted side of the highway were “an invention of matte painter Kristin Johnson who moved real tracks from the location where we shot Rick on his horse and populated them with matte painted train cars.” The row houses on the other side of the highway were real buildings; matte painting helped them show evidence of destruction. Likewise, bits of the gleaming skyscrapers are also missing and scorched. Trash and debris were shot on greenscreen; a gathering storm was composited into the sky.

“There were maybe 14-15 iterations of this huge matte painting,” says Sperling. “It was a spectacular compositing job. All the details – the trash, birds, the coming storm and trees moving add to the mise en scene of the shot.”

In the conclusion to season one the CDC, where the sheriff and his band of survivors had sought refuge, was destroyed. “As soon as we saw the incredible Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre building [which doubled for the CDC], we knew we had to blow it up!” Sperling recalls.

After shooting plates of the building in Atlanta Stargate Studios partnered with special effects coordinator Darrell Pritchett on the pyro in LA. “We shot 1:1 pyro elements and lots of debris on a greenscreen or blackscreen stage, then supplemented them with 3D debris, breaking glass, matte painting, bodies and 3D trees swaying in the explosion,” he explains.

Using real pyrotechnics was a no-brainer. “With the pyro so close to the camera lens and performing specific actions – flying out the windows, consuming bodies and tanks on the ground – we didn’t feel that 3D fire was a viable option,” says Sperling. “Once we decided on pyro we were basically able to take every angle of the shot, line them up with the camera feed and do a realtime previs mock up with our proprietary VB Live system. We could see how the pyro would interact with the environment and get a reference for the real size and shape of the pyro we needed from Darrell.”

Kent Johnson was Stargate Studios’ VFX producer in LA. Anthony Ocampo was lead visual effects animator, Chris Martin lead visual effects compositor, Kristin Martin lead matte artist, Michael Enriquez lead model maker and Michael Cook lead CGI artist/animator. Adalberto Lopez was CGI supervisor.

Stargate Studios shot 1:1 pyro elements to integrate with 3D debris, breaking glass and matte painting in VFX shots of the conflagration at the CDC building.
Stargate Studios shot 1:1 pyro elements to integrate with 3D debris, breaking glass and matte painting in VFX shots of
the conflagration at the CDC building.

They’re Baaaack!

While Nicotero and Sperling can’t divulge what’s ahead in season two, they have a notion of what they’d like to see.

“After season one we made a list for ourselves of do’s and don’ts for season two,” laughs Nicotero. “A lot of make ups were really successful, and we want to be able to push them further by utilizing full over-the-head silicone masks and some techniques we haven’t explored yet to sell the idea that the zombies are continuing to decompose and decay.”

He also thinks there may be some animatronics in the new episodes. “A couple of animatronic zombies would be fun to do,” he says.

Sperling says Stargate Studios will “continue to supplement the gore that fans love, and we’re hoping for twice as many zombies.”

He marvels at the volume of work Nicotero was able to accomplish in season one. “We supplied a few scenes with digital zombies but, frankly, we expected to do a lot more. That we didn’t is a testament to the ability of Greg and his team to produce hundreds of extras.”

Nicotero returns the compliment with kudos of his own. “What Stargate did fantastically well were the entrance and exit wounds for a lot of the head hits – we had numerous conversations about digital blood.”

Sperling says he and Nicotero became close friends on the set. “We even tried to one up each other,” he reports. “I’d pitch a digital zombie with his stomach shot out, and Greg would come back and have it done with a real person. It was fun using all the different types of effects – Greg’s a god in the industry and a great ally on the set.”

Nicotero stresses that no matter how well KNB EFX and Stargate Studios deliver on their goal of making The Walking Dead look amazing, the series is ultimately a drama about survival. “It’s the performances of the actors that pull you in,” he says. “The audience is not limited to people who’d watch any zombie project. The genre feels fresh, and that’s a tribute to the actors, Frank’s work as a writer and all the directors on the show.”

November 29, 2012